Sunday, August 31, 2008

Responsibility, Compassion, Justice…and the Shopping Cart

In his 1845 The Conditions of the Working Class, Friedrich Engels observes that Londoners have devolved from a cohesive society into individuals; that change, he notes, is most notable on the city streets, where Londoners fail to even make eye contact with one another. Such apathy, passivity, and ignorance about one’s fellow human tends to breed, I would argue—following Engels, injustice because they allow us to pretend that we have the right to more because we are inherently better than the other guy. In order to seek justice, we must recognize one another not only as individual humans (compassion), but as members of a society (responsibility). And today’s society is pretty big; it includes, as Thomas Friedman points out in his The Lexus and the Olive Tree, a web of nation-states, international markets, and individuals. Necessary changes are, consequently, generational, not immediate. Indeed, therein lies the problem for many of us—justice has rather limited opportunities for instant gratification.

So I offer a small place to start. Whether you call them buggies, carts, baskets, or another regionally associated name that I have not run across, you may have noticed their unfortunate inability to get themselves safely out of the parking lot. Instead, they run with the changing winds across the lots and, often, into a car. Carts are, indeed, a restless and untrustworthy lot.

The easy fix is to put them away when you finish. Oh, but what about the other guy? You know who I mean, right? He or she drives a car better than your own and appears far more entertained by the Blackberry-in-palm than concerned for the safety of the cars that remain in the lot after he or she departs the scene. Put that cart away too, maybe without the silent slandering of the person who did not do so. Corral getting full because the carts are pushed in willy-nilly? Give two minutes of your time to straighten them out, so all comers will have space. You could save someone a significant dent in his or her car.

How does putting a shopping cart away change the world? Alone, it might not, but putting away mine is an acknowledgment of my responsibility: I borrowed the cart and am now returning it to ensure that someone else has access and that said ill-controlled cart will not be marauding about the parking lot. Taking on the responsibility of someone else’s cart, especially if done without judgment (oh, the challenge), is an act of compassion—both for the person who may have gotten a life-changing phone call (how are we to know, after all?) and the people whose cars cannot protect themselves from wind-driven carts.

Each act of responsibility and compassion moves us toward justice, which seeks to treat all of humankind equally, irrespective of place in a given power structure. Justice erodes abusive hierarchies that rely on violence, stratification, and collective passivity. So, be active—do something—even something as apparently insignificant as putting away shopping carts. Then, do something else--perhaps in support of equal rights, voter access, funding for the mentally ill, sustainable farming, direct trade, or any number of other “big ticket” world changing/justice-seeking movements. Or, find other small places to work. Wherever your ethics lead you, start somewhere and develop the habits of responsibility, compassion, and justice.

As one of my heroes recently asked about himself, am I being “too hippie” in thinking we can change the world? I don’t think so, but his remark made me wonder something. What does hippie mean now, and when did it become synonymous with something unreachable or, often, negative?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Circle is Everything

I ask your forgiveness, for I seem to be channelling Darby Crash right now.

I am also channelling my inner Scott Wieland today, apparently. At least, my inner Scott Wieland when he's channelling Clint Eastwood. I was not aware that I had an inner Scott Wieland, and I am a tad disturbed to discover this, but if I had the hat and the facial hair, that would be me today, poncho and all.

I am not, sadly, saving the fallen angel nor driving fast in the desert with Duff (who is channelling his inner David Bowie), but I got the outfit, man.


So, back to the title. During my interview today, I realized that for all my web metaphors about my leadership style, it all comes down to circles. And I tend to talk in circles, which is another post and another problem altogether. I see the world in a series of interconnected circles--layers of connectivity.

Crash remarked on occasion, that the circle was everything. Indeed, the Germs' symbol was a blue circle (to say nothing of the Germs Burn). I can't lay my hands on the Crash bio right now (nor any of my Germs Albums and liner there a Germs vortex forming?), so I can't quote him at the moment, unfortunately. We're all connected; we are all responsible, then, for one another, as well as ourselves. Ignore his support of fascism for a moment; I disagree with his nihilistic view of humanity needing a single, strong, charismatic leader in control.

I work for a system that "works" as a top-down hierarchy model. The Chancellor dictates, and the schools react. Or, the Gov dictates and the chancellor and system react. Who acts as the catalyst for the reaction depends on the crisis du jour, really. Anyway, the model, for all the good it might do is relatively authoritarian (hence reaction instead of action), and somehow it manages to mismanage even this. System schools are not directed, for instance, to stop protecting their turf and work together. A top-down directive could and should make such collaboration more feasible.

But, what if the system imagined itself as a circle, with all the parts connected? The schools forming the points of contact for the spokes around, say, the Chancellor. Everyone is on equal footing, whether a R1 University or an Access Institution. And everyone works toward a single, common goal. Maybe education--students--should be our imagined center, if not the actual seat of information (which is what would exist in the center).

Eh, perhaps I am feeling a bit more nihilistic than I give myself credit for; I'm having to work to keep up the idealism that we're all in this system for the common good.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Musings On Education, Duff Style

You didn't really think I'd managed to dismiss my favorite topic, did you?

So, Duff blogged on VR's show in Dubai for Seattle Weekly.

Give him a read; it's interesting stuff, especially if you tend toward the idealistic, which, of course, I do. He dances around the notion that music is an "international language," which I generally disagree with, but I think he modifies sufficiently--the desire to be engaged by music--whatever that music might be--is the international language. I can go along with that.

