Immigration, USA, World

What I learned from my week at the border

Virginia.”

¿Dónde?” I asked, having difficulty identifying the state’s name through the boy’s thick, Spanish accent.

Virginia,” he repeated as we stood next to the map at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas—a place he had arrived to less than an hour ago.  After a long journey north and some time in a U.S. detention center, this would be his last stop before he flew out to his semi-final destination, Virginia, the following day.

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I pointed to Virginia on the map and told him a little bit of what I knew about the state—its colonial history, its beaches, its moderate climate.

“¿Y dónde estamos ahora?” Where are we now? I was almost confused by the question.  The boy—probably about 10-12 years in age—had spent the last weeks and perhaps even months of his life in the Rio Grande Valley in Southeastern Texas, yet when looking at a map of North America, he had no idea where that was.

His case was not unique.  Many of the migrants that I talked to that afternoon knew little to nothing about the places they were traveling.   They just hoped that those places would have more security and opportunity than the places from which they came.

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I did not ask the boy nor his dad what specifically they were fleeing, but I assume their story was similar to other ones I heard during the week I spent in the Rio Grande Valley.  Some were fleeing direct extortionist threats towards them and their families, threats that in some cases, had already resulted in the kidnapping or murder of people they love.  Others were fleeing more general conditions of poverty, political repression, and gang violence.  All saw the United States as a place where they could build a better life for themselves and their families.

While many possess a desire to help these migrants, the magnitude of the help that is needed is difficult to comprehend.  Sister Norma Pimentel, the respite center’s director, estimates that they are currently servicing about 600 migrants a day—a number that is slightly down from the 1,000 daily migrants that they were servicing just a few months ago.  Those numbers only become more astounding when you learn that this is a 24-hour respite center, and that their cliental turns over almost completely with each new day.

600-1000 new migrants.  Every day.  At one center.  In one town.  Along a nearly 2000-mile border.

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Nevertheless, help is what I was there to do.  I traveled under the auspices of a Minneapolis-based non-profit formerly known as the American Refugee Committee, now known as Alight.  Our mission was to implement Alight’s Changemakers 365 platform, in which we spend up to $500 a day to help address some of the immediate needs of the displaced peoples we encounter.  The Changemakers 365 platform also relies heavily on organizations on the ground that have more intimate knowledge about the issues at hand, as well as established relationships with the people and communities they serve.

On this particular trip, the organizations that we connected with were all headed by Catholic nuns.  As someone who abandoned his own Catholicism half-a-lifetime ago, it was weird to find myself working alongside these Sisters of the Rio Grande Valley.  But for me, this week never felt like a religious experience.  The nuns were definitely god-fearing women who sought to follow in the footsteps of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, but they felt a lot more like the Jesus of Nazareth from Jefferson’s Bible as opposed to doctrine espousing mouthpieces of the Church.  To use a term that’s become rather politically charged, they were social justice warriors—women who, much like Jesus, have devoted their lives to helping the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden.

We were able to do some pretty great things to support the work that these nuns are already doing.  We helped Sister Shirley supply a breakfast to the homeless community of McAllen.  We helped Sister Catalina buy several wheelbarrows full of jeans for her migrant shelter in the Mexican border town of Reynosa.  We provided Sister Maureen with two carts full of school supplies for her community in Nuevo Progreso. We gave $500 in cash and another $500 in supermarket giftcards to a single mom and her six children who arrived in Brownsville at the church of Sister Marina and Sister Cyndi with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  These contributions made an important, and sometimes enormous impact in the immediate situations of the migrants who benefitted from them, and highlight the power of Alight’s Changemakers 365 platform, which operates under the motto, “When the world’s problems seem insurmountable, we do the doable.”

The cynical side of me is less sure about that.  The cynical side of me says that even if we made a tangible difference in the lives of all 600 migrants that showed up at the Humanitarian Respite Center on the day of our delivery, 600 new migrants will show up tomorrow.  What does our work do for them?  Furthermore, when the food and money and school supplies and clothes and giftcards that we donated run out, are the people who received them really any better off?  What do we do for the migrants whose problems cannot be fixed by a new pair of pants or a month-long prescription?

The answer is obviously to attack these problems at their roots.  After my visit, I am more convinced than ever that the key to addressing the humanitarian crisis at our southern border lies in addressing the problems that cause these migrants to flee their homelands in the first place.  If we could take the $25 billion that Trump would like to invest in a border wall and instead put it towards a “Marshall Plan” for Central America, I think that money would help not only to reduce immigration, but more importantly, help those countries become places with security and opportunity so that there is no need to seek asylum elsewhere.

