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.

IMG_0009

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.

IMG_0010

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.

IMG_0091

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.

Follow me on Twitter!!!

Standard
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.

5a5c0f98220000251ab4e691

Follow me on Twitter!!!

Standard
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.

Follow me on Twitter!!!

Standard
Politics, USA, World

Trolling Tomi Lahren’s Trolling of International Women’s Day

Wednesday was International Women’s Day—a day to celebrate women around the world of both past and present who have helped to make this planet a better place for both girls and boys alike. It is a day to celebrate all the progress that the women’s movement has made, but also a day to acknowledge the ongoing struggles that women collectively continue to face.

The latter aspect of the holiday inspired some women to participate in organized protests designed to raise awareness on issues affecting women today. These protests could have been as simple as wearing red or generating discussion around the water cooler with colleagues, or as serious as taking the day off work—both paid and unpaid—to simulate “a day without women,” and demonstrate the various important roles that women play in our economy and communities. As with any protests, some of the rhetoric was worthy of eye-rolling and some of the actions worthy of criticism, but the overall message was based on what I believe to be an undeniable truth: Women today are perhaps as appreciated and empowered as they have been at any time in human history, but that does not mean that they are as appreciated and empowered as they should be.

That message was largely lost on rising conservative darling, Tomi Lahren, who used her Wednesday night “Final Thoughts” segment to demonize anyone participating in the day’s protests, or for just being a part of modern day feminism in general. In the video, Lahren angrily lambasts protestors for their “selfish” behavior and self-victimization, asserting that “real women” don’t need to “remind the world every single day” that they have been historically slighted.

For someone that is constantly mocking liberals for their over-sensitivity, Lahren sure seemed pretty triggered herself Wednesday night over some wardrobe selections and sick days. I know that she doesn’t believe in safe spaces, but perhaps a few days of shielding herself from the social justice warriors of the world would help her to cool down a little bit. That said, I occasionally find myself agreeing with a lot of Lahren’s critiques of the left. I could do without the shouting, but sometimes beneath the bombast lies some actual legitimacy.

Wednesday night’s segment was not one of those critiques.  Lahren is not usually one to be overly-nuanced, but her outrage over the actions associated with International Women’s Day was especially overstated and out of place. Worse, on a day that is supposed to be about women empowerment, Lahren’s words served only to undermine the efforts of millions of women around the world working to gain the appreciation and opportunities that they deserve.

To Lahren, Wednesday’s protests were not about equality. They were about “special treatment”—special treatment that, in Lahren’s mind, can be summarized as free abortions and birth control for everyone. Lahren says that she doesn’t deserve special treatment because she has “ovaries and a menstrual cycle.” I disagree. I think that women should get special treatment based on the fact that they have ovaries and a menstrual cycle, just as I believe that men should get special treatment when it comes to our prostates and our testicles.

Women’s healthcare is different than men’s healthcare, and our healthcare packages should reflect that. Yes, abortion is part of this, but again that is because only women get pregnant. I can’t say that I have ever met a woman quite like the abortion-happy, birth control pill-guzzling, caricature of a feminist that Lahren describes, but I have met plenty of women who want access to affordable contraception, and affordable abortions in the unintended and undesirable circumstance where they feel like they need one.

Lahren may disagree that an abortion should even be an option for women, and indeed if she had it her way, it probably would not be, but then I hope she would still acknowledge that some “special treatment” may be necessary for the mothers now tasked with the difficult assignment of raising children that they were not prepared to have.

But then Lahren makes a good point: Don’t the problems like those above pale in comparison to the “women in less fortunate parts of the world [who] wake up without basic human rights”? Yes, Tomi! I agree! I do not think that that makes the above issues irrelevant, but I do think that women in other parts of the world face challenges that deserve our immediate and prioritized attention. After all, this is INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day. But of course, Lahren spends less than four seconds on this point, using it only as a tool to delegitimize the issues that collide with her own personal agenda.

Instead, Lahren turns to the “victim card.” “Yeah, some challenges might be a little greater for women,” Lahren admits, “but let me tell you, it feels a whole hell of a lot better to overcome those challenges, than it does to dwell on them, complain about them, or use them as an excuse to fall short. If you constantly claim you’re a victim, you will always be a victim. Free yourself.”

