Friday, March 15, 2024

Some Thoughts on Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories

Since we're barreling headlong into a national election season, all of us are likely to hear a heightened number of conspiracy theories, often invoked to vilify political rivals or people who don't serve the interests of some party or politician. 

As such, some thoughts on conspiracies and conspiracy theories strike me as in order--to help us sort through when we should take conspiracy claims seriously, and when we should be skeptical.

Let's start with what we mean by a conspiracy. Generally, a conspiracy exists when a group of people collude (work together in secret) to impact events in the world while trying to make it look as if no such collusion is taking place.

Conspiracies happen. And if they are successful, no one knows that the conspiracy happened: the event is seen by the broader world as being readily accounted for by the publicly available facts. We'll think it's an accident, or the work of a known rogue actors, or the ordinary operation of familiar processes. The role of the conspirators in producing the event remains hidden.

But here's the thing about conspiracies: they work best when they involve small groups of people or, if they involve more than a few people, do so within an organization that has very powerful control over their members in terms of ensuring coordinated effort and secrecy. 

As soon as you get large numbers of people involved--especially if they come from a range of diverse groups or walks of life, and most especially if they include characteristically "unruly" groups of independently-minded people (such as, say, journalists)--the coordination required for success starts to break down along with the capacity to retain secrecy.

So, here's the thing with conspiracy theories. They often (not always) start out plausible enough. A highway accident, involving two cars and a bus, results in the deaths of two dozen people, including a prominent politician. The theory: it was no accident, but something deliberately brought about by a group of conspirators to kill the politician while making it look like an accident.

Often, the theory finds traction in some odd fact. Suppose the purported accident was triggered by the erratic driving of one the cars involved--but an autopsy of the driver found no evidence of drugs or alcohol that could explain the erratic driving, nor any evidence of mechanical problems with the car. Furthermore, the driver had no cell phone, being notoriously opposed to them--and so wouldn't have been distracted by that.

This oddity motivates the conspiracy theory, lending some initial plausibility to the hypothesis that the driver deliberately swerved so as to cause the accident. Other odd facts emerge. Maybe, before getting in the car that day, the driver was seen burning a stack of letters. What if he was destroying evidence that could link him to people with an interest in seeing the politician dead?

Of course, these facts can be explained in many ways, most of which don't involve the driver deliberately causing the accident as part of a larger plot to kill the politician. But someone "connects the dots" between an array of odd facts using the conspiracy theory as a unifying explanation for them all. 

In the real world, lots of things happen that aren't connected to each other at all. That a certain story connects a lot of things isn't really evidence for the story. But a story that unifies stray facts into a cohesive story is attractive to storytelling animals like us--and sometimes disconnected facts are the visible signs of some unified explanation hiding under the surface.

In any event, what we have at this point is an explanatory hypothesis that accounts for a set of facts in a particular way--making them part of a unified story instead of a bunch of coincidentally related things. And even if the way the story unifies stray facts isn't by itself proof that the story is true, there might be reason to investigate the hypothesis--to treat it as something that might be true.

But it is here--when investigation into a proposed conspiracy starts--that things start to get wonky. IF a conspiracy is going on, then the conspirators will presumably try to hide the real story. And that means they will be working at cross-purposes with those investigating the hypothesis that a conspiracy was at work. 

For this reason, those investigating a conspiracy have some grounds for not immediately dismissing the hypothesis the first time they encounter contrary evidence. Things that, with more ordinary hypotheses, we'd treat as a good reason to set the hypothesis aside, might not be enough to stop investigating a purported conspiracy.

But it can be easy to incrementally slide from being someone who hangs onto the hypothesis a bit longer than usual to becoming someone for whom the hypothesis of a conspiracy has become unfalsifiable. 

The conspiracy theorist is someone who slides into the latter territory. And as they do, something happens which should throw up red flags for the rest of us. First off, evidence against the theory is increasingly treated as evidence for the theory--as further proof of how well organized and determined and powerful the conspirators are. Secondly, not only do they explain away all the contrary evidence, but they do so by expanding the size of the conspiracy. 

Suppose a doctor comes forward to say that the man who drove erratically showed evidence of a health condition that could explain that behavior. The conspiracy theorist explains this away by making the doctor part of the conspiracy (maybe an unwilling one acting under threat from the conspirators). 

Suppose an investigative journalist reports that the erratic driver recently broke up with a long-time girlfriend, and that according to a friend the driver collected love letters from early in their courtship--a collection that is now gone, offering an explanation for his being seen burning letters earlier that day. 

What does the conspiracy theorist do with the fruits of this investigative journalism? Well, obviously, the journalist is part of the conspiracy, too.

And as other doctors corroborate the first doctor's claims, it becomes the medical establishment that is part of the conspiracy. And as other reporters and journalists claim to have seen the work and vetted the sources that the first journalist used to reach their conclusions, it becomes the mainstream media that is in on the conspiracy. When a vocal proponent of the conspiracy theory is found guilty of defamation of character against the doctor, the judicial system is now part of the conspiracy too.

More and more people, across increasingly varied group, have to be part of the conspiracy (or somehow under the control of the conspirators) for the conspiracy theory to remain standing in the face of the mounting contrary evidence.

And the problem, of course, is that these are precisely the conditions under which conspiracies are unlikely to succeed.

