School Me: America’s War On and For Education Pt. 2

Back again for more huh!

Okay so this is part two of last week’s post when we started talking about our education system and about the challenges our kids face with homework and standardized testing. I also talked about technology and outdated methods, and even religion got an (dis)honorable mention in there. No one was safe from it, parents, teachers, politicians… since we are all part of the pie, we all got a slice of it.

Today I’ll talk about the challenges college students face (provided they made it all the way to college) in the classroom, but mainly outside of it. On this post the blame will be almost completely shifted to our policy-makers, corporations, and the universities and colleges themselves so I will not go in-depth about fraternities or the “college experience”, but rather focus more on the financial aspect of higher education and the ripple effect they cause. But, while distancing myself from too much math, I’ll mainly be talking about student debt and we’ll analyze a risk-versus-reward type situation. So if you’re one of these people suffering from studentdebtitis (don’t try to pronounce that), then you will read some facts here that perhaps you didn’t know. Hopefully I can help in some way or another.

Let’s get into it!

 

All In the Numbers

 

Assuming you passed all that required testing we talked about before- SATs, college admission tests, etc.- college is a new and exciting time that is about to begin! No more lectures about being late to class, no more bullshit about cleaning your room, in fact, if you choose to live in a dorm, no more parents for a while. Man is life great! Well for you. For your parents it’s a different story.

For those putting themselves or their kids through college, it’s important to know where they are in terms of payment if they stand a chance. Forget for a second the very confusing college-application lingo, first you have to know if you can even afford it. The pressure of not knowing whether it will be possible to send your kids to college (or put yourself through college) is only part of a reality we live in today’s America where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a good job, and even harder without a college education, an education that while beautiful and necessary is not free.

So with that in mind, let’s check out some important numbers and see how it all ties in with this higher education I talk about.

College Tuition- Since the 1970s, college tuition has been increasing steadily over the years to an unimaginable 1120% (yikes!), and even without inflation we are paying more for higher education now than we have in the past 40 years, or ever actually.

Student debt- American students have an outstanding $1.2 trillion dollars (that’s 1,200,000,000,000) in student loan debt which is significantly more than American credit-card debt which stands at a little under $700 billion. To put it into context, our national GDP is $17 trillion, which means that student debt is roughly 7% of that. Insane!

Number of Americans with college debt- 40 million. For comparison that is roughly the entire population of Argentina.

Average debt per student- Today college graduates are entering the job market with an average of $26,000 in debt.

Interest rate for college loans It floats between 3% and 6% depending on the type of loan you get.

National median income- As of February of this year the median income was roughly $41,000.

Now comes the hard part trying to make sense of it all.

We all pretty much know the ritual. Students go to college, they get jobs, get married, have kids, and they pay for kids’ college. Well, that’s not happening so much anymore. Less parents are now paying for their kids’ education, which means that now more than ever American students are financing their own educations. This is just a side-effect to the increasing college tuition. But it is also due to other causes one of which is the disparity between what parents make and what college tuition amounts to.

According to a report by the Washington Post from March, adjusted for inflation take-home pay only increased by a measly 0.1% in 2014 for middle-class people, and although the unemployment rate is at a little under 6%- the lowest it’s been since the middle of 2008- and 2.6% for college graduates, job outsourcing to other countries has left the middle-class worker with little or no leverage to negotiate higher wages. This leaves college students in a bind. They can either choose to pay for college themselves, take out a bank loan, try their luck with financial aid, or, if they’re not agile enough to get a scholarship, opt out of college altogether. But wait there’s more bad news.

As of last year, interest rates rose again for college students, mind you it’s not an outrageous amount, but it’s not a negligible amount either. I’m sure that there are a thousand fiscal details to work out that have endless ramifications, but the fact of the matter is that middle-class parents cannot afford inflating college costs, especially when interest rates on college loans usually float around between 3% and 6%. And I’m not even including bank loans, credit cards, or any other alternative means of paying for college, simply what the federal government loans out.

Now this is where you might get a little pissed off, the Federal Discount Rate, which is the interest rate at which the Fed loans money out to banks is .75%. True, this is only for very short-term loans, but even regular loans to huge multi-billion dollar banks are disproportionate to what the regular American student borrows. In other words if the regular American student were a corporate bank (with the current interest rate on college loans), it would’ve either dissolved a long time ago, collapsing under its own debt, or it would’ve gone overseas for a better deal. The reason for that is that a bank would never agree to such high borrowing rate as American students now graduate with. The fact is that the interest rate for students is disproportionate to what they and their parents make, and still a heck of a lot more than what the government loans out to banks. And while the whole comparison between students and banks is an apples-and-oranges scenario, it’s actually more of a gala-apples-and-golden-apples situation.

So it seems that pay-raise is not proportionate to the inflating college bubble, so just as we feared, there is no sustainability between what middle-class people make and the college debt accrued by those same people. And if I told you what investor and shareholder pay, corporate assets, and golden parachutes is, you might just go into a passive-aggressive fit of rage and throw your puppy out the window.

Ironically, for a lot of these students- younger and older- the problem is not acquiring the money they need to start their careers (although that is a problem too), rather the problem is actually getting it. And in a cruel twist of fate what many of these students end up in a “beware what you wish for” situation as soon as the first loan clears. And since a college loan is the only financial instrument that allows you to borrow more and more while your interest balloons up, it makes it a very dangerous tool to resort to.

Obviously the details are varied and extensive but this is pretty much a summary of what’s going on.But that’s still leaves us wondering why college tuition keeps going up despite a slow economic growth.

This is a difficult question to answer since it depends on more than one factor including: rising costs for room and board, slower graduation rates [1], budgetary limitations (whatever that means), skyrocketing costs for research institutions (which actually makes sense), government subsidies for grants and loans, and even the rate at which universities recruit can have an impact on these rising costs. There’s no way I can list all the reasons and the figures for each point, but this comprehensive article by the Washington Post from 2013 lists more exact figures for why tuition has been increasing, especially in smaller colleges and universities around the country.

What this all means is that it costs the state and the students more money and energy to pay tuition and to pay off that debt than to actually use the skills they went to school for in the first place. It’s a psychologically discouraging thing to graduate from college with upwards of $50,000 in debt without being ever comfortable in a job that you love, only to work in a job that you need. That is a debt that most likely will take someone the rest of their lives to pay. The true American dream is to accrue an insurmountable amount of debt after you start working, not before.

Some students and alumni are worse off and some are better off, but the harsh reality is that for of those who do owe, most of their financial decisions for the next few years to come (hopefully just a few) will be based around that debt.

 

Where Does It Go?

 

So where does the money go? Let me ask a simpler question, do you sit back with a beer and relax to watch college chemistry competitions; or college advanced math lectures? Unless you’re Ross from Friends, then I’m guessing the answer is no. College football, that’s the thing you watch.

Turns out that in some universities- those whose intercollegiate athletics programs are not self-supporting- a large chunk of what students pay goes to athletics programs that many of those students will never even attend. This also includes the salary for coaches and their assistants which is an obsene amount of money (in the millions) compared to what a regular college professor makes- less than 200K for the most experienced, much less for the majority. According to research by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, not only is the cost for these athletic programs increasing- which of course has an impact in rising tuition costs- but also almost 20% of Ohio University students wish there was less funding for these programs.[2] I can’t speak for any other colleges, but I’ll leave it to your discretion to assume what other sutdents around the country think about their own athletics programs.