To be sure, Alight is making efforts to address root causes.  The Color Movement in El Salvador comes to mind as an example, a project I hope to contribute to in the future.  But one of the biggest takeaways that I have from this adventure is the necessity of doing the doable—how essential it is to make a better today while working towards a better tomorrow.  Even if our Congress miraculously came together and approved a major investment in the troubled countries of Central America with bullseyes on poverty, corruption, and gang violence, the road to significant progress would still be long and complicated.  In the meantime, we have to do what we can to address the hardships that people are enduring now.  That’s the mission of the Sisters of the Rio Grande Valley.  That’s the mission of Alight’s 365 Changemakers program, not only at the U.S-Mexico border, but in all the world’s places that are currently experiencing a surplus of displaced peoples.  And they’re accepting donations.

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Minnesota, Politics, USA

Weighing in on Ilhan Omar v. Donald Trump

I voted for Ilhan Omar in 2018.  I have mixed feelings regarding her House tenure thus far.  I’m very proud of what she represents, but sometimes unsure about how she’s representing.  But while she certainly has her flaws, and is still self-admittedly learning and growing, Ilhan Omar and her three “Squad” colleagues deserve every American’s defense against the recent verbal attacks that they’ve suffered from the Twitter-fingers of the president.

To rehash: In a recent tweet regarding these four Congresswomen, Donald Trump said, “So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally come from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world…now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.  Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”

Before moving forward, it is worth noting that only one of these four women (Omar) is foreign-born, and all of them are American citizens.

And that was just the beginning.  As the Twitter war ensued, and expanded into other mediums, Trump proceeded to call these four women, and Ilhan Omar in particular, “disgraceful,” “disgusting”, “Radical Leftists”, “Communists”, “Anti-Semitic”, “Anti-America”, “pro-terrorist”, “racist”, mislabelers of racism in others, and perhaps most prominently, people who “HATE our country.”

Specifically in regards to Omar, there are shreds of sentiments that I agree with in these otherwise intolerant statements.  I agree that Omar is “radical”, in the sense that her views oftentimes fail to reflect the recognition of complexity and nuance that I believe is necessary to describe our reality.  I agree that certain comments from Omar indeed fall under the category of “anti-Semitic”, or at the very least, unknowingly rhyme with anti-Semitic tropes.  I agree that “racist” is a word that is thrown around far too loosely by many on the progressive left, and that more nuanced language is needed to describe the differing perceptions of racial reality possessed by the modern American public.

That last sentiment is why I will once again stop short of labeling Trump as a racist.  I still do not believe that Trump harbors real hatred in his heart for Somalis, Latinos, or any other “race” of people.  Instead, I prefer to call Trump “racially ignorant”.  I really do think that he is almost completely unaware of the racially charged language that he uses.  That or he purposefully uses that language as a tool to try to rile up the real racists in his base. It’s not textbook “racism”, but it is still hugely troubling.

As noted, Ilhan Omar has made some ignorant and discriminatory statements herself, specifically in regards to Jewish people.  The big difference between her and Trump is in their reactions.  Omar unknowingly played on anti-Semitic tropes in statements that she made regarding pro-Israeli lobbyists.  She was officially disavowed by her Democratic colleagues in Congress for those statements, and in return, offered a seemingly genuine apology in which she claimed to be “listening and learning,” and thanked her “Jewish allies and colleagues” for “educating [her] on the painful history” of anti-Semitism.

Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t see a need for listening or learning.  Trump is constantly offering up coded language about blacks, Latinos, Muslims, and other historically marginalized groups, and when confronted about it, does not apologize, but instead chooses to double-down.  In this most recent case against Omar and her women of color colleagues, Dems are again proposing an official disavowal of Trump’s hateful language, much like they did with Omar.  Most Republicans are conspicuously silent.

And this seems to validate one of Trump’s primary defenses: “People agree with me”—the idea that since many Americans agree with Trump’s less-than enlightened reflections, that that makes those reflections okay.  There is no sentiment that gives me less faith in our democracy than this one.

I have been a consistent opponent of the calls for President Trump’s impeachment on the grounds that, 1) The Mueller Report found insufficient evidence regarding the initial crimes that is was called upon to investigate, and 2) Despite potential obstructions of justice, I’d rather see Trump defeated democratically via our election process.   That said, this particular Trump statement, as well as myriad other statements that I have heard personally and impersonally from Trump supporters, makes me worry that we still live in country in which a significant amount of people will vote for Donald Trump not IN SPITE OF the racist things he says, but BECAUSE of them.  I don’t think that represents the majority of our country, but as the 2016 election proved, Trump doesn’t need a majority to win a second term.

Ironically, Trump won that 2016 election on a four-word slogan, “Make America Great Again”—a slogan that suggests that 2016 Donald Trump was dissatisfied with the state of affairs of his country at that time.  Over the last few days, many have pointed out the inconsistency and hypocrisy between this slogan and the accusations of anti-Americanism that Trump has hurled towards the four Congresswomen.  “Make America Great Again” doesn’t seem to suggest a love for our country as it is, nor a patriotism towards the diverse, multicultural nation that the United States has become, an element of our country that many people love.  Instead, much like many of the comments of Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib, “Make America Great Again” represents a criticism of certain aspects of our country.  “Make America Great Again” is an expression of dissent.