I can’t say I disagree with the sentiment. No matter how much of a victim a woman, or anyone from any other historically marginalized group might be, the message to that individual can never be to dwell on their victimhood. It has to be a message that empowers and overcomes in spite of injustice and oppression, and that is kind of what Lahren was getting at.

But Lahren’s pep talk is missing an important piece: validation…validation that the victimization that that person is experiencing is real and not imagined…validation that life is oftentimes unfair, but that they have a right to fight back. But rather than validate, the tone of Lahren’s tirade instead suggests that any girl that has ever complained about sexism or the glass ceiling is nothing but a whiney, entitled brat projecting her own shortcomings and failures on the dismantled vestiges of the patriarchy. And that is so not the case.

I’m never going to tell a woman that she is a victim if she doesn’t feel like one. If that’s the case with Tomi Lahren, then more power to her. But I am also never going to tell a woman that she isn’t a victim when her experience tells her that she is, especially when I still see so much evidence to validate that claim.

I want to live in a world where no girl feels victimized by her womanhood—where every girl can be whatever or whoever she wants to be whether that’s a CEO or a stay-at-home mom. For many women, that world doesn’t exist right now, and that’s what makes International Women’s Day both important and necessary. I’m glad that many women took that day to make their voices heard, both the protestors and the protestors of the protestors alike, because somewhere in between the world’s most radical third wave feminist and Tomi Lahren is progress, and hopefully within that conversation, progress is what emerges.

*          *          *          *          *

P.S. Here is a song I tweeted out in honor of International Women’s Day. It’s a song by a guy, but hey, I’m a guy, sooooooo…Anyway, to all the unknown legends out there: Keeping building yours!

Follow me on Twitter!!!

Standard
Politics, Religion, World

Pushing an atheist agenda

By definition, I am technically an agnostic. I don’t believe in god or ghosts or spirits or an afterlife, but I cannot say with complete certainty that any of those things do not exist. It’s a big world, and a bigger universe, and the older and wiser that I get, the more stupider I realize that I am.

3451-Aristotle-Quote-The-more-you-know-the-more-you-know-you-don-t-know.jpg

That said, there are some things that I am pretty sure about. I’m pretty sure that some dude named Noah did not build a boat to save the world’s animal kingdom from drowning. I’m pretty sure that the reward for detonating a bomb in a crowded marketplace is not an eternal blowjob from 72 virgins. I’m pretty sure that gay people are not walking abominations. And I’m pretty sure that every organized religion in the world that makes supernatural claims about the origins of our universe is wrong.

That doesn’t mean that I know what the origins of the universe are, but you don’t have to always know the correct answer to a question to know an incorrect answer when you hear one. Author and thinker Sam Harris has made the analogy that, while we can never know what John F. Kennedy was thinking in the moments before his assassination, we can still know some things that he was certainly not thinking—like, for example, if Donald Trump would make a good 45th president or whether or not more than 12 people would read this blog post. Likewise, even though I cannot be sure that there is no god, I still feel pretty confident that the Christian God does not exist.

109409.png

This is what makes me an atheist. Even though I can’t explain the mysteries of the universe, I don’t think that religion can either. What is more, even though I don’t know whether or not there is a god, I definitely don’t believe that there is one. Agnosticism is about knowledge, or in this case, lack thereof, but atheism is about belief. And when it comes to what I believe about the universe, it’s that it is all just one big, random accident.

There is another belief that I hold about religion: It’s bad. It’s bad not only because of the wars and the hate and the human rights abuses that it inspires, but because of the millions of nice, peaceful people to whom it promises a better life on the other side—a promise that I believe goes unfulfilled. This promise can lead people into a middling existence, never fully taking advantage of or appreciating their brief moment in the sun due to their belief that they will live under a brighter one in the next life.

Because I subscribe to the belief that religion is cumulatively bad, and that the world would be better with less of it, I also subscribe to a certain amount of the philosophy known as “militant atheism.” Militant atheists don’t believe in god, and they don’t think that others should either.   That may sound elitist (because it is), but if you put yourself in the mindset of someone who truly believes that religion causes massive amounts of unnecessary pain and suffering (which militant atheists do), it would be hard to argue that they should not push an agenda that they feel could help to reduce that unnecessary pain and suffering.