In no way am I suggesting that we scrap athletics programs, but it seems that colleges are more known for how well their football teams and their glorified players performed than for how academically competent they are. Now it would make a big difference if the money the games brought in were evenly distributed across the board (meaning to cover other university costs other than the athletic departments) or even to compensate the players OR their families, but I am pretty sure that’s not the way it is.

Fortunately, most of the money a university receives from tuition, grants, government and private entities, and other sources, is efficiently utilized to pay mainly for instruction and research, and also for other services that the university provides. And a big part of that money goes towards financial aid which is mainly aimed at working-class students in an effort to get them in school.

But the less that states spend on college-level education, the more that public and private universities will need to make up the shortfall by increasing tuition and making cuts in how much it is spent per student. It’s simple economics and as much as I hate to admit it, colleges and universities are a business (even if educaiton isn’t), and as such it also governed by the same laws of economics as any other business.

 

Noble vs. Practical

 

Today everyone and their grandmothers know that going to college is part of an evolving society and by-and-large a great asset to possess if you want to make it in the real world comfortably. While in college you’ll form a relationship with blah, blah, blah.

The truth is that while there are many reasons why people go to college, they all boil down to two main ones: the noble, either because they find some discipline or art truly intriguing and they want to learn everything about it; or the practical, because they want to make money. These two people are not too different from one another, because they both know that whatever the reason, whatever the motivation, having an accredited higher education stamped on a diploma opens a lot of doors in the real world that are becoming increasingly hard to open without it.

This is a mantra that has been drilled for generations into the minds of children. Not a bad one to have drilled actually, but we’ll get to that. The point is that when people finally realize that everything we have now, from the laptop sitting on their desks to the crowns on their teeth, are the product of an incredible amount of study, perhaps a college education is not a bad thing to back you up.

But this constant reminder, like an alarm clock going off at all hours of the day, that they need to go to college right after high school, that they need to graduate and that they need to start making money right away becomes a tedious affair, one that undoubtedly bores some people. They get it from every angle, their parents, their teachers, their employers, even from banks themselves. Again, not a bad piece of wisdom to be given, but for what purpose?d

The message is clear: make money before you die!

It might sound a bit cynical to say something like that, but it’s a truth crudely reflected in numbers. In a survey taken in 2012 by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) in collaboration with UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, found that 87.9% of first year college students go to college to “get a better job.” [3] This pretty much translates to “because I want more money.”

That answer comes to no surprise to anyone since we are still recovering from a very nasty recession and the housing-bubble burst. And even though that survey was taken three years ago, an article by the Washington Post included data from a more recent survey by the same collaboration that echoes the data from 2012. So basically, yes, most people go to college to make money. Can you blame them?

From the 2014 survey, the second most important reason why people go to college is “to learn things that interest me” at 82.2% as opposed to 86.1% for “…a better job.”

What does this mean for college students?

In the first part of this blog-post I mentioned that schools should do away with unnecessary subjects or at least increase school-time in subjects that will be productive and necessary, like technology and the sciences. But I also mentioned that it is our responsibility to make them think and wonder, and not merely become slaves to themselves.

In this second part, it may seem as if I’m changing my views, but I’m not. The point is quite pragmatic in itself: those skills acquired in more elementary education is partly to prepare them for the college life and/or a life that is more technologically centered. I’m not suggesting we get rid of the sciences, or art, or sports, but rather that while elementary education is important in awakening the mind, college education is supposed to refine it, shape it, and prepare it to send it out productively into the world. It’s not really a change of mind, merely just an evolution of ideas.

There’ no doubt in my mind that there are lawyers who simply love law, or doctors who are passionate about human anatomy, or architects who are drawn to numbers and design, otherwise how could they live with themselves for all their lives doing something they hate just to make money? However there are those who view college as a business decision rather than an intellectual one. Which brings me to my next point.

You know how most children when asked what they want to be when they grow up choose the most selfless, most noble careers, e.g. firefighters, cops, doctors; but when they do grow up the smartest ones end up being stockbrokers and politicians? Well there’s a reason why that happens.

Every single day we read in the news words like “golden parachute”, “billion-dollar deals,” “Fortune 500 company,” and if you’re like me, you think to yourself, “man, I’m in the wrong business.”

The fact is that the rest of the arts and sciences are being out-competed by the money and the behavior that making money is more important than anything else is being reinforced in practically every aspect of American life. Fortunately, the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) sciences are on the rise, but we need to build more of that momentum and reward those who make our lives easier (scientists) instead of those who merely make life easier for themselves. That’s where college culture comes into play.

Astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson said it best when he remarked:

 

I’m not here to convince you that money doesn’t get you happiness, believe me it does. However, I’m here to tell you that there’s no need to sacrifice something that you really like for something that makes you money. So in choosing a career, it is better to choose something that satisfies your curiosity, and a career that you’re drawn to (or a variation of it that will get you a bit more money), rather than something you hate that will leave you more money.

Case in point, when I was younger my grandfather knew the benefits of going to college and he urged me to choose a career in medicine or law. I have nothing against doctors or lawyers, but I immediately hated the idea of becoming either one, and I knew that if I ever succeeded at it, it would not only be half-assed, but I would be risking more than my own life in the process. I am now 27 and I finally have an idea of what I want to do with my life, and not one second goes by that I regret that decision. I am perfectly happy with who I am and what I do, and I know that I would have been miserable otherwise.

Life is about happiness, your happiness. Not anyone else’s. And it’s not a race, nobody wins at life, in fact the only way to win is to be the happiest that you can be without hurting anyone else or the world around you.

The issue with student debt has been an efficient political tool for both parties in “the Hill” for quite some time now, and a hot-button issue in Main Street; many even point out that student debt not only affects things here at home, but abroad as well. In this competitive world where countries like Russia, India, and China are fast risers in the global economic food-chain, it is more important than ever for America to invest in the best resource and asset it has to outcompete these nations and become once again a leading nation in education, technology, etc: an army of high-skilled and educated people. But is it possible- or have we lagged too far behind?

Today we discuss the education business in America and the next generation waiting to take the torch.

 

A Solution?

 

Often we read cases about graduates living frugally or doing economically-savvy things to pay off their loan so, and we rejoice when we hear one or two people did extraordinary things and got rid of their debt in a few short years. Honestly, yay for those people. But personally, I find it depressing that we have come to glorify the exceptions to the rule, as if it were a heroic thing to live on instant soup so for years on end just to not live with that debt until the day they die. That’s not how the American dream was sold to our generation. Debt wasn’t supposed to happen until later on in life.

The issue that we have is that with college debt, it’s not only the students and parents are paying the bill, but also you, the taxpayer. And it’s an expensive bill.

President Obama’s loan forgiveness program which he passed in 2013 aims at giving college graduates the opportunity to pay only 10% of what they earn towards their premiums for a period of 10 years, after which time their college debt will have been forgiven. But what happens to the rest of that money? Put simply, we pay for it, college graduate or not, we’re all paying for all 1.3 trillion dollars of student debt. As Jeffrey Dorfman of Forbes appropriately writes in this article, “If government wants to subsidize college education it could simply directly subsidize it rather than making loans that are designed to be forgiven.”

