Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Rabbit Hole

When my car was stolen, I was tempted to take a baseball bat and go find the person responsible and break both of his kneecaps. I imagined myself dressed in camo, wearing a blond mullet wig, and storming into the thief-dudes house like Dog the Bounty Hunter and scaring him right back into his tenth grade classroom. It is easy to be angry. How effortlessly does rage come upon us in a situation when we feel it necessary to find someone to blame? We are all human after all. Revenge is a natural form of self-preservation—an extension upon our natural instinct to defend ourselves from harm. What does this rage accomplish in an age of security systems and deadbolts though? Does it repair the thirty ruined CDs that thief-dude so callously tossed around the car like Frisbees and grinded into the mess of spilled soda, calcified french fries, and dirt on my floor mats? Does it reduce my $1000 deductible? No. So, I no longer pray for the demise of thief-dude. I understand that there were many unfortunate events in his life that led him to my car on that unusually warm October afternoon. I understand that if our childhoods were reversed, I’d probably be stealing cars and ditching school (I’m sure I’d have a raging meth addiction as well). Because of this understanding, I have forgiven thief-dude.

Most of my empathy is a result of my experiences in education. As a teacher, I witness unthinkable irresponsibility and selfishness on a daily basis. In order to keep hold of my cherished sanity, I must believe in the innate goodness of mankind. I must believe that even the worst of students can be reached. Even Rush Limbaugh had a soul once. People can find the compassionate voice that the capitalistic hum silenced long ago. It is possible. And I witness this on a daily basis as well.

My students are just begging for something to believe in. They want so badly to be opened up to any alternative to the cutthroat bottom line existence of their mothers and fathers. They are screaming inside for a promise that doesn’t involve a cubicle and a computer. And for the kids living in poverty, it is amazing to see them on the edge of their seats when I suggest anything other than the traditional you-can-do-anything-if-you-put-your-mind-to it cliché that they long ago identified as bullshit. It is natural for people to want an opportunity to do something that important—something that can make the world a better place (And no, becoming a millionaire or a movie star is not important, nor is it meaningful). The models of success in America today just don’t provide the types of purposeful options that appeal to teenagers. Don’t get me wrong, there are many opportunities to change and affect the world out there, but between CNN’s 24 hour coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, MTV’s devotion to programs like My Super Sweet Sixteen, and the models of leadership at the highest levels of government, kids today just aren’t aware that they exist. And the result is predictable—we have a generation whose main tool of rebellion is apathy.

So I try my best to show them these windows into the truth of the world. I teach them that everything they have learned is wrong. I teach them that they need to reexamine every truth outlined for them by their preachers, their parents, and their teachers. I teach my tenth graders to question everything and learn the truth for themselves instead of mindlessly swallowing the nonsense spoon-fed to them by people whose only interest is to take advantage of their ignorance and to keep them in line. I do this not because everything they know is a lie, but because it shows them the power of critical thinking (and because they do find that many of the things they have been taught are false). Most importantly, I teach them this so they learn how to identify the destructive myths they are living and stop living the ones they do not agree with.

Ah…the power of education—but how do we, as adults already trapped in the monotonous cages of capitalism, educate ourselves in a world filled with so much misinformation? I know it’s hard to find time to read anything not written by Dan Brown or endorsed by the Oprah Book Club. I know we’re all busy watching two hour episodes of 24 and researching for the upcoming fantasy baseball draft. You are not a bad person because you like to watch Jack Bauer rip someone’s jugular out with his teeth every once in a while. I refuse to feel guilty for these things.

Luckily for our languid generation, the art of documentary filmmaking has become one of the most popular forums for the sharing all of the controversial, oft-censored or conveniently overlooked information out there. The following are a list of my favorite documentaries. Films I guarantee will change the way you look at yourself, your country, and your planet. Watch at your own risk. These films can open the window of critical thought inch by inch. Once you crack that window open, I encourage you to do exactly what I encourage my students to do, question everything you see. Look up the statistics. Read the criticism. Educate yourself! But be careful. Once you begin down the rabbit hole, it’s hard not to get lost. And when you return your entire world may look differently.