55708-47021.jpg

What is more, militant atheism, as I understand it, is not so much about “converting” the religiously devout as it is about inspiring other non-believers and skeptics to speak out against religion’s more harmful effects. I know a lot of smart people who shy away from the “atheist” label because of the arrogance and pretension that it is often associated with. But while their humility is admirable, it could also be argued that this silence is part of the reason why atheists have had so much trouble in pushing their agenda. In the United States, even though non-religious people make up more than 20% of the population, lack of religious faith is still one of the biggest hurdles to holding public office, as evidenced by the huge lack of representation of openly non-religious people in the United States Congress—1 out of 535 to be exact.

However, in pushing our atheist agenda, militant atheists like myself often exhibit one major flaw—we are enormous douchebags. Our arrogance is unbearable, our presumed certainty, laughable, and the condescension with which we treat the “unenlightened” makes our supposedly benevolent intentions far less than apparent. This perception of atheists, whether deserved or not, obviously has an adverse effect on our ability to push our agenda, in many cases making the intended audience more hostile to our ideas than they otherwise would be.

And this is where us atheists need to do some introspection. If the goal of atheism, militant or otherwise, is truly to make the world a better place, than we need to start behaving like it. Treating religious people like shit is hardly making the world better. If anything, it’s doing the opposite, contributing to the pain and suffering that militant atheists are purportedly against. It also contributes to the extraordinarily harmful divisiveness that currently plagues American society, and once again, exacerbates a problem that atheists are supposed to be trying to solve.

This doesn’t mean that atheists shouldn’t push their views. While the goal should not be to antagonize, the job necessitates some feather ruffling, and no matter how humbly or respectfully one goes about articulating the atheistic worldview, some people will still get offended.   But what atheists cannot do is resort to the mean-spirited mockery that dominates so many online message boards. Atheists must keep in sight what motivates their militancy in the first place—a steadfast commitment to peace, coexistence, and human happiness—and realize that many-to-most religious people share that commitment too.

The devoutly religious Martin Luther King once said that, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”   I think that atheists would be wise to emulate those words in their own advocacy. If a better world is truly our commitment, than we should behave like the people that we imagine that better world to be made of. If we cannot do that, than we are no less fraudulent than the outdated dogma that we seek to disprove and dispel.

42

Follow me on Twitter!!!

Standard
Economics, USA, World

Are we all monsters?:The connection between luxury and suffering

Imagine that one morning you are on your way to work when you walk by a shallow pond. In that pond you see a small child who is clearly drowning. You can easily save the child, but it will require that you get your clothes and shoes all wet and muddy. What is more, you are running behind schedule, and saving the child will surely make you late for work—perhaps quite late, as you will now need to go home and change your clothes. Do you still save the child?

Of course you do. You do it in a heartbeat. You do it without thinking. The thought of someone who would even stop to consider their shoes or schedule is itself disturbing, let alone the thought of someone that would willfully neglect to save the child for such selfish and petty reasons. That person would be considered a criminal, a sociopath, and a monster. But if you believe renowned ethicist Pete Singer, we may all have a little bit of monster in us.

We have all walked by that pond for exactly those reasons, and many of us do it every single day. We do it every time that we treat ourselves to an overpriced cappuccino, every time that we buy a pair of designer jeans, and every time that we go out to eat, attend a concert, or take a vacation…We do it every time that we choose to spend our spare dollars on our own unnecessary luxuries rather than helping the millions of suffering humans whose lives those dollars could easily help to save.

Of course, the pond in this case is metaphorical. In reality, the children whose lives we could be saving are dying from things like malnutrition, malaria, and civil war. Still, in the case of many of those children, their lives really are savable. There are organizations that are working to provide healthy meals, medicine, and new homes in safe locations, and if those organizations were to receive more money—our money—those dollars would LITERALLY save real humans lives that will not be saved otherwise.

But we don’t do that. I don’t do that.

Just the other night I went out with some friends to the new Surly Brewery in Minneapolis. It’s a fantastic establishment—some of the best beer and Brussels sprouts in town. All in all, I spent about $40 there, tip included, and another $5 on Pokémon GO egg incubators to make all the walking to and fro a little more worthwhile. I had a really great time that night, but if I had passed that shallow pond on my walk to the brewery, would I have jumped in and saved that drowning child, knowing full well that the money in my pocket would surely be lost, that my iPhone would be irreparably damaged, and that my lovely night out at Surly would be effectively ruined? God, I hope so.