He’s completely right. Why do we keep beating around the bush when it comes to college tuition and loans that hurt financially not just the students and their parents, but also universities, financial institutions, and ultimately the government by loaning money we don’t have to people we know will have a hard time paying? A direct subsidy will save us billions in the long run.

But President Obama has his eye on two fronts, this one and also in his plan to make all two-year community colleges completely free to all students who wish to go- rich and poor. The move is not exactly a novel idea as it has already been implemented in Chicago and Tennessee for high school graduates. But his plan, formulated to cover all students regardless of previous education, is intended to be available across the nation.

By making it possible for students to go to college for free, at least for the first two years, the government would be giving those students a break to save up for their continuing education or to make it easier for them to obtain one, once already in college, basically providing a foothold.

But the program intends to do much more than that. By making it easier for all students to start college, its intent rests also in more socioeconomic integration by raising the number of minorities, and economically disadvantaged students and mixing them with students of higher means. The psychology behind it is very promising as it will undoubtedly boost campus and individual morale, something which can have a good effect in the future of those communities.

But what does that matter?

According to a report by Christina Ciocca and Thomas A. DiPrette of Columbia University- using various statistics and surveys- they found that minorities and economically disadvantaged students are at a higher risk of dropping out of public universities and two-year colleges than white students and middle-class students by several percentage points. Following is an excerpt of their findings:

“The National Center for Education Statistics (Snyder and Dillow 2012: Table 379) reports that while 63 percent of white first-time beginners in four-year institutions receive bachelor’s degrees six years after college entry, only 41 percent of Black students achieve the same. Gaps also exist at the two-year level, with 17 percent of white students and 11 percent of Black students receiving associate’s degrees, and 13 and 5 percent of each group transferring to four-year schools and achieving a bachelor’s degree, respectively.” [4]

The report (which I recommend you read) is very interesting and lists possible reasons as to why that happens not just for black students for also for other minorities.

So it makes sense that anything that can be done to help those drop-out rates, should be in place already. This idea (modeled after a Republican plan) has already been met with skepticism from liberals and conservatives alike, both demanding to know just how exactly are we going to pay for the $60 billion that it will cost over a decade. But fret not, my friends, there’s already a plan in motion for that as well. The government will pay for three quarters of the cost while the states chip in with the rest, obviously the tax-payer will get some of that bill.

But why the hell should we get to pay for college even if we’re not attending? Well, why pay taxes at all unless it’s for my own benefit? That’s basically what you’re saying. And since we’re on that question, why don’t you ask the same about elementary and secondary education, it is basically the same argument.

There is something fundamentally flawed about the education system in America. In my personal opinion, it has been commercialized and treated too much like a business rather than a necessity. Obviously we cannot dismiss certain businesslike aspects of it, especially when it comes to big research universities that depend on grants and also tuition money to continue important research. But if we’re admitting things, then we also have to admit that at its most basic level, higher education in the U.S. is becoming much too expensive to afford, and almost not worth the job that most students will get upon graduating- if they’re lucky enough to get one.

And although admirable, even Ivy League schools like Stanford, Princeton, Harvard, and Yale- which provide free education for students and families making less than a certain amount ($125K/yr, $120k/yr, $65k/yr, and $65-$150k/yr respectively) [5]– are the exception, not the rule.

Which brings me to my next question. What, if anything, could take from our European neighbors?

 

Brain-Drain

 

You might have heard that in other industrialized nations, higher education is incredibly more accessible than in the U.S. and in many cases entirely subsidized by the government- I use “subsidized” to not use free, because as it happens, there really isn’t such a thing as a free lunch. These are the countries we’ll use as a model of what an outdated system should turn into and I will try- in my limited knowledge- to explain how they do it (although it’s obvious enough).

Nordic countries, as well as some historically socialist Western European nations, have taken up the noble course of lowering college tuition to- wait for it- NOTHING. I can already feel the seething anger at the mention of “socialist”. But if you can get over it for a second, I will have you know that the word “socialist” here is not strictly implying a socialist political system- at least not in the way that those European nations conduct business. What I mean by socialist rather is the implementation of social programs for the benefit of a society modeled after a socialist framework. This means that the government controls these programs and not private entities.

If you, as a red-white-and-blue blooded American, staunch opponent of Big Brother politics and faithful defender of all things free, believe that America hasn’t been touched by the evil wand of socialism (the political system now) then I’m sorry to tell you that you have not only been fooled, but you have been the recipient of this socialism.

Long story short, these socialist programs created and enforced by the government have in fact made America a better country for it. Among these that have benefited all citizens of this great nation are: emergency services, postal service, transportation, the military, some forms of health care, even ones that you wouldn’t expect like sewer systems and trash collection. And education. All of these programs and many more have been introduced to the American public administration after administration, sometimes with opposition. Can you imagine any of these in the hands of private companies? It’d be disaster. Even without the hand of privately owned enterprise, education in the United States is costing trillions of dollars and not getting much better. Surely some European countries are doing something right if they beat us in: record numbers of college graduates, higher test scores, more productivity, etc.

So where in the world is college education cheaper than in the U.S.? Trick question: everywhere!

Germany, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Slovenia, and France are among very few European countries that offer free or low-tuition college education, all in their respective populations’ dime. For the first three countries mentioned, foreign students are also welcome to enjoy the same educational benefits as their own citizens- higher education free of charge! In the case of Sweden that law has been rescinded to ban foreign students to study there completely tuition-free; but nevertheless the country has allowed many organizations to help cover the tuition of non-EU students, or other students who wish to study there, which still makes higher education in Sweden an inexpensive option.

But what about the rest of the world?

While many universities around the globe might not offer cheap or free tuition to foreign students, they do still offer those same privileges (incentives rather) to their own students. Some of the countries with the cheapest college education include: Australia, Canada, Great Britain, New Zealand, Netherlands, and Brazil.

While these are just some of the countries with low-cost college education, they are by no means the only ones. This site has an interesting composite of information about the aforementioned nations on college costs, as well as other ones around the globe that also offer low-cost higher education. It’s important to note that for some of these countries (as in the case of my native Mexico) low-cost education is only available for state universities and colleges, while private universities will be more expensive.

But where do we rank in terms of higher education in comparison to other countries?

Well, we’re drawing from a different bag there.

According to this independent research judged by top academics from all over the planet, eight of the top ten universities in the world are in the U.S. of A. In fact, the website offers information on the rankings of more than 300 academic institutions and more in-depth information about them.

So being that American universities hold the top positions for education among the most respected in the world, why is it so difficult for Americans to obtain a college education… in America?

While this question is significant, I believe the better question to ask is: why do some of these other countries allow others to come and study- sometimes for free- only to leave, taking the skills they obtained to another country?

Perhaps they believe in the real value of higher education, or maybe they understand that not everyone can afford to go to college. Maybe it just makes good economic sense to allow students to take advantage of a good thing and offer them the opportunity to stay in their country and exploit those newly acquired skills there. It’s not only ethical, it’s practical. Not to mention that making education free makes good political sense.

Let’s form a comparison. In Germany, the state pays for college education for everyone who wants it, even for foreign students. Parents and students do not need to worry about tuition debts and high interest rates that will slow down their education and therefore increase drop-out rates. The snowball effect of leaving college in the middle of a degree is detrimental in large numbers. Therefore, by using pure mathematical logic, we can see that the cost of sending a whole generation of students to acquire high-level skills is minimal compared to the debt accrued if they don’t pay. The latter is essentially betting on the failure of students. And a debt that governments and financial institutions will be forever trying to collect.

