Category Archives: critical thinking

Blessing and Curse

13590396_656072581210333_1237927477030822866_nHonestly (and I know this was meant to be funny, but I can’t help it), I think it’s the latter. Humans in general, and Americans in particular, don’t have a great track record of being awesome in the aggregate, and despite what the Republicans will try to sell you, we’ve NEVER had our collective shit together.

I think of this the same way I think of illness; I am not sure we really DO have more incidents of cancer or heart disease per se…well, yes, I do; see processed foods and polluted air and water, but work with me for a second. What I’m getting at is that we have significantly better detection practices and can find those diseases sooner and better than we ever have before. More people have access to screenings so, naturally, we’re going to find more incidents of these problems.

The racism (and, worse, the violence it spawns) are NOT new nor, I think, is the prevalence of it. What IS new is our “detection practices.” Masses of people now have video cameras in their pockets that double as computers and mass communication devices. Now, instead of being a few column inches on page 9 of the local paper, the beatings/murders that happen in little towns and faraway places are being broadcast to the public across the country and the world. Think about it; unless you lived in the immediate neighborhood, would you EVER have heard about Treyvon if it hadn’t been for social media? Sanford is a nothing town in Florida. Neither party was famous (though shame on us for making Treyvon’s killer famous after the fact) or noteworthy in any way. There is no reason to think that we’d ever have heard about it. Sure, it would have been news in the greater Sanford area, but I, way up here in New England, would likely never have heard Treyvon’s name.

Social media is both a blessing and a curse. Blessing in that we get better access to more information (and it’s harder to keep shit from the public now, though a lot of it still manages to get quashed). Curse because any idiot with a smartphone can play; there’s no IQ or minimum decency requirement.

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If Not Me, Who?

I was born on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1969, the year after he was murdered in Memphis, so our lives never overlapped, not even a little.  Despite that, I’ve always felt a kind of kinship to the man; for as long as I’ve been aware of him (and I learned of Dr. King very early, sharing, as I do, a birthday with him), I’ve felt that something about his energy and mine resonates; that I carry, even if only a little, some of his legacy.

When I was about 6 or 7, the family lore goes, I made an offhand comment to the effect that I was sad that I was born when I was; my greatest regret is that I wasn’t born in time to march with Dr. King; though several friends have pointed out that one can’t regret something over which one has no control – like the timing of one’s birth – the fact remains that the feeling I have is best described as regret, so that’s what I’m running with.

I am an empath; I feel, deeply and profoundly.  I believe that others’ suffering – even if I have no tangible connection to it – makes my life less.  I believe that we are less free when others are oppressed.   I also believe that we are all made better when good is done, wherever and whenever it is done; that an act of kindness or compassion or mercy done anywhere makes us all a little bit better.

The last few years have been particularly difficult ones for empaths.  Sandy Hook.  Ferguson.  Charleston.  Beirut.  Nigeria.  Mali.  Iraq.  Turkey.   ISIS.  Boko Haram.  Al Qaeda.  Al-Shabaab.  Al-Nusra.  The Taliban.   Angry, frightened white men and racist police in this country (and that’s not even talking about governmental policies in this country that are specifically designed to disadvantage particular groups of people).

Seriously; it’s enough to make some of us feel like withdrawing from life altogether.  The amount of suffering we seem to delight in heaping on one another can feel overwhelming.

It occurred to me the other day, though, that I no longer have cause to regret being born when I was.  I may have come to this party too late to stand with Dr. King, but there is more than enough opportunity for me to carry that legacy in the here and now.

There’s not much I can practically do, really; I mean, I can donate to ethical causes and I can continue to support my local community, but in terms of big, sweeping gestures, I’m pretty limited (though I am doing some preliminary research into how my family can foster an unaccompanied refugee; more on that later).  Really though, the biggest things I can do are commit to my teaching practice and to continue to call out, unapologetically and loudly, all of the racist, xenophobic, jingoistic, hysterical bullshit whenever and wherever I see it.  I will NOT allow my silence to be mistaken for my agreement; I will NOT stand by while my brothers and sisters – ANY of my brothers and sisters – are denigrated, dehumanized, or oppressed.

