“Breaking through the atmosphere And things are pretty good from here Remember everything will be alright”
from “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles
So to celebrate my birthday this year, I don’t get to go out, but I do get to choose whatever I want to watch on television. Thank goodness for Netflix and HBO and Prime Video. I choose not to watch the news where deaths due to the coronavirus (as of this writing) are approaching 1500 in the US. When I woke up yesterday, 1001 people had died from this pandemic in our country. In the time it took me to put on my socks – literally – 1005 people had died. We are nowhere near the end of this catastrophe. These are strange days.
If anything, the last 2 weeks of sitting in my house have made me feel incredibly grateful. I’m grateful for my job – as a college professor, the beat goes on, and I know I’ll still be working/teaching even as we struggle as a country to get our feet back under us. I feel grateful for my college and how they are working to try and help students and instructors meet the unprecedented demands this crisis presents. I am painfully aware of the work and childcare challenges that some of my family and friends face and the difficult choices they have to make. I’m grateful for good health, the safety of home, and for technology that allows me to stay connected to family and friends, to check in and have a sense of normalcy in this abnormal state. I’m blessed to have a wonderful wife and best friend who I’m glad to spend a lot of time with. And I am grateful for friends who send birthday wishes, gifts via Amazon, gift cards for wine delivery, and the beautiful yellow box of cookies left on the doorstep, with my friends who delivered them standing at an acceptable social distance on the sidewalk to wish me a happy birthday. A sign of the times.
All of this also has me thinking of what we owe to each other. This is also the title of a book about ethics by T. M. Scanlon. If you’re a fan of “The Good Place” on NBC, you might have heard the ethics professor, Chidi, refer to this book from time to time. Scanlon’s book is about fairness and responsibility within the social contract we have. The responsibility we owe each other in this time is kind of a paradox: we show our commitment to one another by staying away from one another. We show concern by practicing isolation. By engaging in social distancing, we show how we care for the least among us: the most vulnerable who have underlying health conditions, the elderly who may not be as strong, and the poorest who don’t have access to health care. But the danger isn’t just for these parts of society. It touches all of us, or it will in time.
In describing his idea of the social contract, John Rawls imagined what he called a “veil of ignorance.” It works like this: Think about creating a just and equitable society for everyone. What would make the society fair for you and everyone else? Although you could never eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you should consciously try to eliminate or minimize as many of them as possible. To do this, Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in what he calls “the original position” behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you don’t know anything about yourself, your abilities/disabilities, or what money and resources you have. You don’t know your own sex, race, or country of origin. Behind such a veil of ignorance, we start with the same set of attributes: we are all rational, free, and morally equal beings. We all have the same opportunity to rise or fall equally. Rawls and Immanuel Kant and the Bible have this ethos in common: that we should treat everyone as we would want to be treated. It’s not a radical idea, but it is not radically practiced in everyday life.
This is the unique position we find ourselves in. We have to remember now that every choice we make now has a real consequence, and every choice is an opportunity to show the better angels of our nature. The virus that courses among us is no respecter of persons. Movie stars, elite athletes, and politicians are as at-risk as the common man, as at-risk as you and me. How we deal with this moving forward will show our commitment to fairness and equity. This is another sign of the times: in a nation that likes to see ourselves in individual terms, our collective vulnerability is on full display, and like it or not, we depend on each other now to find our way through.
Later today, I expect I’ll make a wish and blow out some candles. Although it is a superstition to keep the wish secret, I’m going to risk it and share that my wish is for all of us to think of each other before or at least equally with ourselves. God Bless America.
This post is about something you have quite possibly never heard of: podcasts. As in broadcasts for the iPod. My first experience with podcasts was way back in 2004. Podcasts were a fairly new iTunes genre, but I loved radio shows on NPR and audiobooks, so the podcast offered a familiar and simultaneously unique form – almost like a weekly magazine but free. My favorite: Pottercast, a podcast dedicated to rehashing everything in the Harry Potter lexicon and speculating on how the series might end. One of my favorite episodes featured an interview with Matthew Lewis – he played Neville Longbottom in the movie franchise.
And now you’ve seen my nerd card.
For some reason, despite the moderate success of standout programs like This American Life, podcasts didn’t really take off at first. They remained kind of a fringe form of media: low-budget, low-interest. Eventually, the Harry Potter book series came to a close, and I stopped listening to Pottercast and all other podcasts for a while. While the iPod itself is now virtually extinct, podcasts have hung in there, playing to a small audience week after week.
But then came a little podcast called Serial from the producers of This American Life. Season 1 of Serial hit the airwaves like a lightning bolt. If you have any curiosity about podcasts at all, download this podcast immediately and start listening. The well-produced series also presented a compelling mystery told by skilled storyteller and former crime reporter Sarah Koenig. Serial is the story of a closed case that feels pretty unresolved – the 1999 murder of a high school student from nearby Woodlawn, Maryland named Hae Min Lee. Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the crime, but the facts and circumstances made his conviction, well, un-convincing. (An aside: Syed won an appeal for a new trial and the Maryland Court of Special Appeals is currently weighing the state’s appeal of that ruling for a new trial. Justice is not just blind but painfully slow and bureaucratic.) Whereas This American Life had always focused on telling several bite-sized stories on the same theme in a single episode, Serial took a new approach. Koenig unfolded the story a little bit more week by week; Serial not only held listeners in rapt attention but spawned other true-crime podcasts in its wake, including Undisclosed, Truth & Justice, and Accused. This year the producers of Serial kept the ball rolling with a new podcast, S-Town, that presented something like a southern-gothic murder-mystery. No spoilers here, but the story takes a dramatic, strange turn that left me thinking, “What am I listening to?!” – yet I couldn’t turn it off. The new format of S-Town and Netflix-style dropping of all episodes at once pushed the genre in a new direction again.