On the other hand, if the education budget can be restructured properly, the gain from creating generations of high-skilled workers is nothing compared to the subsidizing of education in large scales.

We could bring up monopolistic sentiments about why the American education system is fairly inadequate in comparison to the mysticism that the United States has in the world: a powerful country unrivaled in mostly everything. But the simplest answer is usually the right one- our politicians simply prioritize other things over education.

 

Alternative Education

 

In this day and age there are still plenty of people- even here in America- who still don’t have access to education in their own countries and communities. For that reason, charitable organizations and public and private universities, who believe in the power of education have decided to get together and collaborate on massive projects that aim to change just that.

MOOCs- or Massive Open Online Courses- are exactly that, online courses available to anyone with a computer and internet connection in virtually any part of the world, and completely free or of very low cost to those who wish to take them.  These courses, or rather crash-courses, vary in length and can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks and some can even last for months at a time, like a regular college class would. They are taught in many languages and you can find just about any subject you want, anything from cooking, to advanced trig, to film critique, to computer programming. Not only are these courses taught by accredited professors from some of the best universities in the world, but they also follow the rigorous online-college course model.

Most universities though do not certify credits accrued from MOOCs however, although there are some that do. But at least those interested in learning something new or in using MOOC services as aid to their actual schoolwork can have the opportunity to do so free and with virtually no restrictions.

MOOCs and other alternative forms of education are a great way to get started on a path for higher education. I, myself, have taken several MOOC courses and am a very big fan of them and I recommend them. So if you’re interested, here‘s a list of several MOOC providers that are for-profit and non-profit. Honestly, I have only used Coursera, but I can tell you that all the courses I’ve ever taken have been free. So feel free to sign up for something interesting to get your mind tickling.

 

Graduation

 

To conclude this, let me tell you that although I believe in the immense power of education, college is not for everyone. Don’t mistake that for “education is not for everyone”, because that would ring false and counter to my beliefs, not to mention detrimental to our society. But employers, teachers, parents, and most of all you, need to understand that true education, true knowledge can only be the product of true curiosity, unhindered by rules and social norms, by restrictions and roadblocks. Forced desire to learn will always yield negative, or at least lukewarm, results. We have to encourage our kids and ourselves to learn, but we also have to provide them with the means to do so.

In the first part of this blog I wrote that America is waging a war against our youth, against education. Let me tell you that it is a false war, an illusion of sorts. Because education transcends all barriers and ideologies, it is one of the few non-partisan issues that we can all make better. But only if we really want to. It is of no consequence what political party you belong to, or nationality, or religion (or lack thereof), or socioeconomic bracket you’re part of- I think we can all appreciate the huge benefits that a well-educated, well-informed generation can bring. And we can make it happen if we work together to make it so.

 

“There are many problems, but I think there is a solution to all these problems; it’s just one, and it’s education.” -Malala Yousafzai

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” -Benjamin Franklin

“He who opens a school door closes a prison.” -Victor Hugo

“The highest result of education is tolerance.” -Helen Keller

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Citations

[1] http://www.bankrate.com/finance/college-finance/6-reasons-college-costs-are-soaring-3.aspx

[2] http://www.centerforcollegeaffordability.org/uploads/Funding_the_Arms_Race.pdf

[3] http://heri.ucla.edu/briefs/TheAmericanFreshman2012-Brief.pdf

[4] http://paa2015.princeton.edu/uploads/152299

[5] http://thinkprogress.org/education/2015/04/02/3642085/stanford-free-tuition/

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Interesting Reads

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/04/07/college-tuition-is-getting-more-expensive-heres-whos-actually-to-blame/

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/corinthian-college-graduates-protest-student-loans-175051741.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ccap/2014/09/04/fed-data-show-college-isnt-a-good-investment-for-all/

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-11-13/college-tuition-in-the-u-s-again-rises-faster-than-inflation

http://college.usatoday.com/2014/08/26/how-much-student-loan-debt-is-too-much-2/

http://useconomy.about.com/od/monetarypolicy/a/fed_funds_rate.htm

http://www.forbes.com/sites/keithweiner/2014/12/22/can-the-fed-raise-interest-rates-2/2/

http://consumerist.com/2015/03/19/legislators-once-again-introduce-bill-that-would-allow-student-loan-refinancing/

http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/articles/2015/03/25/take-4-steps-to-understand-student-loan-interest-rates

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-salaries-dont-rise/2015/03/11/38c08cea-c81d-11e4-b2a1-bed1aaea2816_story.html

http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2011-12/world-ranking

Government Expenditures

https://www.usaspending.gov/Pages/default.aspx

http://demonocracy.info/infographics/usa/us_deficit/us_deficit.html

https://www.usaspending.gov/Pages/default.aspx

Pew Data

http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/10/07/the-changing-profile-of-student-borrowers/st-2014-10-07-student-debtors-03/

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Politically Incorrect: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Political Correctness

Oscar night, a few days ago, incendiary actor Sean Penn and good friend of the corpse of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, presented the Oscar for Best Director to Mexican-born Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu for his new film “Birdman.” While presenting the award he shouted into the mic: “Who gave this son of a bitch his greencard?” something which, predictably, caused an uproar all over social media. Of course when you read it dry, it sounds like he said something terrible, or at least inappropriate. For most people even in the audience, the (lighthearted) insult felt flat. But before you, yourself, gasp in horror at just how Penn reduced the Mexican director to just another illegal, perhaps the situation calls for some context.

Penn and Iñarritu are both good friends in real life ever since their collaboration in the film 21-Grams, and like all good friends they would rather show their camaraderie by hurling insults at each other rather than expressing mushy feelings of brotherly love. Iñarritu himself said that he found the joke hilarious and that him and Penn were cracking jokes backstage where the director himself was saying some pretty terrible stuff not camera-appropriate.

As I watched Penn say the words, from the tone of voice alone I knew that Penn was not only joking, but that he must know the man personally. Later on I confirmed it from several news reports who cashed in on the racial slight while ironically explaining that they are in fact good friends. I particularly didn’t find anything wrong with the comment, and it’s not because I am a Mexican that immigrated to the U.S. at 13 (a Latino endorsing that kind of insult doesn’t mean it’s okay to say it), but rather because I honestly didn’t find anything particularly offensive, or amusing. It was a lighthearted jab at a friend and I understood it as such. The situation is in fact so ridiculous that all anybody can talk about is what Sean Penn said instead of focusing on the politically charged speech that Iñarritu delivered about equality in our native Mexico.

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If there’s a lesson to be learned here is that while it may not be appropriate to joke the same way you would with your friends at a gala party, even one full of liberals as Hollywood parties clearly are, it’s an even worse thing to take such trivial things out of context. What if Penn had been at an office party? There’s no doubt in hell he would’ve faced disciplinary action or been labelled a racist, a career-destroying allegation, all because the man cracked a joke.