So, when someone claims that some significant event is the product of a nefarious conspiracy, look for a pattern like this. If the conspirator has to bring in more and more groups and organizations and individuals into the conspiracy to make the conspiracy theory hold up in the light of the evidence, you have reason to be highly skeptical. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

So Eden Sank to Grief: Dubious Endorsement from Famous Philosophers!

My science fiction novel, So Eden Sank to Grief, is now available for purchase in both kindle and trade paperback formats. Check it out here.


In honor of the book's release, here are a few endorsements from philosophers long dead:








Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Philosophy, Fiction, and the Human Condition

For most of my adult life, I’ve been both a philosopher and fiction writer. Through both, I’ve tackled the deep questions that most engage me, especially questions of faith, social justice, human sexuality, and violence. The imminent release of my debut novel, So Eden Sank to Grief, has got me thinking about the relationship between these two things that have so shaped the course of my life.

 

Two Distinct Roles

Fiction and philosophy are two distinct approaches to engaging with questions central to understanding the human condition—questions about our values and basic assumptions, about the things that shape our worldviews and, by implication, how we respond to our world, what kinds of lives we strive for and what choices we make.

Fiction does so by telling stories about people—distinct individuals who have their own perspective on things, who live in a concrete environment, and who have problems. Fiction is about these individuals in these circumstances, facing and trying to overcome the problems they face.

Philosophy explores these questions by developing various alternative answers to these questions, and then formulating and critically evaluating arguments for and against these alternatives in the effort to determine which answers have the stronger arguments in their favor.

Both disciplines focus on the human condition, on issues about who we are and how we ought to live, how we should understand our world and our lives and the point of it all. But each has a different primary role.

Here’s my sense of these distinct roles. Fiction at its best inspires us to ask questions about the human condition—new questions, or old question asked with greater urgency or honesty or openness. Philosophy at its best helps us to decide which questions we have to answer (however tentatively) in order to live our lives, and it provides a means of fairly and honestly seeking out answers that make sense to us while also enabling us to understand why different answers might make sense to someone else.

In brief, oversimplified terms, fiction prompts us to care about the questions; philosophy offers a path to look for answers.

Of course there is overlap here. Great fiction can help us explore answers to our questions, and philosophy can help us to ask new questions and see why they matter. The difference is one of emphasis. But the emphasis matters. It matters especially to me, as a writer of fiction and as a philosophy teacher.


The Limits of Philosophy 

In my role as a teacher of philosophy, I pose to my students questions that we then explore philosophically. Some of those questions are ones my students care about already. But that’s not always true. When it’s not, what do I do? I’ve tried to get them to see the importance of the question by presenting alternative answers, showing how there are arguments for and against each, and showing that each answer has different implications for how we ought to live.

Sometimes that works. But if I rely on philosophy alone to inspire my students to really care about these questions, I have far less success than if I pause to tell a story that dramatizes the question’s importance. Tell a story, and the students listen. Tell the right story, and they see why the question matters. Tell a story featuring a character they care about, facing a problem relating to the question, and they care about the question.

Furthermore, I’ve discovered that sometimes when it looks like a student cares about a question, what they really care about is their preferred answer. The question, and the inquiry it triggers, is not for them something they value. On the contrary, they see it as a threat. It treats as dubious or debatable something they don’t want to treat that way.

As Plato stressed, we are furthest from the truth not when we are uncertain but when we are in the grip of false certainty. If we think we have the answer, we stop asking the question. Or, perhaps more accurately, we stop believing that the question matters as a question. Instead, we only care about it as a layup to the slam-dunk.

Like a catechism, the question is posed not to prompt inquiry but to set the stage for announcing our answer. Put simply, it is treated like a closed question.

When students confront a question in this spirit, arguments that challenge their preferred answer are not something to be taken seriously and wrestled with but, rather, something to be discredited. Something to be attacked.

When someone treats a question that way, they aren’t in a place where they can do honest philosophy about that question. At best, they can be philosophical apologists: they can recite the arguments in favor of their preferred answer and bash the arguments against. To do honest philosophy about a question, the question must be treated as open.


Open Questions, Closes Questions, and the Power of Stories 

Now there may be a time and a place for refusing to treat a question as open, and hence to refuse to approach it philosophically. If someone asks whether Black people are really human with a human’s right to life, I would think it better to insist that this is not an open question, that the right answer is they are fully human with a human being’s right to life. Perhaps, also, I might say a few words about why—but without legitimizing the opposing arguments and objections by taking them as serious arguments and objections worthy of consideration.

In other words, there are cases where it is more than fitting to treat a question as closed. But how do we decide when this is true? I’d look to stories. In the case above, I’d look to stories from the point of view of Black people living in environments where their full humanity is treated like an open question. Stories that lay out what that’s like.

On the flip side of things, imagine a story set in a community where a particular religious question is treated as closed. Suppose the community thinks that non-Christians are all damned. The main character, let’s call him Bill, meets a practicing Jew for the first time—Jacob, let’s say. Through a series of events, they become friends. Bill, desiring to save Jacob, tries to convert him, prompting conflict and ultimately an angry challenge to the idea that Jacob is only acceptable if he gives up his faith and identity to become something utterly alien. Bill goes through an anguished internal struggle. Does he really believe that Jacob, who is a good person, who is committed to his faith and appears to love God deeply, is doomed to hell?