But I’m not here to condemn dissent.  On the contrary, I firmly subscribe to the belief that dissent is one of the highest forms of patriotism that one can express—that if you truly love your country, but are unsatisfied or displeased with certain characteristics that it holds or actions that it performs, you do not passively accept those flaws, but instead, challenge your country to be better.  Ilhan Omar seems to understand this.  As she said yesterday, the provocative statements that she has made do not come from a place of hate, they come from “a place of extreme love.”

That is why Ilhan Omar and her allies are so valuable in our Congress.  It is not because their dissent is always righteous or always right, but because it gives us a perspective that our democracy has so often lacked.  From women.  From people of color.  From the sons and daughters of the foreign born, or those born abroad themselves.  For groups that this country has historically failed, and in some ways, continues to fail today.  These are perspectives that are always worth considering. Trump is not evil for lacking these perspectives, but he might be for his refusal to understand them.

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Politics, USA

The First Democratic Debates: Some Takeaways

The first Democratic debates are in the books.  In all likelihood, one of the twenty candidates that debated over the last two nights will ultimately win the Democratic nomination and take on Donald Trump in the 2020 general election.  As an American who lives in a potential swing state, I almost certainly will be voting for that person.  I am not sure yet who I want that person to be, and although I do have some early favorites, the last two nights were more about just learning who these people are and about the issues that will dominate the Democratic side of this election.  Here are some personal takeaways:

 

A “Marshall Plan” for Central America

Immigration has been a hugely important issue in the U.S. for a long time, but in Donald Trump’s America, it might be the most important.  I’m all for the more compassionate approach offered by this group of candidates, but at the end of the day, I want people to stop showing up at our southern border.  I want to live in a hemisphere that doesn’t have a crisis of refugees.  I want a president that is going to address the roots of this problem.  A Marshall Plan for Central America would do just that.

A Marshall Plan for Central America, as named by Julián Castro and described by several other candidates, would help to address the problems in Northern Triangle countries that lead people to seek refuge in the first place.  Much like “The Wall”, it would entail a huge investment on the part of the U.S. and certainly reduce the number of immigrants coming to the United States.  But unlike “The Wall”, it would be an investment that actually helps people on the other side.  We need to do for our Central American neighbors what we did for our European allies following WWII, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the most effective way to address this “hemispheric problem”.

 

Se habla Español aquí

Night one of the debates saw a woke-off between Beto O’Rourke and Corey Booker as both tried to demonstrate their almost bilingualness to a party very interested in turning out Latino voters.  In one sense, I think it’s great that the Democratic Party is speaking a language of inclusivity (in this case, literally!).  In another sense, this was one of the most blatant displays of pandering and general douchebaggery from all four hours of the Democratic debates (and perhaps why we didn’t hear so much Spanish on night two).

Like Corey and Beto, I am a semi-competent Spanish speaker myself, and while it’s a great skill to have, I am also definitely capable of being a douchebag about it.  At least I’m aware of it though, right?!?!  Not sure that I can say the same thing for these two…

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Rehearsed responses vs. Off-the-cuff

When it comes to my enjoyment as a viewer, there is no comparison.  I HAAAAATE listening to the candidates who robotically relay their rehearsed responses, and I LOOOOOVE the candidates who respond to their questions authentically as if they come straight from their heart and/or loins.  That said, does it really matter when it comes to qualifications for the presidency? And actually, don’t we want a president who can sit down and think of thoughtful responses to complicated problems, even if they don’t entertain us when they discuss those thoughtful responses in front of a camera?  Probably, but I still hate it.

 

Avoiding the question

The above points withstanding, I think it’s great when the moderators point out the non-answers that so many candidates provided to questions that were oftentimes very direct.  I also liked the 15-second follow-up that they granted those candidates to give them the opportunity to do what they failed to do in the first 60-second go-round.  Spoiler Alert: most of them fail again.

 

Quiet Andrew

One of my biggest disappointments was how little we heard from Andrew Yang on night two of the debates.  While I’m not yet officially on the Andrew Yang bandwagon, I do think that of all the Democratic candidates, he’s the most intriguing.  The way the dude talks about tech, and automation, and UBI (or the “Freedom Dividend” as he calls it), makes him sound like he’s running for 2040 or 2060, and when those years arrive, I think we’ll look back on his diagnoses and say that he was ahead of the game on a lot of shit.  I’m still not sure I want him as the 2020 nominee, but if you find this guy as interesting as I do, listen to him on some of his recent podcast appearances:

 

