Thursday, May 28, 2015

On Thinking

I'm not even talking about critical thinking here, just plain ol' thinking.  It's funny how many seem unable or unwilling to do it.

While I was in a discussion group talking about Chris Hedges last week, one of the older gentlemen in the group complained that Hedges explained a lot about his own activism, but he didn't tell us what to do, so we're left rudderless.

Hedges talked about the many different ways he subverted authority and changed things for the better with hugely entertaining examples.  And he suggested specifically that we be in connection with marginalized groups.  But, no, he didn't tell us precisely what to do next, each of us, individually.

So figure it out!

This is a key difference between a leader and a manager, and we're all too complacently used to being managed rather than led.  Too many of us actually want (or need) to be told precisely what to do.

The conversation reminded me of some classes in which I give a broad assignment to challenge the kids to discover the key aspects of the concepts for themselves.  There are some that are so excited to have limitless choices, and they dive in and end up producing amazing stuff.  But there are always many more who keep asking for more information until I eventually suggest I just do the assignment for them.  They prefer fill-in-the-blank handouts.  It's too hard to make decisions and come up with ideas.  They're convinced I'm asking far too much of them.

Thinking is hard work.  Figuring out what to do and how to do it is a struggle.  But it's necessary to get people to actually think for themselves.  And I'm amazed how few relish the challenge.  They like games where they make somewhat educated guesses at the best moves and are immediately rewarded or punished for their efforts, but they don't so much like puzzles.

And that doesn't bode well for my little scheme to create an army of activists in my classroom (or at least a few kids who care about life outside themselves) because this whole mess is one giant puzzle that has to be dismantled and put back together in a way that works but still fits without any pieces missing.  (Well, there might be a few pieces I'd toss.)  It's a challenge our generation is unlikely to finish, but it's our duty to take up the torch anyway - even though we might not live to see the rewards our effort reap.  And it involves a lot of thinking and deciding:  We have to figure out which issues are important to us, and then figure out all the players involved and how it all works - which also means deciding which sources are most accurate and why (which brings in some critical thinking skills), and then figure out what we bring to the table - what skills or connections we have that might help, and then actually get off the couch to do something with all that figuring.  That's insane!

But it's not impossible.  And if we can get the thinking started, who knows where it will lead!

In other news, I'm freakin' 50 today!  How the hell did that happen?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Cassandra's Curse

Climate scientists are reporting higher incidents of depression.  It could be from living like the mythological Cassandra, who had the gift of prophecy but was cursed by Apollo for refusing his advances.  Her curse was never being believed or listened to.

Imagine studying one topic for decades, figuring out the problems and solutions, and being largely ignored by the world.  Or worse - being hated and vilified regularly.

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Camille Parmesan said,
I felt like here was this huge signal I was finding and no one was paying attention to it.... I was really thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ... In the U.S., [climate change] isn’t well-supported by the funding system, and when I give public talks in the U.S., I have to devote the first half of the talk to [the topic] that climate change is really happening.... I don’t know of a single scientist that’s not having an emotional reaction to what is being lost,
And, of course, the hundreds of comments on that article are full of deniers holding on to the last shreds of hope that it's all a scam.

In the words of Baldwin, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mad Max: Reality Road, an Even Darker Ride

It was so close.

First, the less important comparison:  It wasn't as gripping and shocking as the original Road Warrior, and my son called it before we went in:  more explosions and less rapey.  People don't accept casual rape scenes in movies like they did in the 80s.  This is a good thing, but it does take away from developing a sense of horror and brutality in this lawless world.  There were many of the same bits of humour in it, and really cool cars, but no sharpened boomerangs. But what it really lacked was character development.  Furiosa's backstory was delivered in an awkward scene of overt explanation rather than a more subtle development throughout.  We don't get to know the other characters enough to care about them.  There was no scrappy little kid surviving by his wits.  And when one of the wives died, I wasn't remotely upset.  I don't remember any of their names.  Somehow it lacked the same kind of tension that was such an important part of the first film, and this Max reminded me more of Indiana Jones than the original Road Warrior, but my kids thought I was nuts on that one. But there was one excellent scene that made me glad to have caught it in 3D.  Things blowed up real good!

But that's not the important comparison.  With a quick read of a few scientific journals, it could have been an authentic depiction of what we will likely face far too soon if we don't change the path we're on, and the movie could have been just that much more brutal because of it.  That they're fighting over water and searching for arable land instead of for oil (sort of), gets us part way there.

***spoiler alert***

A question occurred to me as I watched them suffering in the heat, using slaves to run pulley systems, and using fire for heat and light all within a contained city that turned out to be the best possible place to live:  What did they need oil for?  They didn't use it to generate electricity in any way that I could see.  And they made it clear there was no place to go to, so all that gasoline and ripping up the desert was for nought.  Oil seems to be a dead commodity in a post-apocalyptic world.  Just as well.

But one bit of reality was that whomever controls the water, controls the world.  That will be very true very soon.  Canada has lots of fresh water, but could we win against an American invasion?  Or will Harper erode our rights so much (which has already started) that the U.S. will feel the need to stage a coup and install a better leader for us under the guise of helping us reform a democratic system, and then take control of all our water while they're at it?

In the film, once the good guys win and kill the bad guy who was rationing water too stringently (and keeping slaves and many wives), they seem to decide to open the water for all without any rationing as if that's the nice thing to do.  But it's not.  It's as equally bad leadership as rationing too tightly.  Rationing will have to be a reality in their world where, like in Snowpiercer and The 100, there are too many people for too few resources.  Population control must be a top priority or they'll have to start culling people in ritual sacrifices.  

Just imagine, when the good guys made it out east and talked about going back and taking over the place, imagine that they had had one brief conversation about how they would run the place differently.  And imagine if their ideas actually made sense!   They could have excitedly talked about a fair means of delivering food and water, a choice of jobs on a rotation, a means to slow population growth...  and then we'd see the realization on their faces that no matter what they did, they would have to control childbearing.  Men and women just couldn't be allowed to have every child they wanted.  Saving women from the clutches of an evil-doer who controls their reproduction would have to be replaced by a different system of control rather than done away with completely.  Figuring out how to do that without being hated by the masses is the exciting bit.

The gang tries to find some green space that used to be Furiosa's home, but it's all dead now.  The soil is full of salt so nothing can grow.  One effect of climate change will likely be "the extension of salt-affected territories."  But something else that could have been included, that was slipped into Interstellar and discussed in The Sixth Extinction (which has already started), is that many of us will likely suffocate before we starve.  Here's my summary on the 3rd major extinction from Kolbert's book:
Ending the Permian period - 252 million years ago. This was the most devastating - called "the great dying." It was caused by an increase in carbon which acidified the oceans and, with the oxygen level dropping, most organisms probably suffocated. Reefs collapsed. It lasted maybe 100,000 years from start to finish, and eliminated 90% of all species on earth (104). The best explanation for this increased carbon is a massive burst of vulcanism in Siberia. "But this spectacular event probably released, on an annual basis, less carbon than our cars and factories and power plants" (123). This one is most similar to what we're currently experiencing, but these days we like to do things much, much faster.

It's not just water that would be a scarce resource, but oxygen would be too.  The main bad guy had the right idea with an oxygen mask, but they could also have made oxygen their drug of choice.  As the ocean acidifies (which is already happening), hydrogen sulfide is released into the atmosphere.  It tends to sit low on the ground, so they might be fine in higher altitudes but need oxygen masks on in the lowlands.  Just think of all the creative ways they could each design their masks!

And check out the effects of exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide: eye damage and degenerative nerve damage.  They could have had people riding through lower areas, and unmask a bad guy who suddenly has his eyes eaten away and falls into a fit of spasms!  It would also make the air more flammable, and there's so much special effects guys could do with that!  It was such a missed opportunity.

The horrors of real life scientific predictions are rife with great ideas for apocalyptic films just waiting to be taken, and maybe a disclaimer at the end with sources would wake up a few more people to the reality we could be facing.  Except that it might ruin their happy ending.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

On Privilege

I saw Chris Hedges speak again at the Tommy Douglas Institute / Community Worker Program followed by smaller discussion groups.  I was so pleased that he doesn't have a set speech for each book launch and that I was treated to an entirely different set of stories than the week previous.