Bill is further torn by competing perspectives and testimonies—especially from Jacob and from his beloved mentor and pastor, Luke. In the end, the friendship with Jacob falls apart. Jacob is clearly deeply wounded by what he describes as Bill’s intolerance. Bill returns to the pews of his church but is now grieving, and he can’t listen to what Luke preaches with the comfortable confidence he used to have.

It is at least conceivable that such a story, powerfully told, could inspire a Christian reader to wrestle with the question of whether Jacob is saved—that is, to treat the question as open—when previously it had for them been closed. This might happen even if the reader doesn’t actually change their answer to the question.

I think that most of the time, stories are more likely to open us up to questions that we might have previously treated as closed, rather than closing questions we’d previously treated as open.

This is true because of the ability of stories to expand the range of our experience. They help us to see the world through someone else’s eyes, to get a sense of what something is like that we haven’t experienced personally. Often, the reason we treat a question as closed is because we haven’t personally had an experience that challenges the answer we’ve come to accept. Such personal experiences are the primary pathway to being jarred loose from fixed ways of seeing things.

But stories can offer another way—vicarious experiences to supplement our own. The point is that stories inspire us not only to care about questions we didn’t think were important before, but also to treat questions as open—or as closed—that we didn’t treat that way before. And they do this by their power to give us vicarious experiences, a sense of what it would be like to face challenges we’ve never faced or to see things in a way we haven’t before.

If someone with a fixed idea is presented with philosophical arguments that challenge that idea, their spontaneous reaction is defensiveness. Something they believe is being attacked, which means they are being attacked. The walls come up, and they become even more entrenched in their position than they were before.

But tell someone a story, and there is a different response. A leaning in. An opening up. This is the power of stories.


Stories, Propaganda, and the Need for Philosophy

But it is one thing when a story opens us up to new questions. It is something else when it leads us down a narrow narrative tunnel to a single answer, an answer so vividly rendered that we lose sight of any other possible answers. Plato was worried about oratory and poetry because it has the power to persuade even if it offers no instruction. This is the dark side of storytelling: it’s potential to function as propaganda. 

The worst fiction is preachy. Few stories can survive preachiness, and teachers of creative writing warn against it for good reasons. A preachy story tells you what to think, what to believe. It’s in-your-face about it, and it is off-putting. I think our aversion to preachy stories tells us something about what stories are supposed to be about: not answering our questions, but encouraging us to wrestle with questions by shedding light on them. 

Stories are meant to expand the range of human experiences available to us, thereby providing us with more data than we had before, more information with which to wrestle with the big questions. But if we want to wrestle with those questions fairly and honestly, we need to do it in a way that considers the arguments for different answers, the objections to alternative arguments, the ways that different human experiences feed into alternative answers, etc. In other words, we need to get philosophical.

A story overreaches when it becomes preachy—it tries to draw too universal a conclusion from something that is essentially particular. Stories are about particular people in particular settings facing particular problems.

But propagandistic stories are not necessarily preachy. In fact, the best propaganda is not preachy at all. Rather, propaganda tells a particular story without ever telling you explicitly what to believe. Instead of telling us what to believe, the most crafty propaganda creates a story experience that fits with the view the propagandist wants us to believe: vicarious experiences that, typically, reinforce those preconceptions or prejudices that serve the propagandist’s interests, making it less likely that we will question them.

Two kinds of propaganda are particularly significant. First, there is propaganda that relies on othering. It tells a story in which the protagonist, who belongs to the same group as the audience, encounters the Other (someone who belongs to a different and unfamiliar group). And not only is the Other the source of the problem the main character faces, but the Other turns out to be just as bad (or worse) than the audience fears they are based on their preconceived ideas.

The other kind of propaganda is what I think of as manufactured discontent. It follows the model of the dandruff shampoo commercial where the first step is to make the viewer worry that they have dandruff and that others are rejecting them because of this (by dramatizing a scene in which exactly that happens). The second step is to introduce the shampoo as the solution to this manufactured problem (by having someone buy the shampoo, use it, and suddenly be embraced by those who had previously rejected them).

For this kind of propaganda, the aim is to hit on common sources of anxiety—and to magnify our anxiety about them. For the hero of the propogandist’s story, these aren’t niggling worries to be lived with. They aren’t things to be solved by an inner change of attitude. In the fictional world the propagandist creates, there are people out there free of these worries who are living idealized lives. As the story unfolds, what might have been something the reader hardly worried about is now something that clearly is a matter of concern—because it is standing in the way of protagonist’s best life. A threat to happiness. Fortunately, the thing the propagandist is selling comes along to fix things, and our hero lives happily ever after.

Propaganda, by its nature, relies on caricatures, stereotypes, and clich├ęs. That is, it relies on reinforcing a single narrow body of experience through repitition. A single story along these lines—a single story in which audience fears and preconceptions about the Other prove all too real, or audience anxieties are presented as serious impediments to happiness that are cured by the right shampoo or ideology—isn’t enough to push the audience towards a specific answer. Propaganda works through volume (one kind of story dominates) and through marginalization (alternative stories go unheard).

When we look to stories to give us the answers, we are empowering the propagandist, because it is only in the hands of propagandists that stories will tell us what to believe. This is one reason why we need philosophy—why stories are not enough. When stories are not controlled and shaped by propagandists, they open us up to considering new questions and they shed light on those questions by expanding the scope of our experience. But then we need to think about those questions, making use of our own experiences and the range of vicarious experiences that we receive from the stories others have to tell.