Shoutout to the T’s in LGBTQ+

Though it once again sounds like pandering (especially when Julián screws up his terminology), it is nice to hear so much support for transgender issues, and LGBTQ+ issues in general, in a nationally televised debate for a major political party.  The pandering to a lot of traditionally marginalized groups that takes place in the Democratic Party is annoying, but better to be pandered to than to be ignored.  #Progress

 

Biden’s apology refusal

One person who chose not to pander, at least in one case, was former Vice President Joe Biden, who once again refused to apologize for some comments he made in regards to this country’s history of racial segregation.  Without offering an opinion on those comments, I can say that I appreciate Biden’s refusal to do what everyone does in these sorts of scenarios in 2019: offer an insincere apology.  The exchange between Harris and Biden in regards to these comments was one of the most interesting of the night, but the exchange only happened because Biden chose to stick to his guns (and his political record), even if he might be rightfully criticized for doing so.

 

To be young

I like Mayor Pete, but MY GOD is he young!  How can he know anything?!?  He is 37 years old.  I’m 32, and I’ll be 33 before he turns 38!  I’m still not over the fact that I’m now older than the vast majority of my favorite sports athletes and professional wrestlers.  I don’t think I’m ready to be nearly the same age as the president.  Plus, even if in his four-and-a-half extra years of life he’s managed to become 10 times smarter than me, he should still be at least 20 times smarter than that (or 200 times smarter than me) to be the leader of the free world.  #Math #OldPeople #Vote4Bernie

 

Interrupting

I’m torn on it.  I get why candidates do it, especially the candidates who desperately need the mic time in order to remain relevant, but the passive-aggressive Minnesotan in me cringes at the uncomfortability that it creates.  My suggestion: Give the moderators a button that controls the candidates’ microphones.  If Bill de Blasio won’t shut up because he comes from New York where everybody is rude, then cut his mic!  That will teach his big ass some manners.

 

Assault Rifle Buyback

Even though I found most of his mic time underwhelming, I was intrigued by California Representative Eric Swalwell’s proposal for an assault rifle buyback.  If we really want to reduce the number of guns, and consequently gun violence, in this country, this would be one way to try to do it.  Many believe that it had some success in Australia.  That said, the gun situations in Australia and the U.S. are apples and oranges, and the fact that Stalwell thinks that an assault rifle buyback would save the lives of “black children on the streets”, tells me that he might lack some understanding of this complicated issue.

 

Marianne Williamson

What in the actual F?  I would love to have video footage of the expression of bewilderment that slowly evolved on my face as she moved through her responses.    I can’t tell if she’s on something, or onto something.  Either way, I really hope she’s in attendance at the next Democratic debate so that I can continue to laugh-cry at tweets like the following:

 

 

 

Universal Healthcare

Healthcare is the other dominant issue, alongside immigration and perhaps climate change, that will likely be most important to Democratic voters in the 2020 election.  What is most encouraging to me is that all the major contenders for the Democratic nomination define universal healthcare as a goal (which was not the case a decade ago).  They have different ideas about how to get there—some through the immediate abolition of private insurance, others through an approach that is more measured and graduated—but it does seem that these candidates want all Americans to have access to a public option, aka single-payer system, aka Medicare for all.

I’ll be interested in continuing to listen to the different plans that the candidates put forward to create that system.  I think that Kirsten Gillibrand makes the most sense to me so far, that she’s happy to let private insurance companies remain in existence and compete with her proposed single-payer system (insinuating that they won’t be able to due to their need to generate profits), but for now I’m just satisfied that all the candidates want to head in the same direction—joining the rest of the developed world in guaranteeing healthcare as a human right.

 

Left-of-Center vs. Progressivism

The healthcare issue is illustrative of the larger choice at hand: do Democrats want to nominate a moderate, left-of-center candidate, or a progressive liberal?  Do Democrats want more mild and practical reforms within the existing system, or what Elizabeth Warren calls “structural change”, what Bernie Sanders calls a “political revolution”?  These are the questions that the Democratic debates, and eventually the caucuses and primaries, will need to answer.  The tone of these first debates suggest that the tide is turning towards the progressives, but I’m pretty sure that as of this morning, Joe Biden is still considered the front-runner.

I embody this split in the Democratic Party.  I’m inspired by the brand of egalitarian socialism described by Bernie, but I also see the shared prosperity that can result from what Gillibrand describes as “healthy capitalism”.  I love the idealism and aggressiveness in the detailed plans of Warren and Yang, but I also feel the sensibility and practicality in the proposed policies of Delaney and Klobuchar.

But all that said, I believe that what I and a lot of other potentially Democratic voters are experiencing is a good problem to have.  There were a lot of people up on that stage that I could see myself voting for, especially when they are running against Donald Trump.  I want the best candidate for the job, but I also want the best candidate for that job, and in the twenty candidates that I saw over the last two nights, I think there are at least a few people that would be pretty good at both.

