Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Finding Our Muchness

Nearly 150 years ago, a mathematics professor began telling a series of stories to some children. This is a common occurrence that has happened countless times before and since. But there was something different about these stories. Something special enough that the professor, Charles Dodgson, compiled the tales of his Alice into two novels – Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Although the stories were designed to delight and amuse children, there's always been something deeper about them. Through puns and rhymes and utter nonsense, Lewis Carroll creates a world that makes sense, even if the world itself is nonsensical. Hidden gems of truth about time, wanting, and self-knowledge crop up among grinning cats and playing cards painting flowers.

Although decades have passed and times continue to change drastically, the fascination with Wonderland remains. The stories have been adapted into countless movies, incorporated into clothing, and influenced themes in restaurants.

Still, even the greatest story can only be rehashed so many times before it grows stale. This, combined with the intense love people have for the story, has resulted in dozens of new takes on Wonderland. Video games, books, even zombie stories, have all been made using Carrol's themes and characters.

Often, such as in Gregory Maguire's new book After Alice, these retellings focus on the visual themes of cards and teacups, or the obvious use of absurdity. But on several occasions, artists have hit upon that deeper layer of Wonderland, the layer that I think is what keeps drawing us back to this tale through the years.

There is something about Alice's curiosity that is a form of intense bravery. There is something about the characters that hint at heroism, though it is almost impossible to define. Some of my favourite interpretations of Alice in Wonderland are those that latch onto that heroism and expand it. The two examples that most readily come to mind are SyFy's Alice, from 2009, and the 2010 Alice in Wonderland Disney film by Tim Burton.

In both of those adaptations, Alice is a powerful young woman who has trouble finding herself, and finding a place where she belongs. This theme is illustrated in the original books as well. Her adventures in Wonderland teach her valuable lessons about herself and help her "regain her muchness", as Johnny Depp's portrayal of the Mad Hatter would say.

Ah, yes. The Hatter. His development is one that holds great fascination for me. Since the original stories, the Mad Hatter has always, of course, been mad. But the modern adaptations that have come to mean so much to me paint his madness in a very different light. The Hatter is unique, quirky, fun-mad. But all is not well in the land of Wonderland. In two very different ways, these adaptations show a Wonderland rife with conflict brought about by the tyranny of the Queen of Hearts. The Hatter finds himself in the midst of the struggle, and his loveable madness becomes something darker, mixed with determination and pain. In SyFy’s Alice, the Hatter plays both sides of the conflict in an effort to save himself, until a girl named Alice shows up and turns his life on its head, along with the rest of Wonderland. In the Burton movie, the horrors of war have twisted Hatter’s already unbalanced mind, driving him to wild mood swings. Still, when conflict arises, he pulls himself from his madness and protects his friends. Though both of these adaptations represent the Mad Hatter in very different ways, they both paint him as a powerful figure who protects his friends and stands up to corruption, using his clever madness as an asset.

It is perhaps that last point that is the strongest part of Wonderland, the elusive power that draws in followers over generations. Using clever madness as an asset. We live in a world where conformity is central to society. Children are taught in school to act and think a certain way. Young people grow up with the wish of having a house and a white picket fence and a dog, because we are taught that that is what success looks like. Others rebel against this notion and form their own subcultures, which end up being just another type of conformity.

One of the most commonly quoted phrases from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the Cheshire Cat’s line, “We’re all mad here.” But the important part of this passage is actually what comes after it. The Cat continues, saying, “I’m mad. You’re mad.”  Alice protests the Cat’s assertion, asking, “How do you know I’m mad?” The Cheshire Cat explains, “You must be, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Lewis Carroll himself was a socially awkward man who struggled to fit in with his peers. The central character in the stories he created, Alice, is a little girl with an enormous imagination. Alice has little concept of what she “ought” to do; she is simply fascinated by the world around her, however strange that alternate universe may be. She knows that she is growing and changing as she journeys through Wonderland, but she does not concern herself about how she is supposed to change. Alice is a unique child, but she does not see or define herself that way. She just is what she is, something that is increasingly rare in our world of labels.

The point that Carroll is making with the Cheshire Cat’s explanation is his justification for nonconformity. Not everyone could, like Alice, follow a White Rabbit and end up falling through a portal to another world. Individual thought, uniqueness, “madness”, if you will, is a powerful positive attribute. In Wonderland, a Hatter can be a madman or a hero or both, and a little girl can recite poetry with a caterpillar and talk down to an evil queen.