The Podcast Renaissance is going strong, and I am in awe of how many truly exceptional programs are being produced. Podcasts have transformed my commute, my workout, and my yardwork – I can’t wait to immerse myself in these episodes. When I can’t sleep, I reach for my headphones- usually a bad idea because I get engrossed in the story and don’t want to sleep, but it’s better than the 2am television waste land. Search the iTunes charts, and you’ll find some truly esoteric stuff. There’s also some pretty mainstream stuff. Pottercast still exists, in case you’re wondering – they have a new episode up once or twice a month.
Of all the truly wonderful podcasts on the charts, I would like to focus on two of them for you that I am obsessed with right now: Ear Hustle and Revisionist History.
Revisionist History features Malcolm Gladwell, celebrated cultural critic and author of books such as Blink and The Tipping Point. I love the premise of his podcast: that some things we take for granted as settled history deserve a closer look. He takes on a wide range of historical and social issues, from Winston Churchill to country music to the educational system. Gladwell always takes an angle that I am not expecting, and I truly do learn something every time I listen to it. My only criticism of the podcast is that Gladwell sometimes goes too quickly for an oversimplification of complicated problems – maybe this is part of the limitation of a 30-minute conversation, or maybe he just really believes in Occam’s Razor. A good example of this is in the Season One episode called “Food Fight” about wealthy private colleges Bowdoin and Vassar. He starts by comparing the dining options at the colleges and then progresses to a discussion of the efforts each college makes (or doesn’t make) to offer better access to low-income students. His general point is that because Vassar has cut back on dining options and student amenities, they are able to admit more low-income students. I asked a former student of mine who happened to attend Vassar during the time Gladwell recorded that episode, and she pushes back on his summation that basic options are the burden that more fortunate students must bear in order to increase opportunities for low-income students. She pointed out that the college still spends plenty of money on non-student related amenities, such as champagne-rich faculty parties, new houses for administrators, and purchasing some rare, expensive golden bird for their art collection. My student shared that Vassar made this acquisition at the same time they were preaching austerity to students, saying they’d have to cut back on providing access to basic health items such as sanitary products. So yeah, not just about food. But even though his food for students argument is a bit reductive, Gladwell does raise an interesting point about how colleges choose to use their money – and this applies to all colleges and universities, not just Vassar and Bowdoin. It makes me think harder about how my own college spends its resources.
In addition to Gladwell’s program, another real standout for me is the new podcast called Ear Hustle. If you read Piper Kerman’s book Orange is the New Black or have seen the sensationalized series on Netflix by the same name, you probably have some notions and also some questions about life for the incarcerated. Ear Hustle is set in San Quentin State Prison and produced by two prisoners, Earlonne Woods & Antwan Williams, and a local
artist, Nigel Poor. To “Ear Hustle” means to eavesdrop – thus the podcast is what it is like to listen in on what actually happens in prison. One of my favorite episodes is called “Cellies” – about the pitfalls and politics of choosing and enduring a cellmate. That’s right – sometimes you have a say in who your cellmate might be, and the decision is pretty complicated. The episode called “SHU” explores the effects of long-term solitary confinement in Pelican Bay where SHU inmates are held. SHU stands for Security Housing Unit, and it is absolutely the loneliest place on earth. Woods himself spent a year in SHU and can personally speak to the way it altered him. His stint was nothing compared to other men who contribute to this episode – some of them spent decades in the SHU before getting released. Fortunately, due to a 2013 inmate hunger strike, the prison changed its policy and no longer commits prisoners to the SHU indefinitely; the maximum time there is five years – which is still an awfully long time to spend with no human interaction and no chance to breathe fresh air or feel the sun.
Ear Hustle does not pull any punches and does not romanticize the plight of the inmate. The inmates are not portrayed as animals or as completely reformed saints, but as flawed men who feel the weight of what they’ve done and who face the consequences of their choices daily. The self-awareness of the inmates is disarming and somewhat unexpected. The goal of the project, I think, is simply to lift the veil so we can better understand these men – not to pity them, but to humanize them. Our criminal justice system needs desperate reform, and perhaps seeing prisoners as people – not numbers, not problems – is a good first step in that process. So the podcast is not just entertainment, but a subtle exercise in activism.
The great thing about a podcast is that it allows for deep, extended listening. I have always loved listening to things – it probably goes back to when I was a kid and used to listen to baseball games on the radio with my grandfather. Too often, it seems to me that we do what I like to call resistant listening – especially when it is something that challenges us or that goes against things we already think or believe. We don’t listen to understand – we listen in order to respond – because we live in a contentious, litigious society where everyone wants to have the last or loudest word about things. Podcasts are helping me become a better listener and by extension a better thinker about a variety of subjects – some things I never thought I’d be interested in. Because of podcasts, I really think about the criminal justice system, I really think about how my brain works, I really think about my biases and how to be more aware of them. Podcasts inspire research, questions, and conversations. From politics to pop culture, true crime to television, there really is something for everyone. And more than that, we can all stand to become better listeners.
In addition to the ones I have already mentioned throughout this post, here are a few podcasts that I highly recommend (all available through iTunes):
I have taken a sabbatical from the blog for a few months now – in all honesty, the pernicious political climate defeated any desire I had to put together my thoughts for a blog post. Every idea I started with turned angry, and I generally believe anger is an impotent emotion.