It seems that nowadays it’s all about political correctness. But if we can find the distinction between respect and political correctness, soon we see that what we do is all for the wrong reasons. Most people know that we live in a diverse world that has had a historically tarnished reputation with minorities (and by minorities I mean EVERYONE, including white people), and that most of the time saying the wrong thing- or even the right thing to the wrong person- can land you in hot water. So in order to avoid the discomfort of dealing with other people or awkward situations, we often resort to not saying anything at all, or saying something that might be insincere but pleasant. In effect we’re being nice, not to not be assholes as it should be, but for fear of the repercussions. Some will undoubtedly say “Well, but you’re being nice and that’s what counts,” but that is not what counts. Not only are people avoiding talking about real things, their fears, their prejudices, etc, things that need to be discussed precisely to avoid repeating this shameful past, but they are actually avoiding conversations altogether! And that surely cannot be good.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that political correctness is a good thing. It is. It’s a safeguard from running our mouths amok at family dinner parties and from saying things that shouldn’t ever be said out loud. In a way, political correctness has helped with the bullying problem that we have in our schools and it has also done its part in the acceptance of immigrants and different racial groups into this melting pot that is America. So yes, political correctness is something that this country needs to keep. But how far is too far? The question then becomes (and there’s always a question): Where do we draw the line?

 

The Good

 

Ever since the first person on Earth articulated intelligible words that were understood by others, that person surely said something that somewhere down the road began the first war between humans. Of course language did not magically appear one day, it evolved through gradual changes in human psychology and physiology that spread over seas of time and land; and of course it would also be stupid to attribute all our problems to language, for even in the animal world there is wordless conflict. This doesn’t mean that mother nature hasn’t devised her own form of language, but the kind of language that we devised for ourselves has not only put us at a perhaps unfair advantage over most other creatures on Earth, but with the power to express anything we want, it has also created conflict, an unfortunate but inevitable byproduct of language itself.

Let’s consider for a moment if everyone actually expressed what was going through their heads and said exactly what they meant to say. If humanity had somehow made it this far, it would still be total chaos! At best, diplomatic relations between countries wouldn’t be as widespread as they are, you would have a lot less friends than you do, and everyone would be living like characters out of the movie “Liar Liar”. At worse, I can assure you there would be a lot more laws against violence. Congress would seriously consider changing the Second Amendment.

In a world where you’re not the only one around, political correctness exists mainly to keep our mouths in check. Whoever claims that they always speak the truth no matter how uncomfortable it is for people to hear it is either lying or they have made a lot of enemies over the years. It just simply isn’t viable to tell people exactly what one thinks. That’s what children are for. If it doesn’t work in close tight-knit families with people you’ve known your entire life, don’t expect that little experiment to fare any better with the other people you haven’t known all your life.

As I mentioned earlier, the United States has a rather embarrassing history of treatment to other human beings who are not white and Christian. But even whites have been discriminated in the United States since always. At one point or another, Germans were considered the inferior race, then the Irish, then the Italians, and so on. Xenophobia in the United States is a rather particular phenomenon. It’s not so much that we expressly hate one race or another, rather the hatred seems to be not only transferable but rather brief until the next group sets foot onto this land. And then there’s slavery. Embarrassingly still in place until a little over a hundred years ago, the separation of people for the color of their skin was still happening at a time when mankind was already peering into the depths of the universe, a time when incredible scientific advancements were already under way.

Why is any of this relevant you may ask. Because it forces a perspective on us. Racism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination form part of our history. But in truthful consideration, no one alive today (save for people who still hold such ignorant positions) can truly be blamed for the crimes of those who came before us. Political correctness has done its small part integrating different races and different ideologies into our communities, and in providing our children the rules of decorum. Integration is perhaps one of the best things a society can do to ensure its survival and prosperity.

While it’s a wonderful thing to teach our children to be tolerant of others as it forms the necessary base for clearheaded adults, it seems that we often forget to also teach them to think critically about its adverse effects, and there are adverse effects to being too tolerant, remember that everything in excess is bad. This is the part where being politically correct gets tricky.

 

The Bad

 

But does political correctness really protect against hate speech, or does it merely cover up the smell of shit with the smell of roses? As cynical as it might sound, does it really matter?

When we’re condemned to talk about the obvious and sometimes not-so-obvious problems facing our societies today and identify those problems when and where we see them, then political correctness is actually harming honest conversation in lieu of tact and politeness.

Let me offer a few examples where political correctness is doing more harm than good.

The military is one of those subjects in people’s minds that should be left out of the conversation for respect of those who fight to protect our freedoms, including that of allowing me to write this article without the fear of getting flogged 100 times, or getting executed for heresy or treason. In fact I could bash each and every member of the armed forces and I shouldn’t expect any real punishment from the government- I would from each and every member of the military but that’s another story.

Over the years the military has almost achieved a level of mysticism comparable to some religions, and to talk about the military in the wrong context can turn you in people’s eyes into anti-American, a traitor, or if you’re a politician it can even mean political suicide. There is a lot of interest in keeping the integrity of the military pristine, and yet it wouldn’t be wrong to say that there are a lot of visible problems in the ranks. These range from the trivial like lying about personal history, or minor drug offenses, to serious issues that have irreversibly harmed the reputation of some of those in charge, problems like sexual harassment, credible allegations of abuse not only against civilians but within the military itself, corruption, etc. I’m not talking about a soldier or a marine getting yelled at during basic training or boot camp, I’m talking alarming levels of abuse and severe incompetence on part of the leadership, not to mention of course cover-ups that make politicians and civilians lose trust.

We have avoided talking about such things because the fear of offending one of the most sacred institutions in our country overpowers the necessity to enforce a little oversight.

What about race-relations? Although we have come a long way since the Civil Rights Movements of the 60s, race-relations in America do not seem to be any better than they were in the 90s, and in fact if it’s possible they seem to be deteriorating in light of recent events (I would post a link but I don’t think it’s necessary). While its fair to say that our police forces share some of the blame, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that a lot of the blame also lies with a population who thrives on keeping this fire alive- opportunism at its worse. For what purpose though? It’s a never-ending cycle that is self-replenishing. Police forces militarize to keep protesters in check and as a consequence the number of protesters balloon and soon you have a time bomb waiting to go off. As a defense against this fear, the police become even more aggressive. There’s no end to it. This problem does not originate in either side, it’s an issue that goes deeper than that. But until we have an honest conversation, we are just dogs chasing our own tails.

And what about religion? I don’t really have to tell you that one of the most destructive things I see today, and one of the most threatening things to our future free societies, is the radicalization of religion- okay, I guess I just did. The case of religion is a peculiar one though because it is the only subject that even groups who are not associated with it, will defend. And it is not a defense based on the freedom to profess or to believe or even to speak out, but rather it is a defense to censor those who speak out against it. Somehow someone decided that it’s against the rules to inconvenience non-adherents of a specific religion- or of no religion at all- by talking badly about them. But defending censorship (including self-censorship) is nothing more than cowardice dressed up as valor. Again, it’s an action based on fear.

If we were having this conversation in the 17th century, I’d be talking about the perils of Christianity. But as it happens it seems that Islam has now taken its place suppressing knowledge and ideas and at its most radical, it has become the placeholder of barbarism and backwardness. We often fail to recognize that the radicalization of Muslims around the world is a serious problem that has to be dealt with, but for some illogical delusion, even the would-be victims of its intolerance defend it, quite literally to the death.

