The Power of One

oval office

For a society that is obsessed with power, we haven’t done a great job of defining it. What is it exactly that we want? Is it power over objects, power over others, power over ourselves?

Power can come from many things – whether it be wealth, followers, or recognition – but it boils down to who has the most control. Perhaps the most obvious example of a struggle for power is American politics.

We are always concerned with who is in power, in terms of people and in terms of party. The presidency of the United States is regarded not only as the most powerful position in the nation but the entire world. It is a fair statement to say that the POTUS is quite powerful, yet there are situations in which he can become powerless.

As you probably know from some required government or civics class, the federal government is composed of three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The president heads the executive branch. So how is our president different from a monarch?

Thankfully, America runs on a little thing called checks and balances. Any executive order made by the president is subject to scrutiny by the judicial branch. Just recently, the Muslim ban was ruled unconstitutional.

A more interesting question is how can one be powerful in a powerless position? To answer that, I’d tell you to look no further than at 35-year-old Keisha Saunders. Saunders lives in the poorest county in the nation, and she does it by choice. Her choice is her power. Saunders grew up in this very county, McDowell County in West Virginia, and left to pursue an education. She came back to, quite literally, check up on them.

keisha saunders.JPG

Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount

You see, Saunders is a nurse practitioner in a county where virtually all of inhabitants are dependent on health insurance. For the last couple of years, this meant ObamaCare. McDowell used to be a mining community, but the decline of the industry has caused most of its residents to leave in search of work and the rest to fall on hard times. Many of them are unemployed and would not have health insurance were it not for the Affordable Care Act.

That’s where Nurse Saunders comes in. Her county voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and, despite her own personal beliefs (she’s a Hillary supporter), she felt it was beyond her power to sway their vote. Now with the Republican plan to repeal the ACA, the people of McDowell are feeling powerless. So, Saunders does what she has to do. She works at a free clinic and stays for an hour after closing time. In the event of an ACA repeal, she says she will work to make sure the people of McDowell retain access to healthcare, whether it be through pharmaceutical samples or a clinic four hours upstate.

Realistically, there’s not much Saunders can do to prevent the ACA from being repealed. So, she does what she can. She works, she perseveres, and she shows us the power of one.

Red, White, and Blue – Is Black in There Too?

The recent Muslim travel ban has resulted in a public outcry. Because the ban affects travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries, activists argue it is a form of religious discrimination and therefore unconstitutional. The ban is certainly a slippery slope towards outright categorization of people by religion, something Donald Trump proposed multiple times during his campaign in the form of a Muslim registry.

Despite the Trump’s administration refusal to call it a Muslim ban, the executive order was almost immediately (and, in my opinion, correctly) labeled as such and followed by vehement protest. Religious discrimination is certainly not new in America, but it is not what we use most often to categorize people. In times like these, it’s important to be aware of our internalized biases that cause us to see people as part of a demographic, rather than individuals. We cannot always tell someone’s religion, but there is another category that is easier to see. And if we cannot see it, we make it a point to find out. That category is race.

 

Screen Shot 2017-03-15 at 7.55.40 AM

Illustration by Roman Genn

 

America’s relationship with race is a strange one, and the race relations within our country are a testament to that. Somehow the nation is simultaneously obsessed with and ignorant of race. People are quick to ask “what [race] are you?” but they never seem to follow up with “how does that affect your life?”. Even though race is an integral part of our daily existence, some refuse to acknowledge its influence.

Stop playing the race card,” they say – as if it was something every person of color kept hidden up their sleeve, waiting for an opportune moment to win their hand at a game of blackjack.

Why do you have to bring race into it?” As if race was not an integral part of our existence, our culture, a way for people to categorize us and make sense of “the other.” As if our society was not built upon generations and generations of generalizations based on race.