Here's just a bit on the smaller discussion group that followed his speech.

I spent a 30-minute break deliberating which topic to choose out of eight possible offerings.  One was on Aboriginal Perspectives, and I'm teaching Native Studies next year, so I was leaning that way, but then I decided to go for a topic more generally encompassing:  Education, Engagement and Activism facilitated by Desmond Cole.  I expected something about how to engage students towards activism, which is my biggest struggle in the classroom.  Just yesterday a few grade 12s said of a project on social justice:  "What if we just don't care about anything happening in the world?"  I told them to act like they care, and the caring might come.  But it's THE pivotal question, and I ever fail to entice many of them towards a wider worldview beyond which dress they should wear to prom.  I suck at engagement, so I really needed this.

First a disclaimer:  Cole was a kind and equitable facilitator who made every effort to hear every voice in the room, and he was excellent at demanding a respectful environment.  I sat silently, patiently waiting for the topic to come up, but we didn't come close to hitting the topic I was expecting.  Hearing every voice sometimes means hearing a variety of ideas, which can be educational in its own right.

We got into a long discussion on teacher strikes and whose voices are left out on that, which I would have expected in the "Labour Perspectives" group, which I intentionally avoided because I'm so immersed in the issue at work, I'm weary of that conversation.  I get how it could be a way to engage students except that we have strict orders not to talk about it in the classroom.  

But the bulk of the conversation was about privilege, specifically Chris Hedges' privilege, and it was interesting to me how some people seemed to understand Hedges' position and how it differed from my own interpretation (as a white, middle class woman).

Here's what I heard Hedges say:
We can never allow the oppressed to become a distraction.  We must maintain vital human relationships with people who suffer.... We must build relationships with people experiencing oppression... to understand and learn so our actions are grounded in reality. Maintaining those relationships is vital.
He described the many journalists he knows who have been killed, the many friends he has in war torn places who are now dead, and how, at 40, as he helped carry a wounded boy from the street with gunfire continuing, and as he thought of his own son becoming traumatized by the psychological damage the job was having on his dad, he decided he had to stop taking these assignments.  And he told of quitting his job at the NYT when they asked him to stop writing against the establishment, and he shared the process of teaching in the prison system and encouraging his students to write a play together and then going the distance to get it on stage in NYC (Caged, coming here in January), and promising to take all their families to see it on opening night.

He spoke of growing up in a small town with a gay uncle and a minister dad who stood up against a homophobic congregation knowing it would cost him his job.  He spoke of the actions he took for the workers at Princeton, photographing their working conditions for an underground paper knowing he could be expelled for his actions.

Throughout his speech he gave credit to the many writers and activists who came before and during his time.

And in the break-out group, several people complained heatedly about his privilege and the fact that he doesn't know what it's like to walk down the streets in Toronto and be stopped and carded by police.

And I thought, quietly and a bit defensively - pretty defensively - that after all he lived through in other parts of the world, all he threw himself into in order to give marginalized people a voice, in countries where white journalists are routinely murdered, privileged is not the word that I would use to describe Chris Hedges.  I wanted to understand the anger some of the people in the room were feeling towards him, but it was a struggle.

Yes he's white and a man and necessarily privileged because of those facts, but how is it useful to rail against him for something he can't help?  And if we want to improve our situation collectively, who does it benefit to take down someone willing to risk so much for change?

Cole wisely turned it into a discussion of experiences and how difficult (or impossible) it is to share and know how another person's oppression works and how it feels, how it's hard to access that if it's not your own reality. Hedges can't speak to it if he's not experiencing it.  And one participant explained it in terms of macro and micro issues (paraphrased):
He's talking from a macro perspective, so it feels like he's not speaking to me.  But it's because he's not experiencing micro issues. 'Micro' makes it sound small and insignificant, but it's not.  So we have to find a place where the micro issues fit within the macro view.  
That helped diffuse the separateness I felt from the more vocal members of the group.  And I thought of the years I spent in training to be a sexual abuse counsellor, and one of the leaders reminding us over and over "pain is pain, and it can't be compared."  Similarly, we can't compare forms of oppression, and it doesn't do anyone any good to rank them.  Putting troubles on a hierarchy and complaining that others don't get it, or their issue isn't important enough, doesn't work to improve the situation.  It's a slimy way we've been trained to attack one another instead of looking to the real roots of the problems.

Similarly, during the labour discussion one participant suggested the solution is for teachers to give up some of their wages to people who have less money, as if a deduction in teacher wages would actually go towards helping reduce tuition costs.  That line reminded me of part of Diamond's Collapse in his chapter on Rwanda.
The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.
Instead of looking to the power source that is the heart of the problem -- and for us right now, that's the corporation/governmental policies that have removed the middle-class tax base (through outsourcing, technology implementation, stagnating wages) to the extent that there's not enough money for schools so class sizes have to get bigger and tuition has to increase -- we look to the group just a bit more comfortable than us, and revolt against them.  They're right in front of us, and it's simple and easy, but strikingly short-term and ineffective.

But some of the participants weren't done venting their anger about Hedges' privilege.

One was particularly upset that he had the forum to speak directly to the Dean, who was right in the room during his speech, about policies she implemented.  She seemed to be hoping for a bit of a telling-off to happen.

As an outsider to this school community, I had no idea what the policies were or that the Dean of a School of Social and Community Services would be anything but community minded and hyper-aware of social injustices.  So I question how fair it is to imply that Hedges should have known that, apparently, there's a problem at the school that he could be addressing.  Maybe I'm wrong and they're highly publicized and I was just unaware, but if they're not, then that's a lot to ask.

The idea that Hedges, as a white man, should step up to help the cause makes sense to me, though.  I sometimes show this video in my class because it explain that dynamic so clearly:

But this raises a different issue for me: the white man swooping in to save the day.  I used to show Power of One to my classes because it has some great bits for civics and history, but I stopped because it also has a narrative of a white man coming in to rescue the masses single-handedly. I despise any movie with women in need so grateful for the guy who can finally help, so I try to weed it out of my choice of films to show about apartheid or civil rights or first nation issues... But it is the case the a dominant voice can sometimes go further to help than a million marginalized voices, unless, of course, the dominant voice becomes seen as marginalized by association.

This idea was approached by a different participant who was concerned that Hedges didn't clarify that the oppressed and marginalized are the experts of their situation, and that when people want to help, they have to come in as allies, not as leaders.  He didn't say it overtly, so it's only because of my personal experiences that I heard it even though it wasn't verbalized.  But it IS something that needs to be made clear.

To really help, we have to get down on the ground to understand what the marginalized and vulnerable are experiencing and to find out what they need us to do, from our position in the world, to change the system.  But it's not always easy to figure out who needs help and who wants to help.  So we have to approach it all with the utmost care and respect for one another's lives.  And, a term we learned in philosophy courses when the readings were centuries old, we have to listen to people's stories and experiences charitably as best we can - especially when it's a struggle to understand a different position.  I'm not sure how well I'm doing on that one, but I'm still in the game.

Really simply, we have to stand up for each other and remember that the problem is where the power sits.  Hedges talked about rising up and using our bodies to stop the tar sands, and we can do the same for all the oppressing acts we might see, from hurtful words in the hallways to carding in the streets.

Something like that.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Either Side of the Fence

This brief video compilation shows Harper's views when he was Leader of the Opposition only just over a decade ago, and at a recent press conference.

Opposition Leader Stephen Harper comments on Prime Minister Stephen Harper Create by: typoprone (
Posted by Government for all Canadians, not just the wealthy on Saturday, May 16, 2015

"My difficulty with the Prime Minister at this point is that I don't think he's been forthcoming and honest on fairly simple questions when there appear to be contradictions."


ETA:  here's the original poster's site

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On Progress

If you're walking towards a meeting point far away, every step is progress.  But if you happened to take a wrong turn, and now you're getting further from your meeting point, then, until you see the error, you will continue to believe you're making progress when in fact you're getting further and further away from your goal.  You're regressing.

We've taken a wrong turn, but all the inventions and new things for us to play with make it feel like we're still progressing.  And turning our back on them to retrace our steps?  That involves moving backwards, and some might even call that devolving.