It has not been easy to resist the tone. It has especially been a challenge at work, in the classroom. How does one teach in the time of Trump? It’s not easy. First and foremost, we have to tolerate things we disagree with and realize that opinions about Trump run a full spectrum. Despite how I feel about Trump, I have to model tolerant disagreement. Second, we have to acknowledge that everything we talk about in the classroom connects to the world around us, and the students certainly feel impacted by what’s going on out there. Nothing feels quite normal to students these days. They have anxieties and insecurities that get expressed in class discussion and in their writing. My students worry about their Muslim neighbors, their immigrant classmates, their LGBTQ friends, themselves. As much as we’d like to, we can’t shut the door and pretend that the world doesn’t exist; we have to talk about it. The only good way I can think to let the world in is by not focusing on Trump so much as what we read can teach us about ourselves. After all, even though a person like Trump seems new and unique in time, in truth he is not new but rather a regression. We can learn lessons from stories, plays, novels, and poems that show us who we do – and don’t – want to be. These past few months, I have found some solace in knowing that the things we study teach us about why truth matters, why bullies can’t win, what happens when we demonize others, and what happens when we fight for the best version of ourselves.
One of the classes I teach is called Ethics in Literature, and one of the things we confront in this course is the idea of what is true. There is a dangerous way of thinking out there in the world that says, “If it feels true to me or if it confirms what I believe, then it must be true.” In current political discourse, this is what is known as “Alternative Facts.” In plain truth, alternative facts are lies. One of the lessons we learn in ethics is that thinking so doesn’t make it so. “Many people are saying” is not a rational argument, and when we talk about big questions of right and wrong, objectivity is essential. Here is an example: Person A thinks chocolate ice cream is the best. That thinking expresses an opinion about ice cream. Is chocolate ice cream the best? Not according Person B who loves vanilla ice cream. Can they both be right? Ice cream is a low-stakes argument. But what if we apply that same process to a moral question? Moral questions can’t be decided based on a mere difference of opinion or preference. It may be Person A’s opinion that pursuing stem-cell research is wrong because it makes him uncomfortable, but that is not enough to declare it morally wrong. Moral questions require justified thinking, not just opinion or preference. And saying something like “stem-cell research is wrong because I think it’s messing with the natural order” is not a rational, justified argument. It may be how Person A feels, but that does not make it true. There really is a difference between facts and feelings, and one of the most important things we can teach students is to believe in the independent objectivity of facts.
As we read Macbeth, we see what happens when we give way to our darkest impulses, when we seek to win at all costs even at the expense of other people. The witches set the tone for this early on by declaring that “fair is foul and foul is fair.” Macbeth is a bully who decides to trash and destroy everything in his path. He wants power, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it. The gluttonous desire for power is all consuming, as he ultimately realizes that he is “in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should [he] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” – in other words, he is in over his head. The paranoid pursuit of power leads him to threaten and murder everyone he perceives as a threat in order to try and maintain his grasp on the throne. Ultimately, the bully defeats himself as everyone turns against Macbeth, refusing to accept his fatalistic vision. Shakespeare’s dark play shows us that ambition alone does not make a great leader, and while it may inspire fear, it will never inspire love, admiration, greatness, or loyalty.
When we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we learn that how we treat others matters. When Victor’s creature wanders out into the world, he is not a monster. The creature seeks love, acceptance, and understanding. He looks for a place to belong. But it is his difference in appearance and manner that ultimately creates fear in others. Society can’t handle his difference, and they take out those fears on the creature. The creature learns that he is “solitary and abhorred” – alone and hated. This leads him to feelings of “hate and revenge” – the creature learns to treat others the way he has been treated. At one point, the creature tells Victor, “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” The lesson is simple: when faced with someone different from our norm, someone outside of our comfort zone, we can treat them with respect and create better humans, or we can create monsters. Sometimes, for all the talk of America being “a great melting pot,” we sure do seem to resist people who are different from our norm. Too often we regard each other with suspicion and derision – and the monsters we really create are ourselves.
But when we read The Hunger Games, we learn that we should not pit ourselves against each other. When we do that, we play the evil leader’s game. President Snow wants people from the various districts to distrust each other, not to talk to each other, and not to help each other. He wants them to see their survival as dependent on the demise of others. Peeta and Katniss refuse to conform to the image of “good tributes” in that while they understand they may have to sacrifice their lives, they refuse to sacrifice their character. Their resistance is shown in small and big ways. For example, on the eve of the games, Peeta says, “I want to die as myself” in the arena. He does not want to fundamentally alter who he is for the sake of the game. Snow is hoping that the tributes will all behave viciously toward one another once the games are underway, confirming the worst narrative Snow has tried to construct about the people from the districts. It is a small act of rebellion on Peeta’s part to fight for his character in the face of a truly horrible fate. In a much larger act of resistance, Katniss shows compassion to her ally, Rue. When Rue is mortally wounded, rather than run away to save herself, Katniss stays with Rue so she doesn’t have to die alone. Her rebellion is shown in the way she prepares a funeral scene for the fallen tribute and honors Rue’s district in an unprecedented show of solidarity. What Collins’ book tries to show is that cooperation is how we win, and we must fight to stay true to ourselves even when circumstances try to force us to act in ways that hurt others. We must always search for and nurture the better parts of our nature – and that is the only way we really win, the only way to make ourselves great.
When we studied John Rawls’ theories on social justice, my students did an exercise where they created an ideal society behind their own veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance assumes that you don’t know who you will be or what place you will have in society, so in creating society, the goal is to try and set it up as fairly as possible for everyone. I challenged them to think affirmatively – create the society they want by deciding on what was good. The point of the exercise was to discover what things we truly value. Their list was encouraging: they want freedom, they want justice, they want equality, they want peace, they want respect, they want education, they want opportunity. What is made plain by the list they created is what they don’t want: prejudice, injustice, inequality, fear, disrespect, lack of education, and lack of opportunity.
