Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Peacemaker's Tragic (and Unnecessary) Death

I generally avoid writing about the Middle East, because what is happening there really makes me sad.  Like many American Jews, I am pro-Israel (although not especially fond of the country's current ultra-conservative government), and I am in favor of a Two-State Solution.  But these days, there are fewer people who hold out much hope that Israeli Jews and Palestinians can ever find a path to peace.  I understand that each side in the conflict has its own narratives about why peace is so elusive, but rather than allowing this post to devolve into blame and recrimination, I want to pay tribute to someone who tried to make a difference... but was not allowed to do so.

I don't think I ever met Richard Lakin in person, but I certainly knew his work.  He and I exchanged messages on Twitter a few times, usually about educational issues (he opposed endless high-stakes tests, and wanted to see the classroom once again be a place for critical thinking, where a child's curiosity was encouraged).  He was a passionate advocate for teachers, and he believed that a good education could be life-changing, especially for kids from impoverished backgrounds.  He wrote a beautiful book called "Teaching as an Act of Love," and even after retiring from being a high school principal, he continued to tutor and to help disadvantaged students. 

In 1984, he and his family moved to Israel, where he brought that same passion and love for learning.  He was committed to peaceful coexistence between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and he and his wife established a school in Jerusalem that taught English to students from all religious backgrounds.  He also devoted many hours to promoting better communication and more understanding among the various religious and ethnic groups.  By all accounts, he was loved and respected, even by those who might not always agree with him.

Several weeks ago, Richard Lakin was riding a bus, when two armed Palestinian men boarded and began attacking the passengers with knives and guns.  Mr. Lakin was both shot and stabbed repeatedly.  He never recovered, and died yesterday.  He was 76 years old. 

I write this because acts like the murder of Richard Lakin seem so senseless.  Here was a man who came to Israel to try to promote peace, a man who was admired by both Jews and Muslims.  When his obituary was posted (you can read about his life in more detail here: http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2015/10/27/newton-native-attacked-israel-dies/yIPcCK019gpthdSK6yITWJ/story.html), some of the online comments immediately blamed the "Israeli Occupation" and seemed to defend the men who murdered him.  I cannot accept that.  Whatever your feelings about Israel's policies, Mr. Lakin was not responsible for the lack of progress in the peace process, nor can he be blamed for the frustration felt by many Palestinians.  He came to Israel to try to make a positive difference.  And he died for no good reason, the victim of an act of senseless hatred.

I agree that there are extremists on both sides in the Middle East, and I agree that these extremists are currently dominating the conversation.  But whatever our religious views, and however we may feel about the current Israeli government (or about the current Palestinian leaders, for that matter), we cannot sit idly by and allow the extremists to win.  Although Richard Lakin's voice has been silenced, I hope other educators and advocates will continue his work.  He would not want us to give up on the dream that one day, Israeli Jews and Palestinians can learn to live and work together, as friends and colleagues rather than enemies.  Although the odds of a positive outcome have often seemed long, Mr. Lakin never wavered in his commitment to doing the right thing; he continued to believe in the power of education, and he continued to believe peace was possible.  For now, the world has one less peacemaker, but I hope that others who share his views will soon pick up where he left off.  And may the memory of Richard Lakin inspire acts of kindness, rather than further acts of violence. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

In Praise of Pitbulls

I never thought I'd write a blog post about dogs-- I have no pets (I'm allergic to dogs and cats, in fact) and I admit to being genuinely puzzled by folks who treat their pet like a finicky human child (will your dog refuse to eat unless you buy it gourmet pet food?); I've even known some people who talk to their pet more than they talk to their colleagues or neighbors.  I do realize that because I'm not a pet-owner, it's hard for me to understand the emotions of people who dote on their dog or cat (or any other pet). But just because I don't share those emotions, that doesn't mean I have no empathy for the pet-owners who see their animals as companions or even friends.