I am one little voice, but I will continue to scream.  I am one little body, but I will continue to stand up.



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Quick Hit: Our Countrymen

This popped up on my facebook feed last night:



The caption on the photo goes like this:  The American Challenge
Many of you have done the Ice bucket challenge. Let’s see how many of you will do the American Challenge! You have 48 hrs to post a pic of yourself with an American flag, a Bible, and a gun or post on your timeline why you do not accept the American Challenge! Let’s show the world that we are PROUD AMERICANS

Not for nothing, this lovely example of American culture has adopted “Benghazi” as her middle name.  Kinda tells you all you need to know about her, huh?

I’m posting this because I want you all to remember that SHE VOTES; you can COUNT on that.  The mid-term elections are in 35 days (as of this writing).  We have two choices; we can continue to complain about people like Ms. Benghazi over here, or we can go and vote out of office the kind of elected officials who encourage (foment) this kind of dangerous, ignorant fuckery.

What’s it going to be?

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Filed under Civics on Saturday, critical thinking, doing my duty, dumbassery, politics, this is NOT a drill, Worries and Anxieties, WTF?!

The Equalizer

Seriously?  The best movie of its kind I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

Beyond the stellar performance of Denzel Washington (can this man do anything badly?), this was a really remarkable film.  It’s an action movie, make no mistake about that, but it’s an action movie that assumes its audience has a maturity level above that of your average 14-year-old boy.  The story takes its time developing, there are a number of subtle and nuanced details that, if one isn’t paying attention, can be easily overlooked (or misunderstood), and the character development is masterful.

Our hero is not a stereotype; we don’t get the exhaustive (and exhausting) back story that movies which don’t trust the intelligence of their audiences tend to beat to death.  We are given some time to get to know this man, and if we’re paying attention (and I was), we pick up on several subtle cues that give us some insight into what kind of man he really is.  His interactions with the people in his life, from his coworkers to the hooker who eats pie at the all-night diner he frequents, are genuinely caring; he’s patient, attentive, and generous with his time, though despite that, we can tell there’s more he’s holding back than he’s giving.

The event that pushes him “back” into a life he’d walked away from surprises both him and us, and his response to it reveals that he cares a lot more than he he is willing to initially credit himself for.  He’s not a man to do anything halfway; he’s observant, thoughtful, and deadly thorough (and demanding of himself; the one amusing quirk of timing his actions – and then being disappointed when he takes longer than he expects – speaks to his expectation of perfection in the execution of his missions).

Despite the presence of tattooed Russian mafia and dirty cops, the film doesn’t drop into the action flick tropes.  There’s no love interest in need of saving, there’s no sidekick who’s the brains of the operation, and the contact to whom our hero returns for information is a woman without the usual “I have something to prove” attitude (and her husband’s presence and demeanor may inspire another essay on the film all by himself).

If you like a smart action film, I cannot recommend this one highly enough.  It’ll be added to my personal library as soon as it’s out on DVD, and I can’t wait to see it again.

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We Create Reality with Our Words *Edited*

There is a saying attributed to the Buddha that says, “what you think, you become.”  The adage, as I understand it, is an effort to get people to realize that their attitudes, words, and behaviors actually create the environment we inhabit.

This is the idea that I’ve been circling around ever since this Duck Dynasty nonsense.  Leaving aside the nonsense part of it (and that part of it is impressive, to be sure), I am not willing, as some have suggested, to leave the entire thing be.  There is something ugly and pernicious at work here, and I think it’s something that bears further investigation.

