On Listening

I haven’t written anything on here for a while. There’s a reason for that.

When you’re a super connected millennial, who’s up to date on the minute-by-minute happenings of the world, who follows commentators and activists from all over the spectrum, when you have a platform – even a tiny one – there’s a temptation to take a stance, on pretty much everything. And this year seems to have been particularly cruel to us, full of surprises, heartache, and think-piece fodder – there’s no shortage of issues to take a stance on.
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Is Trump America’s Lent?

Like many Americans, I’ve reached the point in the election cycle where I’m having to actually consider what a Trump presidency would look like for the country – a notion that most of us laughed off just a few months ago. It’s a disturbing prospect.

Something that I’ve found fascinating in all of this is the general public response to Trump’s candidacy thus far. I try to follow a wide range of news sources and thought leaders – some are pretty liberal, some are pretty conservative, and a few fall in between. In the past week or so, there’s been this funny little trend, where commentators are struggling to determine how Trump’s gotten so far, and why he’s doing so well. It’s funny to me because people from all over the spectrum seem to agree that a Trump presidency would be terrible – it’s almost always treated as some looming potential disaster – and now they’re trying to figure out why this bad thing is happening and how we can stop it. The theories are varied, conflicting, and definitely interesting. But I come away from all of these articles (but especially the ones written by and for conservatives) with the same question: if a Donald Trump presidency is so obviously bad for America, then who on earth is voting for him? Continue reading →

The Tricky Rhetoric of Rights

Over 200 years ago, in a stuffy brick building a few blocks north of my apartment, a bunch of white dudes got together and ratified the Constitution of the United States. Western Civilization has been messed up ever since.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the Constitution. It’s provided a nice bit of structure for these past 200+ years, and is full of fun little rules like Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. And those first ten amendments they eventually added – the Bill of Rights – sure do come in handy sometimes. I like it when the government promises that I can say and write what I want, and that I can practice whatever religion I want and even get together in public with people who are like me. All of that is fine and good. What I don’t like is how we’ve established a weird culture around these rights, which has affected how we think about ourselves, others, and our society. Continue reading →

The SRC & Your Soul

In case you hadn’t heard, Philly’s public schools are kind of a mess right now. Around town, empty school buildings sit marked with “for sale” signs as if it’s normal. Children have literally died due to inadequate staffing. The latest plot point in the government-failing-a-generation saga unraveled on Monday morning when the School Reform Commission (the district’s governing body) unanimously – and secretly – voted to cancel the contracts of the 15,000 district employees.

The most significant implication of this move is that PSD faculty and staff will soon need to start contributing toward their healthcare. Of course, this isn’t at all unusual: almost all of PA’s teachers pay for part of their healthcare. But as many have counter-argued, Philly teachers make significantly less money (by 19%!) than their suburban counterparts, all while working in a much more stressful environment. Regardless of where anyone stands on the issue, this move is expected to save the cash-starved district around $44 million.

After reading a lot about this, here’s what I find most interesting: shortly after ending Monday’s secret meeting, SRC chair Bill Green pointed out that “Every single stakeholder has stepped up to help the district close its structural deficit — the principals, our blue-collar workers…It is time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to share in the sacrifice.” Continue reading →

Coca Cola and American Exceptionalism

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Some happy Americans partaking in a favorite American pastime – drinking Coke out of a glass bottle.

Every once in a while, an embarrassing controversy arises on America’s airwaves. It usually starts on social media, makes its way into the headlines, and soon enough, commentators and politicians are adding to the noise. This time around, the controversy was sparked by Coca Cola’s “It’s Beautiful” ad, which premiered during the Superbowl and by now probably has tens of millions of views across the internet. For those of you who haven’t yet seen this touching piece of marketing, the controversy is that the ad features “America the Beautiful” being sung in seven different languages.

But here I am, contributing to this controversy by having and voicing an opinion about it. Don’t worry: I have no interest in trying to get you to either boycott Coke or go out and buy a few cases of it. This post has nothing to do with America’s favorite soft drink, and everything to do with a popular cultural myth. (For the record, I prefer Coke over Pepsi and beer over Coke).

The root of this controversy is the widely held belief in American Exceptionalism – that the United States is set apart from all other nations, superior to them all, and on a global scale, viewed as an example of political and cultural righteousness. The language of Exceptionalism pervades our political rhetoric, but most serious academics scoff at it as a kind of American mythology. Both sides of the Coke controversy are representing two aspects of Exceptionalism – which is why no one is right here. Except Coke, who is getting all of this free publicity.

One of the tweets that surfaced after the ad premiered, criticizing it, said something along the lines of “Being an American is an honor.” I actually laughed out loud at this one. While being an American could be considered a privilege, it is certainly not an honor, especially for those of us who just happened to be born here. Native born, English-speaking Americans did nothing to earn their citizenship. The United States, like many other countries, is a place where some people are born and others move to. It is not an accomplishment.

But the other side of American exceptionalism, which is also the other side of this controversy, is also problematic. Coke’s sentiment here is really tempting – I’m proud to be an American, and I’d rather live in a country that’s diverse than one that’s not. But just because people speak a variety of languages, honor their ethnic customs, and drink Coke doesn’t mean that the United States is inherently better than any other country. Our nation’s diversity is just one of those things that makes us different from others, just like another country’s ethnic homogeneity makes them different from us. Like people, every nation is unique, and, as with people, uniqueness does not indicate superiority.

America is different, just like Somalia, India, and the Philippines. And America is beautiful, just like Somalia, India, and the Philippines. We have neither right nor reason to think that we’re somehow inherently better than them.