I just don’t see color.” As if this country was ever capable of being blind to color. As if there weren’t seats reserved in the front for whites, as if colored people were not banned from restaurants, schools, and swimming pools. As if after decades of de jure segregation, we did not hastily transition into de facto segregation. As if the marginalization and gentrification of people of color, especially black people, wasn’t the result of systematic and institutionalized racism. As if the phrase “black lives matter” was not immediately shot down with a vicious “all lives matter.” As if black victims weren’t written off as thugs and white criminals weren’t described as troubled, effectively absolving them of any real guilt. As if a man with a turban and a beard flying into LAX from Iran isn’t labeled a terrorist, while a clean-shaven white man who commits a mass shooting is not.

For the majority (and the minorities) of us, race plays a hand in our day-to-day thinking more than religion does. It’s more than a box we check on our paperwork, it’s how we see the world. Not completely, of course, but it’s important to notice our judgments of people are partly a product of what we believe to be their race. It’s a crutch we fall back on before we get to fully know a person. Now more than every, we have to be aware of our internalized prejucide – whether it be towards a particular race or religion. It’s time we, as Americans, turn away from “the wall” and take a long look in the mirror. It’s time that we ask ourselves – “Seriously?”

P.S. I highly recommend watching the music video for “Seriously”. Performed by Leslie Odom Jr. for This American Life. Written by Sara Bareilles.

Democracy and Apple Pie

 

republican mascot

The elephant in the White House.

If you’ve watched more than thirty seconds of CNN in the past three months, you are most likely aware of America’s rapidly changing political climate. Whether while scrolling through Facebook or skimming the Huffington Post, your attention has been called to the orange elephant in the room (a room which is soon to be the White House) that is Donald J. Trump.

President-elect Trump has run his campaign under the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Four words with an increasingly complex and controversial meaning. But instead of examining Trump’s promises for the future of our country, I’d like to take a look at the American values that we as a nation hold so dear.

American values fall under the Eurocentric umbrella of Western values, a sort of ideological dogma allegedly held by any self-respecting democratic nation, with the United States serving as the poster child for these values. Western values, as their geographical nomenclature suggests, depend upon the core assumption that the East is fundamentally different than the West (see Edward Said’s Orientalism), and that Western values are undoubtedly superior.

One of the central tenets of Western values is democracy. More and more, democracy is referred to not as a system of government but a way of thinking. The “essence of democracy,” according to cultural historian Jacques Barzan, “is popular sovereignty, implying political and social equality.” These may be the values that we define as American, but we have yet to achieve such equality here in the States. Yet, the United States government has time and time again used the alleged superiority of Western values as justification to bring democracy to other countries. Perhaps the most American ideal of all is the call to power, “an all-inclusive urge to adopt, adapt, and ultimately influence other cultural trends around the world.”

We may not constantly think about it, but democracy is the backbone of American society. No wonder why the West values it so much! Democracy is what gives us our agency as American citizens; if we did not have a vote, we’d have no voice in how our government works. It’s safe to say that on a worldwide scale, our system of representation affords Americans quite a bit of agency.

Interestingly enough, although we love to preach about democracy, America is not technically a democracy. We are a republic, and a complicated one at that, due to the institution of the Electoral College. The Electoral College has been in use since the birth of our nation. In the U.S., the Western Value of democracy comes with an asterisk.

It’s true that the presidential election and the Electoral College only comes around every four years, but it restricts our agency on a daily basis. The decisions made in D.C. affect everyone in the United States. And who decides who’s sitting up there in Congress? You guessed it… the Electoral College.

You may be wondering – how does the Electoral College diminish my agency. I thought it was one person, one vote? It certainly is one person one, one vote, but it is not one state, one proportionate amount of electors. Because the Electoral College gives even the smallest state a minimum of three representatives, this means larger and more populous states get the rough end of the bargain. Even well-known politicians such as Bernie Sanders have called into question the validity and fairness of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College directly undermines the American value of democracy because it limits our agency. Emily Badger of The New York Times does a great job of examining “the rule vote’s disproportionate slice of power.” So the next time you think we’re all as American as apple pie, remember that pie isn’t cut into even slices.

The Hannah Montana Ideal

hannah-montana

Hybridity is almost a good idea, but not quite.