And, bless him, he nails the description of addiction-fueled paranoia, even after 14 years clean:

Before leaving the U.S., I feared they could have found some 15-year-old bundle of drugs lost in a dark recess of a coat pocket of mine (truth be told, because of this type of paranoia, I discarded all my old luggage and most of my old[but killer] rock clothing).

Seriously. When you spend enough time blacked out, you really can't lay any claim to knowing what the hell you did and where the hell you put something. Wonder, though, if he kept the pimp jacket. Worst part of the first read of his blog? Realizing that I was thinking late 80's for 15 years, it was 1993. Criminey.

But, as a fellow idealist, I have to say my favorite moment is this one:

C’mon people now, smile on your brother—oh yeah, fuck that, it’s a new millennium (read Thomas Friedman’s Longitudes and Attitudes to really bum yourself out on this particular subject).

I have always tried to let my faith in humankind guide me when it comes time for decisions and options in life. Sure, I’ve been screwed a few times because of it, but more often than not this guidance system has strengthened my belief that mostly everyone is born with a ton of good in them, and that it’s not until much later that things like greed and power dilute members of our species into an almost unrecognizable mask of darkness and rage. I am not going to say “no” to playing Dubai or anywhere else because of political or religious beliefs, etc. I believe I can actually do more good by seeing what’s indeed happening than by just sitting back here in the good old U.S.A., safe, protected, and spoon-fed hogwash on the nightly news. Fuck that! I’m going…

First, holy cow...he writes just like he talks, save for the pauses, book references and all. And it works!

Second, yes, we do need to reduce our collective paranoia about our fellow humans. And travel, so says the somewhat Candide-obsessed professor, is the best sort of education. Learning inside four walls is all well and good, but learning in the world and being of the world is often so much more valuable. Travel. Talk. Ask questions without looking for the answer, as if there is only one. Watch the hogwash, if only to know what your co-workers might be spewing, but watch it with a critical eye. What story is being told behind the words the newscaster is choosing?

Leave the safety of the confines of your own brain, for heaven's sake. We don't have to be safe 100% of the time; in fact, elaborate security and heedless protectionism are apt to breed neurotics, and we certainly have done so if my wonderful, if nervous, students are any indication.

I just realized something; Duff reminds me of Candide (or vice versa) in some ways. There's an analysis for you. *snort* I am so going to write about that.

Yeah, so, I agree with him...Fuck that. I'm going. Where? Anywhere--just to see, ask, taste, touch, and be something, someone, somewhere other. In so doing, I can learn about people and places that I know nothing of right now, and I can experience the wonderful (if a bit naive) feeling of interconnectivity of all of humankind.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

This I Believe

In my continuing quest to prove that I do in fact make myself do the same activities I thrust upon my composition students, I share with you my "This I Believe" essay. I make my freshman comp students write this essay every semester. This one is mine; well, one of mine. Maybe I'll post others later.

Here's the rules from NPR for those interested.

And, here’s my essay.

Am I Just?

I believe in justice. I don’t mean this in the legal sense, wherein the justice we claim to seek is too often conflated with revenge. In fact, I believe that justice and revenge have nothing to do with each other. Rather, I take my meaning from Coetzee’s question in Waiting for the Barbarians: “Justice: once that word is uttered, where will it all end? Easier to shout No! Easier to be beaten and made a martyr” (2843). His point is simple: the martyr doesn’t have to live with the changes he or she dies for; a just man must live with whatever ends come—and then keep working toward justice, which is less and endpoint than a continuum a journey.

A friend and minister once suggested that Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” was, in the end, about the cause of justice. Love your neighbor as yourself. We are all equal in the eyes of God. Judge not lest you be judged. He continued the discussion by asking of Adolf Hitler; how do we “judge him not?” How do I view a reviled historical figure with compassion? Justice and compassion come hand in hand and have little to do with forgiveness or revenge. I can have compassion by recognizing anyone’s humanity and not, say, reducing Hitler to a mere monster (who is therefore not like us). Like The Blob or Freddy Krueger, Hitler is frightening, but most of us readily identify him as something abnormal—not like us. Hitler is too easy to dismiss.

What about ourselves?

I know oppression when it happens to me, and I rise against it, but, as Craig O’Hara suggests in his Philosophy of Punk, “people have too often woken up to their own suffering while still remaining ignorant to the suffering of others” (23). When faced with another’s oppression what do I do? Do I rise up on their behalf, even if it threatens my own comfort? Do I fight with an eye toward choosing to live with the changes the struggles bring, or do I act in half-measures (which are never enough)? The just person must recognize his or her own humanity and be willing not only to fight for that of others but take the responsibility of living with the changes that necessarily come alongside justice.

I believe that working for legal, social, racial, religious, marital, and class (to name a few)equality acts in support of justice. I believe that justice must be the frame of the world, and that it exists in selflessness; I am not just if I think only of my self, my happiness, my pain, and my current beliefs. Whose rights I am defending is not mine to judge. What is “just” is not, then, a question of what I stand to gain or protect by defending those who cannot or will not defend themselves or joining in the defense of those who are, but what does humanity stand to lose if I do not?

Works Cited
Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. Norton Anthology of English Literature.
O’Hara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk. San Francisco, AK Press, 1999.