The necessary follow up to good stories is philosophy. Not necessarily academic philosophy, but philosophy nonetheless.

If we aren’t prepared to do that work—that philosophical work—of thinking things through for ourselves, we become easy prey for the propagandist. This is true because, simply put, we need to come up with answers to some of the more pressing questions of life. If we don’t find those answers through thinking philosophically about our experience and the range of vicarious experiences that diverse stories provide, we risk putting ourselves into the propagandist’s hands. And in their hands, stories narrow the range of our experience in the way well-worn grooves in a trail narrow the path a cart will take. We find ourselves channeled reliably towards the answers the propagandists want us to have.


Saturday, February 10, 2024

So Eden Sank to Grief Excerpt: The Hiddenness of Our Hearts

The previous except from my forthcoming novel, So Eden Sank to Grief, touched on the hiddenness of God. But God is not the only thing that's hidden in our lives--and it's not the only thing that's hidden in the novel. In fact, hiddenness is one of the recurring themes.

The passage below captures an intimate moment between the main characters, Caleb and Sally. It's an interlude of quiet after a harrowing "underworld" journey (in which they touch up against something the alien creators of their artificial world are hiding) and before all hell breaks loose.

It's a moment when the hiddenness of Caleb's heart comes to vivid life for them both. Here's the passage:

------------------

She sits up, looking down on Caleb. Something about the contours of his face or the way he breathes makes her realize he’s not asleep. “Caleb?”

His eyes crack open. “What are you looking at?” he murmurs, a lazy smile forming on his lips.

“That thing about the Rapture and your dad,” she says. “It’s…I think it’s the first thing you’ve ever told me about him. Was he…theology and Bible interpretation—”

His smile withers. “He went to seminary but it didn’t stick.” He looks away. “You don’t want to hear about my father.”

“I do.”

He takes a breath. “Some stuff—it’s better just to leave it in the past. Burned up and gone.”

“What? Did he beat you or something?”

Caleb shakes his head, closes his eyes. 

She lets out a snort of frustration. “Sometimes…sometimes it’s like—I don’t know—it’s like you think that telling me the wrong stuff will make me fall out of love with you.”

He takes a long breath before sitting up and wrapping his arms around himself. “That’s stupid,” he says.

“Yes. It is.”

“It doesn’t matter anyway.”

“Of course it matters.”

“He’s dead!”

“He’s your father.”

“Everyone’s d…d…dead.”

His stutter makes her heart ache. She touches his brow. “I’m not dead,” she whispers. “You’re not dead. I…I just feel like I don’t know you.”

“Y…you know me b…better than anyone ever has.”

“You know what?” She cups his face in her hands, her eyes darting back and forth between his. “I think that’s probably true. And when I think about that it…it makes me want to cry.” 

-----------------

What reasons does Caleb give for not wanting to talk about his father? Do these sound like the real reasons? Why does Sally think he's holding back?

How often do we hide our hearts from one another, and why? And what effect does that pattern of hiding have on our capacity to fully connect with those we love, to realize authentic union with others?

Is it ever true about anything that it's better just to leave it in the past, "burned up and gone"? Or, perhaps better: under what conditions can we actually leave some ugly part of our lives behind?


Thursday, January 25, 2024

So Eden Sank to Grief Excerpt: The Hiddenness of God

 So Eden Sank to Grief releases in just over a month, on February 27. It's a science fiction adventure about a group of people who wake up in a giant greenhouse that's floating in some star-rich corner of the galaxy--with no memory of how they got there. Think Lost meets Lost in Space. 

I've been writing and publishing short stories for years, but I'm always a philosopher--and that leaks through into my fiction, especially when the story is based on a parable I originally developed to make a philosophical point. So Eden Sank to Grief grew way beyond that parable, and as soon as I created the characters of Caleb and Sally, what happens to them and what they do about it became far more important than any philosophical point.

Still, So Eden Sank to Grief inevitably became a vehicle for raising philosophical questions that have long been of central importance to me, and Caleb and Sally can't help but reflect on philosophically significant ideas from their own personal standpoints, especially given the mysterious circumstances into which they've been thrust. A lot of those moments of reflection have to do with religion and God. Go figure.

Excerpted below is one such moment, followed by some reflection questions. 

-----------

“The last thing I can remember,” she says. “The fight with my…boyfriend. I think something came afterwards. Like something’s missing.”

Caleb nods soberly. “I know what you mean.”

“But what? Is it possible to forget the end of the world?”

“That’s exactly the kind of thing you’d forget, isn’t it?”

“But maybe our visions…maybe they weren’t about what’s happened. Maybe it’s a warning. They’ve brought us here to teach us something and then they’ll send us back. You know, to help keep the vision from coming true.”

“Or maybe the visions are a bunch of crap.”

Sally looks up, up through the trees at the gap that’s just above them, and from where they sit it looks like a normal slice of night sky. “Do you believe in God?” she asks.

Caleb lets out a tired laugh. “I acolyted every month as a kid. Confirmed at fourteen. Vacation Bible School attendee through grade school, volunteer since Junior High.”

“Good God, I’m dating an altar boy.”

“Don’t worry. I’m not gonna be a preacher. Too afraid of public speaking.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Caleb stares past her. Maybe he’s thinking about what the question really means. “If there is a God he’s far away. Hiding himself.”