This essay was prompted by my overwhelming excitement about the release of the Tim Burton film Alice Through the Looking Glass, which opened in theatres over Memorial Day weekend. Personally, I enjoyed the film. I encourage everyone to go see it themselves and draw their own conclusions. But whether you enjoy it or not, it proves the power that Wonderland still holds on people, enough for major companies like Disney and major names in film like Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to invest vast quantities of time and money to make their mark on the fantasy world.

I believe that Wonderland can mean different things to different people, depending on what each person needs to find. It is much more than teacups and talking cats. It is a story of bravery and exploration and self-discovery. And for those of us who have found meaning in the riddles and mystery of Wonderland, the stories of Alice will always be there to remind us of our Muchness.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Je Suis Paris- Mourning a Tragedy While Promoting Peace

In light of Friday’s horrible violence, hearts and minds around the world are turned toward Paris. Like the September 11th attacks in America, this is a night that will change the way many countries look at the world, politics, and national security.

As with any crisis, there are positive ways to handle the situation- strategies to help victims, protect civilians, or prevent future attacks. There are also bad ways, which propagate fear and violence and don’t actually solve anything. It is vitally important that world leaders handle the tragedy of tonight in a positive way. It is also just as important that average civilians approach the situation in a positive way, even those of us who are an ocean away and have no way to actually help.

My Facebook news feed was almost immediately filled with people saying that this is proof that Christians must take a stand against Muslims, or that this is evidence that allowing Syrian refugees into the country is opening the door for terror attacks. On Twitter, the hashtag #AvengeParis is trending; when I last checked, it was trending higher than #Prayers4Paris.

I’m heartbroken by the events of Friday and shocked at some of these reactions. I feel the need to take a moment to reflect on these concerns:

*We must remember that these actions, though conducted by Islamic extremists, are not indicative of the mindset of Muslim people. In the same way that the Westboro Baptist Church does not adequately represent Christianity, acts of violence committed by Islamic terrorists do not represent Islam. Unfortunately, it is the squeaky wheel, the outspoken ones, the people who do shocking things to get attention, who are noticed and perceived as the face of the group that they so inadequately represent.

*Calls to protect people are absolutely necessary. Calls to #AvengeParis are how hate crimes happen. The saying “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” seems an appropriate rebuttal to this hashtag. Whatever actions are taken in pursuit of vengeance will incite the victims of those actions to seek vengeance of their own. It is a vicious cycle of violence

*Long before yesterday, people have been discussing the possibility of ISIS terrorists infiltrating countries by coming in as refugees. Is this a possibility? Yes. But it means only that any refugees must be screened before entry, which I assume is done to some degree anyway. It is also important to remember that terrorists come from many countries, not only war-torn ones. ISIS has been known to convert people in many Western countries, including France. The question of whether or not to accept refugees is a multifaceted challenge, not something to be immediately dismissed out of fear.

*Additionally, we must consider that further alienation of innocent refugees risks engendering radicalization among its populations and communities. The hallmark of a successful multicultural society is the ability for immigrants to feel connected to their native traditions, while still feeling a sense of belonging in their home country. By painting all Syrian refugees as part of the problem, or somehow complicit in these horrible attacks, people are widening the gap between the Syrian migrants and their new homeland’s national culture and life. This forces them to become a society outside the multicultural community in which they are trying to belong, and increases the probability that some within that community will grow to resent and wish to take action against their new country.

*The Syrian refugees who left their homes to find safety and a new life in Paris are just as terrified as the other citizens are- possibly more so. I personally know a family of refugees from Croatia who arrived in America on September 10th, 2001. On their first morning in a new country, where they had come to start over, far away from war and violence, they turned on their televisions and watched a massive terror attack. I am sure it is a similarly terrifying situation for Syrian refugees throughout France. Fear of being blamed for the attacks must only be making the situation even more stressful. Islamophobia is a key strategic goal of ISIS – where isolationism and hatred spreads, ISIS wins.

As is happening ever more frequently in the age of social media, people in positions of authority are already voicing their thoughts on this situation. One example of a politician acting in a way that did nothing to make the situation better has been used as an example of what not to do. Hours after news broke of the attack, Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC) tweeted:

How’s that Syrian refugee resettlement look now? How about that mass migration into Europe? Terrorism is alive & well in the world. #No
It is comforting to know that Representative Duncan’s words are being publicly lambasted by Vox, a well-regarded online news source, as opposed to being applauded.

