American Choices

Noam Chomsky once wrote that the United States is a one-party political system called “The Business Party” divided by two factions which we call the Democrats and the Republicans. This Business Party is called so because despite the wide ideological divides concerning many social, political, economic, and philosophical issues, both factions essentially cater to interests that finance them to secure special favors which often times work against the collective benefit. These special interests place profit in the highest of pedestals, far above any other material thing including and especially the environment and, not controversially, life itself.

Although the fringes are easy to identify, it is the conventional that we should be worried about. Not because they make bad choices difficult to see, but because they make them easy to pick. These choices stand before us in the form of our two current contenders for the presidency, the most unpopular in decades.

A few days ago 80 million Americans tuned in to watch the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Although Clinton currently holds a small lead over her Republican rival, the country seems to overwhelmingly disapprove of both by historical margins. But despite American bewilderment as to how we have to come to be in this situation, and the public’s reluctance to elect what they believe is “the better of two evils,” there is a very logical narrative that explains just how we ended up in this debacle.

Unfortunately to say that it’s the work of ‘power’ is too broad an explanation to properly cover the specific complexities that make this system what it is. So to try to understand these choices, I will try to narrow this diagnosis into five main points of contention.

At first it might be difficult to see how this ties to our candidates. But what you must realize is that to understand the background and the motivations behind the systems that cultures these choices, and the systems that benefits from it is to understand the candidates themselves, where they came from, and what they represent. And what they represent is more than the parties they are part of and the people they claim to fight for. The reality is that they are working parts in a dysfunctional system that no one can fix because no one truly understands.

Capitalism and Democracy: A Marriage of Convenience

A good place to start is by defining Capitalism as it pertains to our way of life politically, socially, and economically. Since Capitalism currently controls how we live, perhaps it’s a good idea to properly know what it is and what it does.

Capitalism is a term best defined by comparing it to current competing economic systems, and more importantly against the best elements of itself. Placed in a political context however, it’s easier to see the many ways, and the few important ones, in which the system has influenced, in this case negatively, the politics of a nation.

I am well aware of how socially expensive it can be to talk critically about Capitalism in the United States, especially considering the near-religious fervor it still carries from the days of the Cold War, a time when it was absolutely imperative to defeat Communism, a system just as exalted by the other half of the world. Therefore, to start a conversation about the failings of Capitalism in the context of American politics I ask that you do two things: know that there is a difference between Capitalism and Democracy, and that you suspend your biases and prejudices to allow for a more open and rational conversation.

Having said all that, let it be known that I’m neither a Communist nor a Capitalist. I espouse certain Socialist principles only within the parameters of a free society, such as the one that, admittedly, Capitalism and the Constitutional Democracy in which we live have formed. But I also recognize that Capitalism, like everything else, operated unchecked and without any sort of regulation will eventually turn from a deliverance of tyranny into a tyranny itself by means of economic slavery.

Capitalism is a system of economy that places the means of production in private hands rather than the state. The vast differences between Capitalism and Communism are many and obvious. The main one being that Communism, although logical in theory is impossible in practice. If properly defined, Communism could only work if society willingly agrees to become a united global community in all its aspects. Any other form of Communism that is not its true form will inevitably cause it to become overly restrictive to the point of infringing on personal rights and freedoms. We saw it with Communist Russia in its 70-year failed experiment and we see it now with Communist China where Capitalism in the country has become the de facto economic system while remaining politically Communist.

Although it sounds like Capitalism should be a threat to the state because of its purchasing power, it’s in fact a threat to society itself. Instead of rivaling state power, Capitalism is rather a marriage of convenience between markets and the state. In this union everyone  who can afford to play wins, provided that markets are allowed to operate freely with minimal state intrusion. While everyone else loses.

But given that both Capitalism and Democracy share the ethos of political and economic freedom, to draw a line between the two is a much harder thing to do. The problem is not semantics. It is rather the innate talent of Capitalism to take advantage of the human condition that humans will seek freedom where there is restriction, even if there is a structured system already built in place. The talent here is that it sells economic freedom with the caveat that social freedom should not infringe on markets. This makes “freedom” an expensive proposition–hence the “freedom is not free” apothegm–to the very people who can’t afford it. It’s no surprise to see then than even in Capitalist utopias there have been a variety of labor movements against corporate power and state intervention that have ended up imposing regulations on both corporate power and the state.

Business and Ethics: Incompatible Partners

When I use the phrase “freedom is not free,” my intention is not to conjure images of soldiers fighting off enemy troops in foreign soil to protect our rights. Rather I speak of developing nations whose politics are not fertile enough to accept Capitalism such as we’ve adopted it in the industrialized world, but whom, through coercion, are forced to accept the system to align themselves with the Western-style Democracy. Historically–meaning during the Cold War–this pressure was applied in two forms, militarily and/or economically. But the same meaning can be applied in our own land where citizens have been conditioned to believe that the alternative to Capitalism, whatever that may be, is worse. Ironically the effect is more pronounced in some of the most impoverished communities in the country where local economies are not just lacking, but in some places nonexistent. The pressure in these communities is applied a bit differently though, in the form of politics. But I’ll come back to this.