“Herself.” Sally flashes a wicked grin but can’t sustain it. “Somehow, after it happened, Mom found religion.”

“But not you.”

“It was either not believe at all, or hate God for letting Daddy die.”

-----------------------

Have you ever, like Sally, found yourself in a situation where atheism seemed the only alternative to hating God? For someone in that situation, which alternative is better? And which is closer to having faith? And why might the very tragedy that put Sally in that situation be the occasion for her mom to "find religion"? What about Caleb's perspective--the idea that God is hidden from us? 

And why do you think that reflecting on their visions led Sally to ask Caleb about God?

Would love to hear what you think.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Tidbits and Snippets from the forthcoming novel, So Eden Sank to Grief, Part 1

 In anticipation of the release of my novel, So Eden Sank to Grief, on February 27, I thought I'd do a series of posts extracting some tidbits and snippets from the novel, especially ones that connect with this blog's theme of wrestling honestly with religion and God.

My first snippet, quite short, is inspired by the outcome of tonight's divisional playoff game between my beloved Buffalo Bills and the ever-irritating (if talented) Kansas City Chiefs. If there is one silver lining to the Bills' loss, it is that this snippet still remains fully relevant.

Here it is:


There are moments when she almost believes her mother's religion. In those moments, it's that sea of unanswered questions that does it: it seems too unfair for people to just end without ever learning the answers.

Never knowing how the next book in the series goes.

Never knowing if the Buffalo Bills will ever win a Super Bowl.

Never knowing what happened to your kids, or what waits beyond the secret passage or on the far side of the universe.

Never knowing what life is really about, and why we all have to go through so much shit.


More to come, so stay tuned!

Thursday, December 21, 2023

NEW BOOK! And this time it's fiction!

 For those who've been wondering what I've been up to while I've been neglecting this blog, the answer is...quite a lot.

In addition to working on a new philosophy book, The Problem of Heavenly Grief, I've got a science fiction novel coming out with Quoir Books, So Eden Sank to Grief. 

And it's based on a parable I wrote for this blog during it's first year, all the way back in 2008: The Parable of the Spaceship

The story has evolved so much over the years it's not even remotely the same story, but the bones of that original parable are still there. 

Below is the front and back cover. I love how it came out...and I'm kind of proud of it, since they used my own art as the cover image. 

(Also, check out the blurb from Mark Alpert, internationally bestselling author of such books as The Final Theory, Saint Joan of New York, and, most recently, The Doomsday Show.)   






Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Friday Night Lights and Public Education: A Reflection

I've come to love Friday Night Lights: cheering for my high school football team and (more important, since my daughter's in the band) for the pride of Stillwater, the Pioneer Marching Band.

I love the fact that I am united with a whole bunch of people I don't know in a shared set of rituals, cheering for OUR team, cheering on OUR band, watching the dance/pom squad and the cheer squad show off their competition routines, cheering for all the young people who have accomplished great things in our community and are brought to the crowd's attention during breaks in game play.

You know what wouldn't achieve this kind of community unity, bring people from all over town together from a wide range of different demographics and economic brackets? The football game of the McUppity Private College-Preparatory School.

Conservativism, at its heart, is about valuing traditions and long-standing institutions and being very cautious about upending or damaging them. Our public schools are one such long-standing institution, and so much of our collective life--so much of our culture--has grown up and taken shape in and through our public schools.

At their best, our public schools bring divergent parts of our communities together in the shared project of supporting and education and cheering for our kids. Nothing symbolizes this more than Friday Night Lights, when people from different economic brackets, different political parties, and different faith communities, come together to cheer the community’s kids. 

But there is a growing ideological opposition to our public schools, one that prefers a vision of everyone-for-themselves fragmentation in which public dollars are funneled into private schools instead--schools that by their nature aren't for everyone. "School choice" sounds nice, but private schools aren't required to let everyone in--they can refuse to educate those with special needs or can insist on educating only the gifted and talented or the people who belong to their particular faith tradition, etc. Channeling tax dollars towards these schools means the public schools will shrink and have fewer resources, and this will become a feedback loop: As they become less equipped to educate our kids, more families will choose to send their kids and public tax dollars to a private school. Eventually, the public school will be replaced by private schools for high-performing students and a public remedial school where the students with special needs or challenges are segregated from their peers and have too few resources to succeed. 

One clear cost of this approach is that we will see an increase in inequality in the form of unequal access to the goods of education. But this point aside, were this anti-public-school vision for the future of education to succeed, there would no longer be the community’s school. Instead, there’d be the school of the rich country club set, the school of the Roman Catholic parish, etc. 

None of these private institutions will draw the community together in a version of Friday Night Lights—because none of these belong to the community. 

Of course, those who are critical of the institution of public education don't get up on a debate stage and tell us they aim to bring an end to Friday Night Lights. (In the current state superintendent race, the representative of this anti-public-school ideology hasn't gotten up on the debate stage at all. He was a no-show for the recent agreed-upon debate, perhaps afraid of what truths about him would be exposed.) 

But even if they don’t get up and say it, the gutting of public schools is the gutting of a center of community life in America. In addition to jeopardizing democratic access to quality education, it would hasten the fragmentation of our communities.

This is an element of our public school system that doesn’t get the attention it deserves in our public discussions, even though it is an element we experience directly in all kinds of ways. Maybe we don’t pay attention to it because it is so integral to our lives that we take it for granted. 