Other celebrities have also weighed in via social media. One of the most powerful posts came from George Takei, an actor from the original series of Star Trek and a well-known gay rights advocate, who is currently starring in a Broadway musical about Japanese internment camps and the Japanese-American experience:

I'm writing this backstage at Allegiance, my heart heavy with the news from Paris, aching for the victims and their families and friends.

There no doubt will be those who look upon immigrants and refugees as the enemy as a result of these attacks, because they look like those who perpetrated these attacks, just as peaceful Japanese Americans were viewed as the enemy after Pearl Harbor. But we must resist the urge to categorize and dehumanize, for it is that very impulse that fueled the insanity and violence perpetrated this evening.

Tonight, hold your loved ones, and pray or wish for peace, not only from guns and bombs, but from hatred and fear. If it is our freedom and joy they seek to destroy, give them not that victory. Against the forces of darkness and terror, love and compassion shall always prevail. #‎JeSuisParis

-- George

Friday, January 23, 2015

Government Shortcomings: How Texas Child Protective Services Fails to Protect Children

Over a year ago, I wrote an article about the tragic death of Alexandria Hill, who died of injuries she received at the home of her foster mother after being taken from her parents by the Texas Child Protective Services. I had thought that this was a terrible anomaly, some unfortunate bout of mismanagement that had led to a rare tragic outcome. I had hoped desperately that this was in no way indicative of a larger problem that placed foster children in danger. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The Austin American-Statesman published a report this month that reveals startling statistics about the deaths of hundreds of Texas children. According to Texas law, Child Protective Services is not required to publicly report abuse- and neglect-related deaths “if caseworkers decide that mistreatment did not directly cause those fatalities”.

The Statesman report reveals that between 2010 and 2015, 655 child fatalities were not publicly reported, despite the fact that CPS confirmed the children had been abused or mistreated prior to their death. However, since CPS ruled that the mistreatment did not directly cause the death, they are not required to release the information to state legislators or the general public.

In 2009, a bill, authored by State Senator Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio), was passed requiring CPS to publicly report all child deaths related to mistreatment, abuse or neglect. While the bill was a good step toward CPS reform in theory, inconsistent assessments have led to many cases continuing to go unreported. The Statesman report shows that:
In some cases, for example, the state has assigned blame for co-sleeping or drowning deaths, meaning the fatality was at least partially caused by negligence or abuse. Those go on the publicly reported list. But numerous child deaths that occurred under similar circumstances are kept off the public list, with little explanation.

Furthermore, even those reports that are filed are not reviewed, either by the state or child welfare advocates.

Proper review of this data would be able to reveal trends and patterns that could be used to identify high-risk situations. The analysis done in the Statesman report showed several key places where this data could have been useful to CPS, and should be useful to them going forward.

    ·         The agency has not comprehensively tracked how often it saw children before they died of abuse or neglect — a key predictor of potential problems. Of the 779 deaths reviewed by the newspaper, the families of 374 of those children — nearly half — were visited by CPS at least once before the death. In 144 fatalities, or nearly 20 percent, the agency had seen the family at least three times. In 12 instances, CPS had seen the family 10 or more times. CPS had contact with one family more than 20 times before the child died.

    ·         Even though the agency has a unit dedicated to finding missing families, at least 15 kids died after they dropped off CPS’s radar.

    ·         In 166 cases — a little more than 1 of every 5 reviewed by the paper — a child previously had been separated from a caretaker because of safety concerns prior to the fatality. In 41 of those instances, it was the same child who later died.

    ·         Unlike some other states, Texas has not undertaken a detailed analysis of the child deaths to identify families that are at the greatest risk of hurting a child, and the state has not used that information to prevent tragedies.

Missed signs seem to be a recurring theme in many of these cases. One of the more extreme instances is that of Brandon White, who was killed by his mother’s boyfriend in 2013. Child Protective Services had been receiving calls reporting that Brandon was in danger since 1999. A total of 23 complaints were filed to CPS regarding the neglect and abuse Brandon received at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend. Still, Brandon remained in the home until his murder. He was 15.