Right off the bat, let’s settle that Phil Robertson is certainly entitled to his hateful opinions.  He is also entitled, thanks to the Constitution, to speak and write them, so let’s just dismiss those who are screaming that his First Amendment rights are being violated.  They’re not; if they were, he’d be in jail or facing some sort of legal prosecution, or his opinions would have been censored before they even hit the airwaves, the pages of GQ, or the internets.

No, the objection that I have to Phil Robertson’s comments is that, like so many others like him, he’s using his religion and his religious beliefs as an excuse to speak hateful things about others.  He, like so many others like him, present as gospel (no pun intended; that’s what I really mean) the idea that there are people who are “less than.”

So many people – a startling number of them, in fact – have come rushing to his defense, claiming that he “grew up in another era” or that his religious beliefs somehow justify the stances he takes.  “He’s just speaking his beliefs; he has the right to do that.”

Yes, he does, and the rest of us have the right to call bullshit on his matter-of-fact, this-is-just-how-I-see-it, it’s-in-the-Bible bigotry.

Let’s be clear; neither your religious beliefs nor your age excuse your hatred and small-mindedness.  Allowing this sort of “boys will be boys” mentality to serve as a pass for despicable behavior is a surefire way to ensure that the despicable behavior continues.  If it continues, it will escalate; there are any number of people who are perfectly willing to take this “homosexuals are sinners” trope to the final, horrifying conclusion.


History – even recent history – is rife with examples of a belief taken as a justification for discrimination, torment, and murder.  I can post any number of images from all over the world that will demonstrate, in living color, the atrocities that are visited on real people by those who believe, with all their hearts, that they persecute those others in the name of some holy edict.

THIS is why I’m not willing to dismiss this.  When we say “it’s okay” for people to spout this kind of stuff, we say it’s okay for people to put those attitudes into practice.

I’m no longer wading into the Duck Dynasty melee.  It’s too close to Christmas for me to get worked up over that much stupid and ugly; I have much more important and joyful things to do with my energy.  I couldn’t let this pass, though, without reminding some folks that all our great human suffering begins with words that “other” people.  Jews, American blacks, Hutus and Tutsis, Native Americans, Roma, Armenians, gays; every people which has ever been targeted began their nightmare as the subject of a systematic program of othering by a majority party.  The only way we can destroy another person is if we first succeed in convincing ourselves that they’re not really a person at all.  Comments, particularly off-the-cuff, “I’m just speaking about my religious belief” comments, help create an environment that enables that dehumanization.

There are a number of great quotes about refusing to stand quietly by while this sort of thing happens, but I think my favorite was penned by Elie Wiesel, a man who survived a concentration camp and who exhorts us to never forget how awful we can be to one another:

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

*Edited to include this, which was posted on a facebook wall:

1474538_642872225777335_1744684980_nThe things people say DO matter.


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Pervasive Awareness

Quick back story: Bean is a member of the high school’s art club.  Every year, the club takes a trip (some years, they even get to Europe!  She’s got four years to see if that trip comes around again).  This year, they’re going on a sort of art tour of western Massachusetts and eastern New York, and she really, really wants to go.

Her problem is that the trip costs 150 bucks.

I told her that if she were willing to go above and beyond the (admittedly meager) chores she does every day, I’d pay her for her time.  I offered $10 an hour and told her that the money she earns can ONLY go toward the trip, and she readily agreed.

This afternoon, while she was dusting, Bean and her sister were having a conversation about this arrangement.  Bean noted that she was being paid well above the federal minimum wage, and Punk pointed out that, because she was being paid “under the table,” she was making out even better.  “Your paycheck would have taxes taken out,” she observed, “so you’re making WELL above what someone making minimum wage at, say, McDonald’s brings home.”

It should be noted here than neither child has ever held a “paycheck” job.  They’re getting all of this from being backseat NPR hostages, from our dinner table conversations, and from listening in while we watch Rachel Maddow.

I explained to the girls that while Punk was technically correct, most people who make minimum wage don’t make enough to pay federal income tax (and there’s no state income tax where we live), so they’d be getting that money back at tax time, though they would still have to pay social security and unemployment taxes.