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Education, Immigration, USA, World

Immigration, Compassion, & Policy

During the last week of school, I set aside my Spanish Immersion Human Geography curriculum for a class period in order to host a special presentation.  That presentation was led by five of my students.  All of them are teenagers from Central America, all of them immigrated to the United States within the last three years, all of them, save one, made the journey alone, without accompaniment from any friends or family, and all of them are now living in the United States as refugees.

Their stories are literally amazing.  This was evident in the astonishment on my other students’ faces as the five Central American boys shared their experiences of hours spent crammed into semi-trailers and trunks of cars, hiding from both Federales and narcotraficantes as they trekked across the Mexican desert, occasionally happening upon the corpses of failed migrants from the past, and fending off snakes and coyotes as they tried to find sleep in the montes at night.

Immigration had been a topic that we studied earlier in the quarter.  We learned terms like “push factor” and “pull factor”, “chain migration” and “quota”, “unauthorized immigrant” and “refugee”, and how these things all connect to the current immigration crisis at our southern border.  At the end of that unit, we also had a discussion—a Socratic Seminar about immigration in the United States, what we think about what’s happening and how we think our country should respond to it.  Opinions ranged across the board, some echoing Trump’s call for a border wall, some advocating for a more welcoming immigration policy, and many taking more nuanced positions somewhere in between.  My five Central American boys were conspicuously quiet during this discussion, but their presentation on this last Tuesday of class undoubtedly caused some of their classmates to reconsider some of their previously held positions.

I did not facilitate this presentation in hopes of carrying out some hidden liberal agenda that would turn all of my students into advocates for open borders and sanctuary cities, or convince them to vote Democrat in the 2020 election (most of the students are freshmen, so they won’t even be eligible).  Like any source that we consider in my classroom, I saw this presentation as an opportunity to offer my students a lesson in perspective—what this issue might look like to five individuals who have experienced it rather intimately.  And while I do hope that students will take these perspectives into consideration when forming their own opinions on this particular issue, I do not think that compassion for these young men and others like them needs to be nor should be the sole consideration that they take into account.

It would be a mistake to advocate for an immigration policy based solely on emotions like compassion.  While the desire to help people in need is an admirable one, it is foolish to think that the United States, even with all its relative wealth and resources, could offer comfort and refuge to all those who seek it, not only from Mexico and Central America, but from all of the world’s more troubled places.  Compassion can and should play a role in policy-making, but so should realism and practicality, and they do not need to be mutually exclusive.  For example, while I hate the oft-repeated Republican lie that congressional Democrats are advocates for “open borders”, I am also annoyed when any proposed border security measure—be it wall, barrier, or border control agents—is automatically labeled as racist, even though in some cases, it probably is.

Many people levy this accusation at President Trump, and while I would agree that many of his comments are ignorant and insensitive, I’m not sure that he is a racist.  I certainly cannot point to any utterance that represents definitive proof of hatred in his heart towards Latin American migrants.  But what I am certain of is that President Trump’s proposed immigration policies are dramatically lacking in compassion.

Trump has tried to argue otherwise.  In one of his more well-known statements on the matter, Trump said that “tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate,” but “actually very cruel”, as it encourages human trafficking that may not take place if the border were more secure and immigration policies were more stringent.  There is an argument to be made there, but that argument cannot qualify as compassionate if it does not address the situation of people who are sufficiently vulnerable to be taken advantage of by human traffickers in the first place.  A wall would probably reduce the number of people seeking refuge at our southern border, but it would do nothing to alleviate the suffering that influenced those people’s decision to make the harrowing journey that my immigrant students described.

With Trump, it’s also not just about what he says, but how he says it that suggests a lack of compassion.  It is not necessarily uncompassionate to say something like, “I think we need to secure our southern border, perhaps with a wall or structure, before we can begin to address the myriad other issues that contribute to the humanitarian crisis in Central America.”  However, it is something very different to start a nativist “Build the Wall!” chant at a rally packed almost exclusively with white people, some of whom likely scream those words with a fervor at least partially rooted in racist attitudes.  And Trump does nothing to discourage that.

I think those chanters might think twice about their choice of words and tone of voice if they were given an opportunity to sit in on a presentation like the one given from the Honduran and Guatemalan boys in my 9th grade Human Geography class.  That’s not to say that they would necessarily abandon their desire for a “wall”, but perhaps attaching some real human faces to the issue of immigration would push them to consider it with the nuance and complexity that it deserves.

I’m not sure what effect this presentation had on the thinking of my native-born students.  I did not assign any sort of reflection, and have no hard data to gauge any potential ideological shifts.  However, I do suspect that even my most conservative-leaning students might be more hesitant to stand behind any policies that would revoke their classmates’ refugee status, especially after hearing their stories.