The article points out that child protection is a balancing act. Not intervening in a potentially unsafe household can result in the injury or death of a child. But too many interventions, or too strict judgments can violate the rights of parents. John Specia, commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, stated:

We can’t remove every child that has a bruise. Every incident does not, should not, result in children being removed from homes. We need to make the right decision. Where you can provide services and make that home a safe place for the child, that’s the right thing to do.

Of course, he is correct. No one wants to see overall healthy families torn apart because of one incident that could be perceived as a danger. However, there are certain signs that a case is much more serious than a single domestic disturbance and requires further review. The newspaper’s analysis found that nearly half of the children who died were already on CPS’ radar. Of those 374 fatalities, 144 families — nearly 40 percent — had been the subject of a CPS investigation at least three times. The article went on to list several other examples of cases where missed warning signs resulted in a child’s death.

Overlooking warning signs and failing to review cases are unacceptable shortcomings of the Texas CPS system. Its job is to protect children, and in many cases, it is clear that they are dropping the ball. However, the Austin American-Statesman report reveals something even more disturbing than ineptitude; it has proven dishonesty and willful misdirection on the part of many CPS employees.

CPS officials are often burdened with more cases than they can handle and placed under pressure to close cases quickly. Unfortunately, some employees respond by cutting corners in their work. Even more disturbing are the incidents of employees falsifying documentation to conceal the fact that they are not doing their jobs. In May of 2015, Texas CPS employee Michelle Robinson was assigned to investigate the case of a 15 year old girl who reported to her school nurse that her father was abusing her. Her paperwork stated that she had spoken with multiple people during the course of her investigation, but in reality, several of the interviews had been falsified. One of the people to whom she actually did speak reports that Robinson "wasn't writing anything down and made me feel very uneasy. She wasn't taking notes, she wasn't recording." Robinson fabricated an investigation to please her bosses, then turned her back on the child she was charged to defend. When her crime was uncovered, she was tried and sentenced to 1 year’s probation and a $300 fine.

Like so many of the problems discussed in the Statesman report, this is not an isolated incident. The report found that at least 50 CPS workers have been caught lying to prosecutors, ignoring court orders, falsifying state records or obstructing law enforcement investigations” since 2009. Although this number is small compared to the 3,400 employees in the agency, it is more than enough to warrant concern. Furthermore, that is only the number of people who have been caught.

Texas CPS does not keep a comprehensive list of the employees who were fired for these sorts of offenses. It also does not track the number or employees who were disciplined for misconduct, but not fired. Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, told Statesman reporters that this data is only stored in employees’ personal files, and therefore cannot be catalogued.

Cases such as the tragic story of Alexandria Hill and comprehensive reports such as the one published by the Austin American-Statesman have led to a rise in public consciousness regarding the activities of Child Protective Services. The Texas legislature resumed its sessions last week and State Senator Carlos Uresti has said that addressing the shortcomings of the CPS is high on his agenda.

Hopefully, Texas CPS will be able to learn from its mistakes and provide better assistance for at-risk youth. But this is only the beginning of a long journey toward making sure children are safe and protected in America. It is wonderful that Texas is in for some positive change. But what about other states? Surely, these incidents of missed signals, letting people fall through the cracks, and outright misconduct are not confined to the Lone Star State. While Texas works to fix the problems it has identified, other states should conduct reviews of their own Child Protective Services.

Protecting citizens from harm is perhaps the most important function of government. By the very nature of their developmental existence, and by the legal constraints regarding age that our society has constructed, children are a population that are at great risk and have limited means of self defense. A government that cannot protect children, and in some cases actually places children in harm’s way, needs to be closely evaluated and quickly improved.
The full text of the Statesman report can be read online here:

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas! The Fight Against Censorship Celebrates a Victory

A Christmas Day movie release seems more like Halloween as the Orwellian nightmares infecting our domestic politics have spread to the realm of international affairs. The Interview, a film starring James Franco and Seth Rogan, set for a Christmas debut, reinvents the recently popular template slapstick comedy films centering on ordinary guys in absurd situations with the added dimension of international politics. Internet Movie Database summarizes The Interview as follows:


Dave Skylark and producer Aaron Rapoport run the celebrity tabloid show "Skylark Tonight." When they land an interview with a surprise fan, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, they are recruited by the CIA to turn their trip to Pyongyang into an assassination mission.


I was eager to see this movie; excited that someone was branching out from the typical “bro-comedy” to make a piece of meaningful political satire that would appeal to a broad audience. Television shows such as the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report illustrate how comedy is a highly effective way to express political viewpoints. Two famous comedic actors using this technique in a major motion picture would be exciting, fun, and potentially very powerful.