So many people link progress exclusively with technology as if we can progress enough that we no longer need nature.  One of my students is pretty certain we don't need to worry about climate change because of the work being done to figure out how to live on Mars.  After we completely destroy the oceans and the rainforests, we can just create our own oxygen here, and save the hassle of dragging all that machinery to Mars.

If we could live on Mars, then we can live on Earth no matter how dramatically the climate changes.

But would we want to?

Of course it's not a real choice because only a select few could fit in the habitat being created, and I don't have the kind of bankroll that could guarantee me a spot.

But I counter the premise that this IS, in fact, progress. We're not necessarily happier or wealthier or more satisfied with our lives now that we can carry our phones with us and watch movies on demand.  We're moving and changing so it feels like progress, but it's not clearly better than it was.  It's convenient, and we've gotten used to it, but there's still more to life, particularly when we look at the number of people, animals, and resources exploited so we can continue at this pace. We aren't progressing by continuing to make new crap to buy; we're on a wrong path, but it's so bendy it's hard to tell because we can no longer see our way back.  And we'll never get back to where we were - with horse and buggies and oil lamps.  Progress is a different path with technology in the picture, but without as many things cluttering up the place, without so many distractions from the real world.

And with oceans. And trees.

Monday, May 18, 2015

It's Just a Joke

This week wasn't the first time I talked to my class about the FHRITP phenomenon.  But the fact that one guy lost his job and another was fined $400 has changed the conversation.  A discussion about the sexual aggressive street harassment typically elicits a "but it's just a joke" response in some of my younger classes, like the adult men in the now famous video said to Shauna Hunt.  Some women experienced this once a week, and sometimes even a few times a day, because people found it so hilarious. But now that guys are getting in trouble for it, it's no longer a joke.

Of course it never was.

When I first heard about this "game," it really bothered me.  I could never quite get across the idea that accosting someone in the street with sexually aggressive language is a problem.  People laugh because it's shocking.  It's a childish power play in which the newscasters get "owned."  But anything that knowingly causes direct harm to another person isn't a laughing matter, even if the harm is just a little humiliation.  Unless the victim is in on the gag, or you know her and are certain that she would think it's funny, then it's just not funny.  Any time I've tried to explain this position, people grin at me and shake their heads to themselves because I just don't get the joke.

Now I think I may have found the perfect anecdote to explain why I think it's important to address this for what it is.  In Hedges' new book, he describes Marek Edelman, the last survivor of a command that led the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, recounting a pivotal episode in his life before the Ghetto even existed.  Two beautiful, tall German officers had taken a small, bowed Jewish man and sat him on a barrel, then they began to cut off his long beard a bit at a time with huge tailor's shears.  They were laughing the entire time, and the crowd that had gathered were also laughing.  "Nothing really horrible was happening to that Jew."  It wasn't a big deal, really.  He wasn't being hurt.  He didn't get cut.  He was just being laughed at a little while he was getting an unwanted shave.  It's just a joke.

But Edelman understood the important shift that had happened:  "that it was now possible to put him on a barrel with impunity, that people were beginning to realize that such activity wouldn't be punished and that it provoked laughter."

We need to take care that no group of people is allowed to be publicly humiliated with the excuse that it's just a joke.  If someone is being humiliated, and they're clearly not in on the gag, then it's just not funny.  It's cruel.  It's a surreptitious use of power over another, a dominating move that people try from time to time, but they must always fail.  They have to get caught and be punished in some way. Because giving tacit permission to humiliate a group of people could be just the first step in something far worse.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

If I May But Touch His Garment

I went to see Chris Hedges speak last night.  His words brought forth a mix of devastation and elation, with some in the congregation compelled to applaud after every few sentences.  He's a brilliant storyteller, and I could have listened to him all night.  It went far too quickly.

I had a chance to speak with him in the time it took him to sign my well-annotated copy of Empire of Illusion and my brand spankin' Wages of Rebellion, and I regret not buying all of his offering in order to extend our conversation.  My voice actually shook a little when I started talking, and I talk to people for a living!

I told him of the impact Sam Harris has had on my students who now say openly bigoted things in class, and he gave me some words of encouragement and signed my book "keep resisting."  Well, he signed everyone's book like that, but still.  I felt sincerely encouraged, and he looked me right in the eye when he spoke to me.

He was being interviewed by Susan G. Cole, whose books I gobbled up twenty years ago.  I actually called her up once and asked her if she'd present to my students at a conference I organized in the mid-90s, and she agreed but for a handsome fee.  Unfortunately I didn't have the wherewithal to ask the school board for money, and I was a dirt poor mom of two babies - all I really had were the balls big enough to call her up - so I had to decline her acceptance.  But she was a great moderator.

Here are the bits that stayed with me after he finished.  These are his words, only somewhat paraphrased and out of order (I'm a fan, not a journalist), but they lack the stories that give them colour, so you still have to buy the book!

On Intellectual and Emotional Knowledge and the Necessity of Faith

When confronting climate change, we know intellectually that change is necessary. But the emotional knowledge of our fragility is hard to acquire.  The existential issue of our time is how to digest issues intellectually and emotionally in order to rise up and resist.  Rebellion is an act of faith.  It's what we become, not what we achieve.  The religious (not necessary a belief in a god, but those with belief in  our inevitable historical progress) are less susceptible to emotional highs and lows.

We need to fight fascists, not to win, but because they're fascists. And we need to believe in the good in order to want to take action.  Most people don't want to change anything because their religion is a belief in the system (e.g. they believe we have a free press).  It keeps people doing nothing.  The American religion glorifies the hyper-masculine, patriotism, strength, and the right to use violence to impose virtues on the rest of the world.  It's a sacralization of empire.

Faith isn't irrational, but non-rational.  It can't be empirically measured much like beauty, truth, justice. Wisdom involves enveloping the non-rational forces into our life - what artists do.  The utilitarian tech culture severs us from these forces: arts, education, journalism - anything that has the power to transform.  But we can only achieve wisdom with the capacity to be in touch with the non-rational.

The christian right are heretics.  Jesus was not about making money.  Like Popper said (p 543), in the name of tolerance, we've accepted intolerance.  The christian right has infused the state with religion. They've misused the gospel to sacralize elements of the state.

On Prisons:  "The only act left is civil disobedience."

People are convicted before trial.  They stack charges, then plea bargain away most so they never go to trial.  It's criminalized poverty.  They prey on the poor knowing they have no resources.  They prey on families who are fleeced for hundred of dollars for phone calls.  Due to austerity measures, in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, 30-40% of city funds are raised by fining residence for things like not mowing their lawn.  There's a 64% recidivism rate.  Dostoevsky [possibly*] said we understand civilization by looking at the prisons.  To corporations, these are the ideal workers.  They live there; they're never late, and they cost little.

Inmates know the horrible things that can happen to them if they step out of line.  They're a deeply religious community because they have so little else to hold on to.  Like in Gaza - the only thing to give structure or normalcy to their days is the call to prayer.  And, with respect to Charlie Hebdo, I'm angry at the idea that it's amusing to make fun of religion.

The privatization of the prison system means each prisoner makes the prison some money.  Prisoners are charged for everything: they have to buy their own shoes, blankets, phone calls....  There are fees charged to send money home to your family.  An emergency visit to a relative's deathbed will cost you $900.

Corporations write the legislation.  Slavery is integral to the U.S. economy. We're seeing sweatshops being recruited by prisons.  They can pay 22 cents/hour here instead of in some factory in Bangladesh.  It's neo-slavery.  The 13th Amendment allows us to use it as a form of punishment, and it's used by Hewlett-Packard, Johnson & Johnson, Starbucks, Victoria Secrets....

Appealing to the systems that are profiting off the exploitation of prisoners is useless.  The only act left is civil disobedience inside and outside the prisons.  Prisoners had a demonstration knowing the consequences they would face.

This nascent moment in the US is about organizing prison labour to get minimum wage.  It would collapse the system built on neo-slavery.  This is a perfect example of how we have to organize in that manner.

On the Right and Left

Nader was destroyed by the Democrats when he ran as an independent.  They were frightened by him.  Sanders won't run as an independent because he doesn't want to be hit like Nader was.  It would mean not being at the debates and not having enough money.