The exercise could be easily dismissed by saying it’s too idealistic, but during this week where we have celebrated the anniversary of our nation, it’s fair to point out that the Declaration of Independence was pretty idealistic too. America was a dream. It took some work to get it going, and we are still wildly imperfect. Does that mean we should cease to try? Perhaps the most essential benefit of studying the humanities is that art, literature, and philosophy help us understand how much bigger the world is. Too often, we are locked within a selfish bubble, only concerned with what is immediate to us. This isolationist thinking is dangerous. As much as anything else, my goal as a teacher is to say simply this to my students: try.Try to imagine the world you want to live in. Try to figure out how you can go about creating it. Try compassion. Try to live with honesty and dignity. Try to treat others the right way, to earn respect by giving it. Try to be the person you think you should be, even when it’s hard. Try in small ways and in great ways. Change happens in depressingly slow ways sometimes, but then sometimes it makes massive leaps. But none of it happens if we don’t try and just pretend that everything is normal, everything is okay.
This is how I have learned to teach in the time of Trump.
I apologize for missing my First Friday deadline – the first week of classes has me playing catch up, but here we go! Better late than never.
So, I have watched with interest as the controversy around Colin Kaepernick has unfolded. For those who have not heard, the NFL quarterback has decided to sit during the playing of the national anthem, thereby exercising his right to peacefully protest. He is doing this to continue to call attention to the reality that people of color are subjected to injustice on a daily basis. Because of his protest, he has been called a traitor, his jersey has been burned, and people have called him a hypocrite because he happens to make money as a football player.
A couple of things come to mind here:
1. “The Star Spangled Banner” is the national anthem, and I come from a proud military family. When I hear the anthem, I stop. I face the flag. I legitimately contemplate the sacrifice of our military – tears come to my eyes. That’s just who I am. I feel respect and pride. It is my first amendment right to feel that way. Okay.
2. But, I live near Baltimore. I attend games at Camden Yards. Fans yell “O” when we get to the part of the verse that goes, “Oh, say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave….” – some fans yelled “O” during the Olympic medal ceremony when Michael Phelps was on the podium during the Rio Olympics last month. He laughed. Both shouting “O” and laughing during the anthem could be considered disrespectful, no? I missed the outrage on that, but I did see that Gabby Douglas got hammered for not putting her hand over her heart when she was on the podium. Hmm….
3. Did you know that Francis Scott Key’s song has multiple verses? We only sing the first one. In the third verse we find these troubling lines: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” Well.
I could go on, but I think the main point is emphasized by US Soccer star Megan Rapinoe, a gay woman, who has also decided to silently and peacefully protest by kneeling during the anthem. The point, and it is an important one, is this: as great as this country is, and as much as we embrace the belief that we are all created equal and deserve equal rights and equal protections, the reality is that this equality is not reality – it is an ideal. For minorities, including immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ citizens of this country, life is different. If you have never experienced inequality, I am happy for you. I know personally that my wife and I sometimes hesitate before holding hands or showing affection in public – even though Maryland is one of the more progressive states in America. There is always the nagging fear that someone will take exception to our existence and act aggressively about it. We had to wait a few years after we were sure we wanted to be married to legally be allowed to get married in our home state while somewhere in Alabama, Arkansas, Alaska, Connecticut, and many other states, sixteen-year old heterosexuals were allowed to exchange vows with full support of the American government.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of expression. That is exactly what the patriots of the Boston Tea Party demonstrated when they dumped the tea in the harbor to show their displeasure over taxes. It’s what empowered Martin Luther King Jr. to lead the marches against the unequal treatment of African-Americans in the mid-twentieth century. Freedom of expression allowed Vietnam War protestors to speak out in the 60’s. It’s the same freedom of expression that allows the Westboro Baptist Church to show up at military funerals and voice their opinions. It’s the freedom to say that you disagree. No matter your politics, it’s the freedom that we all have.
To quote Aaron Sorkin (via the film The American President), “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve got to want it bad. ‘Cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, ‘You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs for that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag [or an anthem for that matter], the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag [or sit during that anthem] in protest.’ Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”
In my ethics class this week, we used this issue as an icebreaker. What I am happy with is how thoughtfully my students considered this question. They have, at a young age, embraced a nuanced view of the world and the reality that we can reasonably disagree without casting each other in the roles of patriot or traitor. As someone who believes that the purpose of education is to produce compassionate, independent-minded, informed, and empathetic citizens, this gives me a lot of hope.
Free speech does not just mean that we only celebrate or protect those who agree with us. Free speech is bigger than you or me or our opinions. If you think Kaepernick and Rapinoe are wrong for exercising their right to peacefully demonstrate freedom of expression, you have totally missed the point. It does not disrespect the military. It does not disrespect America. When I stand for the anthem, I celebrate the very freedom that allows them to sit or kneel in protest. That is what freedom really means. You can disagree, but your disagreement does not make them wrong. Let Freedom Ring.