Then Sony, the company releasing the film, fell victim to computer hackers. The hackers first leaked several upcoming Sony films to the Internet. Next, confidential company data, including salary numbers, layoff strategies, employee details and 3,800 social insurance numbers (SINs), were made public. On December 8th, the hackers published a statement online, demanding that Sony cancel The Interview’s release. “Stop immediately showing the movie of terrorism which can break the regional peace and cause the War! The destiny of Sony is totally up to the wise reaction and measure of Sony.” More data continued to be leaked, including private eMails between Sony executives. On December 16th, the hackers threatened to harm moviegoers who saw the film. “We will clearly show it to you at the very time and places The Interview be shown, including the premiere, how bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to.”


It is the general consensus of experts, including the FBI, that North Korea orchestrated these cyberattacks to prevent the release of The Interview. A hundred years ago, if someone wished to shut down a media outlet, they would smash a printing press or burn copies of a book that was deemed offensive. Today, an unknown number of nameless, faceless people can work from any location on earth to bring a major company to its knees. It is honestly terrifying that the great advances in technology the world has come to enjoy have left people, companies, and even governments vulnerable to such devastating attacks from remote distances.


And that is why acts of terrorism are performed. To cause terror. To frighten people into obedience. Unfortunately, in the case of The Interview, it worked. After the attacks, several movie theatre companies, starting with Carmike Cinemas, announced that they would not be showing the film. Sony followed up by saying they supported the decision of the distributors, and that they would be cancelling the scheduled Christmas release date.


After these developments, several theatres decided to take a stand against North Korea’s efforts to censor American media by showing Team America: World Police instead. Within a day, however, reports were being released that these screenings were also being cancelled.


As this story continues to unfold, however, it is clear that The Interview and the controversy surrounding it are not simply going to disappear. In fact, North Korea may have started many more problems for itself than had they simply left Sony alone. President Obama made a speech this week in which he said that he wished Sony had not pulled the movie, adding, “I love Seth.” He assured the world that attacks like this would not be tolerated, and that North Korea would be punished for its actions, although no plan of retaliation was specified. On a broader note, Mr. Obama stated “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” He pointed out that attacks like this could have serious implications for our economy, which of course, it can.


It is commendable that the President of the United States is taking action to defend a private company that is being bullied by another nation. But the government stepping in isn't enough. Sony may have saved itself for the moment by pulling The Interview, but this could have devastating consequences in the long run. If The Interview is never shown, Sony will probably lose a large amount of money and many Seth Rogan fans will be disappointed. But the cancellation of this film means much more than that. It means that cyberattacks work. It means that if a country dislikes what someone is saying, or a product someone is producing, they can bully them from thousands of miles away and change their actions. This one film cancellation sets a frightening precedent that could have a devastating impact on free speech and on commerce.

Cancelling The Interview sends a message to the world- "If you bully us, we'll give in." So what happens when Sony does something else North Korea doesn't like? Or will they self-censor for all eternity, to avoid future cyberterrorist attacks? What happens if they offend another country? All of these questions apply to other companies as well. If Sony can get shut up through cyberterrorist attacks, will other companies do the same? It's likely that we'll find out, now that the first domino has fallen. (Especially because said first domino is a multimillion dollar company...)


As more and more people continue to speak out in support of this film, it is quite possible that Sony will stand behind its movie after all. Yesterday, it announced that The Interview will be released on its scheduled release date of December 25th, but only in select theatres (for now). A statement from Michael Lynton, Chairman and CEO of Sony Entertainment, assures viewers "We have never given up on releasing The Interview and we're excited our movie will be in a number of theaters on Christmas Day. At the same time, we are continuing our efforts to secure more platforms and more theaters so that this movie reaches the largest possible audience.” If this is true, I will absolutely find a theatre close to me and go see the film. I will likely see it multiple times to show my support for it. I will write a review and post it here for all my lovely readers.


The push to share this film with as many people as possible has led to yet another development. The Interview will, indeed, be getting its Christmas release, primarily online. This is a great way to use technology to promote the spread of ideas, as opposed to the cyberterrorists’ usage of technology to bully people into silence.