So what’s the difference when that struggling child is on the other side of the world, thousands of miles away, but just as easily savable? The obvious answer is “out of sight, out of mind,” but while that is certainly an explanation, it is hardly an excuse.

But these thoughts have been on my mind lately. They’ve been on my mind ever since I first encountered ethical philosopher and all-around great person Will MacAskill on Sam Harris’s Waking Up Podcast. On the podcast, MacAskill describes a movement that he calls “effective altruism.” The movement is based on two assumptions: 1) That most people living in the developed world can and should do more with their time and money to help those who are less fortunate, and 2) that there are more and less effective ways to accomplish that goal. In other words, the good that we do should be strategic. If I am going to donate $50, I should seek out an organization that will use that money effectively and impactfully. Likewise, if I wish to donate my time, there is a cost-benefit analysis that should underlie how I choose to spend it.

ea-og-image-300x300.png

That latter part leads to some interesting considerations. For example, one might consider the donating of their Saturday to a charitable cause such as volunteering in a soup kitchen or a children’s hospital to be a greater act of altruism than, say, working eight hours of overtime and earning some extra dough on an upcoming paycheck. But in an “effective” sense, the time-and-a-half wage paid on those eight hours could probably do far more good if donated to the right cause than any one volunteer could do in a day of service. To put it another way, that day of service is not worth the opportunity cost of the money that one could make completing a different task that, in this case, is not itself altruistic. Using this philosophy, I have heard MacAskill argue that one of the most effectively altruistic career paths that one can pursue is actually banking and finance, assuming of course that the person is donating a large percentage of their lucrative earnings to help the world’s least fortunate people.

petersinger_translated_v2.jpg

You can go pretty far down the rabbit hole with this philosophizing about how to best maximize every spare minute and dollar, but while I’d like to get to that point someday, I’m not ready to go there now. Where I am ready to go, and where I think “we” in the developed world might be collectively ready to go, is accepting assumption number one—accepting the argument that we can and should be doing more to help those who are less fortunate than we are and that we should start doing those things now.

There are plenty of excuses that rationalize the pushing off of this responsibility. I know them well because I make them myself. While giving can certainly be intrinsically gratifying, online donations don’t offer the same euphoric spike as diving in that shallow pond and holding that living, breathing child in your arms—living and breathing thanks to you. In that scenario, you can feel the difference that you are making, but that fulfillment is hard to mimic with a credit card, especially when you do not get to witness the impact of your action.

What is more, the difference that your dollars make is, in reality, pretty microscopic when compared to the massive amount of global suffering that tragically plagues our planet. Even if you were to use every spare dollar over the next calendar year to buy bed nets for people in the developing world, there is no doubt that thousands upon thousands of people would still die from mosquito-born illnesses over that time. However, while that truth is sobering, those dollars still would make a difference, and it would be an enormous difference to the real human beings whose lives those bed nets would be saving—real human beings whose lives would not have been saved otherwise.

Another excuse is the burnout factor. Many of us already feel that we are struggling to make ends meet in our own lives. We live paycheck to paycheck, are saddled with mortgages and car payments and student loan debt, and don’t feel that we have a whole lot leftover to give at the end any given pay cycle. This is a real concern considering that, in order to give, people need to be motivated, and if their lives suck, that motivation will be lacking. But while the leaders of the effective altruism movement certainly would not discourage an immediate and dramatic change in lifestyle if someone were up to it, that does not seem to be what they are advocating. Instead, they are encouraging people to dip their toes in the proverbial pool. They are asking us to begin considering our own consumption habits—what’s necessary, what’s not, and where we could sacrifice small comforts and luxuries in order to make someone else’s life a little less terrible. As we begin to adjust to this mode of thought, Singer suggests that we may actually want to dip further into the pool. As one person cited in a Singer Ted Talk put it, he doesn’t even feel that what he is doing is altruistic…He feels that the life he is saving is his own.