The Liberals are more dangerous than the right.  Under Clinton and Obama, there were more executions and we filled more prisons.  Clinton brought in the 1993 Omnibus crime bill and drug laws, which are key to understanding the rise of the surveillance state.  This is "omnipotent policing" as Arendt calls it in Imperialism.  These are mechanisms that prey on the undocumented and the poor.

[In an different interview, he clarified that Sanders made a mistake not running as an independent. The democrats are saturated with corporate money so they're under the control of corporate power. Obama proved that in an 8-year assault on civil liberties worse than under Bush.  It's the role for the 3rd party candidate with the understanding that we have to recognize that the goal is to build movements; that you may run a candidate not to win, which is almost impossible, but to further empower the movement.  Sanders is giving legitimacy to the Democratic Party.  The democrats aren't reformable.  We must be able to agitate on the outside.]

On Activists:  "People are complex.  There's no perfect hero."

[They discussed Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Wiebo Ludwig, Che Guevara, and Martin Luther who was an anti-semite alcoholic, and scribes recorded everything he said even when he was drunk, so at least we got a full picture of the man.]

These people are messianic.  The rose up against corporations.  They have the DNA of constant rebellion.  No uprising is possible without them.  They feel passion for social change.  Community is key; we can't effectively resist without it, so we need to create acts of solidarity.

On Canada:  "There are signs of life here, but you're not going in the right direction."

There's no hope in the U.S.  We're finished.  It's remarkable how often the U.S. blunders, and then Canada replicates it.  But Canada's not nearly as far gone.  The U.S. is very violent, founded on genocide and slavery, with corporate-owned politics.  Canada doesn't have nearly the same level of violence, and its political system isn't completely closed.

To stop Harper, read Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.  The question is NOT about how to get good people to rule.  The question is how to make the power elite frightened of you.  Power is always the problem.  We need movements to keep power in check.  Elections are fine, but the last liberal president was Nixon because he was the last one still frightened of movements.

In Canada you have Idle No More and the Quebec student protests, which are great. You have to begin movements that might have a political wing, but every action must be about nourishing the movement.

On Rebellion and Madness:  "A protest of one is still a protest."

Nothing gets done if we're enraged or overwhelmed.  We need to embrace sublime madness to make real change.  There's nothing rational about rebellion.  When rebellion starts, people are not striving towards a vision, but driven by it.

Movements are monitored and infiltrated. There is a psychological warfare waged against you.  We can't compete on the state's level of violence or security.  What we do have is transparency and non-violence.  If we try to play their game (snitches...), we'll eat ourselves alive. We can create tiny committees to mess with the heads of state.  Consider: What can we do as an act of resistance that they won't expect?  It says to the state, 'You don't know everything.'

The most powerful weapon we have is speaking truth about discrediting the system of power that many can hear.  I talk to people about the difference between police in blue shirts and the white shirted assholes.  The blue shirts have to listen to the white shirts all day. But there are always people even at that level that can hear you.

We're standing up as forces of life.  Saving the ecosystem so the future can have life is as stark a battle as you can get.  Our capacity to speak truth is relentless, and non-violent, and there's a real possibility of bringing foot soldiers to our side.  Once we do that, then the state has no security.

I sued Obama over section 1021 of the National Defence Authorization Act which allowed military to take over in cases of domestic law.  We won federally, but Obama appealed and won.  The law was enacted because the state doesn't trust the police not to defect.

The state is corrupt and decadent.  In marches we find hope, light, creativity.  We are blessed by new generations of rebels.

* Sources suggest it's in The House of the Dead, but I couldn't find it, and I wonder if this is similar to the situation with Voltaire's quotation on free speech that he never said.  

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sex Ed Redux

The papers are full of stories about the fight for and against new sex education legislation.  Wynne seems to be holding her ground this time, though, so I'm not sure any of the debating will come to anything.  But it's raised some interesting questions and ideas, and provoked a long talk with my 10-year-old daughter, which I get to below.

The curriculum (and all school curricula) is easy to find on-line.  Curriculum documents are unwieldy though, and it might take a while for the uninitiated to know which bits to look at.  There are many pages that aren't really essential reading for parents, so I've included the important pages for each grade below from the grade 1-8 Health and Physical Education Curriculum, revised 2015:

Grade 1 - Caring and exploitative behaviours and feelings; potential risks; body parts - including the external genitalia (penis, testicles, vulva, vagina); hygienic procedures (92-93)
Grade 2 - Standing up for yourself; medicine use and substance abuse - there's a bit leaning towards healthy living over the use of medication; stages of development (106-110)
Grade 3 - Processed vs unprocessed foods; broadening the range of eating choices; safety guidelines; factors you can and cannot control; real and fictional violence; more on substance abuse, healthy decision-making, and misusing medications; healthy relationships; respecting differences - this is the bit about the variety of families out there now (120-124)
Grade 4 - Healthy eating and nutrients; food safety; safe use of technology; bullying - particularly on-line issues; assessing risk; smoking; changes during puberty (139-144)
Grade 5 - Nutrition; media influence on eating; threats to personal safety; effects of alcohol use and abuse - including alcohol poisoning; the reproductive system including menstruation; interpersonal stresses (155-160)
Grade 6 - Nutrition; positive social interactions; community resources; conflict management; anger management; illicit drugs; decision-making in relationships - including wet dreams and masturbating; risk assessment - including dental emergencies, caring for pets, and hypothermia; stereotypes and assumptions including homophobia, racism, bigotry (171-177)
Grade 7 - Healthy eating; technology dangers including online privacy, bullying, harassment, body image, substance abuse, delaying sexual activity and how to say no (what consent looks like), sexual acts (vaginal, oral, and anal sex are explicitly in there), STIs and pregnancy, sexual health, relationship changes  - I think this is the scare the crap out of them year.  (194-201)
Grade 8 - Healthy eating; addiction; sexual decisions including reasons to wait; reducing risks; impact of violence; mental health; stress management; gender identity; sexual orientation; contraception; consent; intimacy; dating violence (214-220)

I was a really innocent kid.  I didn't think other kids were even kissing in grade 7, but then one of the kids in my class actually got pregnant - for real.  I didn't kiss anyone until well into grade 11.  But I don't think kids today are significantly worse in this respect.  From surveys we do in social science classes, I'd guess that most kids are still pretty innocent in grade 9.  There are a few doing a lot in earlier grades, but I get the sense that's uncommon.  If they're misleading on the surveys, I'd expect them to say they're doing more than they are, and I only get a couple doing anything harder than pot in grade 12.  Despite the norms generated by movies - particularly the kind we watched in the 80s - many kids in grade 12 don't drink OR have sex.  At all.    

The curriculum is, as always, jam-packed, and I'm a little unsure that everything can be covered thoroughly.  But it's clear to me the focus is on personal safety - how to stay alive and in one piece, physically and emotionally, as you grow up.

One concern I have is how the line "...including First Nation, Metis, and Inuit food choices, cultural habits and teachings, relationships..." is unceremoniously plunked down throughout the teaching strands. It feels uncomfortably like tokenism.  I appreciate the idea that we have to be more inclusionary, but this doesn't quite feel like the right way to go about it.  And I question to what extent these teachings really will be incorporated into every section of the health curriculum at every grade when many of the teachers haven't learned any of this material in university or come across it in life. Unless the ministry is willing to provide teachers with more than just "mention that medicine wheel stuff," then teachers might do a cursory job or worse.

Here's what my 10-year-old had to say; she told me I could write about it here.  What she thinks should be taught is pretty close to the above.  Mainly.  She wasn't sure 6-year-olds need to know about the names of their body parts, but I asked what if someone touches them there, and they need to be able to use the right word to tell somebody.  She's pretty convinced nobody would do that to a little kid, and then I felt it necessary to ruin that illusion for her.

She thinks being gay or lesbian should be discussed earlier - in grade 3 - because "it helps people understand who they are and will be so they know they're okay".

Most importantly, in about grade 4, they should tell you everything to NOT worry about:  "wet dreams, period, B.O., crushes on people of either sex... because people start to ask questions and worry about the things they don't understand, so they need a list of things that are normal and okay."

I told her that one concerned parent was worried that there's lots of talk about sex, but nothing mentioned about love.  He's right.  She actually seemed to be more uncomfortable talking about love with me than about sex. "Love is a strong word" was about the most I could get out of her on this one.