One of the most important skills we teach students in college is the ability to exercise critical thinking. To be good, honest, productive citizens of the world, critical thinking is absolutely essential – it helps us understand when and how and why to accept or reject an argument and how to form our own ideas and values. This skill is especially important as we are becoming adults in the world and figuring out not just how to make it in life, but what things we will live for and work for – how to put ourselves into a positive position in the world. Critical thinking is defined as “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”
When it comes to supporting a political candidate, many of us fail this critical thinking test. Some of us look for a candidate who supports a single issue that we care about or we find one who we think is the lesser of two evils. Historically, Americans have tended to vote optimistically – for candidates who represent hope and forward thinking like Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, two of the most popular presidents of the last half-century. Voters in the American electorate say they like to see positive change and cling to those core American ideas like “freedom and justice for all,” or “the American Dream,” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” These are inclusive, aspirational ideals. Given that, Donald Trump is a candidate that mystifies many political observers because he is not inclusive or aspirational or optimistic; even his campaign slogan, “Make American Great Again” has dark undertones to it as people ask themselves the valid question: When was America “great”? What are we trying to go back to? (See this clip from The Daily Show for some hilarious satire on this question.) Candidate Trump seems comfortable alienating entire demographics of American voters. He relentlessly uses pejorative language to take shots at people who disagree with him or that he feels have been “mean” to him. He even denigrated the parents of a fallen American hero because they challenged him on his statements about Muslims. (The Khan family are proud American Muslims, immigrants whose son, an Army Captain, bravely died in service to this nation.) Part of his appeal, supporters say, is that he’s not a politician – he just says what he thinks when he thinks it – no filter. In a recent study from the Pew Research Center, support for an experienced candidate is stronger among Democrats and Independents than Republicans. He’s not experienced, he clearly lacks foreign policy knowledge, he does not understand the global economy, and he has dangerous warlord-like ideas about how to strike at ISIS (go after their families – their wives and children…wait – that was Macbeth, right?). This lack of experience, a perceived strength among Republicans, is not winning over the general electorate. And yet, despite some losses in the polls this week, there is a solid block of about 30% of the country who are determined to vote for Trump no matter what, even as prominent Republicans, longtime members of the party he represents in this election, are denouncing his candidacy and in some cases, even vowing to vote Democratic in November. Recently, elected officials such as Rep. Keith Ellison have asked the question that Mitt Romney and others have been asking for quite some time: what will it take for you to re-think your support of Donald Trump? Or is Trump right that he could shoot a man on 5th Avenue and not lose any votes? It ceases to be a Republican or Democrat question – it’s a moral question about what temperament and moral character we require in a president.
In an article titled “Why Facts Don’t Matter to Trump’s Supporters,”Washington Post reporter David Ignatius points out the unsettling dynamic that, even when confronted with the worst of Trump, those who want to vote for him will not be swayed. They are not thinking critically about the choice. They know that Trump makes things up – like his claim that he watched thousands of Muslims celebrating the fall of the Twin Towers or that he saw a video of cash being delivered to Iran or an attack ad against his rival that contains a blatant lie – and even when confronted with the evidence of these wild, false claims, Trump supporters are not moved. Ignatius says, “the reason is that people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe” – something known in psychology as “confirmation bias.” We believe what we want to believe. For those who don’t actively attempt to think critically, the way we think about things stems from our past beliefs – and facts only make it worse, make us dig in our heels even in the face of logic and reason.
So what do we do? Well, as the saying goes, the first step is to admit there is a problem. I truly believe that voters want to make a good, conscientious choice at the ballot box. Confirmation bias is an unconscious activity. We are not aware that we are making bad judgments – until we are. But there also has to be a willingness to fix the problem. Accepting alternative views is hard – even on a small scale, it is hard for us to do. Most of us don’t like to admit we are wrong, that our thinking is flawed, or that someone else might have a better idea. Our egos and emotions prevent us from thinking clearly. But if we can put that aside, then perhaps we could begin to address the problem.
And it is important to address the problem. The stakes are very high in this election. It is not unreasonable to say that by voting for a party and its candidate, you are endorsing the statements, ideas, and values of that candidate. You are declaring that you support them, expressing allegiance to them. And that says as much about you as it does the candidate or the party. The term of this commitment is potentially 4 years.
I am not going to say that you should vote for one candidate over the other. You are not wrong to note that I seriously question the virtue of voting for Donald Trump, but by default, that does not mean that I think you should vote for Hillary Clinton. I think you should critically think about it. There are actually 4 parties and 4 candidates to choose from this election year (Democratic, Green, Libertarian, Republican). A critical thinker must consider every bit of it: the candidate, the party, and the platform. And then you have to make that decision, a deeply personal and important decision. The etymology of the word vote reveals that it stems from the word vow – a vow is a wish, a promise, one of the most sacred things we do. A vote is one of the most sincere acts we perform in life – or at least it should be. What I will say is that it does matter when and how and why you accept the arguments of a candidate and that you come to that acceptance with eyes fully open, understanding what led to that decision and how you may rationally justify it. No candidate is perfect, of course, but it is imperative to think critically – to come to a decision out of an exercise of reason to arrive at a place of value. Choose wisely.
This week – from the archives: a story about my father. This week marked the twenty-third anniversary of my brother’s death. Next month will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of my father’s death. They died of the same thing, shared the same affliction: alcoholism. When I was eight, it was a hard thing to understand. This is how I remember it.
When I think of my father, many different images come to mind. For me, he is mostly a series of pictures like a confused, silent home movie—but in Technicolor, not the standard black and white that home movies usually suggest. I see him in a red and black flannel shirt standing in the kitchen of my grandmother’s small Tennessee house; smiling with his brown golf bag hanging from his shoulder; his jeans and black boots sticking out from under the old blue rambler my mom used to drive, his brown hair sparkling in the sun.
There are other images, more vivid and disturbing. I see him punching my mother. I hear him yelling at my brother and slamming the door as he walks away. I see his rage. These are things that I wish I didn’t remember. In general, my father’s family doesn’t like to remember anything like this either; he was the youngest of five children and my grandmother’s treasure. He was famous for doing things like skipping school to drink with his buddies—on one such occasion, this resulted in his accidentally sinking his car in a lake. These things were somehow easily forgiven and laughed off. So he ruined a car? My grandfather just bought him a new one. His mistakes were never a big deal. He was immature, but he could do no real wrong, even when he was wrong. After he died, he was practically holy: Saint Ricky. Saint Ricky never really made an effort in life to consistently be a better man, but after his death, we all wanted to believe that he could have been.