Islam in its most pure and unadulterated form is practiced in the Middle East right now, and especially in the territory controlled by those nice guys from ISIS. And just in case you haven’t been watching the news lately, the Middle East is still not the best place to live at the moment. Or to be a woman in, or a child, or to like music, or color, or to be gay, or to think differently. Basically if you’re not a man willing to follow the most barbaric edicts of the Quran, you have absolutely no business in the Middle East. Right now, ISIS is basically the Arab equivalent of the Khmer Rouge, and yet there are groups even here in America that defend its right to declare open war against any Westerner that dares oppose the divine rule of Islam. At this, the leaders of many free-world nations, including our own, have the tenacity to say that religion is not the motivator for these crimes and these people are not true Muslims. Try explaining that to them, provided you don’t get beheaded first.

Political correctness in this context is so extremely dangerous to contemplate that it seems like a given to get rid of it altogether. It wouldn’t be such a far off idea to have people in street corners challenging others to open discussions where nothing is off the table and where literally anything can be said about this or any other controversial subject. If you think that this will not bring about any benefit, it surely cannot be any worse than what we’re doing now. It appears that some of my fellow liberals would rather see the heads of children roll down the mosques of ISIS on television rather than ask about the religious convictions or those who did the beheading. This is not racism and it certainly isn’t the fault of moderate Muslims. I wouldn’t dare blame all the problems of the Middle East on religion,  that would be ridiculous, unfair and untrue. After all, we don’t have the right to pretend that industrialized nations’ interest in a fruitless desert that we wouldn’t otherwise occupy if it weren’t for its resources is just an accident. But the problem of radicalization has already eclipsed the issue of occupation and even imperialism, it has in fact become the bigger problem to deal with.

Religious radicalization is just another form of political ideology run amok, gone completely haywire and infecting everyone in its sight. And you may ask yourself, why do we protect religion the way we do? What special privilege does it have that whatever rules dictate that any religion is to be unspoken of?

People often make the case that we have a responsibility to be respectful of people’s beliefs. But the question stands, where is it written that beliefs- anyone’s beliefs- are unquestionable?

In most other aspects of our lives we often question things to find out cost versus reward, and we rely on the power of observation, rationalization, and careful thought to arrive at the beneficial element. Yet we omit this process when we start on to specific paths that predate our formal educations, those that were- through no choice of our own- taught since birth. As a means of their survival, along with those unsubstantiated rules, we are also taught to refrain from questioning those rules- politics, religion, and even prejudices enter into this category. And of course, they are protected with a Kevlar-strong argument that persists to this day: political correctness.

Perhaps you have seen the following argument somewhere, but would you say that you respect Hitler’s beliefs just because he’s entitled to them, even after knowing that Nazi Germany sparked a war that took more than 60 million lives? Can we be as callous and irresponsible as to not ask why the Catholic Church incinerated thousands of women alive simply because doing so would be infringing on the beliefs of the few? What about slavery? Substantial evidence exists to prove that slavery in the United States was justified and rationalized by religious reasons more than any others. Of course we’ve all heard the religious adopt the very boring position that “those people were not real Christians,” but the fact is that they were real Christians in accordance to their times, and the fact that Christianity has evolved- yes evolved- to survive in our present environment doesn’t take away from the fact that some of most religious people back then were bigots.

How about the recent waves of extremism in the world? People’s religions and political ideologies should be put into question, they need to be put into question, and we need to stop pretending that beliefs, as sacred and ancient as they are, don’t cause real-world harm because they do. A side asterisk. Doesn’t the fact that those were ancient beliefs and thus not fit for our current model of the world ring any bells?

We have made it politically incorrect to question people’s beliefs, and as a consequence public discourse seems to be diminishing in some forums and increasing in others. Make no mistake, I do not advocate for people’s right to believe anything they want, just what they actually believe.

And this is the ugly part of political correctness, a grey area that no one seems to understand.

 

The Ugly

 

After the murders at Charlie Hebdo in January, many people who had no connection to Islam or to radicalism sided with the terrorists saying that the people at the magazine had it coming (the bad of political correctness) because they had insulted something so dear and personal for Muslims, one of those being the pope. A lot of them were fellow liberals who had an erroneous idea about what the questioning and criticizing of a person’s religion meant. While many others simply refused to talk about it (something possibly even worse).

If you keep up with this blog, you might actually be tired of me quoting author Sam Harris, but in his podcast shining light on the hypocrisy and fear of Western liberals Harris said: “…here’s one sign a person, whether he’s on the left or the right politically, has completely lost the plot here. The moment he begins to ask ‘what was in those cartoons? Were those cartoons racist? Was that a negative portrayal of Muhammad?’ To ask such questions is obscene. People have been murdered over cartoons! End of moral analysis.” The man is absolutely right. Political correctness has led us astray in the road to enlightenment. We have gotten to a junction where we can no longer recognize what our priorities are for fear of offending one party or another. A lot of people have allowed fear to take over the rational parts of their brain and make irrational decisions.

But this isn’t the only area where people call for a drawback to freedom of speech.

Some say that freedom of speech does not- and should not- protect hateful speech. The problem as I see it is that with a couple of lawyers and a few pages full of legal jargon, any speech can be turned into hate speech, not just the words every foreigner learns first- curse words.

The ugly truth about political correctness is that it has such a broad definition that it can, and does, include ideas and thoughts to censor speech. Laws have been drafted in order to limit just what and how much a person can say and about what. In fact that’s what classified documents are about, state secrets that no one is allowed to divulge, and to do so can mean severe penalties.

No speech should ever be sanctioned, including hate speech. People should know that they have the right to say whatever it is they want to say, with the full knowledge that consequences will arise from exercising that right. However, no human in any society (especially in a free society) should ever fear for his/her life for speaking out.

To quote Harris again, later in the conversation in that same podcast he speaks of Germany’s law against denying the holocaust. Every rational person would agree that anyone who denies the holocaust is at best ignorant of the facts and at worse a bigot, but Harris notices the flaw in that logic quickly. At this he says that “A person should be absolutely free to deny the holocaust, which is to say he should be free to destroy his reputation. And others should be free to ridicule him and to boycott his business. There shouldn’t be a law against this kind of idiocy…” Again, he is right in that speech should never be hindered in any way, but people should also be aware that there are always real-life consequences to what their mouths spew out.

To conclude, the ugly truth about political correctness is that there is no discernible line between politeness and ignorance, it is a matter of common sense in a realm that belongs to the analytic mind to determine if what we’re talking about is more dangerous than not talking about it, or vice versa.

 

To be or not to be… politically correct?

 

To be politically correct you first have to acknowledge that there is essentially a culture of previous political incorrectness. When a society has gotten used to throwing around words that denigrate and offend individuals or groups of people, then it’s important to see that something has to change. In our everyday vernacular words like “nigger” (and its variants), “gay”, “fag”, “retard”, “geek”, “whore”, etc.- these are all hateful words that are used to put down others not based on ideology but on things none of us have any control over. But who gets to decide where and when to draw that line? Why is it okay for actors in a funny movie to say these words but not okay for someone in a social situation to do the same? Who decides what’s permissible and what’s not between a Comedy Central Roast and the White House Correspondents Dinner? When do we acknowledge when the situation calls for a joke and when it is a serious issue we need to pay attention to? Are religion, politics, or people protected from verbal critique? How can we remain objective and recognize when something is merely humor and when it isn’t. What about using humor (as in the case of Charlie Hebdo) to talk about real-world issues? And what do we do when the definitions become muddled?