That led to a conversation about the kinds of things that people who make minimum wage – or just above it- don’t get to do.  They talked about food stamps and free school lunches, and about the idea that those parents certainly can’t send their kids on art club field trips.

Sometimes, I worry that my privileged kids don’t understand enough about how money works, or have sufficient empathy for those whose lives are harder than theirs.  I’m feeling a little less anxious about that now; listening to my children discuss the very real economic realities that too many people face has shown me that, at least on an intellectual level, they really do get it.


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I Am a Non-Believer

So, I went to church today.

I KNOW, RIGHT?!  It freaked me out, too.

The reason I went is because Martin (you remember Martin, right?) was invited to speak at my in-laws’ church this morning on the theme of reconciliation for the occasion of Veterans’ Day.  He had tipped me off about the gig when I emailed him a love note a week or so ago, so I got a sub for my yoga class, put on a skirt, and for the first time in my adult life, went willingly to a Sunday service so I could be there to support my friend.

The Earth did not tremble.  The maw of Hell did not open to swallow me whole.  I did not spontaneously combust.

I KNOW!  I’m a little surprised, too!

I DID leave the experience with a fair bit to think about, however, and I’m going to try to render some of that thinking here.

Here’s the thing; I love the idea of community.  I love the idea that people can come together and fill in each others’ gaps, or hold one another up, or challenge one another to their best and most authentic selves.  I love the kinds of communities that band together to do good; the ones that see a deficiency or a need and pool their resources – their money, their talent, their time – to address those shortcomings as best they can.  I like communities that are inclusive and welcoming and accepting.

My in-laws’ church is like that, and though my husband has told me that it hasn’t always been so (there was a fire-and-brimstone pastor who scared the shit out of him as a kid), it has been mostly lovely since well before Mr. Chili and I were married (Mother and Father Chili wished for us to be wed in their church and, since the pastor at the time was the aforementioned inclusive and welcoming and accepting – not to mention kind and lovely and funny – I agreed.  That was the first time in my adult life I went willingly to church on a Saturday, in case you were wondering).

Sitting in the Chili pew this morning (yes; they have a pew), I remember thinking that while there was nothing that was specifically offensive to me as a non-believer, I was still a little weirded out by the message that was being subtly sent that the REASON these people are lovely and welcoming and accepting is because GOD DEMANDS IT, and while they never actually said those words in that way, the implication that there is a mandate that originates outside of ourselves to be generous and kind was pretty clear.

This is not a new concept for me.  I’ve been told plenty of times that people are good because it’s what their god requires of them; in fact, this is a direct quote someone said (well, wrote) to me just recently:

“I love other people, my neighbors in a global sense, because God calls me to” (emphasis mine).

I think that this is part of where some of the mistrust of believers toward non-believers comes from.  I don’t NEED a god to tell me how to treat people, and I wonder if those who feel they do don’t understand how someone can be the originator of their own compassion.  I don’t NEED to fear a divine punishment (or seek a divine reward) to be a good person.  My morality is centered on my humanity and my capacity for empathy; it is not driven by a desire for Heaven or a fear of Hell, and it is certainly not based on the edicts of an ancient text which contradicts itself more than it makes sense.

For the most part, the service was lovely.  I don’t really feel a need for the ceremony, but I suppose I don’t begrudge the people who do.  I do think that the service would have been more lovely, however, if we’d been able to leave the idea of a supernatural, external influence out of it.  How about we take ownership of our own behavior?  How about we accept that we ARE strong enough, kind enough, and compassionate enough to take good care of one another; we don’t NEED a god to tell us to be those things because we’re completely capable of doing them on our own.  Reliance on an external force feels weak to me – and emotionally and intellectually dishonest – and even though the people in the elder Chilis’ church have never given me any reason to mistrust their motives, I really do wish that we as a species could finally figure out how to evolve enough to grow beyond what I see as an almost compulsive need for religion.



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