My father had this charm about him. I guess that’s because when he chose to be good, he was great. He was quick to apologize when he messed up and seemed terribly sincere as he did so. I understand why my mother, his parents and his friends so easily forgave his faults: I forgave them as well. I continue to forgive them. If I were not a part of this family, I couldn’t possibly understand this, but I am; I do. There are only a handful of times that I remember being afraid of my father, but there are more times that I remember that I loved him and he loved us.
I don’t really know what my father did for a living. He never went to college, but somehow he managed to score himself a management job. I know that he wore a suit to work (I specifically remember a brown suit he wore a lot and a tie with brown and white and silver diagonal stripes), and I know that he worked for a company called Hamilton Avnet. I used to have a key chain that was a chopped up $100 bill inside a plastic shell that said “Hamilton Avnet” on it. I used to think it was really worth $100. I prized it. My father brought it back from one of his business trips for me—I guess to make me feel better about the time that he had to be away. He was often away.
But this is all that I know. I’m starting to lose even those few things I can still recall. I now remember far less about my father’s life with us than I do about his death. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father alive or recall the last thing he may have said to me. But I remember exactly the moment that he died—or at least the moment that his death became real to me. It was late at night, and I think he had been away on a trip. I should have been asleep but wasn’t. Or maybe I was. Or maybe I was caught in that space between sleeping and waking where everything is at the same time vivid and hard to remember at once. Even now, pieces of it come back to me and retreat from me—like when I have a strange dream, and I stand in the shower the next morning trying to fit it all back together while images wash over and off and away from me, out of my reach.
That night in July 1981, the ringing brought all of my senses to attention. This was long before I knew the gravity of a phone call in the middle of the night, but even at eight years old, I knew that no one was supposed to call right then. The hair on the back of my neck and my arms began to stir. I got up. The padded feet of my pajamas hit the floor. I squished and swished into the dark hall where I heard my mother’s sleepy voice answer the phone. I don’t remember any of the words that she said, but I could hear fear. The rest was silence. In the dark, I couldn’t see anything. Once my mother stopped talking, the air was still and blank. I would have thought that I was asleep and dreaming except that I could reach out and touch the frame of the doorway that led to my mother’s room. That was when I knew I really was standing in the hall, that the phone really did just ring. All at once, somehow I knew my dad was gone.
A mass of blankets was lying on the living room floor; my mother wanted us to feel safe, so she herded us together. My brother and sister and I were still trying to grasp ideas of “tragic” and “gone” and “heaven” and things like that that everyone kept repeating. In the hours since the phone had rung, I was aware of people coming and going and crying. My mother’s eyes were wild and red. I could not understand then her fear of being suddenly a widow at the age of 26 with three small children, a part-time job as a waitress and no high school diploma.
A few days later, I remember this beige building with a black railing along a walkway out front. The place was called Laycock Funeral Home. I kept going out to the railing to escape the sobbing, sniffing people dressed in black who all seemed to want to hug me. I was afraid of them, but I was more afraid to go into the other rooms in that place. I was afraid that there would be more dead people in them. There was only one room that was safe. It was a tiny room in the back, with a sink and a counter and a little soda machine. For a quarter you could buy a coca-cola in the little old-fashioned glass bottles. It was the only room where I couldn’t hear the tinny, hollow organ music—that music made me feel as though I was floating around outside of my body, not even really there.
The room my father’s body and family were in was a lot different. There was a bronze coffin. His body was inside of it. I can say his body was inside of it and not that he was inside, because what lay within that bronze coffin was definitely not my father. His hair was all wrong. It wasn’t combed the way he usually combed it. It wasn’t brown and sparkly like it was when we were out in the sun. And it wasn’t soft. I touched it. It felt hard–like fishing line. I put my face close so that I could smell it. My father usually smelled like oil and sweat and suntan lotion. Not only didn’t it smell like him, it didn’t smell like any person I had ever smelled in my life. He smelled like Vaseline and rubbing alcohol. His face was kind of puffy and he wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t frowning either. So often when he came home from work I could tell whether we would play or if I should run by the look on this face, but now this face said nothing to me. His eyes didn’t have those lines at the corners that he always got when he squinted. I remember that he squinted a lot. And this was the worst thing of all: there was a little trickle of dry blood on his ear. If that had been my father, I would have wiped that off of there. But I was certain that this was not him.
There were yellow roses on top of the bronze coffin. They added to the overpowering smell of flowers in that place. I can never drive by Laycock without remembering that smell. I can’t smell flowers without remembering that place, this day, bronze coffin, my father, yellow roses and the American flag. My uncle, Eddie, was a soldier. My father was a soldier too—before I was born. I have seen faded, cracked pictures of my father in green pants and a green shirt polishing his boots or standing next to a plane. He has really short hair in all of those pictures. There is one that my mother is in. She is standing next to him in his tan dress uniform and she is wearing a really short white dress. Since my father was a soldier, my uncle the soldier is there to honor him. But I am not noticing all of this entirely. All the things that he said about my father I have long forgotten. Out of the funeral home and on the cemetery hillside, what I notice now is the bright, blue sky, the heat of the sun, and the green tent that we are sitting under, how it is flapping loudly in the breath of God. The overwhelming smell of flowers is replaced by the smell of cut grass. The sound of hollow organ music gives way to the sounds of cars passing by, people crying softly, and my uncle whispering something into my mother’s ear. He placed a carefully folded flag (with the white stars showing) into my mother’s lap and saluted her; I didn’t know what any of it meant.
I lost that $100 key chain long ago, and I now understand that the broken, fragmented pieces inside it had no real value, just imagined worth. I lost my father long ago as well, but the disjointed images of him, both great and terrible, are all that I have left, and now I realize that they are worth everything to me. It’s taken me many years to understand that when someone dies, we don’t lose them all at once. It seems like that initially of course because their physical presence vanishes so suddenly. But in truth, pieces of them linger for years after. Despite his many faults – even the ones that really hurt our family, I’ve found that I most often tell the good stories about Saint Ricky because I want others to meet and know and love the man I think I knew.