And I think that’s a good thing.  Compassion is something that we should try to cultivate in the leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow.  Perspective-taking is something that should influence the way that we think about issues, and ultimately arrive at conclusions.  If we are going to make decisions to erect walls or ban refugees, then those decisions should hurt us, not excite us.  Because even if those decisions end up being the right ones, they also guarantee that human suffering will go unalleviated.  And if someone does not possess a level of compassion that allows them to feel the harmful impact of those unfortunate circumstances, then they should not be the one making those policy decisions.

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Immigration, Politics, USA, World

Taking on Trump with democracy and civility

I don’t like Trump’s travel ban.  Even if it’s not specifically a ban on Muslims, it’s still a disaster for diplomacy in the Muslim world, and severely undermines the United States’ ability to win over potential Muslim allies in the fight against radical Islamic terror. Furthermore, even more so than being anti-Muslim, the ban is just anti-human, unconditionally denying refuge to some of the world’s most desperate people.

That said, I still can’t trick myself into thinking that the ban is unconstitutional.  While the ban’s author almost certainly harbors some anti-Muslim sentiments, the language in the ban itself is religiously neutral. Furthermore, the ban excludes the vast majority of the world’s Muslim-majority nations, instead singling out seven specific countries (two of which are the highly non-Muslim countries of Venezuela and North Korea) that possess unique security concerns at this moment in time.  I still don’t like the policy, but in upholding its constitutionality, I think the Supreme Court got it right.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, I also don’t like the fact that Anthony Kennedy is retiring, gifting Trump another opportunity to nominate a conservative justice to the country’s highest judicial body.  Once again, I would like to convince myself that turnabout is fair play—that Dems should delay Trump’s appointment just like Republicans did when they robbed Obama of his nomination, Merrick Garland, prior to the 2016 presidential elections.

That said, considering their minority position in both the House and Senate, Democrats probably couldn’t pull that off even if they wanted to, and even if they could, I wouldn’t feel right advocating for a tactic that I find so politically repugnant.  I hate to say it, but I think that Donald Trump has the right to appoint any conservative judge he sees fit, so long as he has the Senatorial votes to get them confirmed.

As the above paragraphs might suggest, I don’t like most of President Donald Trump’s agenda, but in a way, I feel that America is getting exactly what it deserves.  Despite seemingly endless outrage over every presidential speech, tweet, and executive action, this is exactly what America voted for, and to be sure, many people in this country are still very supportive of this presidency.

Some take Donald Trump’s election and presidency as a sign that our democracy is broken, but I tend to agree with Chicago Tribune writer Steve Chapman that it’s quite the contrary.  American citizens democratically elected Donald Trump to be their president, and now Donald Trump is doing exactly what those people elected him to do.  The Trump agenda does not result from a failure of democracy—it is a product of it. And if you are one of the people that find the Trump agenda to be problematic (I am!), then democracy also needs to be the solution.

The most obvious example of this is the upcoming midterm elections.  Unless Bob Mueller uncovers the proverbial “smoking gun” in his Russia investigation, Donald Trump will still be president following this Fall’s elections, but if those who oppose his agenda come out and vote in full force, Trump’s ability to carry out that agenda could be pretty limited. Democrats have a real opportunity to take control of both the House and Senate, but even if they just controlled one of those bodies, that could serve as a very powerful check on any item that Trump wishes to push through the legislature.

However, anti-Trump individuals exercising their own personal right to vote might not be enough. If it were, then Trump probably wouldn’t be president in the first place.  If those appalled by the Trump presidency really want to see significant change, they have to do their part to ensure that other people who may be voting in the midterm elections will vote differently than they did in 2016.  That means encouraging supporters of the president’s agenda to reconsider their support.

Which is why I could not disagree more with the suggested approach of Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who effectively called for the public shaming and harassment of anyone who has lent their support to the Trump administration. I cannot think of a more toxic, self-defeating approach.  If there is any action that would reaffirm everything that Trump supporters already believe about the anti-Trump crowd, or push Trump supporters to cling even more tightly to their president and his agenda, this would be that action.

What is more, the suggestion of Congresswoman Waters seems to me to be a violation of one of the founding tenets of what I believe it means to be liberal—recognizing the humanity in all people, especially people whose worldview differs from your own. That goes for supporters of the president, and even the president himself.  If people who stand against Trump surrender the high road and choose to fight Trump fire with Trumpian-fire, then Trump already won.

Outrage cannot be the only thing offered by those of us who stand against Trump.  It is the easiest thing in the world to be outraged at the parent-child separations that characterized the Trump response to the crisis at our southern border. It is much more difficult to come up with a workable solution. Still, workable solutions have to be a part of the anti-Trump package, not just on immigration, but on any and all issues in which we perceive Trump’s approach to be incompetent or intolerable.