We shouldn’t. It is a robust public school system that makes Friday Night Lights possible. The marching band of the college-prep school on the rich end of MyTown won’t be the Pride of MyTown. It’ll be the Pride of the Rich Elites.

The very existence of so many of the valuable things we take for granted have been built up around and depend on long-standing public institutions. This is where the deep truth of conservatism lies: we shouldn’t be cavalier about upending such institutions or gutting our traditions, because it is sometimes hard to see how much of what we value is tied to them and depends on them.

I believe in public education. Its community-building importance, symbolized and embodied in Friday Night Lights, is just one of many reasons. When it comes to public education, I’m a conservative: I believe we should be deeply careful about policy proposals that threaten to undercut support for something that has been such a central part of American life for generations. 

I never discovered Friday Night Lights before moving to Oklahoma, but I'm glad I did. And I hope that it continues to be a part of American culture into the future. Because it is a bastion against community fragmentation. It is a time and place where neighbors and strangers can come together to cheer as a community for the accomplishments of our kids. 

It wouldn't exist without the public school--the community's school, the school that belongs to the community as a whole. But that is part of what makes it so meaningful to me. So often today we think only of ourselves, only own own kids, our own success. Friday Night Lights is the community coming together to celebrate its most important collective project: working together as a team to successfully prepare the next generation.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

An Open Letter to Oklahoma Voters

Yesterday, Oklahoma State Secretary of Education Ryan Walters asked the Oklahoma State Board of Education to revoke the teaching license of Summer Boismier, who was recently fired from Norman Public Schools for sharing with her students a link to the Brooklyn Public Library (which has recently made access to their digital collection free to teens across the US as a way to help mute the impact of various book-banning efforts at public school libraries). Here's a copy of his letter:




Even if I'm not impressed with the substance of his letter, the structure of it is pretty nice--worthy of emulation, even. Unfortunately, I found it very difficult to use only slanted language without any argument or explanation or clarification, so I couldn't get myself to follow the form of the letter exactly. Even so, I was able to get pretty close. Here is the result. 


Oklahoma Voters:

In light of recent events leading to the subsequent firing of Norman High School English Teach Summer Boismier, I am asking the voters of Oklahoma to revoke Ryan Walters’ capacity to further damage public schools and undermine the quality of education in Oklahoma. There is no place for a politician with a radical anti-education political agenda in any political leadership position in Oklahoma, let alone in such positions as Secretary of Education or Superintendent of Public Schools (Walters currently holds the former appointed position and is running for the latter).

Ms. Boismier providing the link to a collection of books in the Brooklyn Public Library system, available free to all teens, is evidence of a good teacher's interest in expanding young minds through access to quality books. Ryan Walters representing this act as a case of “providing access to banned and pornographic material to students” is an unacceptable misrepresentation, and his call to have Ms. Boismier’s teaching certification revoked is evidence that he cares more about using his power to deprive students of access to ideas that don’t conform to his narrow ideology, while instilling a culture of fear among teachers, than about the quality of education in Oklahoma. These actions must be dealt with swiftly and with respect to all our kids and parents.

Teachers are one of our state’s greatest assets and it is unfortunate that one of our state leaders overseeing education would use his power in draconian ways to pursue an extreme agenda, causing quality teachers to be fired and driving others out of the profession at a time when we are experiencing an unprecedented teacher shortage. This type of behavior will not be tolerated in Oklahoma and I speak for students, teachers, parents, and concerned citizens across the state who are demanding swift and immediate action.


Kids first (notice I put students first in the last sentence),


Eric Reitan

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The New Book-Banning Movement: Scrubbing Schools Clean of Diversity, Profanity, and Sexual Content

The New Book Banning Surge

Recently, some parents here in Stillwater, OK, have started following a national trend of trying to get books pulled from school library shelves for being inappropriate. Banning books from school libraries has seen an unprecedented rise in the last year or two, and the evidence indicates that targets for removal are disproportionately books that feature diverse characters and themes, especially books by or about LGBT+ persons and people of color, and books that wrestle with issues of race in America.

Accordingto Education Week, in the recent wave 41% of books banned from school libraries feature people of color as protagonists, 22% are books that address issues of race and racism, and 33% are books with LGBT+ themes.

If diverse books were not being explicitly targeted we wouldn’t expect these numbers, given how recently school libraries have started diversifying their collections to include these minority voices and perspectives, and hence what a small percentage of the total collection these books represent.

 

Co-Opting Parents with Concerns about Sex and Profanity

But many parents are brought into the book-banning fight not by an explicit appeal to diversity but by appeal to worries about sex, violence, and offensive language in the targeted books—with sexual content and offensive language being especially significant in getting parents energized.

So, for example, the far right group Moms for Liberty has been at the forefront of efforts to ban books from schools, and they use the strategy of extracting passages with sexual content or profanity from the books they want banned and calling these passages to the attention of parents in the hope of triggering outrage.

Among their tools for pursuing book bans is the creation of a book-rating resource for parents, called BookLooks, that rates books based on content, especially focusing on sex and profanity. Books that score a 4 or 5 on a 0-5 scale of increasingly objectionable content are then lifted up as targets for banning. (It is worth noting that violence and drug/alcohol use are part of the rating system, but what puts you into the 4 or 5 category is sexual content alone: a book with extreme and explicit depictions of brutal violence but no sexual content would be rated as a 3.)