There is a picture of my father on his tombstone. He is outside, smiling in the sun in a faded denim jacket in front of the house where we used to live before he died. For me, he will always be frozen in this moment, with this smile. I remember so much, but there are some things that I am beginning to forget. Every day, parts of him are slipping away. I can’t remember what his voice sounds like anymore. I can play the tape recorder in my head and recall actual words that he said, but the sound, the tone, that ineffable thing that made it his voice, is gone. I’ll never get it back. I am losing him finally in parts, and I feel it so much more than when I thought I lost him all at once.
Last year, a podcast called Serial gripped the nation. It was the story of a Baltimore-area high school honors student named Adnan Syed who was convicted in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. This story has the stuff of great mystery: romance, possible love-triangle, shady characters, murder, and a cover-up – all told beautifully by Serial’s host, Sarah Koenig. If you have never listed to season one of the Serial podcast, you should. And also this post will mean nothing to you unless you have. But if you did, you likely had all of the same questions I did at the end. Like many other listeners, I could not let the story go once the podcast was over – there was just too much that didn’t seem right, too many unknowns.
Serial spawned several other podcasts, most notably Undisclosed and Truth & Justice (formerly known as Serial Dynasty). These podcasts picked up the story where Serial left it. The Undisclosed team consists of three lawyers: Susan Simpson, Colin Miller, and Rabia Chaudry, a lifelong friend of Adnan Syed who has made it her personal mission to seek a new trial in this case. The lawyers have meticulously gone through testimony, tapes, files, and the timeline of events to give a more complete picture of the Hae Min Lee murder case. Truth and Justice is a podcast created by Bob Ruff, a former fire chief and investigator. Initially, Ruff’s podcast was a forum for fan theories, but he soon put his investigative skills to work in pulling on different threads of the case to see where they went. Some of the revelations have been surprising. It would likely take you weeks to binge-listen to all of the first seasons of Undisclosed and Truth and Justice, but it’s well worth it.
There were several puzzles that Serial left us with, but I’m going to focus on what I think are the 5 big ones. Over the past year and a half since season one of Serial wrapped, much more information has been revealed, and thanks to Undisclosed, Truth and Justice, and Adnan’s post-conviction appeal hearing, we know much, much more. There is no easy or quick way to summarize it all, but here is a pass at some of the key points. Once again, if you are familiar with the case and the podcast, this will make a lot more sense to you.
Number 1: The Nisha Call & Leakin Park Pings
There are two things that Sarah Koenig really could not reconcile at the end of the first season of Serial. One was why there is a call to a girl named Nisha on Adnan’s call record for 3:32pm on January 13, 1999 that lasted 2 minutes and 22 seconds. According to Adnan, he was at track at that time and Jay still had his cell phone. Jay says that Adnan had already killed Hae, been picked up by Jay, and that they were riding around in the car together at this time. Jay did not know Nisha and would have no reason to call her. According to Jay, he and Adnan both talked to Nisha during the call.
So this looks bad for Adnan, but it is entirely possible that the Nisha call was a butt-dial that was never answered. Nisha testified that she did not have voicemail, so the call would have continued to ring if she was not available to pick it up. She also did not recall talking to Adnan and Jay during the day, but she did remember talking to both Jay and Adnan once on a call that came in the evening when Jay was at work. It’s easy to date the call Nisha remembers because Jay was at work at an adult video store, a detail Nisha remembers about the call – a job he did not have in January of 1999. But back to the 3:32 call on January 13th – because of the duration of the call, if it did ring for over 2 minutes, it is entirely plausible that AT&T billed Adnan for the call – the Undisclosed team was able to learn that similar AT&T subscriber contracts
from that time show that AT&T had a policy of billing subscribers for calls over a minute whether they were answered or not.
The Serial team also could not explain the Leakin Park Pings. According to Jay, he and Adnan buried the body in Leakin Park sometime after 7pm on January 13th. There are two incoming calls to Adnan’s phone – one at 7:09pm and the other at 7:16pm – that “ping” a cell phone tower near Leakin Park, suggesting that, if nothing else, the cellphone is located nearby.
There’s only one problem with this line of thinking: when the prosecutors requested Adnan’s phone records from AT&T, the phone company provided those records along with a fax cover sheet that clearly stated that incoming calls are not reliable location indicators. In other words, in 1999 AT&T itself declared that incoming calls could not reliably indicate location. For example, in Adnan’s recent appeal hearing, Adnan’s attorney Justin Brown pointed to 2 calls on the log: 1 pinged a tower in DuPont Circle in Washington DC, and the other pinged a tower in Baltimore less than a half an hour later. Anyone who lives in this area will tell you that the laws of physics don’t even allow you to get out of DuPont Circle in 30 minutes, let alone get to Baltimore. This is the perfect illustration of unreliable. There are complicated reasons for this that are explained in detail by Susan Simpson in episode 8 of Undisclosed. The reason the defense never brought this up at trial was that Adnan’s attorney, Christina Gutierrez, never received that information from the prosecutor even though the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, received it from AT&T. The failure to disclose this information is what is called a “Brady Violation” – it means that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. That alone should have been enough to grant Adnan a new trial. In fact, the prosecution’s cellphone expert witness, Abraham Waranowitz, was not shown the cover sheet either before he testified for the state. He now says that if he had known that, he would not have testified as he did. So, yeah, that was kind of an important detail. So these 2 things that stumped the Serial team, the Nisha Call and the Leakin Park Pings, are not really rock-solid evidence. They are shockingly explainable given the information we have now.