My stance is towards adding to it - as if there's time in the day.  I see teens after they've been exposed to prejudices and cruelty - particularly online - so I applaud any and all efforts to nip that in the bud. I want them to know that they're okay.  I've had more than one student hospitalized for alcohol poisoning because they had no idea it was possible to die from drinking a lot at once.  I've seen kids destroyed by the idea that there's only one true love for them out there, so if it ends at 17, then it's over for them forever.  And too many think if they can't get a date, then they can't go to any dances or proms because we're stuck in a coupley mode of thinking.

First of all, back to grade 1, I'd like it if we could all acknowledge that the entire external part of a girl is the vulva, and the entryway to the uterus is called the vagina.  That's just what they're called.  I'm glad the clitoris is mentioned in grade 7, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.

By grade 8, at least, I'd like to see acceptance of all types of sexuality discussed - those who think it's an act of love to be saved for one person - and we're doing a serious disservice to some if love isn't mentioned at all -, those who think it's a form of recreation (but only with profound respect from involved parties), and those who don't have any interest in engaging for any reason.  Imagine if we could obliterate the terms "prude" and "slut"!

This is a long shot, but what I'd really like is to get rid of words related to LGBTQ and trans and cis.... and just have people who wear a variety of different clothes and make-up and are attracted to a variety of different people and have different levels of comfort with their own bodies that are sometimes helped with surgery.  We're bags of bones mysteriously drawn to other bags of bones of random shapes and sizes.  But that's probably asking too much of society yet - and too much of struggling individuals who get comfort in the support of groups of people who similarly self-identify.  But one day...

I'd also like to see more on body image and how quickly people, young and old, hone in on that one vulnerability in order to destroy one another.  My little girl biked to St. Jacobs with me yesterday, in 30 degree weather, in jeans because she doesn't like her legs.  Heartbreaking, that is.  It's not the shape, but the hairiness.  Despite the fact that I often don't shave, she felt self-conscious because kids at school have already made fun of her for having hair.  So I bought her some razors and taught her how to shave, and now she's wearing shorts.  I would have LIKED to changed the patriarchal world we live in and convinced all the girls in her school that hair is cool wherever it grows, and that shaving pubes can lead to infection (which garners no mentioned in the curriculum), and that Juliette Binoche had hairy pits in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and she was sexy as all get out!!  But that's a job for tomorrow.  For today, she shaved.

We do what we can.  Baby steps.

...ETA - And then there's Norway.

On Misinformation

What do we do when people build their beliefs on misinformation?

At least some of the people protesting the new sex ed curriculum have some shocking ideas of what Wynne expects teachers to do.  An article in The Star reported these bizarre claims bandying about:
In Grade 1 they will learn to reveal their private parts (not just name), they will see posters and flash cards of private parts, they will learn to touch the private area and identify it on themselves and others....Grade 6 is about the promotion of self-discovery through masturbation. Our 12-year-old daughter or son, who is not even a teenager yet, will be asked in class to explore his or her own body by touching their private parts, masturbating and pleasuring their body....Anal Play 101 class in Grade 8 would actually provide instruction on anal sex play.
So it's really no wonder parents are losing their shit about it all.  But why would anyone actually believe that the Premier would support and encourage child nudity in the classroom?  Now, there are other reasons parents who understand the curriculum are protesting, but I'll get to that in another post.  Here I'm concerned with how quickly misinformation spreads and takes hold of a population.

It's nothing new, really.  We've always had snake-oil salesmen sucker in enough people to make a living. Now we have Dr. Oz and Jenny McCarthy making dubious claims that are being followed by millions.  And tabloid haven't lost their appeal.

But the snake-oil salesmen of today have a larger platform and a much wider reach that's frightening in its scope.

I'm still having arguments in class about Islam being the reason for all the evildoers in the world.  And that belief is so strong, that I think I can only shut it down with, "No bigotry in my classroom, please."  The fact that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists just provokes further arguments, which also make little sense, but they slay me with their sheer volume.  I can't keep arguing, and it's not part of the curriculum of my class anyway, yet it keeps coming up wherever the few class pundits see an opportunity to raise the issue again.

When the internet started, I used to have to debunk claims like KFC is breeding chickens without heads, and you can actually buy ManBeef online.  I took up the greater part of some classes explaining how to tell the information is wrong.  Now I've beefed up my research lessons and insist on at least three varied, reputable, peer-reviewed, primary sources all pointing in the same direction to be able to make a claim in a paper.  It doesn't work as well during conversations.  Here are some from just this week:

There's someone living today who will live to be 1,000.

Okay, Aubrey de Grey thinks there's a person alive today who will live to 150, and within 20 years, we might hit 1000, so the misinformation was slightly misquoted. Grey did a TEDTalk, which, to many, is the same as publishing research in a peer-reviewed journal.  My advice is the standard, "Extraordinary claims need extraordinary supports," but it falls on deaf ears.  This paper, written by a group of scientists studying aging, molecular biology, genome studies, etc., suggests that Grey's work is pseudoscience as it...
is based on the scientifically unsupported speculations...which are camouflaged by the legitimate science of others....bears only a superficial resemblance to science or engineering....writings in support of it are riddled with jargon-filled misunderstandings and misrepresentations....notoriety is due almost entirely to its emotional appeal.

Solar panels emit more GHGs than coal-fired plants. 

According to this paper (p. 6), including the creation of the panel/plant, coal emits 58 times more than solar.  Now, in that paper nuclear emits less than solar, but it's published by the World Nuclear Association, so we have to watch out for bias as well - which is why it's necessary to have a variety of research with different funding sources.  This paper suggests solar emits slightly less than nuclear (still far less than coal).  If I were writing a paper on it, I'd find a few more sources before drawing a conclusion.  I found one source that substantiates the student's claim, on a site called "No Tricks Zone," but that writer's cited research include one piece that only looks at e-waste, and another that makes use of significant hyperbole with little in the way of actual data.

It takes ten times the energy to sit up straight as it does to slouch.

I couldn't find this claim anywhere on-line, but I did find proof that it's hard on your spine to sit up straight in a chair for 8 hours/day, and, for optimal back health, you should vary your sitting position - including slouching.  But there is some evidence that sitting up straight makes people more productive, which could be argued is linked to energy levels.

In Finland, nobody has to go to school; kids just go when they feel like it. And they have the best educational system in the world!

This claim got a round of applause from the class that couldn't be affected by my counter-arguments.  People believe what they want to believe and will shout down contrary claims regardless the quality (or existence) of research presented.  According to this site, completing school is mandatory, but, like here, students may be home-schooled.  The wording of the piece could be misinterpreted if they just read a sentence out of context.  That's something else many students struggle to understand - context.  They skim and grab short pieces completely ignoring the broader position of the piece.  Anyway, our schooling is from 6-18, theirs is from 7-19.  It's a great school system, but not because it's optional.  It might have more to do with these factors: teachers all have masters degrees; there are no standardized tests; grades are optional up to grade 8 (just pass/fail) to get students to focus on a love of learning rather than competing for grades; they don't have sports teams; academically-challenged students go to a specialized school (something we used to do, but now we're into integration); differentiated instruction is taken to its full potential; the culture respects teachers; the culture expects children to be completely independent from their parents at a much younger age; and university is free.

These claims weren't made by grade school children; many of these students are about to finish high school and go to university, and they generally get very good marks - our best and brightest. I'd hate to think they'll be in the next round of protesters arguing against claims that nobody ever actually said.  But the big stuff: climate change, TPP and TPIP, rampant inequality?  The government and technology will save the day.  We'll all be living on Mars soon anyway, amiright?

I can only demand sources (which I've yet to have a student provide - not even one horribly biased source - nothin'!), express my skepticism on the claim, and carry on.  I sometimes put counter-arguments on our class website, and some of the topics are never mentioned again - but some never die.  My courses are jam-packed with curriculum to cover.  There's no room for extended discussion on anything off-topic regardless student interest in the subject.  But I'd hate for students to walk away having learned from the dubious claims of their peers because of the appeal of the intensity of their positions.  It's exciting to discount ideas we all think are true!!  New information trumps everything even if it's crap.  There's a power-play there for the students to be able to get one over on the teacher, and I'm all for students teaching me something - except when their research is lacking or questionable.