One big problem, of course, is that only a small number of books—out of the huge number available in public school libraries—have actually been rated. Based on the disproportionate degree to which diverse books are the targets of bans, one can assume that selection of which books are read with enough care to discover the “objectionable content” appears to be guided by things that have nothing to do with sex and cussing and everything to do with limiting diversity on the school library shelves.

But even if that is true, the sex and cussing are highlighted, and many parents who are swept up in the book-banning movement are drawn into it by concerns about sexual content and profanity. When more egalitarian-minded parents and teachers and librarians point out that there are many books not targeted for removal that have just as much foul language and sex, these parents happily declare, “Remove them, too!” (This was the immediate response of one Stillwater parent in a Facebook discussion thread about the local book-banning efforts here in town.)

In other words, because a desire to limit diversity and representation in school libraries is an obviously problematic reason to deny our kids access to books, objections to sex and cussing have become a driving public justification that can drum up the support of parents who wouldn’t be keen on a call to “eliminate diversity and representation in our public school libraries!” Bigots can work behind the scenes, looking for objectionable content in the diverse books—and since parents don’t have the time or energy to read all the books in the school library, the effect is that parents concerned about limiting access to sex and cussing will call for the banning of the identified books, books with diverse themes and authors, while letting similarly sexy and cussy books remain on the shelves.

In short, parents concerned about sex and cussing are being co-opted to serve the agendas of operators behind the scenes who are motivated by different aims. But here’s the thing: even if parental worries about profanity and sex in books weren’t being co-opted for the purpose of removing diverse books from our shelves, there are still reasons to question reliance on sexual or profane content as a basis for deciding what books should be available to our children.

 

My Parents’ Policy—and its Effects

When I was growing up, my parents had the following policy with respect to my book-choices: they raised their eyebrows slightly when I came home with genre fiction. Which I did a lot, in spite of their raised eyebrows, because (my parents’ snooty preference for literary fiction notwithstanding) there are lots of great books in genre fiction.

In short, I was given carte blanche freedom to read whatever I wanted to read. Usually it was fantasy and science fiction novels (JRR Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin were favorites). I loved Kurt Vonnegut. Sometimes I read something as weighty as Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev...or Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.

Did I end up reading books laced with profanity? Yes. Sexual content? Yes. Explicit violence? Oh yes. Great, thought-provoking literature? Yes. Stories about people very different from myself and those I grew up with, with perspectives on life radically unlike that of my community? Yes.

My parents didn’t care what I was reading. They cared that I was reading. And what was the effect of their hands-off policy? I almost never cuss, despite the cussing I read in books growing up. My sexual life is extremely tame, even though that wasn’t always true of the characters in the books I read. As far as I can recall I have never committed an act of physical violence since childhood (I believe I punched someone once when I was three and another time in junior high), even though there was lots and lots of violence in the books I read.

If there’s one really obvious effect that my childhood reading habits had on my life, it’s this: I was very successful in college and graduate school, and today I’m a college professor who still spends a lot of time reading and writing. Less obvious, perhaps, but just as real and more important: my prolific reading, especially of fiction, has had an impact on my capacity for empathy and compassion, my ability to imagine myself into the circumstances of people quite different from myself.

Now I’m not saying we should put soft porn novels in our grade school libraries. But I am saying that a fixation on sex and cussing in our high school library collections is a misguided fixation, one that could deprive our children of things with enormous value for their lives--and as such do them harm.

 

Profanity

Let’s start with foul language. Apparently BookLooks, created by Moms for Liberty to serve their book-banning efforts, gives a count of the number of cuss words in a book, using that to help determine where to place the book on the 0-5 ratings system. But how important is the amount of profanity?

When it comes to cussing in novels, so much of the impact it will have on readers depends on the broader context. Who is doing the cussing in the book? Someone the reader admires and wants to emulate? Someone who’s a jerk? Or someone the reader feels sorry for? Is the cussing happening because the author is trying to honestly represent the character—something the teen reader will likely recognize, because they know people in real life who follow the same pattern of cussing? Or is the cussing happening gratuitously, as a way to spice up the story and make the characters seem more dangerous? All of these factors will affect how the cussing in the book affects teen readers.

And let’s be honest about two things. First, we all hear cussing in real life, because there are people who cuss. Some cuss a lot. If you want to protect your kids from cussing, maybe try pretending that the COVID quarantine is still ongoing and hope your kids believe you and stay home. You certainly don’t want them sitting in a school cafeteria. Ever. But you’ll need to control your kids’ viewing habits, too. If your kids have access to TV or internet it will take a lot of effort to shield them from foul language. Books are hardly the main thing to worry about here—and in great books, the exposure to cussing is far more likely to have an important pay-off, in terms of deepened empathy for others or a broader understanding the human condition, than will the cussing they encounter in school hallways every day.

The second thing is this: We all know really good human beings, people with big hearts, who cuss. And we know some truly nasty people who are cussing-teetotalers, with never a salty word escaping their lips. The correlation between good character and cussing is…very thin, verging on nonexistent. Sure, we want to encourage people to avoid giving needless offense. But guess what? A novel in which a good person who cusses a lot ends up giving needless offense might just teach that lesson—and would be banned under policies that only care about how frequently cuss words appear in the text.

 

Sexual Content

So what about sexual content in books?