1. An Inconvenient Truth

This Academy Award nominated documentary provides a glimpse into the dangers we face if we continue to deny our impact on the current trends of global warming. Al Gore outlines the issue in a very user-friendly way. The film is free of jargon and easy to follow. Gore keeps your interest by including powerful images of the very real and immediate impact we are having on the planet. He fearlessly delves into the urgency of our irresponsible lifestyles, identifies the reasons we have let it get to this point, and provides hope for the future if we act now. Everyone with a soul owes it to their children to watch this film.

This documentary will change the way you look at our impact on the environment.


2. The Corporation
With interviews from over 40 corporate insiders and critics, this film sets out with the ambitious task of exploring the dark corners of the most powerful institution in the history of the world. The film begins with the early 20th century interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that gave the corporation the status and legal rights of a "person". As the film explores the rise of the pride of American capitalism, it asks the question, "What type of a person is the corporation?" The answers to this question are nothing short of disturbing. Today, the corporation as infiltrated every corner of America, from our government to our schools.

After we read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, my tenth grade students debate the implications of absolute power without boundary or remorse. I encourage you to do the same.
_____________________________________________________________________ 3. Why We Fight

On January 17th, 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his farewell speech to the nation. He chose to focus on what he believed to be the biggest threat to the principles of our democracy. He begins by recalling that "[America's] basic purposes have been to keep the peace, to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity, and integrity among peoples and among nations." He continues by reminding the country that "any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension, or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt, both at home and abroad." Eisenhower then warns that we must we must "guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex, and adds that "the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

Guess what? Eisenhower was right about the persistence of this industry, and his darkest fears have come true.

The "military-industrial
complex" is the subject of the documentary Why We Fight. The film, using Eisenhower's speech as a backdrop, explores the collusion between the government and private arms manufacturers that exists today. The frightening answer to the question proposed in the title is outlined in agonizing detail.

This documentary is not for the weak hearted. Watch at your own risk and prepare to be shocked.
Other excellent documentaries I don't have the time to explain

4. Bowling for Columbine
5. The Future of Food
  • Subject: What's in the food we eat; the crazy world of genetic engineering; Monsanto's frightening attempt to buy the rights to our genes
  • Website
  • Quicktime trailer
6. Juvies
  • Subject: Juveniles tried as adults; our twisted system of punishment without rehabilitation; why are jails are overcrowded and our streets are filled with crime
  • Website
  • Trailer (Click on preview)
7. What the Bleep Do We Know!?
  • Subject: Quantum Physics and how we control our personal reality; complicated physics breakthroughs that will blow your mind explained in simple way.
  • Website
  • Trailer

I tried to pick documentaries that would cover a wide range of topics that many different people might be interested in. There were several more that I left off because I have been at this for about three hours and I'm hungry. I'll be sure to add more in future posts. I hope some of these films inspire you to become a more active citizen and critical thinker. Let me know what you think.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Our Protest

In 1970, Howard Zinn (my personal hero) and one hundred others were arrested for sitting in the middle of a road at the Boston Army Base and blocking "the road used by buses carrying draftees off to military duty." The judge found them guilty and sentenced him and eight others who refused to pay to two days in jail. They were given forty-eight hours to reconsider and pay the fine. Zinn did not reconsider, and he didn't show up after forty-eight hours. Instead, he flew to Baltimore to debate the war at Johns Hopkins (The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press, 1997).

The following is an excerpt from the opening statement of that debate. It can also be found in The Zinn Reader. He spoke these words twenty-seven years ago, but just like most other things in this foul year of 2007 when compared to the late sixties and early seventies, they ring just as true today. I want to include them before I begin posting so that those who decide to read this blog will know the direction of my thoughts.