For a while there, we had an "English Across the Curriculum" movement, and we had to evaluate English abilities in all subject areas in order to improve literacy.  Gym teachers and tech teachers suddenly had to add essay-writing to their lessons.  Then AER happened, and I was specifically told by an administrator that I couldn't evaluate grammar on an essay in a history course because it's not in the curriculum for my course, and evaluation must be tied directly to the curriculum.  I ignored that guidance, and I still take off marks for grammar so I don't end up reading text-speak in essays.  Curriculum police be damned!

But what we really need now is an "Anti-bullshit Across the Curriculum" movement.  We need every teacher to demand a variety of reputable, primary sources for every claim made.  It means kids will have to read more than just headlines, and there's a danger that they'll just stop expressing the claims in class rather than actually learn how to fact-check them.

Maybe that's just as well.

Monday, April 6, 2015

On Helping People Get Outraged

John Oliver's show about surveillance is a must see:

Amazing, right!?!

But what sticks with me most, as a teacher and an environmentalist, is this line:  "Is this a conversation we [American citizens] have a capacity to have?"


When intelligent people speak passionately about what they think is most important for the world to understand, they often go over people's heads or provide too many details that nobody really cares about, and then their message is lost.  Are you paying attention, Naomi Klein??*   Maybe Oliver could interview her next!

If we can't find a way to get people to understand the significance of what's happening to our ecosystems right now, we're screwed.  Maybe it would help to remind everyone that, if the atmosphere is filled with more greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and supporting factory farms, then they'll be too worried about finding drinking water and a home at a higher elevation to be able to have sex.

Except, that happened with phthalates years ago, and nobody cared.  There was a huge Globe & Mail spread on how phthalates and plastics affect male fertility and even penis size, and I thought at the time, "Now things will change."  But it didn't.  At all.  Because it's not happening to people in a way they can see, and it's not happening to them RIGHT FREAKING NOW.

Blarg.  How do we get the message across in a way that people will get pissed off and actually change the way they live and the types of politicians and platforms they'll support??

Help me, John Oliver. You're our only hope.


*Yes, I know I could use a lesson on this too, but I'm a C list blogger, so I'll just putter away here how I like, thank-you very much.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

On Final Exams

A recent article in the National Post suggests that exams are passé.  Joseph Brean writes,
Psychologists have a quip about IQ tests — the only thing they measure is your ability to do IQ tests. They are not, as they purport to be, an objective measure of intelligence, like the air temperature of a room. Rather, they are variable, and vulnerable to luck and circumstance, like the score of a hockey game. Exams are the same. They are cruel in their way, in their pose as objective measures of a student’s worth.
The article suggests that since exams are stressful, then they should be abolished because, "high-stress exams give a false picture of a student’s abilities."

Exams can certainly be stressful, and as a lazy student with a weak memory for details, I often watched them lower my grades.  But I disagree with Brean's claim that exams are as useless as IQ tests.  (Although the equally stressful EQAO is a different matter entirely.)

We show what we know when we can remember information when prompted.  Writing essays and doing projects display communication skills and an understanding of concepts, but, without committing the content to memory, I'm not convinced we can say we've learned it.  If you can't tell me anything about WWI - when it happened, who was involved, worldwide implications... - without looking at your notes, then you don't know anything about it.  Then when you watch Downton Abbey, and a date flashes on the screen, "June 1914," you have to look it up to grasp the significance.  It's useful to know things, and it's useful to our society if everyone has a common knowledge of basic facts about history, geography, multiplication tables, the carbon cycle...  Without a display of memory, we can't assess learning.  And a good test or exam can be a clear indicator of knowledge.

So why not just have tests without a final exam?  The nice thing about exams is that kids do them.  They don't whine or try to bargain or chat or even think of taking out their phones during exams.  Because exams are held up to a higher standard, and the whole school stops for a week for them to happen, and the kids only get one kick at the cat, students take exams more seriously than tests. I've had in-class tests with a third of the class AWOL then had to spend days tracking them and getting them to write a make-up. I once had a student take a make-up test home for three days to write it, and I was instructed that I had to count it because he showed he knew the content - ignoring the obvious fact that he had ample opportunity to google the material.  For exams, they all show up and do the work.  Period.

Because they take them seriously, kids push themselves more than throughout the term.  As Ken Coates said in the article, "People have forgotten at great detriment that the writing of a test is a valuable skill in its own right."  It forces students to review material from the entire course repeatedly, which can help it to stick. However, I could get behind allowing exemptions for exams.  If we set a high standard for term work, maybe 80%, that gets students out of writing the exam, then they might be more motivated to do excellent work throughout the term instead of saving themselves for the final.

Yes, stress is a concern.  If a student chokes, it shouldn't destroy the grade. Now we break the 30% final evaluation into a few pieces near the end of term.  I can have an open-book portion for an essay where they can look up any details they need, and a closed-book portion for content.  That helps avoid one bad day harming the mark too much.  We can also choose to ignore a significantly inconsistent mark.

All the same, stress also gets a bad rap.  The article quotes a neuroscientist who studies cognitive performance under pressure: Sian Beilock says,
There is a time and a place for diagnostics, but a sole reliance on them does not seem wise to me...[Stressful exams] rob us of our limited ability to pay attention to what we need to.... [The worries] soak up the resources that we could be using to focus on a test.  
The article goes on to say Beilock, "advocates a technique of 'reappraising arousal' in the context of examination, to think of stressful feelings as part of success, rather than failure....students should still be tested, but must also learn to 'effectively and efficiently cope with stress and then recover from that effort.'"  We get an adrenaline rush when we're stressed or excited or upset.  If we're anxious, but convince ourselves that we're actually excited, it can help alleviate the stress.

Clearly we shouldn't just rely on exams as a sole measure of ability, but they can still be one measure that we incorporate into a bank of data. But even more important, perhaps, is that we need some stress to motivate us to do things that are difficult or not entertaining to us. We don't want so much that it makes students sick or drives them (or their parents) to cheat, though, so students need to learn the skill of talking themselves through the anxiety, which is a skill that I've used countless times in other aspects of my life since learning it in university.  Without a chance for kids to experience difficulty, we're robbing them of a chance to learn how to cope with the difficulty.

When I first started teaching, I was part of a Special Education Department that took time out of English classes each term to give pointers on mnemonics and coping with stress during exams. We're at a point where, when we see an obstacle, we want to abolish it rather than work through it.  If a student struggles to write quickly, s/he's given extra time.  If someone finds presentations stressful, s/he's allowed to present just to the teacher.  And now exams are stressing people out, so we look towards getting rid of them.  But we could do so much more for people if we helped them struggle to write faster, or struggle to talk with an audience, or struggle to cope with stress.

But I believe the real stressor here isn't the exam itself.  We've had exams for years without people so affected by them.  The real stressor is the need for a competitive edge in our society because there's a dearth of opportunities. Without the jobs that have been lost to outsourcing or technological advances, students and parents have become obsessed with marks.  Marks lead to a good school which hopefully leads to one of a dwindling supply of jobs which leads to basic survival.  So exam marks have become a matter of life and death.

Finally, Brean's suggestion that exams are cruel and "pose as objective measures of a student's worth" is a different problem.  Grades in school should in no way be a marker of anybody's value as a human being. But I think it's our culture that present that perspective, not the exams themselves.  Exams are merely an indication of what people know at a given time.  They can give us a sense of what we're good at, what we might want to pursue in life, and what we need to work at further if we really want the knowledge on offer.  

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Religious Extremism of New Atheists

I wrote a tiny blurb about this over a month ago.  This one is much longer and leans heavily on solid arguments from many critics - letting their words speak for themselves. The issue has become serious enough to warrant a lengthy rebuttal.


My concern with the New Atheists is born of classroom conversations.  In most of my classes there are a few students who are Muslim and, recently, a few who are followers of the New Atheists' leaders: particularly Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and Maher.  I've had students of different races and religions in my classes for decades without having to referee comments until the New Atheists arrived on the scene. Many of the New Atheists are openly anti-Islamic, and because they praise science, somehow student followers have gotten the impression that everything they say is factual and accurate and repeatable.