Here’s a small confession: As a teenage boy I thought a lot about sex (the sex I never actually had). I tried to get my hands on dirty magazines (there was a kind of black market of dirty magazines among my peers—magazines pilfered from trash cans or stolen from some father’s or older brother’s stash—the 20th Century equivalent of working around parental internet controls). But I also was lured by the promise of literary depictions of sex in books.

The promise that a book contained a sex scene was often enough to get me to read it cover to cover. But the books I had access to which promised such scenes were good books. My parents didn’t have porn or erotica on their shelves, and neither did the public or high school libraries, even if they had books with sexual content.

I ended up reading a lot of great fiction—powerful literature with important themes, works that moved and transformed me—because I was hunting for the promised sex scene.

The scenes are long forgotten (if they were there at all--I sometimes got bad tips, such as when I read Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front in junior high on the promise of a sex scene). The big themes and the true-to-life characters and their struggles to belong, to find meaning, to figure out who they were and how they fit in, to rise up against challenges and confront injustice—those things stayed with me. They made me a wiser person than I would have been. A better person.

Again, I’m not saying we should be leaving soft core erotica lying around for pre-teens to read. And I don’t mean we should deliberately use the promise of sex scenes in books to lure kids into reading. What I’m saying is that some sexual content in a novel with literary merit is not the sort of thing we should be especially worried about, because that is not the sort of thing that will damage teenagers who, even if they aren’t having sex, are already thinking about sex, already obsessing about sex, already finding ways around parental controls on internet and streaming content, etc.

In my own childhood, there was only one time I can remember stumbling into something in a book that fired up my “prurient” interests. It wasn’t in any of those significant works of literature that deal honestly with human struggles, sometimes including sexuality (the kinds of books school librarians are apt to put on high school shelves).

Instead, it was in a cheesy teen romance I filched from my older sister, a book that involved no sex at all—what today would be classified as “clean” YA (young adult), since it avoided all the forbidden things: no drugs or alcohol use, no sex, no cussing. Just lots of kissing, kissing described in a way that fired up my teen hormones. When I encountered a sex scene in a serious work of literature, the deeper themes had me so absorbed that it never occurred to me to wallow in the sex. That wallowing happened with the shallow book, the one with no big ideas or important human truths to distract me from the way the depictions of kissing made me feel.

One of the scenes I read as a young adult had a profound effect on me. I can no longer remember the book, but the scene was one in which a young woman is the victim of date rape (although I think it was written before that concept was part of our shared vocabulary). It was just explicit enough to make it clear what was happening, but the weight of the writing was on the psychological experience of the girl—her anguish, the horror she felt at what was done to her by a guy she’d been attracted to, someone she’d chosen to trust, the psychological forces that kept her from refusing more forcefully, and her perverse guilt and self-blame in the aftermath. For the first time in my life, I—a straight white teenage boy obsessed with sex—found myself imagining what it would be like to be the victim of rape. I was crying in empathy with the girl’s experience.

Would I have become a date rapist had I not read that scene? I certainly hope not. But reading that changed me, making me more vividly aware than I had been before of just how utterly crucial it was for both parties to a sexual encounter to be fully, completely consenting, with no hint of ambiguity or uncertainty. It was the kind of thing that, after you finished reading it, exploded any notion some guy might have that silence was consent, or that someone who stopped saying no and just lay there had changed their mind.

Just yesterday, I read another scene a bit like the one that impacted me as a kid (although different). I read it while researching for this essay. Where did I read it? It was an excerpt from the book The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed. It was the main excerpt that the BookLooks rating site extracted from the book as an example of objectionable content. Moms for Liberty is using this rating as a rationale for seeking to have the book banned from school library shelves. (I now know the next book on my to-read list, one I'll almost certainly be passing it on to my teenage children.) 

A world where more kids read books like this is a world where sexual assault victims will have more allies, where more social and personal forces will be marshalled against the forces that spit out rapists--a world, in short, where our children are safer and better off.

The point is this: if you care about your kids’ healthy emotional development and growth as a person but what you focus on is whether a book contains sex, you are focusing on the wrong thing. What matters the most for your child’s emotional and spiritual and personal growth is whether the book offers insight into the human condition and understanding of other people, whether it encourages empathy with struggles your kids have never faced as well as identification with struggles they know well (except they now feel less alone in the struggle, less isolated and less likely to fall into despair).


The Value of Good Books, Sexual Content or Not

Good books offer insights into the human condition and opportunities for cultivating greater understanding and empathy towards others. In short, good books increase our wisdom. Sometimes the wisdom is wisdom about sex, the sort of wisdom I want my teenage children to have. But even if the wisdom is mainly about something else, I don’t want my children to be deprived of that wisdom because of a sex scene. In good books—the kinds of books our school librarians are trained to look for and add to school collections—if there is sex it is not gratuitous and disconnected from the story. Rather, it is integral to a larger story and as such can offer insight into the significance of sex, the risks of sex, and its  place in the broader context of human life.

Lousy books, by contrast, can lead us to wallow in the very shallow waters that encourage fixation on superficial desires, including sexual ones—even if they assiduously avoid explicit sex.

Our teens are going to be thinking about sex whether or not there are books in the library that have sexual content. But if there are good books that do, that may help them think about sex more wisely.

Many teens will be having sex whether or not there are books in the library with sexual content. But if there are good books with such content—books that are honest about teen sexuality, its consequences and impact on the lives of those who choose it—they may make better sexual choices than they would have otherwise.