-Nicholas Thomas

We live in a world of hybrids. From phones to cars to entire nations, the reach of hybridity is inescapable. The one thing common in our world is that we all want to have “the best of both worlds.” What was once just a 2000’s pop song is now a cultural reality.

Hybridity, by its simplest definition, is a mixing of different elements. It’s a combination of traits that are viewed as separate into a single entity – gas-powered and electric, book and tablet, labrador retriever and poodle. Perhaps you drove a hybrid today or are holding one in your hand to read this post. And, if you live in the United States, you are especially surrounded by hybridity. The U.S. has a unique label – “the melting pot” – a mixture of cultures that forms one hybrid American culture.

But what happens when you apply hybridity not to a nation, but to an individual? That’s when things get a bit tricky. We’re talking Hannah Montana levels of tricky.

At least once if your life, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of being “well-rounded.” It’s said to be one of the qualities most looked for by university admissions officers and employers alike. But what does being well-rounded really mean? What is it that we are trying so desperately to round out?

A well-rounded individual is something of a human hybrid. Logic-based creatures that we are, we tend to categorize ourselves and others: left-brain or right-brain, STEM or humanities, athlete or intellectual. Now, these qualities aren’t mutually exclusive; there are plenty of highly intelligent athletes and mathematically gifted artists. But being well-rounded necessitates hybridizing numerous different traits and talents. It’s the modern-day obsession with “having it all.” It’s no longer acceptable to be good at just one thing; we have to possess a plethora of skills. We’re expected to be rational and artistically gifted, emotionally open and socially cautious, spontaneous and prudential.

One of the main tenets of being well-rounded is developing skills that don’t come naturally. It’s the classic argument of nature versus nurture.We’re constantly being pushed to attempt, even to excel, at activities that we’re not adept at doing. In fact, the practice of “nurture” has gone so far that some even argue talent is a myth.

I believe that talent, while not a big a factor as some people may believe, is not mythical. Every person has his or her strength and that strength is something that comes naturally – a talent, a gift, a penchant, whatever you want to call it.

Yet however big a role talent plays, nurture plays an even bigger one. Talent can be lost if it is not nurtured and talent can be developed if you practice something enough. In that sense, talent is a myth, because it is not restricted to a certain number of people who are born gifted.

So what’s stopping us all from becoming the best, most talented, well-rounded people we can be? Not so fast. While you may have a desire to become a jack of all trades, you don’t want to end up being a master of none. Those who try to master too many things at once usually wind up being merely adequate at those things and great at none of them. While the idea of well-rounded is still very popular in our culture, there is a movement, particularly by parents, to encourage children to focus on one thing that they truly enjoy.

This isn’t to say that you should never try anything new. You should always aim to have new experiences. No matter what stage you are in your life, you can find new interests. And, once you find something you’re passionate about, you can stick with it. Nurture that skill, whether you’re a natural or not.

Take it from the Stanford representative that gave a presentation at my school: “We aren’t looking for well-rounded people; we’re looking for lopsided ones.” Maybe not all colleges want well-rounded students after all.

It’s okay to be a hybrid. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to be. But remember that you’re not a phone or a car. You’re a human. And humans don’t have to be a perfect hybrid. They can be a lopsided one.

Trump: University and Beyond

trump-protest

Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times

It has been six days. Despite insulting countless minorities, despite having no political experience, despite losing the nationwide popular vote by un unprecedented margin, Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States.

We have had six days to process. To watch as Donald Trump walks into the White House and shakes hands with President Obama. To comfort those that Trump has demeaned and planned to make policies against. To walk out into the streets and protest or sit in the comfort of our own homes and cope.

The effects of Trump’s presidency are perhaps most deeply felt on America’s college campuses. In some states, particularly California, a democratic stronghold, students marched minutes after the results of the election were announced. In other places, students were stunned into silence, the atmosphere more anxious than usual. In all places, the sun rose (just as President Obama predicted) and life went on.