Suddenly, for the first time in decades of teaching, I'm having to shut down openly bigoted comments in class.  I even had a final exam comment that suggested that Islam as a new religion that brainwashes people and must be actively fought against. I'm not sure how a religion that's 1,400 years old is considered "new," but I'll move on to address concerns with the conflation of some harmful ideologies with atheism, in particular, in the work of Sam Harris.

Harris is pro-gun, pro-torturepro-ethnic profiling, anti-civil liberties, and excited by militarism, who exclaims in The End of Faith (52-53): "We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas."  And he's got teenagers following him like rabid lapdogs.  His prose are easy to repeat in debates and slippery to argue with, but that doesn't make them accurate or scientific.  And it certainly doesn't make him leftist despite his claims to liberalism.

Al Mckay of International Relations, says of a defence by Harris, that it
...marks a continuation of his vindication of radical, illiberal, authoritarian, repressive and rabidly anti-Muslim political stances. Let us leave his ideas about the paranormal, reincarnation, Eastern Mysticism, the persecution of the Jews and attempts at philosophy for another day. Harris’ politics are worthy of discussion because one of the strangest things about him is that, on many occasions, he has declared himself a liberal.

I'll quote Glenn Greenwald's Guardian article at length as he explain that Harris's "...atheism invariably serves - explicitly so - as the justifying ground for a wide array of policies that attack, kill and otherwise suppress Muslims."
He and others like him spout and promote Islamophobia under the guise of rational atheism. I've long believed this to be true and am glad it is finally being dragged out into open debate. These specific atheism advocates have come to acquire significant influence, often for the good. But it is past time that the darker aspects of their worldview receive attention....Contrary to the assumptions under which some Harris defenders are laboring, the fact that someone is a scientist, an intellectual, and a convincing and valuable exponent of atheism by no means precludes irrational bigotry as a driving force in their worldview....The key point is that Harris does far, far more than voice criticisms of Islam as part of a general critique of religion. He has repeatedly made clear that he thinks Islam is uniquely threatening....In his 2005 "End of Faith", he claimed that "Islam, more than any other religion human beings have devised, has all the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death."...This is not a critique of religion generally; it is a relentless effort to depict Islam as the supreme threat. Based on that view, Harris, while depicting the Iraq war as a humanitarian endeavor, has proclaimed that "we are not at war with terrorism. We are at war with Islam.

When criticism of religion morphs into an undue focus on Islam - particularly at the same time the western world has been engaged in a decade-long splurge of violence, aggression and human rights abuses against Muslims, justified by a sustained demonization campaign - then I find these objections to the New Atheists completely warranted....Most important of all - to me - is the fact that Harris has used his views about Islam to justify a wide range of vile policies aimed primarily if not exclusively at Muslims, from torture ("there are extreme circumstances in which I believe that practices like 'water-boarding' may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary"); to steadfast support for Israel, which he considers morally superior to its Muslim state violence ("On questions of national security, I am now as wary of my fellow liberals as I am of the religious demagogues on the Christian right. This may seem like frank acquiescence to the charge that 'liberals are soft on terrorism.' It is, and they are").

An American Atheist, Robin Marie, says,
In a very long post on the threat the radical Islamic world poses to the the secular (mostly Western) world, Sam Harris gives no credit to any political, social or economic issue in the regions where radical Islam is a problem....he does not mention constant social strife and conflict, he does not mention economic exploitation. The radical Muslims of Sam Harris’s imagination exist in a vacuum, serving only as vectors for ideas – horrible, corrupt ideas which have filled them with pre-modern superstition and primitive ferocity. If you ask him how they got that way, he would point a finger only at the Koran, and especially particular passages in the Koran. There you go!, he says, throwing his hands up. What more do you need? Barbaric ideas lead to barbarians. D-Huh.

In CJ Werleman's article, "Atheists don't get terrorism," he says,
In dealing with ISIS, Harris says, “We won’t even honestly describe the motivations of our enemies. And in the act of lying to ourselves, we continue to pay lip service to the very delusions that empower them.” This is a breathtaking failure to understand what and who ISIS is. ISIS is the Sunni militia. Its leadership consists of former Baathist, anti-Islamist, pro-secular Saddam loyalists. When the U.S. removed Saddam and put 1 million Sunnis on the unemployment line, the 20th-century Western-manufactured country of Iraq disappeared, and Iraqis reached back for older identities: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd.

Chris Hedges gets in the fray as well with this excellent article:
The New Atheists embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinistic and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists. They propose a route to collective salvation and the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason. The utopian dream of a perfect society and a perfect human being, the idea that we are moving towards collective salvation, is one of the most dangerous legacies of the Christian faith and the Enlightenment. Those who believe in the possibility of this perfection often call for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress. They turn their particular good into a universal good. They are blind to their own corruption and capacity for evil. They soon commit evil, not for evil's sake but to make a better world. I started Harris' book when it was published but soon put it aside. His facile attack on a form of religious belief I detest, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist. 
There is nothing in human nature or human history to support the idea that we are morally advancing as a species or that we will overcome the flaws of human nature. We progress technologically and scientifically, but not morally. We use the newest instruments of technological and scientific progress to create more efficient forms of killing, repression and economic exploitation, and to accelerate environmental degradation. There is a good and a bad side to human progress. We are not moving towards a glorious utopia. We are not moving anywhere.... 
Hitchens and Harris describe the Muslim world, where I spent seven years, most of them as the Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times, in language that is as racist, crude and intolerant as that used by Pat Robertson or the late Jerry Falwell. They are a secular version of the religious right. They misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology, just as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible, by trying to argue that we can evolve morally -- something Darwin never asserted. They are as anti-intellectual as the Christian Right.
Hedges goes on to specifically refute many of Harris' claims about Yugoslavia and Gaza.

I'll give Chomsky the last word on this.  He calls Harris and Hitchens religious fanatics, and elsewhere says,
I’ve found these “new atheist” writers to be an embarrassment;...they typically conflate atheism with stereotypical liberal or radical left-wing politics when there’s no inherent relationship whatsoever;...they come across as narrow-minded and ill-informed bigots whose only purpose is to antagonize religious people.

Major thinkers and scholars in these areas have demonstrated that Sam Harris misunderstands religion, terrorism, and geopolitics. But the biggest problem with his writing is that regardless the inaccuracies, it's in the populist genre that makes it simplistically persuasive. He sounds like he's making good arguments even when his information is inaccurate and his logic faulty.


One academic blogger did a little digging into Harris' PhD because Harris bills himself as a neuroscientist but doesn't seem to do a lot of neuroscience.  One of Harris's reviewers of his thesis, statistician William Briggs, analyzed Harris's thesis with this comment:
During the course of my investigation of scientism and bad science, I have read a great many bad, poorly reasoned papers. This one might not be the worst, but it deserves a prize for mangling the largest number of things simultaneously. What is fascinating, and what I do not here explore, is why this paper was not only published but why it is believed by others. It is sure evidence, I think, that scientists are no different than anybody else in wanting their cherished beliefs upheld such that they are willing to grasp at any confirmatory evidence, no matter how slight, blemished, or suspect that evidence might be.
Later in that link a strange coincidence is explored, and it's suggested that Harris's entire PhD is suspect.
It would seem to me that an atheist activist, being funded by the atheist’s own atheist organization that currently thinks religion deserves “special focus” when it comes to criticism, had a conflict of interest to declare....It’s bad enough that Harris is only “joint first author” on a paper publishing his thesis research and one of four people involved in conceiving and designing the experiment, but ... Sam Harris never did any of the experiments for his own PhD thesis! How many science PhD students are out there working on their own PhDs without doing a single experiment? ...Now, when you consider that Harris has a BA in Philosophy and did not do any of the experiments for this research, it makes you wonder if Sam Harris, the man who promotes himself as “a neuroscientist,” has ever performed a single experiment in his life....Of course, since publishing his thesis, then his book, Sam Harris has never once actually used science to resolve a moral dispute.
Beyond the speculation around Harris's own claims to be a neuroscientist, it is the case, of course, that scientists can be mistaken about moral and political issues.  Being a neuroscientist should never be enough to convince people of claims on religious matters, politics, or philosophy. However, the popularity of his views - and his books - shows a sort of reversal of the ad hominem circumstantial sucks in an unfortunate number of people who agree with an argument based on the circumstances of the presenter rather than the actual validity of his position.