And that is why I am puzzled by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which seems to have decided that some dogs don't deserve to be loved or befriended-- PETA seems to have bought into the belief that one breed-- pit bulls -- is inherently dangerous and incapable of being a good pet.  According to this logic, breed-specific bans are necessary, because pit bulls are attack dogs, and only by banning them can we all be safe.  (In one famous opinion piece, PETA's president went even farther, saying that the only way to spare people from being bitten is to make sure that no more pit bulls are born. You can read it here: http://www.nathanwinograd.com/linked/killpits.PDF

Of course, research has repeatedly shown that pit bulls are no more likely to attack than many other breeds, and that any dog who is poorly raised can be taught to act viciously.  Sadly, that is what has happened to pit bulls: they have been used in dog-fighting, and some have been trained to act in a menacing way.  But that is not the fault of the breed; it's the fault of their owners.  Based on what I've read, and based on conversations with responsible pit bull owners, "pitties" can be sweet, friendly, and affectionate-- if that is how they are raised. You may have seen a TV show on the National Geographic channel called "Dogtown," about Best Friends Animal Society, an organization which rehabilitates dogs, training them and helping them to overcome past abuse. Their goal is to prove that few dogs are hopeless cases.  (Best Friends rehabilitated many of the dogs abused by Michael Vick.  And while a small number of those animals were in fact too vicious to be helped, the vast majority turned out to be extremely friendly and able to be adopted into good homes. You can find out more about the work Best Friends does with pit bulls here:   http://bestfriends.org/our-work/pit-bull-terrier-initiatives.) 

I wanted to write this because I know someone whose pit bull, a cuddly and friendly family pet, was arbitrarily removed from that home due to a local ordinance that banned anyone from owning a pit bull.  As someone who hates it when human beings are stereotyped, I am equally dismayed by stereotyping an entire breed of animal:  since there's no scientific proof that pit bulls are inherently dangerous, and since there's a lot of evidence that if they have good owners, they can be wonderful pets, I fail to see the benefit of demonizing their species. Rather, I'd like to see stronger penalties for people who abuse these dogs or use them for fighting.  In many cities, animal abuse gets one the proverbial "slap on the wrist."  That needs to change.

Meanwhile, all over the country, there are pit bulls who are in shelters, waiting for someone to give them a chance.  Many will be euthanized before that happens.  As I said earlier, I am not a pet owner, but I absolutely understand how much comfort a companion animal can bring.  And if that animal is a pit bull, it doesn't necessarily mean anyone will be in danger.  Rather, I am told by friends who own one that the vast majority of pit bulls are loyal and sweet.  I agree with Best Friends and other advocacy groups that it's time for the states and cities with breed-specific bans to reconsider them. People who can give these dogs a loving home should be allowed to do so.  And as someone who likes to see factual information, I believe it's also time for the myths about pit bulls to end.  To help with that, here's a good site that refutes the misconceptions people have about this breed-- and hey, even Betty White says pit bulls can make wonderful pets! http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arin-greenwood/pit-bull-myths_b_5623555.html

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Best Congress Money Can Buy

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a very important investigative piece, entitled "The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election.  You can read it here, and I sincerely hope you will, but be warned:  it's somewhat depressing.  http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/10/11/us/politics/2016-presidential-election-super-pac-donors.html?emc=edit_na_20151010&nlid=65276374&ref=headline

In the article, the authors note that a small number of super-rich men (and they are overwhelmingly men, as well as overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly from the older demographics) have provided the vast majority of the political donations up to this point:   "Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign...Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision five years ago." Of these super-rich donors, 138 have given their support entirely to Republicans, who have promised to cut their taxes, cut back on regulations they dislike, and scale back so-called "entitlement programs" that benefit the poor and working class.

I know what some of you are thinking-- if these donors gave their money to Democrats, Donna would be fine with it.  But you'd be wrong.  I would be every bit as upset, although for different reasons.  Whether I like the policies of Democrats better than those of Republicans, the fact remains that allowing a small number of super-wealthy men (or women, for that matter) to control our politics is not good for democracy, no matter which side they happen to support.  Call me old-fashioned, but when I vote, I want to feel my vote means something.  If billionaires can use their wealth to get congress to favor policies that only benefit them and their business interests, how can I or anyone who works for a living hope to compete?  What can I give my member of congress that will make him or her listen to me?  On the salary I make as a professor, there's no way I can donate a large amount of money in exchange for access.  So I don't get that access.  But those 158 billionaires certainly do, and it's all because they can throw several million at a candidate's campaign and not think twice about it.