I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong, that the wrong people are in jail, that the wrong people are in power and the wrong people are out of power, that the wealth is distributed in this country and the world in such a way as not simply to require small reform but to require a drastic reallocation of wealth. I start from the supposition that we don't have to say too much about this because all we have to do is think about the state of the world today and realize that things are all upside down.

Zinn goes on to give examples of thwarted protests and jailed protesters and of the war criminals allowed to continue the course of their unjust war. Today, we still have the war criminals, but where is the dissent? Where are the protesters? Where are all of the people who care?

If you take a close look at the parallels between the current Iraq war and the war in Vietnam, you may start to believe your a part of some twisted historical/sociological experiment gone wrong. Could Orwell have written of a more ass-backwards plot of perfect symmetry? Everything is there, from the misinformation campaign to start the war, to the denial that plagues every speech made to the American public as the war continues to rage. Communists are now Terrorists, and The Soviet Union is now Anycountryharboringterrorists.

There is no denying that Bush drank from the same cup as those who orchestrated the war in Vietnam. There is one striking difference though. As that cup was passed down the presidential line, they learned from their mistakes in Vietnam. But, instead of learning what they should have learned about the horrifying consequences of unjust and unjustified wars, they learned that the only way to pacify the public is to control the media. In Vietnam, there were no protests until the media began to uncover the horrors of what was going on over there. They showed pictures of the carnage and wrote stories about the numbers of casualties. They questioned the government. They did their job. And people responded. And the war was ended.

Today, the media is spoon-fed every sound bite and leaked every bottom line. They spin the facts to paint whatever picture gets them the most ratings. They are controlled by money and a carefully worded agenda. And instead of an outraged public, we have an apathetic one. Instead of activism, we have a couch, a remote control, and a three hours of mindless indifference. We are fed up with news stations that devote twenty-four hours to hearing themselves talk. We're so fed up that we have decided to stage a protest. Only, this one is much different than those of the sixties and seventies. We protest by not paying attention. Not voting. Not caring. And just like during Vietnam, we are sending a message with our protest. But, this message does more to start wars than to end them.

They're All Gonna Laugh at Me!

Last night, my mother got the family together for my younger sister's birthday (she's 23) and I found myself rambling on and on about everything from CFL light bulbs to the misinformation campaign that got us into Iraq, and I realized that I am so desperately starved for a place to debate, I have resorted to my mom's dinner table. Now, there's nothing wrong with having a spirited discussion at the same table upon which, twelve years ago, your mother dumped a shopping bag full of pot paraphernalia she found in your top dresser drawer, but there has to be a healthier place to vent. Later on in the night, as I contemplated the reasons for my existence, I realized that I have to get some things out of my head before I have an aneurysm or throw a student out the classroom window or crane-kick a republican.

My conundrum is pretty simple. I can't disclose my political beliefs to my students because their parents would go to my boss and cry about the crazy-hippie-liberal teacher corrupting their poor children's minds and making them, of all things, think critically! And they'd fire my ass. I can't discuss matters of political importance with most of my friends because the last thing they want is to listen to another one on my rants on a Friday night when they there's a hockey game on. I can't talk to my colleagues because most of them are old and bitter and shouldn't be teaching anyway, and the younger teachers are so overwhelmed with grading and classroom management, that they can't talk about anything but school. I can talk about things with my wife, but the problem with finding someone perfect for you is that you have such common beliefs, it's more or less like preaching to the choir. And she has a life, and entertaining another one of my psychotic tirades is not always on the top of any of her seven to do lists.

So, here I am. I've tried this before, twice, both times resulted in my entire posts being deleted because I was too stupid to figure out how to post them. Deep down, I know I subconsciously deleted them in fear that everyone was going to laugh at my feeble attempt to record the incoherent thoughts that go through my head. My goal, wake up every Saturday morning, put on my sweet blue robe and Homer Simpson slippers, take four Excedrins for my hangover-induced migraine, and write all of the things that I didn't have a chance to say to my brainwashed and cultureless tenth graders throughout the week. We'll see how it goes.