Number 2: Where Was Hae Going That Day?
The popular narrative for Hae’s day is that she needed to rush out of school to pick up her cousin and then had to go to a wrestling match – she was the team manager. But Undisclosed was able to look through school records to show that there was no wrestling match that day – which means that many people who were interviewed about where Hae was headed that day were remembering the wrong day. In fact, Hae was supposed to work that evening at LensCrafters in Owings Mills, and then she was supposed to have a date with her new boyfriend, Don. She never made it to pick up her cousin, or to work, or to her date.
One person has a clear memory of talking to Hae at the end of the day: a friend of hers named Debbie. Debbie was interviewed by police and said that Hae told her she was in a hurry to leave school on January 13th, 1999 because she was going to see Don. Because several other witnesses mentioned the wrestling match, Debbie’s recollection seemed like the outlier, but given that the wrestling match everyone else remembers was not on that day, it is more likely the truth. If that is the truth, it’s an important detail to examine.
Number 3: Jay’s Stories
Jay Wilds is perhaps the biggest enigma in this case. Given all of the new evidence, it is more than likely that he knew nothing at all about what happened to Hae but rather made up a story to please the police. Why would someone do that? Many rumors have abounded – such as the one where Jay was jealous of Adnan’s friendship with his girlfriend, Stephanie. The two were close and in the magnate program together at Woodlawn High School. One is that Jay was afraid of the police because he was dealing pot and didn’t want to get locked up for that. Jay himself has cited this as the reason he decided to talk to the police.
Two other ideas have emerged from the work of the Undisclosed team and Bob Ruff at Truth and Justice. The first is that Jay did it for money. In Episode 10 of Undisclosed, we learn that Metro Crime Stoppers paid about $3K to an informant in this case. Per the rules for paying out these rewards, the informant can only get the money if the information leads to arrest and conviction. There is only one witness for the prosecution that gave that kind of information: Jay. And, the police would have to authorize the payment. The second idea is that the police threatened Jay – told him that he would be charged in this crime and that they would seek the death penalty against him. So to get off the hook, Jay agreed to help them tap-tap-tap together a narrative against Adnan – that is who the police really wanted to charge anyway.
One thing is for certain – years after this and the multiple versions of events that Jay related to the police in interviews and at trial, Jay’s story continues to change. In an interview Jay gave to The Intercept in December of 2014, he told yet another version of the story. Where Jay is concerned, there is no truth.
Number 4: Asia McClain
We have all wondered why Asia never testified in Adnan’s trial. She claims to have seen him in the library at the same time the state says he was strangling Hae in the parking lot of Best Buy. Why didn’t Gutierrez call Asia to the stand? There are 2 possible explanations for this. The first is that the Undisclosed team discovered that Asia’s name was misprinted in Gutierrez’s records as Aisha, not Asia, in a critical place that included notes about the alibi. Aisha is a real person – Hae’s best friend. Gutierrez may well have dismissed it based on this. The second is that Gutierrez just forgot to follow up on it. She seemed to have a lot going on at the time, and as we now know, her health was really deteriorating, and she was not able to perform her job at a high level. Things got missed.
The prosecution also said that Asia recanted her affidavit, but this is not true. When Asia testified at Adnan’s appeal hearing in February, she maintained the same version of events that she told in 1999. She also testified that the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, misrepresented their conversation and even discouraged her from testifying in the first appeal, saying that they had overwhelming evidence against Adnan. Asia’s testimony would force the state to come up with a totally new timeline for the murder – one they probably could not put together successfully or coherently given the giant holes in Jay’s stories. From an evidence standpoint, it’s the whole ballgame.
Number 5: Don
If you had a date with your girlfriend or boyfriend and she/he failed to show up, would you call her/him? Would you want to know why you were stood up? Apparently, Hae’s boyfried Don was not concerned when A) his girlfriend didn’t show up for her shift at the place where they both worked, B) stood him up for a date, and C) seemed to disappear altogether with no phone call, no email, no anything.
In addition, Bob Ruff was able to learn that Don falsified his timesheet and created a (false) alibi immediately when Hae disappeared – even thought he reportedly told police that he thought she must have run off to California. Why would he need a false alibi then? Don’s mother, the general manager of LensCrafters, doctored a time sheet to attempt to place him at work the day Hae vanished. That’s not shady at all. For some reason, the police never aggressively investigated Don or his alibi, even when they could not locate/talk to him until 1am the day/evening of her abduction. This does not mean that Don killed Hae, but Don was never subjected to the level of scrutiny or investigation that Adnan was, and he really should have been. But once the police decided to pursue Adnan as a suspect, they let go of every other thread in the case. They stopped pulling.
These facts give us a more complete picture than we had when Serial ended. Adnan was given a chance to appeal in a post-conviction hearing in February of this year. The case is currently in the hands of Judge Welch, who previously ruled against Adnan in an earlier appeal. But the evidence appears overwhelming: Adnan should get a chance at a new trial.
Why is this story so compelling? I’ve wondered that. I don’t even really like crime shows. Maybe it’s because I’m from the Baltimore area, so to me, the places in the story are not abstract – I used to drive past the infamous Best Buy all the time when I worked in that area. Maybe it’s because I work with honors students and I can’t imagine any of them in this scenario. But I think it’s also because, as someone who teaches and studies Ethics, I am troubled by the idea that the police might seek convictions and not truth. We also see this in the popular Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. (That’s a whole other topic for another time.) One of the pillars of our social contract is that our police and prosecutors should seek justice, not simply seek to win cases. The truth matters – the truth is what compelled Asia to come forward after all this time. What troubles me about Adnan’s case is that, if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone. It could happen to you. Like Adnan, you might never see it coming.