Due to the nature of free enterprise, profit is the justification for the evils of Capitalism, be it environmental destruction, economic disparity or classism, and even gross disregard for human rights.

In the case of the physical state of the world, the environment is on the brink of collapse. Unfortunately there are very few in positions of power that will touch on the issue head on. As for the rest, this conversation is put in the backburner or not even discussed at all in fear of losing profit and corporate support. In the U.S. is what we refer to as a “football issue,” or an issue that gets passed back and forth without any significant advantage. Despite the fact that there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to support the fact that the Earth is warming faster now mostly as a result of human-made causes, this is one of the most controversial subjects to discuss in a legislative capacity. Both Republicans and Democrats, mainly Republicans but also Democrats in a lesser degree, are fiercely adamant to enact legislation to curb greenhouse gases, regulate the fracking and fossil fuels industries, and support alternative-fuel initiatives.

I make a slight distinction between the parties here because Republicans are the main beneficiaries of fossil-fuel money and climate-denying industries and individuals. Their Conservatism, which is aligned with absolutist free-trade philosophies has created a party that is not concerned at all with environmental issues.

If the U.S. is behind most of the industrialized world in the race to slow down global warming is only because fossil fuel industries spend billions yearly in well-crafted strategies to lobby Congress to roll back regulations, while simultaneously preventing alternative-fuel industries from ever developing.

The gist is that dividends will be paid to workers, stockholders, and the local and national economies, in payment of social and environmental deterioration. And in many cases even economic, which is counterproductive to the whole ideal. Basically short-term profit is the end-game.

It’d be fair at this point to note that Capitalism does promote competition and progress. But in the erosion of an equally free society protected by a political system such as a strong Constitutional Democracy, this fair competition will eventually erode into economic feudalism.

Although Democracy encourages change and the adoption of the best principles of economic and social security with the precondition that all members of its society be able to practice their rights freely, in some Democratic countries Democracy itself gets in the way of Capitalism when it is restricted to act naturally. That’s what makes Capitalism, in all its glory, so depressing to accept. In a comical twist of fate, generational ideologies will allow markets, free enterprise, and profit to affect the very freedoms that protect those ideologies to the point that they are limited. And again, it is the ardently loyal who will be the most affected.

In a few words, Democracy is not synonymous with Capitalism. In fact it is in the best interest of Democracy to restrict Capitalism in order to survive in the long run.

I am obviously generalizing and condensing a lot of complexities that go into forming a viable society out of chaos, especially with the fusion of two revolutionary governing and economic systems that sparingly existed in one form or another throughout history, e.g. Democracy and Capitalism.

But strictly speaking  in the context of the second half of the 19th century and all of the 20th century, after regulations were imposed by Roosevelt and subsequent presidents, Capitalism in the 1970s and 80s was given a gift in the form of economic and political deregulationThe erosion of the latter then caused the erosion of the former. A barrier that clearly cataloged and separated political contributions made by corporations was torn down and allowed public servants, who would otherwise be entirely accountable to their constituents, to be accountable only to their financiers.

This obviously added pressure and had an adverse effect on communities, large and small, but mostly on the most impoverished communities I spoke about earlier, by applying a combination of predatory economics, local political forces through vested interests, religious alliances, campaigns of fear, and other political maneuvers.

For example, in the poorest areas in the nation, mainly in the Southern part of the United States (colloquially known as the “Bible Belt”) local Republican policies have decimated the region economically. And yet, despite the damage that the fusion of powerful religious interests that aligned with the party in the 90s and unhealthy free-market and Conservative ideologies astoundingly, the South continues to elect Republican candidates to public office.

Although Democratic-held states tend to fare better socially, Democratically-run cities do see a mixed view of income inequality. Nevertheless, very powerful interests that sell to both parties continue to influence policy at every level of government. At the moment we can see it in president Obama’s push to pass the newest trade agreement, the TPP, which if adopted by all twelve signatories, would give unprecedented power to global corporations. The fact that both presidential candidates, as unpopular as they are, consider the TPP to be a very imperfect form of legislation can tell us that this isn’t just politics, it’s a reflection of the public’s fears.

Adding insult to injury, not only have wealthy donors and individuals been allowed to tip the scales with their contributions, but their industries have been bulking up with the ranks of politicians who act on capacity of mediators between them and Congress, consultants, or executives. Even worse still are the appointments of industrialists and executives as department-heads to regulate the very industries they are part of and lobby for.