Democracy got us into this mess, and democracy can get us out, not just through the vote, but through all the tools that allow an individual to maximize their voice and exercise their agency, civil discourse with unlike-minded people being chief among them. However, if those who want change continue to dehumanize Trump and his supporters just as Trump dehumanizes immigrants and Muslims, don’t be surprised if democracy once again works against you this Fall.

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Politics, USA

More gun control would lead to less gun violence. Period.

In governance, some things are just common sense.  If you have higher taxes on the rich, you will have less economic inequality.  If you invest more money in education, you will have better public schools.  If you increase border security, you will have less illegal immigration.  And if you pass gun control legislation, you will have less gun violence.

These are value neutral statements.  They are not saying that the result of the above trade-offs are necessarily good things or bad things.  They are simply saying that if the first action is taken, the second thing will happen. One does not need to be a fan of the type of equality that results from higher taxes on the rich—an action that some may viewing as punishing success while rewarding the lazy—but nevertheless, this action would undoubtedly create less economic inequality.  Likewise, one does not need to like the limitations that gun control legislation might impose on their 2ndamendment rights, but it is undeniable that less gun violence would be the result of those limitations.

When it comes to guns, this is also true as a matter of degree.  Degrees of gun control and gun violence are inversely correlated—the more of one, the less of the other.   In the United States of America, we will never be able to eliminate gun violence completely, but with every step we take towards controlling our firearms, we also take a step towards reducing the violence that guns can create.  Take longer waiting periods.  In and of themselves, longer waiting periods would make a nearly imperceptible dent on the overall amount of gun violence in this country.  That said, longer waiting periods still would likely prevent some instances of gun violence, such as crimes of passion or firearm purchases that take place during episodes of irrational decision-making. What is more, if passed as part of a more sweeping gun control package, longer waiting periods could play a role in a larger ensemble that makes a more visible impact.  This package could include items such as mandatory background checks, required certifications, higher age restrictions, and bans on certain assault-style weaponry or modifications.

If you’re not buying this logic, try running the thought experiment in reverse:  What if we made guns more easily attainable?  What if we removed the gun control measures that we already have in place?  What if any Joe Schmoe off the street could walk into a gun shop with a driver’s license and a debit card and walk out five minutes later with a fully-automatic weapon and ammo to boot?  No matter how many times I run this simulation in my head, the results are always the same—more shootings and more bodies.

I’ve often heard it said that—no matter the limitations and regulations that we place around guns—if somebody wants a gun, they’re going to find a way to get one.  I don’t buy that argument.  Perhaps if the person is a career criminal well-acquainted with the sketchy faces and shady places that make up the black market, then yes, they may find a way to obtain a firearm, even if the law says that they shouldn’t have one.  But when it comes to many of the hapless teenagers that have been shooting up our schools over the past two decades, I’m not so sure that the same is true.  Would the Parkland shooter have obtained a semiautomatic rifle if he could not have legally purchased one himself?  Maybe, but maybe not.  Would the shooter from Sante Fe have gained access to firearms if there were stricter laws regarding gun storage in a house inhabited by minors, or if the house would not have contained firearms at all? Maybe, but maybe not.  If we could rewind time to the days before Columbine and implement all the restrictions and regulations suggested in this write-up, could we have prevented the 217 episodes of gun violence that took place in schools across the country during that time?  Definitely not all, but very likely some.

And that last part is the key.  No amount of gun control will eliminate gun violence.  No single piece of legislation can make a mass shooting impossible.  But more control of firearms CAN and WILL reduce gun violence in this country.  While eliminating gun violence should always be the goal for the ideal world, reducing gun violence should guide our decision-making in the world that we actually live in.

There are reasons to be skeptical of some gun control measures.  Like it or not, the right to bear arms is constitutional in this country, and while I would be the first to support a constitutional amendment that changed gun ownership from a right to a strictly-regulated, dutifully-earned privilege, that solution does not seem plausible considering the current political reality.  Also, despite what the statistics tell us, possessing a gun does help some people feel safer, and in many instances, has given people the ability to protect themselves, their families, and others when harm inevitably threatens.  Nevertheless, the point stands that the more we begin to shift our laws and our attitudes away from protection of gun rights and towards limiting them, the less gun violence we will see.  On that single point, it really is that simple.

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Education, Military, USA

Teaching, Ideology, & Neutrality

I had a substitute teacher in my classroom the other day when I was out for some PD.  I got a chance to meet him when I arrived back at the building prior to the end of the day.  He was a cool guy with an interesting story.  Just in the brief conversation that I had with him, I suspected that he and I might have some ideological differences.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I like a sub that offers a change of pace from me. It keeps my kids on their toes.

It wasn’t until a couple days later that I noticed the bumper sticker.