Several artistic venues have used this entire incident as a way to speak out against bullying tactics and censorship. Secret Cinema, a British film and theatre group, held an event this weekend “with a view to strengthen the resolve of filmmakers and artists against the threat of censorship, and to stand in solidarity with artists whose freedom of expression is routinely curtailed.”  Several theatres in America are planning similar events.


These are the best possible reactions to an attempt to impose censorship. It is unclear what sort of actions the American government will take against North Korea, but it is very possible that small-scale events such as Secret Cinema and Sony’s release (even a nonconventional one) of the film will be even more powerful in showing that a dictator on the other side of the world cannot censor another nation’s media.


Until I get the opportunity to see the film in its entirety, I will settle for watching this clip from the end of The Interview. This is just one of the many scenes that North Korea did not want shown. And for that reason alone, we should all just keep on playing it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Traveling With The TSA- An Uncomfortable Infringement on Personal Liberty

Several weeks ago, I went to Vermont to spend a few days with my aunts. I flew both ways (despite my concerns about Ebola...) which led me to have two lovely opportunities to encounter the Transportation Security Administration, better known as the TSA.

Every time I fly, I wear my homemade Fourth Amendment shirt.


The Fourth Amendment states:

Many argue that simply choosing to fly on an airplane is not considered "probable cause". Furthermore, the body imaging system used by the TSA has raised many concerns. Is it acceptable for an agent to see a fairly detailed scan of passengers' bodies in the line of duty? How long are these images stored, and how secure is the storage?

These concerns have led many people to choose to opt out of going through the scanner. People who opt out of the scan will instead be patted down manually by a TSA officer of the same gender.

I have always chosen to opt out and have always been treated respectfully by agents. However, many horror stories of uncomfortable pat-downs have emerged, illustrating that choosing between the scan and the pat down comes down to a matter of personal opinion of the lesser of two evils.

On my trip to Vermont, the TSA agent who pushes bags through the x-ray machine stared at my shirt and asked "What's the Fourth Amendment?"

I politely replied, "Protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, sir."

He said, "Oh. I don't remember any of that stuff. I can't remember geography or the Constitution or anything."

Not knowing how to reply, I simply informed him that I would like to opt out of the scanning machine. He called for a female agent to come pat me down. While I waited, he continued his earlier conversation.

"Out of curiosity, how old are you?"

I answered "22," not really sure where he was headed. He looked like he was in his mid-20s.

"And you remember all that stuff from school? I don't remember any of that. I went to college and I was on the Honor Roll and everything. But now I forgot it all. I don't even remember what an apostrophe is. I want to go back to school to remember it all. For my kids." He then proceeded to show me an adorable picture of his sons.

At that point, the officer performing my pat-down arrived and I proceeded through the gate. I was glad that my shirt prompted such a lovely conversation with a very nice man and I wish him the best of luck with his further education.

However, I find it both sad and disconcerting that a government employee does not know basic facts about the US Constitution, and that someone specifically charged with searching people and their belongings doesn't know the rights of people being searched.

As I stepped into the area where I would be patted down, I passed by another male agent. He, too, stared at my shirt, but apparently he knew what the Fourth Amendment is.

"You love the Fourth Amendment, huh?" He asked.

I said, "Yes, sir, I do," in a firm tone and smiled politely.

He smirked back at me and replied, "Well, you should be careful here, then, if you love the Fourth Amendment." I passed through the security checks without difficulty, but the agent’s words made me feel distinctly uncomfortable.

On the return trip, none of the TSA employees commented on my shirt. Like many of the people I have encountered in Vermont, they were both professional and very friendly. They smiled warmly as they requested that I put the fancy soap I had just purchased in a separate tray. Yes, it was bar soap, not liquid. But apparently bar soap resembles some form of explosive material, so it had to be swabbed down and tested for explosive residue. (Well, it'll be a funny story to tell Grammy when she opens the sea salt soap I bought for her for Christmas...)

Another object in my bag caused concern as well. This was a small box of loose tea, still in its original sealed wrapper, that I was very excited to buy because they don't have this type of tea at the store where I usually shop. Unfortunately, it is a type of green tea known as gunpowder tea. (Pause for facepalm). Because the packaging contained the word "gunpowder", it had to be swabbed for explosive residue.

When one of the TSA agents explained this to me, I stared at him in shock for a moment, then said, "It's tea. Green tea. Gunpowder green tea." I then remembered that being difficult with the TSA can get you arrested, so I smiled and said, "I was really excited to find it. They don't sell it at my normal tea store."