The aftermath of the election was almost instant. In addition to the demonstrations, parents had to comfort their children; teachers had to tell their students “I am your advocate.” The instance of hate crime rose, just as it did when Trump targeted marginalized groups during his campaign. The Trump effect is very real.

Despite having such a widespread effect on colleges across the country, Trump’s education policy has not been thoroughly explained. In fact, it warrants a measly two paragraphs on his official website.

The best political analysts can do at this point is make predictions. And, as we have seen firsthand, their predictions are not always true. But they are worth looking at. In his rallies, Trump has advocated increased funding for private education and less restrictions on private colleges. He has not elaborated on where these extra funds will come from, and many are worried that the funds will be taken from public education. Trump has said that he will shrink, and possibly even disband, the Department of Education.

Trump’s strict stance  on immigration will likely pose a problem for undocumented students, or “dreamers”, who were temporarily protected under an executive action by the Obama administration. According to Cheryl Little, director of the advocacy group Americans for Immigrant Justice, “[Dreamers] could well lose the opportunity to obtain a work permit and attend college or join the military if the president-elect keeps his promise.”

Six days in, it is too early to tell how the landscape of American education will change in the next four years. For now, we all must try to listen and learn from each other in the face of these difficulties. We must continue to educate ourselves and take power in our knowledge. And we can take comfort in the fact that tomorrow, the sun will rise again.

My Bro Rousseau

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. If you’ve ever taken a history course that mentioned a little thing called The Enlightenment, you might have heard of this guy.

rousseau.jpg

portrait of Jean Jacques Rousseau by Allan Ramsay;  Rousseau was known for many things, but his fashion sense wasn’t one of them.

Despite the outfit he apparently chose to wear while having his portrait taken,  it’s understandable that Rousseau may not seem like the most interesting guy in the world. I mean, even his name sounds boring. But his name must seem familiar for a reason, right? That’s because Rousseau was a philosopher during the Enlightenment, one of the peaks of art and science in human history, and, to put it bluntly, the dude did a lot of stuff. He even wrote an autobiography about his crazy life entitled The Confessions. Now that’s a attention-grabbing title if I’ve ever seen one.

I’m not here to tell you Rousseau’s life story cause you can just read it or even hear it from Rousseau himself! You’ll find that he did indeed lead an interesting life: “His life was filled with conflict, first when he was apprenticed, later in academic circles with other Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot and Voltaire, with Parisian and Swiss authorities and even with David Hume.” That’s right; Rousseau had beef with his colleagues and the police. Who would’ve taken him for a bad boy, huh?

Well it turns out that Rousseau was one of the bad boys of his time, known back then as a “counter-Enlightenment” thinker. While most others were rejoicing in the progress of the time, Rousseau took a contrary opinion, published in his first popular work Discourse on the Arts and Sciences. In response to the question posted by the Academy of Dijon, “Has the restoration of the sciences and arts tended to purify morals?”, he responded with a resounding “no.”

If science and art were supposed to be the pinnacle of art and achievement, Rousseau argued, why did the Roman Empire fall? After all, it was the Romans that united Europe under a common rule and allowed for an easy diffusion of knowledge. Rousseau uses this method of historical induction throughout the Discourse, pointing to the fall of Egypt and the decline of Greece as other examples of moral degradation after “progress” was made in the sciences and the arts.

According to Rousseau, we are better off pursuing virtue than we are chasing unattainable amounts of knowledge. Now, I would argue that the two are not mutually exclusive, but I do agree with certain points of his. I’ll leave you with one of those points.

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile

‘Tis the (Election) Season

vote-mural

credits to Kodak Views on Flickr

Warning: This post contains commentary on the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, completely partisan views, and the only time in my life I will encourage you to take advice from Ted Cruz.

So let’s talk about politics. I know this is a big no-no for corporate meetings and family gatherings, but this is a blog, so let’s say it’s okay. Now, I’m going to talk about politics in the context of morality. I know, I know, morality isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word politics. With the countless numbers of scandals emerging in the last week, I could hardly disagree with you. But let’s remove ourselves from the viscous election cycle and look for a second at the democratic system.