It seems that the questions outnumber the answers but as I mentioned in the beginning, political correctness has a lot to do with how you say things and not merely what things are being said. People need to acknowledge that certain situations call for political correctness to be suspended, while others call for it to be recognized, but above all we should remember that even horrible things said in a nice way are still horrible things.

 

More than anything else we should make use of a little device more important than political correctness, common sense. We should exercise common sense in all situations in life, I cannot stress this point hard enough. If logic and common sense formed part of our everyday lives, perhaps there would be absolutely no need to be politically correct in the first place.

True story.

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Interesting articles to check out:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bj-gallagher/the-problem-political-correctness_b_2746663.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/24/science/new-light-on-the-roots-of-english.html?_r=0

The Mexican Revolution (Part II)

Mexico Burning Fire Flag War Conflict Night 3D

 

Hello my little padawans!

Today, I make good on my promise to keep following the events surrounding the disappearance of the 43 Mexican Normalistas (teaching students) who were taken nearly three months ago in Iguala, Mexico. If you haven’t been reading too much into what’s already being labelled as a global movement, you can read about it in my last post here.

Last time around, I talked about the unavoidable similarities between the Massacre of Tlatelolco (1968) and the kidnapping and disappearance of the 43. But today we are going to take a look at other elements and go far beyond the borders of Mexico to see what the global response has been to this national crisis. And to prepare you for this, I warn you that although I will try to remain as objective as I possibly can when it comes to facts, I will also be expressing my personal opinion on some other matters. And yes, there will be a lot of quotations flowing around, because I just love quotations. Enjoy!

 

Within a Breath of Revolution

 

Nearly a month after my post about the “progress” on the investigation of the 43 normalistas who “suspiciously””vanished” in Mexico at hands of “unknown” armed men, the authorities of Mexico are no closer to finding the 43 normalistas- or their bodies for that matter- and appeasing an increasingly frustrated population who want them back alive. As a consequence, what was expected to be a routine “investigation”, has turned into what we can only be described as a cluster-fuck of epic proportions. Beginning with the rumors that the government was directly involved in the kidnapping of these 43 student-teachers of radical-leftist leanings, to the famous “Ya me canse” (I’ve had enough) of the Attorney General heading the investigation, to the recent scandals involving the president’s wife, the Mexican people are banding together closer than ever to oust the current administration. What we are witnesses to is  is one of the largest social movements of my lifetime. If before we were astounded at the high level of animosity and resentment towards the government, today, not just Mexico, but the entire world is astounded at the level of organization, largely- if not entirely- with the help of social media, not seen since the Spring Revolution (or Arab Spring) that started in Tunisia in 2010.

Artists, intellectuals, heads of state, common citizens, and politicians from all over the world that at first were just third-party observers are now involved in the fight, taking a more direct role in condemning the injustices of the government and calling for a complete overhaul of the judicial system and of the people writing the laws. Basically what the majority of Mexicans want is to strip the government of the current cabinet and replace it with a new one. Whether you think that’s a realistic goal remains to be seen, but what is evident is that the rallying mobs are now beginning to influence policy. And yet, the government doesn’t seem to get the hint that it’s fighting a growing monster. However, like any cornered creature would, it’s expected that the government will fight back. And facing the growing pressure from an international community, we’ll see just how civil this beast behaves. Then again, we are talking about the PRI who ruled Mexico in a successful one-party system for 71 years straight. And if you know anything about those guys, is that they don’t disappoint when it comes to fucking things up.

photo credit: sofíagonzález via photopin cc

Girl holds up sign at a protest which reads “We are missing 43”. Photo credit: sofíagonzález via photopin cc

Although the current cabinet is in a sort of damage control at the moment, the people aren’t having it, and what at first was calls for justice has slowly grown into the shouts of warning that if they don’t change the music, the party is going to end, and it’s going to end bad. These warning signs that a revolution is brewing are pretty evident when you see public officials nervously trying to pick up the pieces of a few (or lots) of miscreants who fucked up one too many times. And when the president goes on national television to announce change in reform, that’s when you know that the people are doing something right. And also that the situation is getting bad- or interesting, depending on how you look at it.

It seems that that semblance of inaction by government officials is just that, a semblance, for they have been plenty busy since the last update a few weeks ago.

But before we get down to the nitty-gritty of the details let me explain why I think this is a very exciting (perhaps not the right word) time to live in.

If you live in a country as fucked up as most Latin American nations- in this case Mexico- then at least once every few generations the people have the chance to change their government for better or for worse. The true sentiment of revolution resides in the ability for people to assimilate their realities with their hopes for how that reality should be. What we have in Mexico is not unprecedented in any way, but the calling of millions of Mexicans, and millions more around the world supporting them to change that government is unprecedented, or at the very least surprising. And THAT is what’s exciting.

In a talk I was having with my dad the other day (he lives in Mexico City), he brought up a very good point that I think is applying more and more at a global level, and that is that people, especially students and younger people, are becoming more and more politicized and more involved in the inner-workings of their governments. Long gone are the days when elected officials relied on a blanket of ignorance to continue ruling nations as if they were serfdoms. Nope, the 60s are coming back with a kick, combining classic insurgent techniques for protests and strikes with the efficacy and modernity of social media to drive and organize all these little movements to make it a global one. But a great thing to recognize here, is that although these demonstrations are peaceful for the most part, they are by no means lacking in power. Let no man tell you that the power and rage of the people is not scratching at the surface of restraint that is within a needle’s poke of a nuclear explosion.

 

Progress?

 

And now, let’s catch up with what’s been happening lately. And more importantly, what’s going to happen.

Ever since the chant for “Vivos se los llevaron, y vivos los queremos” (Alive you took them and alive we want them back), there’s been a few scandalous events shaking up the establishment starting with the “white house”. This is obviously not in reference to the American White House (although there is a bit of involvement there too- another story), but rather the mansion that Angelica Rivera- the president’s wife- “bought” with her salary as a soap-opera actress. Many people call foul claiming that it’s very improbable that she could have bought a $7 million house with the kind of salary she “earned” as a soap opera actress in Mexico, and that the house, along with many other gifts, were actually concessions as a result of a very lucrative contract the president arranged with a transnational company to build a high speed train in Mexico, something highly illegal under fair-competition-rules. That’s one.

Another one is the events that happened during the massive demonstration in the Zocalo area of Mexico City. While thousands of protesters gathered peacefully on the square, a few black sheep among them that are believed to be government agitators a la Tlatelolco ’68, started bursts of violence that led to 20 people getting arrested and 11 of them being taken to maximum security prisons where they were interrogated and beaten. I will admit that I was not there, therefore I do not know what exactly happened at the Zocalo square. It could’ve been that a few people were being unruly and violent, but by logical conclusions, if only 20 out of thousands were arrested, then you know there’s a piece of the story that doesn’t quite fit the puzzle.