Something is wrong with that picture.  And something is even wronger when the New York Times report led to ... radio (and TV) silence.  As Charlie Pierce of Esquire.com pointed out, not one of the Sunday talk shows on television even addressed the report; nor have any of the major networks discussed it since.  Perhaps that's not surprising, given that some of these wealthy donors own companies that are also huge advertisers, and some may even sit on boards of the corporate media giants.  But still, you'd think it would at least merit a brief discussion of the excessive role money is playing in our politics.  Sadly, it has not. I wonder if it will.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders is drawing large crowds and evoking cheers when he talks about how problematic it is for billionaires to have so much influence.  I am sure some people who dislike Bernie believe he is anti-business (he has said he does not think of himself as a capitalist), but doesn't he have a point?  Democracy cannot survive if only the big-money donors are able to get whatever they want, while the rest of us are relegated to the sidelines, bemoaning how corrupt and how inept our congress has become.  And this should not be a partisan issue:  neither working-class Republicans nor working-class Democrats benefit from a system that only rewards the wealthy among us.  I'm one of many who believe the Citizens United decision only made matters worse.  If you're interested in helping to overturn it, here is where you can find some like-minded people:  https://movetoamend.org/

One of my favorite Rush songs is "The Big Money," and some of Neil Peart's lyrics couldn't be more appropriate:  "Big money got a heavy hand/ Big money take control/ Big money got a mean streak/ Big money got no soul..."  I keep expecting people to realize they are in fact being manipulated by politicians who are distracting them with claims that immigrants or Planned Parenthood or lazy poor people are causing the problems.  No, not really.  Once again, it's the big money.  And although many voters seem resigned to the situation, I still hope that in the near future, the voting public will finally see what the game is, and demand some changes.  But until they do, we're all dancing to the tune of 158 super-rich people.  And that doesn't sound like democracy to me.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Youth Sports and the Disappearance of Childhood

I was reading an article in the Washington Post yesterday, and it really bothered me.  No, it wasn't about politics, or religion, or the other hot button issues I sometimes blog about. It was about kids and sports.  I have many memories of watching schoolboy sports, as well as watching the kids in my neighborhood assemble their own teams for pick-up games.  It seemed like no matter what time of year, some sport was being played at some local field somewhere; and those of us who couldn't play were the loyal spectators, cheering for our team. 

But according to the article I read, that isn't happening as much any more:  in fact, participation in youth sports has been declining.  These days, fewer kids are playing baseball, basketball, soccer... they're not even getting together for a game of touch football.  No, it's not because kids prefer to be glued to their devices (although that certainly may be a factor for some).  Mainly, it's because youth sports are no longer about having fun.  They're about hard work and high expectations, the result of too many parents making too many demands. The focus of youth sports has changed:  what used to be a good way for kids to get some fresh air and exercise is now treated like a high-stakes athletic competition, even at the youngest levels. There is so much pressure on kids to be the next big star or to win the next big game that many are just giving up and walking away.

According to the article (which you can read here  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/are-parents-ruining-youth-sports-fewer-kids-play-amid-pressure/2015/10/04/eb1460dc-686e-11e5-9ef3-fde182507eac_story.html), too many parents are ignoring the emotional and physical needs of young athletes.  These parents forget that youth sports are played by kids, not grown-ups; the players are still young, still maturing, still learning, and they probably won't play the game perfectly.  But then, not that long ago, nobody expected perfection, and if a kid made a bad play, it was disappointing, but it wasn't the end of the world. 

These days, however, if you attend any youth sporting events, you may notice a disturbing trend:  some parents in the stands are shouting at their kids or criticizing them as they play (or worse yet, screaming at the officials).  Every dropped pass or strike-out is treated like a personal affront, rather than something that happens even to the professionals.  And rather than letting their kids just be kids and learn at their own rate of speed, some parents expect their sons and daughters to practice for hours; parents who can afford it are even hiring private coaches for their kids, and treating each game as if it's an audition for an athletic scholarship.  (These are the moms and dads who claim to be doing what is best for their kid-- whether their kid wants to play pro ball or not.  But in reality, they may be hoping their kid vicariously achieves the athletic success they never had.)

Back in 1982, Neil Postman wrote a book called The Disappearance of Childhood, in which he discussed how attitudes about children have changed over the centuries.  He noted a time when kids were shielded from some of the harsh realities of adult life, when children were allowed to be innocent and to act like kids, when they were not expected to act like miniature adults nor grow up too fast. I would be the last person to claim that we'd all be better off going back some mythic "good old days," but I do wish we could go back to a time when kids played sports for fun, and parents let them do it.  I cringe when I see a parent yelling at a kid who made an error, and I hate it when parents call the referee rude names-- how does this teach kids good sportsmanship?  Postman noted in his book that even in the 1970s and 1980s, parents were turning youth sports into adult sports, professionalizing and pressurizing them, as if every game was the Super Bowl; and since then, it's only gotten worse.  I am not sure who benefits from doing that, but I do know what the cost has been... and it's the kids who are paying for it.