In the corner of my whiteboard, I have a bumper sticker that I found in a filing cabinet underneath a pile of posters.  It’s a historic bumper stick, created in 1979 by a group called the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.  The bumper sticker reads: “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

I’ve had this bumper sticker for a while.  It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I appreciate the premise.  However, on this day, it wasn’t the bumper sticker that caught my eye, but the slip of paper that was hanging beneath it.  It read: “Were it not for a strong, well-funded military, our schools would not have the freedom to do what they do!”  Following the quote there was a hyphen indicating the quote’s author.  Following the hyphen was the name of my sub.

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I was not sure how to feel about this at first, but I definitely felt things.  Part of me felt annoyed that a guest in my classroom would have the audacity to make such an alteration to the physical space.  Part of me felt angry at the implication that the messages that I am providing to my students are somehow misleading or harmful.  Part of me felt impressed by the balls and conviction of such a bold, unapologetic move.  And part of me felt a tinge of self-doubt that perhaps my sub had a point.  I spent some time thinking about those things, and I think that I know how I feel now.

Both of the quotes make legitimate claims.  It is legitimate to claim that a strong, well-funded military allows Americans to enjoy many of the freedoms that we enjoy, but it is also legitimate to claim that we spend too much money on our military, particularly when compared to other potential areas for public investment, i.e. education.  To be sure, a strong military and an educated populace are both essential components of a free country, and the debate over allocation of resources towards establishing each of those components is a fair one.  In hanging his quote next to my bumper sticker, my sub definitely did his part to facilitate a conversation that undoubtedly has a place in social studies classrooms.  That is why my sub’s quote continues to hang on my whiteboard.

But what motivated him to do it?  What motivated my sub to go through the trouble of typing that quote, printing it out, cutting it down to size, and hanging it on my whiteboard?  The way that I see it, there are two possible explanations.

The first is that my sub is a self-appointed member of the neutrality police.  He believes that high school classrooms are places where knowledge should always be presented in a way that is unbiased and objective, and takes it upon himself to address any potential violations of this most important principle.  However, something tells me that this guy is not going around posting Peace Corps flyers next to National Guard advertisements or pinning re-elect Obama buttons next to portraits of Ronald Reagan, meaning that there must be a different explanation.

That explanation is ideology.  In my bumper sticker, my sub saw an ideology that he did not like, so he decided to amend it with one that he liked better.  Since he names himself as the author, I think that I can safely assume that the ideology expressed in my sub’s quote is his own, and I’m guessing that the sub also assumes that the ideology expressed on the bumper sticker is mine.  In that assumption, he is partially correct.  I do sympathize with some of the concerns expressed on that bumper sticker—that the spending and veneration we commit to our military existed for our educational institutions as well.  But aside from that ideological overlap, there is another, more pedagogically powerful reason that that quote hangs on my whiteboard: it makes my students question things.

In a school that is chalked full of national guard posters and pencils, college acceptance recognition for current seniors who will soon be members of the United States Army, Navy, and Airforce, and the best damn Veteran’s Day ceremony that you’ve ever seen, that bumper sticker makes my students question, just for a brief moment, whether the veneration that we provide to our armed forces can sometimes be just a little bit much.  In a school that is the constant victim of budget cuts and failed bonds, growing class sizes and shrinking resources, that bumper sticker makes my students consider, just for a brief moment, whether the value that we place on our schools and on their education can sometimes be just a little bit insufficient.  It’s a 3” by 12” piece of paper that makes my students question the pro-military messages that they are subliminally bombarded with every day of every school year. They may choose to embrace the sentiment expressed in that bumper sticker, or they may choose to reject it, but at the very least, just for a brief moment, they are asked to consider it.

I don’t have a problem with ideology in education.  In fact, I don’t think it is possible to avoid it.  Nothing in education is neutral.  Even neutral itself is an ideology.  As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once wrote, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”  Our goal as educators should not be to eliminate bias—it should be to teach students how to detect it, analyze it, and ultimately choose whether to embrace its sentiments or reject them.

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Lots of different perspectives are included in my classroom, both in the content that I teach and in the voices of my students.  As a source of authority, I usually don’t like to include my own.  However, in certain situations I will share my perspectives on issues, not in an attempt to convince students to think like I do—although I’m perfectly happy to convince them if they’ll let me—but to explicitly teach them a more important lesson: while I may be a source of authority, I am not an ultimate source of truth.

I’m an adult.  I’m educated and informed, but ultimately, students should question me just like they question their books, their newspapers, and any quotes that might hang on their classroom whiteboard.  I want students to hear different perspectives, understand different perspectives, consider how different perspectives might merge with or challenge their own, and then ultimately, choose whether or not to accept whatever it is that those perspectives have to offer.

I have my own perspectives and opinions on everything that I teach.  Education is an inherently political act, and there’s no doubt that my leanings and biases enter into my classroom even when I’m actively trying to suppress them.  But because my classroom is built around teaching students not what to think, but how to think for themselves, I don’t shy away from the ideological.  I hope that my sub approaches his teaching with the same humility.

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