The agent smiled understandingly at my annoyance. "Yeah, we just have to check. Did you get it at the little tea store downtown? That's a nice place." After he finished testing it, he handed the tea back to me, declaring, "The tea is tea."

In many ways, the search of belongings creates a false sense of security while still allowing potentially dangerous materials aboard. Gunpowder green tea is considered a potential threat, but I boarded both flights with Size 6 knitting needles in my carry-on bag. The needles are metal, about 10 inches long, and pointy enough that they can easily be used as a stabbing weapon if enough force is applied. (I have proof of this. Don't stick your hand into a bag of yarn if you're not sure what else is in it.)

Furthermore, even though some TSA agents are lovely people, others are not. It is distressing to see some of the people that our government has selected to search through our belongings and pat us down. Men and women who either do not know the laws governing the rights of citizens or, even worse, who know that what they are doing is an infringement upon these rights and think it is acceptable to make jokes about it.

The main lesson I took from my latest experiences with the TSA is that the agents are simply people. Some are friendly, some are not. They have different interests and personalities. They are not villains who enjoy violating our rights and rifling through our belongings.

Still, the system of airport screenings requires major improvements. People are automatically treated as potential criminals simply because they have chosen to fly on an airplane. Invasive scanning methods must be reevaluated to protect the dignity and privacy of customers while still ensuring safety. The constitutional rights of individuals still apply, even when there is a potential safety threat. In fact, it is for times of danger that these safeguards on liberty were established.

Although the 5th of November is long past, I’m still in the right month, so I will close this post with a quote from one of my favourite movies, “V for Vendetta”, a quote that perfectly illustrates the flaws of the TSA’s scare tactics.

People should not be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Oppression in the Name of Fairness: A Disturbing Trend on College Campuses

Summer has officially ended and the new school year has begun. Students are buckling down for another year of studying, planning their extracurricular schedules, and catching up with old friends. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of the educational community is becoming increasingly hostile, and we feel we must remind our readers that school is not always a safe place to exchange ideas.

Last year, this site published two articles discussing ideological clashes at Vassar that resulted in members of the student body feeling stifled and afraid.

Pro-Palestine sentiments on campus last spring reached a point where they had become anti-Israel. Shouting down dissenters and blocking students from class have occurred on more than one occasion. Pro-Israel groups nationwide, as well as Vassar alums were shocked at the aggression exhibited on campus.

This tension was not isolated to a conflict between pro-Palestine vs. pro Israel. The school’s efforts to promote racial diversity seem to have swung to the other extreme and resulted in white students being painted as oppressors. During last year’s freshman orientation, an event entitled “Who Is Vassar?” was held. Although it was not an official part of the freshman orientation, faculty members were present. The presentation consisted of poetry readings, most of which described Vassar as a racist, homophobic, sexist, and unfriendly environment. White incoming freshmen reported that this made them feel very uncomfortable, as if they were already coming into school with a strike against them.

Earlier in the year, an article published on this site discussed how falsified incidents of bias and questionable disciplinary methods promoted a culture of inequality and fear on campus. Specific female students, as well as the college disciplinary policies as a whole victimize male students while portraying them as villains.
At another college, a student who has asked that both he and his school remain anonymous, reported that he was fired from his post as a teaching assistant after he attended an internship with the Ayn Rand Institute. The school reportedly told this student that Rand’s ideology was so vastly different from theirs that they felt he was no longer a suitable candidate to work with their students.
One post that I wrote regarding this topic has not yet made it onto this site, but was published on Watchdog Wire. This article discussed The University of Scranton, where I myself experienced ideological discrimination. I found that the school’s Honors Program was less about encouraging academic growth and more about forcing a left-leaning ideology on the students. Those who offered differing viewpoints were ostracized and even openly attacked by their professors.

After I posted this piece, I found that several teachers became increasingly hostile toward me. A future post will discuss my full experience at the University of Scranton and the challenges I spoke as an outspoken libertarian student.
School, especially colleges and universities, should be safe havens for ideas; places where different viewpoints can be freely and respectfully shared and debated. Unfortunately, our institutions of higher learning are becoming increasingly stifling. Far from encouraging new ideas, teachers have been seen to go out of their way to destroy them. Students who dare to speak up are silenced, ostracized, bullied, and in some cases punished.

This blog will never encourage people to hide their beliefs or refrain from speaking up against injustice. But students must use caution. Remember that there could be serious consequences for students who disagree with the ideology set forth by their school.