In a formal peer-reviewed paper appearing in Midwest Studies in Philosophy, "New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement," Massimo Pigliucci does an excellent take-down of the New Atheists in general and Harris in particular with respect to using science to further morality:
To recap, then, what is considered to be perhaps the quintessential text of the New Atheism is an odd mishmash of scientific speculation (on the origins of religion), historically badly informed polemic, and rehashing of philosophical arguments. Yet Dawkins and his followers present The God Delusion as a shining example of how science has dealt a fatal blow to the idea of gods.... 
Harris’s project is as ambitious as it is misguided:....Harris undermines his own project right off the bat, in two notes that appear in the opening pages, but are conveniently tucked in at the back of his book. In the second note to the Introduction, he acknowledges that he “do[es] not intend to make a hard distinction between ‘science’ and other intellectual contexts in which we discuss ‘facts.’ ” If that is the case, if we get to define “science” as any type of rational– empirical inquiry into “facts” (the scare quotes are his), then we are talking about something that is not at all what most readers are likely to understand when they pick up a book with a subtitle that says How Science Can Determine Human Values (my emphasis). One can reasonably smell a bait and switch here.  
Second, in the first footnote to chapter 1, Harris says: “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy...[but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’...directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” This is so mind-boggling that I had to reread it several times: Harris is saying that the whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is to be dismissed because he personally finds it boring. Is that a fact or a value judgment, I wonder?
An entertaining talk (only 7 minutes) by Raymond Tallis, a clinical neuroscientist, refers to Harris's type of claims as a brain-blamers operating under a branch of neuromythology.

As a scientist, Harris isn't doing any science. And as a philosopher, he's doing some shoddy work there too.


Harris's arguments against free will are less a concern for classroom deportment but are no less frustrating to address.  These ideas fit with the former only if a Harris follower were to take up arms against some Muslims, and then Harris could clarify why the murder was not actually the shooter's fault.

John Horgan argued against Harris's claims against free will in the Scientific American article, New Year's Resolution: I will believe in free will:
Harris argued that "no account of causality leaves room for free will." He cited experiments in which magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) "predicts" that a subject is going to do something—on the basis of activity in the subject’s brain—up to 10 seconds before the subject consciously decides to do it....But from another perspective, this rejection of free will makes no sense. Or rather, it goes much too far, because it suggests that our conscious deliberations are epiphenomenal, superfluous, with no real impact on our actions. That is reductionism ad absurdum....Such experiments merely confirm that physiological processes underpin all our perceptions, plans, choices and actions. Only a believer in dualism or an immaterial soul would expect anything else.
I personally don't think the MRI experiments (which were originally done over 30 years ago) eradicate the notion of free will. Harris argues that since some actions are enacted in our brain without a prior conscious perception of them, therefore all of our actions are enacted in our brain before we're aware of them - suggesting that all our actions are caused by the brain's mechanisms rather than by our own conscious decisions. But, first of all, that's a hasty generalization to shift from one type of behaviour to all behaviours. Secondly, the experiments being discussed have people making small binary actions, choosing to use a left or right hand or move a finger for instance, which could be argued to be more of an urge than a significant decision or intention. Finally, it could be the case that we make a decision that activates brain activity seen in a brain scan before it's clear to our conscious mind. In other words, it could still be the case that we make the decision even if the decision shows up in our brain before we're aware of it.

John Horgan wrote more about Harris in another Scientific American article. Harris suggests that since we accept that a man with a brain tumour doesn't have free will to choose to murder people, then it's clear that none of us have free will. Horgan replies,
Harris seems to be advancing a reductio ad absurdum, except that he wants us to accept the absurdum: there is no fundamental difference between me and a man compelled to kill by a brain tumor. Or between me and someone who can’t help washing his hands every 20 minutes, or someone who’s schizophrenic, or a babbling baby, or a newt, or a worm. I mean, if I’m not different from a guy who kills because a tumor provokes him into murderous rages, how am I different from anyone or anything with a brain, no matter how damaged or tiny? Here’s the difference. The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time. Yes, my choices are constrained, by the laws of physics, my genetic inheritance, upbringing and education, the social, cultural, political, and intellectual context of my existence. And as Harris keeps pointing out, I didn’t choose to be born into this universe, to my parents, in this nation, at this time. I don’t choose to grow old and die. But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I don’t have absolute freedom doesn’t mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.

Harris keeps insisting that because all our choices have prior causes, they are not free; they are determined. Of course all our choices are caused. No free-will proponent I know claims otherwise. The question is how are they caused? Harris seems to think that all causes are ultimately physical, and that to hold otherwise puts you in the company of believers in ghosts, souls, gods and other supernatural nonsense. But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes. Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds. These ideas may cause us to change our minds and make decisions that alter the trajectory of our world. Some of us have a greater capacity to perceive and act on choices than others. The killer with a brain tumor, the schizophrenic, the sociopath, the obsessive-compulsive do not and cannot make decisions–or change their minds–in the way that I do. When I weigh the pros and cons of writing about Harris, my chain of reasoning is determined by the substance of my thoughts, not their physical instantiation....

We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter. Harris perversely–willfully!–refuses to acknowledge this crushingly obvious and fundamental fact about us. He insists that because science cannot figure out the complex causality underpinning free will, it must be illusory. 
The strongest philosophical take-down of Harris's free will argument is in a review by Alvin Plantinga:
The first thing to see is that there is a serious problem, in this book, about precisely what free will is supposed to be. As we usually think of it, free will has to do with actions and decisions; it is actions and decisions that are free or unfree. You have free will on a given occasion just if you could have done otherwise.... 
How does Harris think of free will? "Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and action, and you would need to have complete control over those factors."...According to Harris, I am free in so acting only if I myself chose to have that desire and I myself brought it about that I do have that desire. If instead I just find myself with that desire (have not chosen to have it), then no action I take because of that desire is a free action.... 
Harris' notion of freedom is really an idea of what we might call maximal autonomy. It's obvious that we don't have maximal autonomy; we aren't free in that sense. Indeed, it isn't so much as possible that we be free in that sense. That is because, as he thinks of it, I act freely on a given occasion only if I myself freely choose to have the desires and affections I then act on, and furthermore I myself freely bring it about that I do have them. But note that the action by which I bring about that I have those desires and affections must itself be free. That means that I must have freely brought it about that I had the desires and affections out of which I acted in bringing it about that I have the desires and affections I presently have. You can see where this is going: for every occasion on which I act freely, there must have been an earlier occasion in which I acted freely. This clearly involves an infinite regress (to use the charming phrase philosophers like): if Harris is right, it is possible that I act freely only if it is possible that I perform an infinite number of actions, each one a matter of bringing it about that I have a certain set of desires and affections. Clearly no one has time, these busy days, for that. Harris is certainly right that we don't have that maximal autonomy; but nothing follows about our having freedom, i.e., the sort of freedom we ordinarily think we have, the sort required for moral responsibility.

What we have here looks like a classic bait and switch: announce that you will show that we don't have freedom in the ordinary sense required by moral responsibility, and then proceed to argue that we don't have freedom in the sense of maximal autonomy.... 
But he does also declare that we don't have freedom in the ordinary sense: "we know that determinism, in every sense relevant to human behavior, is true. Unconscious neural events determine our thoughts and actions—and are themselves determined by prior causes"....This argument is a complete failure.
Plantinga also comments on Harris's brain tumour analogy:
I am sorry to say that I couldn't find the argument. Harris seems to think merely pointing to this possibility is sufficient to clinch his case. But that seems preposterous. Some people under some conditions aren't free; how does it even begin to follow that no people under any conditions are free? ....Harris, on the other hand, seems to support determinism by little more than bland assertion and uncogent argument.

It's unnerving that someone who makes bigoted remarks can get so much praise for aligning with the atheists as if it's necessarily the side of all that's reasonable and good.  His use of science to develop morality is an utter failure, and I question the claim that he's a philosopher of any description.  Now to convince my students.

ETA - Here's a debate between Hedges and Harris that shows Harris' excellent command of the audience, but weakness with ideas of religion, history, and current Muslim culture.