With the publication of this blog post, I will simultaneously be dipping my toes in the pool for the first time. I will be donating $20 to the Against Malaria Foundation, which “works to prevent the spread of malaria by distributing long-lasting, insecticide-treated mosquito nets to susceptible populations in developing countries.” This donation is hardly a sacrifice for me. It may cost me some Poké-progress or a bottle of tequila, but I can and should be doing more. Hopefully, in the future, I will work up the willpower to do that, but for now I’m going to allow myself the humble self-satisfaction of taking the first step. Below is a link to Peter Singer’s website, “The Life You Can Save.” This site allows you to identify credible, impactful organizations that will help your dollars to do the most amount of good possible in areas of your choosing, be it children, women and girls, hunger and nutrition, or education. Click around, check stuff out, and if you want to dip your toes in the pool too, consider this your invitation to do so. The water’s warm.

https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org

15-12-4_tlycs-smallFollow me on Twitter!!!

 

Standard
Animals, Travel, World

When being a tourist feels good: The Phang Nga Elephant Park

I have a love-hate relationship with being a tourist. On the one hand, I absolutely love to travel the world. Travelling drives me. Travelling is me. My international experiences have made me a better person than I would be otherwise—enlightening me, humbling me, motivating me to be better. My desire to travel is a big part of the reason that I went into teaching. There are not many other professions where you get the opportunity to spend nine months out of the year teaching kids about the world and the other three traveling and learning about it yourself.

But there are a lot of negative aspects to international travel too, especially when you’re a white dude from the United States of America. The tourism industry that was built to serve people like me is oftentimes reminiscent of the old colonial relationships between the “developed” and “developing” world where the privileged and powerful exploit the weaker and less fortunate for their own benefit. Even though I try my best to be a responsible tourist abroad, my masochistic desire to overthink things still sometimes leaves me wondering if our collective impact as tourists actually does more harm than good.

I thought about this a lot during my recent trip to Southeast Asia. There’s no doubt that the tourism industry over there has created a lot of jobs and generated a lot of dollars, but I still question how far reaching and inclusive those benefits are. For instance, do the jobs created by the imitation Western restaurants that we patronized and the mass-produced manufactured goods that we purchased outweigh the loss of the more traditional establishments and occupations that they most certainly replaced? It was great to have English menus and cheap goods, but pizza and bro-tanks are probably not the most authentic way to experience Southeast Asia. Does the commercialization of ancient landmarks and temples help to preserve indigenous cultures by educating us tourists about their history, or does it instead work to erode those cultures by transferring access and ownership of venerated sites to Westerners with deep pockets? I learned a lot about Eastern culture at Angkor Wat and Wat Pho, but I received this education amongst a sea of other white people. Also, depending on the venue, there can be something a little unsettling about converting somebody else’s sacred place of worship into a venue for my entertainment. And who ultimately ends up with the majority of the dollars that the tourism industry generates? Public revenue can build hospitals and schools and employees of the industry hopefully earn high enough wages to make a comfortable living, but something tells me that the corporate fat cats out there are still ending up with an oversized slice of the tourism pie, while the locals living in urban ghettos and impoverished rural areas are stuck with the crumbs.

IMG_20160724_031740.jpg

Temple Tour in Siem Reap

IMG_0065

Wat Pho–home of the famous Reclining Buddha

IMG_20160724_025748

The Bangkok red light district serves Cornflakes

But to dwell on such negativity does not do justice to all the tremendously transformative experiences that our adventure provided—experiences where tourism was done right and where tourism felt good. Nothing fits that bill better than the day we spent at the Elephant Park in Phang Nga, Thailand.

It’s not hard to find an elephant camp in Thailand. They’re all over the place. But if you care in the slightest about the well-being of the world’s largest land mammals, most of these camps should make you feel pretty sad. They are packed full of elephants—sometimes caged, sometimes chained, sometimes both—awaiting the next group of visitors to parade around town in carriage-like saddles alongside busy highways and tourist attractions. While the saddle and chains usually don’t physically harm these enormous beasts, the psychological effects do. Elephants are smart and have a tremendously elevated level of consciousness. This means that, unlike an idiotic gold fish oblivious to its own bowl-shaped imprisonment, elephants are quite aware of the fact that they are imprisoned, and quite aware of the less than stimulating environment that their imprisonment provides. If you have ever seen a captive elephant in a zoo or a circus doing something like this, then you have seen an elephant displaying documented symptoms of zoochosis—a medical condition that describes the strange behavior exhibited by captive animals who are clinically bored out of their freaking minds.