Most people, aside from one particular presidential candidate, believe in the basic tenets of American democracy. The government has the duty to protect the people, and it does this by making laws that all citizens are expected to follow. These laws, although we might not think of them as such, are the morality that the government imposes on the people. In any sort of democratic-based government, these laws are decided – at least in part – by the people. Laws are public morality, a nation’s distinction between right and wrong.

If you think about it, lots of the debates in politics are really debates of morality: pro-choice or pro-life, marriage equality or traditional marriage, socialist programs or trickle-down economics. This deep involvement between morality and politics is what forms the backbone of American society, but it’s also what makes politics a bit dangerous. What happens when a large, angry, orange man yells things at the American people that would never dare escape the lips of any respectable politician? What happens when the malignant carrot gains enough support from the American people that he’s a possible candidate for leader of our country?

Donald Trump is not just a threat to minorities; he is a threat to our public morality and what we stand for as a country. In Hank Green’s video Compassion, Weakness, and the 2016 Election, Green explains how Trump has successfully preyed on the fears and internalized biases of American citizens and managed to bring them to the forefront in the form of hateful rhetoric and even violence. Although I certainly don’t agree with Trump’s policy, my message against him is not a political one. It’s a moral one.

And that is why, on this last day to register to vote in the state of California, I ask of you three things. Vote your mind. Vote your conscience. Vote your morals.

The Mystery of MySpace

Humanity has lived in the age of empire, and it seems to me that we always will. From the Aztecs and the Romans of the distant past to the cultural and economic empires alive and well today, humans can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to expanding into new territories. So how does an empire that once ruled over millions and millions of people manage to crumble back down into the tiny entity that it once was – or even be diminished to the point of nonexistence? Well, certain factors must come into play.

Any sixth grader could name a number of failed empires off the top of his head: the Inca, the Persians, the Soviet Union. But there’s one empire that most eleven year olds are wholly unfamiliar with. MySpace.

myspace-log-in

credits to Jim Whimpey on Flickr

Ring any bells? At the height of its reign, MySpace was attracting over 75 million monthly users, from several different countries. This might not seem like much compared to Facebook’s over one billion users, but keep in mind that the Roman empire had a little under 60 million citizens. In fact usership was high enough that at its peak, MySpace was valued at twelve billion dollars.

So what exactly happened? It’s not like Facebook employees stormed the MySpace headquarters in a hostile takeover. And despite the fact that most people believe MySpace spontaneously vanished, the company didn’t go down without a fight.

If you Google “why did myspace die,” you’ll find forums full of people offering theories explaining the demise of the social media empire. Perhaps one of the best people to unravel the mystery of MySpace is Sean Percival, vice president of MySpace’s online marketing division from 2009 to 2011.

In his interview with The Guardian, Percival describes the defeated atmosphere of the once social media giant when he joined the company in 2009. Facebook was on the rise and MySpace was struggling to compete, in spite of maintaining its throne as the website with the most traffic in 2009.

So what really killed MySpace? Its complete disregard for users in the face (pun intended) of competition. Bought out by News Corporation, MySpace became more concerned with making money than actually serving its primary purpose as a social media site. The site was flooded with pop-ups and scam ads like the infamous PunchtheMonkey, and corporate leaders, rather than responding to user complaints, just pushed the relentless advertising further.

Interestingly enough, Percival admits that MySpace may have had a chance for survival had it resisted the urge to diversify (was anyone really ever going to join MySpace Books) and instead re-specialized, taking advantage of its exclusive contracts with record label companies and transitioning into a music streaming platform. MySpace eventually tried to purchase Spotify, but by then, it was too little too late.

In the end, what destroyed MySpace was its apathy towards what users really wanted. Much like the citizens of other empires, these disgruntled patrons chose to rebel.

For the billion-dollar News Corporation, it was a minor blow. But for the rest of us mortals, it is a reminder of the fragility of success and the instability of power and a lesson in the limits of empire.