 If you or someone you know has faced repercussions from your school based on your ideology and would like to share your story, eMail me at

Friday, September 12, 2014

#WhyIStayed: A First Step Toward Ending Stigma and Silence

The latest hot topic in the world of football is more than the typical chatter about a player being traded to a new team. This week, TMZ released a video of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice punching then-fiancé Janay Palmer in the face and dragging her out of an elevator. Rice has been fired from the Ravens and put on indefinite suspension from the NFL.

This incident has raised many questions about violence among football players and the NFL’s role in keeping such incidents quiet. But some people have been asking a very different question: After that level of abuse, why did Janay Palmer still marry him? Why did she stay?

This is quite possibly an important question for Janay’s friends and family to ask, so that they may better understand her situation and evaluate if she requires assistance or protection. Media outlets and football fans who ask this, however, are twisting this story to place at least some of the blame on the victim. Questioning why she stayed implies that it is somehow her fault, because she did not leave sooner.

Writer Beverly Gooden found this completely unacceptable and bravely chose to speak out. In an interview with Mic, she explained:

When I saw those tweets, my first reaction was shame. The same shame that I felt back when I was in a violent marriage. It's a sort of guilt that would make me crawl into a shell and remain silent. But today, for a reason I can't explain, I'd had enough. I knew I had an answer to everyone's question of why victims of violence stay. I can't speak for Janay Rice, I can only speak for me.

Thus began the hashtag #WhyIStayed, and its companion #WhyILeft. Thousands of people have shared their stories on social media, explaining the various reasons why they felt trapped in abusive relationships, and the reasons why they left. The ‪#‎WhyIStayed campaign is a powerful movement drawing attention to the issue of domestic violence and emphasizing that it is not the victim's fault.

But as I was reading through #WhyIStayed posts on Twitter, I realized that this movement to decrease stigma is, in itself, steeped in stigma. Many compilations of these tweets have been constructed and shared, often under the heading “Abused women share their stories”. Are women the only ones sharing? Did the person creating the compilation only include the stories of women? If so, why?

Domestic abuse is not always man to woman. Women abuse each other. Men abuse each other. And yes, women abuse men. A man is not weak or a "sissy" because he is abused any more than a woman is. He needs help and protection the same as any victim of abuse.

WebMD states that more than 830,000 men experience domestic violence annually. The site estimates a much higher figure: 5.3 million men. Often, people dismiss this type of violence, claiming that the man should be able to fight back or stand up for themselves. This is a dangerous double standard that leaves these men even more at risk.

Many are using this campaign as a springboard to promote women’s rights. One Twitter user (who will herein remain anonymous) posted:

#INeedFeminismBecause people are faster to ask why an abused woman stayed than they are to ask the man why he hurt her. #WhyIStayed

The general sentiment is spot on. Don’t blame the victim for staying; blame the abuser for their actions. But making it gender specific is only increasing the differentiation between genders. Perfect equality between genders would not stop people from asking this question. “People are faster to ask why an abused man stayed than they are to ask the woman why she hurt him” is just as valid a concern.

Other posts have encouraged parents to raise their daughters to stand up for themselves and their sons to respect women. Again, good advice that should not be gender specific. Everyone should stand up for themselves and everyone should respect each other. In fact, gender specification in this case actually implies that women are somehow weak and require the protection of men, which seems to directly oppose ideas of gender equality.

Promoting the assumption that domestic abuse is perpetrated by men against women simultaneously paints women as victims and men as villains. Many men who would otherwise be sympathetic to an anti-abuse message are put off by the idea of being seen as a potential threat. This blog post emerged from a Facebook conversation, wherein one man voiced the following opinion:

Everything I've seen has been very [gender] specific too. I agree that what Ray Rice did was despicable, but it makes it harder for me to jump on the bandwagon and support it as I should as a male if I feel the whole gender is being attacked.

The #WhyIStayed campaign is a wonderful first step toward shining light on a terrible problem that is too often hidden. However, by promoting gender stereotypes, it obscures its message. Even worse, by mostly ignoring men who experience domestic abuse, the campaign is unintentionally contributing to their silent shaming. Domestic violence is not a feminist issue; it is a humanist issue. It can happen to anyone and everyone experiencing it deserves support and help.

**NOTE** If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out to one of the many wonderful organizations available to help you.