Following the insurmountable pressure on the government, all 11 of the protesters were released alive, but not exactly well. Besides their own testimonies of the beatings they received in prison for crimes that the government has not been able to stick on them, it’s sort of hard to convince an entire population whom you’ve already managed to piss off that they tripped and fell on their way home. Yup, the credibility of the government is so tarnished now that not even El Presidente himself could fix things with his 10 commandments against injustice and corruption or by the implementation of the new anti-corruption telephone number (911- oh irony) that many are mocking as a direct line to denounce corruption to corrupt police. And then there’s the little hide-and-seek game that plainclothes agents of the police played with UNAM student Sandino Bucio. Snatched in plain daylight, Sandino was basically kidnapped, tortured, and threatened by the police who claimed that he was one of the agitators in the November 20th protests. According to the statement Mr. Bucio gave to TV cameras, the police told him that they would disappear him like the 43 of Ayotzinapa, that they would rape him and that they forced him to give up his passwords to his profiles on various social networking sites. He also said in front of cameras that they would pick up more people. But after charges that he was carrying explosives in his backpack didn’t stick, he was released and now his testimony is all we have to prove that individuals who self-identified as members of the police are in the business of hunting down students. Now if it looks like I am adding one trickle of fuel to the fire, then good, I wish to dump the whole fucking can of fuel and burn the whole thing down.

Sandino Bucio Credit: amqueretaro.com

UNAM student Sandino Bucio
Credit: amqueretaro.com

After these succeeding scandals, you would think that the government would be a tiny bit more cautious in the way they conduct business and would let the waters quiet down before resuming their usual games… you would think. However, the reality tells a different tale.

It’s difficult to know just high up this all goes, although it wouldn’t be completely off the mark to say that it goes all the way to the top. And I don’t mean just the top of the Mexican political circles, I mean the top top, meaning ex-presidents, like the Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexican ex-president accused of stealing not only the elections back in 1991 but also billions as he fled the country. Some even go as far as to say that the American government might once again be involved in foreign affairs of civil unrest. It would make sense if they were, you know with Mexico being just across the border and all. I don’t suppose Obama would want a destabilized country as his neighbor even if America claims to be pro-human rights, anti-corruption, anti-dictatorships, blah blah blah. All this bullshit doesn’t matter in the end if American interests are threatened, and how could they not be when Mexico exports a huge amount of oil back to the U.S. and abroad and the newly-privatized oil companies are now in the reins of foreign investors with a pretty big interest in what is happening there now.

Woman holding up sign that reads "The real terrorists are those who kill, not those who protest".  photo credit: Gatifoto via photopin cc

Woman holding up sign that reads “The real terrorists are those who kill, not those who protest”.
photo credit: Gatifoto via photopin cc

It also doesn’t help when the head of the government is seen on very friendly terms with the owner of the biggest television company in Latin America, and the president’s wife’s former employer- Televisa. This is the very same corporation that out of the kindness of their hearts, “gifted” the president’s wife one of the adjacent houses to the “white house” as a retirement present. What would a communications and television corporation want with the government? If you are naive enough, nothing. If you know what the fuck’s up, then a lot. But it’s not entirely news that in Mexico, the news are just a tool for the government to use at their pleasure rather than being a source of information. I suppose you could say that about all governments, but Mexico is slowly going the ways of China in regards to freedom of the press– or lack thereof. So much so that many Mexicans now prefer to get their news through social media channels rather than the evening news. Part of that mistrust lies also in the cozy relationship the media has, or has had in the past, with the government. In turn, many are now turning to social media for its flowing ability to disseminate information quicker and more effectively, not to mention that is a little bit harder to censure than the news the government paid for, and it has the added benefit that these unadulterated news come from an objective third-party perspective, usually from other countries looking from the outside-in. But if we are to guess what’s going to happen next, I would put my money on Mexico starting to censure social media to quell the protests. Already there’s a bill being introduced in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate to make it illegal for protesters to go out into the street.

It is usually said that in Mexico the most dangerous profession to be is a journalist. It’s true. More of them have died covering Felipe Calderon’s War on Drugs than they have at any other time in history. Similarly, it is also said that it is just as dangerous to be a student, than to be a narco. Objectively I couldn’t say that that is true, but it does make a strong statement. It seems that at the moment being a radical left-leaning student in Mexico is more of a gamble than being a drug trafficker. Again, this is only my opinion and I could not sanction that from an objective point of view, but it is starting to seem that way. What is true is that the number one threat to any nascent dictatorship is an informed public, and the people of Mexico are starting to get informed.

 

Worldwide Support

 

It seems that for the time being, the president and his cabinet are toeing the line very carefully making sure that no other fuck-ups, ahem, excuse me, mistakes aren’t made to anger the people even more, you know since they rile up together and stuff. But as we read everyday in the news (those of us that still can), it seems that the beast is fighting back. And with every baton that comes down on another student, and with each video uploaded to YouTube, a deeper grave is dug for the machine of repression in a situation that is increasingly FUBAR. You’re going to have to look that one up on your own.

The only upside to all of this is that while cops and soldiers are out there busting heads, the real revolutionaries (if they can be called that at this stage), are documenting every single instance of violence to add to the already overwhelming PR campaign battle that is being waged not just inside the country but outside its borders. This push to publicly condemn and embarrass the president, his cabinet, and in effect the entire government structure has worked wonders so far.

Among one of the most high-profile call-outs has been that of the universally-loved Uruguayan President José Mujica who has called Mexico a failed state after the disappearance of the 43. My dad and I, as no doubt most Mexicans would, agree that the man is right! President Mujica is not saying that Mexicans are failures, he was merely pointing out an uncomfortable truth to fathom (for civil functionaries at least) that Mexico is indeed becoming a failed state. Of course soon after, he was pressured into recanting his statement, but in the hearts and minds of all Mexicans it stands as nothing but truth what this beloved head of state has said.

In the age of the Internet, thousands of groups in cities around the world support those in Ayotzinapa, and indeed all the Mexicans who scream for change. For me, it’s the pleasure of seeing the people finally wake up, or rather I should say come together to unite under one banner to fight against a regime wearing the mask of a constitutional democracy. And it seems like it’s going to be a long fight, but as they threw the first punch, the people of Mexico cannot back down any longer and now what they are shouting is no longer a call for justice, but a call for honest change.

 

What’s Next?

 

No one can accurately predict what’s going to happen next, as another major protest is already taking place today. But when major news sources, especially outside the country of unrest, start speculating about the what ifs, that is a good time to start paying attention. Usually there is something on TV to distract the people while the government continues doing its shenanigans, but as we have all seen, after three months of protests, a massive awareness campaign, and amounting failures on the side of the Mexican government, the sentiment for change in Mexico has spread worldwide, and there is hardly any other issue that takes precedence in the country.

It is no secret that people love revolutions, and this is a noble revolution. People love to rage against the machine, they love to speak out when their rights and the rights of others are in danger of being suppressed and stripped away. And although a lot of times their voices are scattered, the few times when their voices come together, that single, unified voice echoes not only across the world, but throughout the ages of time. Perhaps this is the time for Mexicans to unite their voices and let people know that this is our revolution, and that the fight for our future begins now.

And now I leave you with this video from Mexican rock-hip/hop group Molotov and their song “Gimme Tha Power” from back in 1997, words that to this day still speak of the sad reality of a country on the brink of civil war. Enjoy!

(Visit here if you wish to see the video with English subtitles)

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Interesting Articles to Read

Reporters Sans Frontieres, 2014 (http://en.rsf.org/71-journalists-were-killed-in-2013-18-12-2013,45634.html)