The Phang Nga Elephant Park was not like this. Although the upfront costs made this experience one of the more expensive things that we did on our trip, it was pretty clear upon our arrival that this park was not trying to make a few extra bucks by cutting a couple of corners. Their mission was an admirable one—providing elephants with a healthy, caring, elephant-first environment in which they can safely interact with human beings. During our day at the park, we were able to ride, feed, and bathe our elephants, all the while receiving a thorough education in what it means to care for nature’s gentlest giants.

Most of the elephants at this camp were rescued from Thailand’s waning logging industry where elephants have been traditionally used as beasts of burden. Due to this physically demanding occupation, these elephants are often in need of major care, and because of their domestication, have also become dependent upon human beings for their survival. The park attempts to provide the elephants that care minus the exploitative treatment so ubiquitous in other camps. You could perhaps say that while visitors in other camps are often unknowingly participating in the exploitation of their elephants, Phang Nga visitors are instead actively learning how not to exploit theirs.

The park is not perfect. Still in the nascent stages of its development, Phang Nga is temporarily dependent on contracts with private companies who bus in their tourists for brief ventures into the park. These for-profit companies continue to require saddles for the elephants rather than the more natural, bareback riding preferred by the park owners. Chains are still used as well. Limited space, human presence, and surrounding private lands create situations in which elephants cannot always roam freely. This is less than desirable, but also represents a necessary concession that the park needs to make as it continues to search for additional lands and funding in hopes of creating the most ethical elephant experience possible. Despite these shortcomings, the passion that park owner Jake and his several employees have for their elephants is undeniable. Their words reassure that they are doing the absolute best that they can with the resources they have, and that the well-being of their elephants is first and foremost in their hearts and minds.

The Phang Nga Elephant Park was not the only feel good tourism that we experienced in Southeast Asia. Public projects like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Killing Fields outside of Phnom Penh provided powerful educational experiences that provide all kinds of eye-opening knowledge and life-altering lessons, particularly for people who grew up in parts of the world where war and poverty are problems seen on TV. The most southern point of the island of Phuket prohibited certain vendors from its premises, allowing foreigners and locals alike to enjoy an unintrusive visit to one of Thailand’s most beautiful viewpoints. Many of the hostels and restaurants that we chose to patronize were not owned by Western chains that swipe away Eastern tourism dollars, but local small business owners who are able to earn an honest and respectable living by catering to their country’s visitors.

IMG_20160724_012427

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

IMG_0379

Lunch at Phuket’s most southern point

Still, being a responsible tourist is difficult. It’s hard to know where your dollars ultimately end up and who or what those dollars are ultimately supporting. We tried to be responsible and respectful tourists during our time in Southeast Asia, and at times we almost certainly failed. But at a place like the Phang Nga Elephant Park, that task became easy, at least for a day. Phang Nga shows what the tourism industry could be—not an adversarial showdown between two parties trying to make or save a buck, but a partnership in which both parties work together to achieve common goals and do something cool.

These are the kind of feel good experiences that should be sought by all travelers who carry with them a certain sense of responsibility as they move through the world. They help us to transcend our role as tourists and become contributors to the countries that contribute so much to us through the enlightening experiences that they provide. They allow us to work in cooperation with the people and wildlife in a particular corner of the planet in hopes of making that corner a better place. In turn, these experiences also follow us home and motivate us to do better in our own country in the ways that we treat our own people and wildlife in our part of the world. Phang Nga Elephant Park certainly provided this motivation for me and my crew, and if any of us ever find ourselves back in Phuket, we will almost certainly take advantage of their open invitation to return to the park free of charge and help to care for some of the most awesome creatures that walk the planet today. If you’re looking for a similar experience, perhaps for an extended period of time, keep reading below.

IMG_20160724_042155.jpg

*          *          *          *          *

Plug: Love animals and looking for a volunteer opportunity abroad??? Phang Nga Elephant Park might be exactly what you’re looking for. Click here to email owner Jake about a potentially cost-free volunteer opportunity at their eco-friendly elephant sanctuary and provide some care to creatures that need it. The elephants will appreciate you for it.

IMG_20160724_042917

Follow me on Twitter!!!

Standard