One could make the argument that as a free society people can be allowed to serve on public office if they so choose to, if they have the capacity to, and if they are elected democratically. Furthermore, as experts in their industries they add specific inside knowledge. But as it turns out, departmental appointments are not elected by the people and in many cases they present concerning conflicts of interest. And although they are perfectly legal, the guidelines to abide by are not enforced and even less revised.

Over the last four decades the rate of the “revolving-door” phenomenon that exists between corporations and politics has also increased exponentially. The problem is so prevalent that it almost seems as if politicians are being manufactured right out of the conveyor belts of this system to work interchangeably for state and industry, and not specifically in that order. This is where the marriage between Capitalism and Democracy is made. It is this union and the lucrative investments in politics that assure a permanent and endless supply of candidates for hire. Those who toe the line are often rewarded handsomely, while idealists are usually scrapped and replaced.

Keep in mind that as Capitalism grows so does its power to overtake Democracy. When it happens, rule-free enterprise ensures that financial interests water-down regulation and eventually these enterprises begin to grow out of the government’s control. A prime example are the many American companies which have been incentivized by the government to evolve from local enterprises into little nations of their own. Today, with the help of governments, these conglomerates are now edging closer to become autonomous states with economies and rules completely independent of the places in which they operate, mainly through free-trade agreements and tax maneuvers. No borders exist for these pseudo-countries. They exist solely in the virtual space where their money is collected, and coincidentally, wherever their executive boards happen to meet.

These pseudo-nations, with some having economies large enough to compete with actual nations, are still bound to U.S. supremacy through legal and financial obligations, which are then eased by the various personal relationships kept with government representatives. Representatives that rely on corporations and industries to fund their campaigns and political parties.

In the past, regulatory restrictions used to [legally] prevent industries from funding political campaigns by injecting more than the allowed funds. Used to. Today, by allowing corporations to attain personhood and be considered single entities, they can weight in on political matters through their virtually unlimited contributions which have been redefined by the Supreme Court as a form of speech. By this rationale if money is a form of speech, then corporations have the loudest voices.

But personhood doesn’t exactly mean what you think it means in the case of corporations. Because these organisms are composed of tens of thousands of individuals that think differently from each other and share different responsibilities and ideologies, and whose only common trait might be to work as an organism, it’s sometimes difficult to determine individual culpability. Thus, the culture that is built on immoral behavior cannot be equally culpable or financially liable as single individuals might be, and the cycle continues. In the case of high financial crimes where heads of industries have ties to government officials, corporate heads rarely pay their dues or even so much as get their day in court. This is the point where the scales of justice get tipped in power’s favor.

Deregulation makes it easier for corporate investments to be made into politics, and for politicians to deliver on those investments ahead of everything else. This colluding will inevitably result in a conglomerate of power that in all cases will protect its own interests in whatever way they see fit, even at the expense of Democracy itself.

The 2008 financial meltdown is evidence that powerful interests who are allowed to operate as they naturally would in the wide latitudes of Capitalism often go unpunished and continually cause a great deal of harm. In this case when the very system they bet against collapsed nearly bankrupting the entire world economy, and leaving a trail of damage hundreds billions of dollars wide and decades long. Eventually the money provided by Congress through TARP (Trouble Asset Relief Program) was mostly eventually paid back. But not before corporations made off with a profit and high executives gave themselves multi-million dollar bonuses–you know, for their hard work. However, the way things transpired opened up an old precedent that if it’s “too big to fail” it’s also too big to be regulated. And of course there’s also the moral aspect to consider.

The aftermath of the crisis left everyone content, except homeowners and investors of course. And up to this day huge investment corporations continue to gamble away the people’s money in the huge casino that is the world economy with chips provided by the federal government.

This is true of any industry that is too big to be contained. Recently, medical insurance behemoth Aetna threatened the DOJ (Department of Justice) that it would pull out of the ACA, colloquially known as Obamacare, if their merger with healthcare giant Humana was not approved by Congress, a deal that if approved would violate old anti-trust laws designed to break up monopolies. Meanwhile we are still waiting on deliberation.

But Big Pharma is not the only industry that has the power to undermine the government should a collaboration fail, especially one that favors profit over the public interest . This goes for any industry ranging from energy (oil, coal, nuclear, even solar and wind) to information (media, news, satellites, Internet entities) to manufacturing of any kind (weapons, infrastructure, vehicles), banking, and curiously also, religion.

Although the public shares interests in many of these industries it seems that from public-opinion polls and attitudes mapped out over several decades, policy definitely does not match public attitudes.

Of course if we consider the government as an entity struggling for its own survival, it’s entirely logical to assume that as an entity it will protect its interests. But the fact of the matter is that the government is an entity composed of public power. Power shared by the many not the few and privileged. I agree that it’s not the government’s job to advance progress, but it should definitely not be its job to actively impede it.

As I explained before, in the U.S. power is exercised through political pressures. Abroad, a combination of shared interests and diplomacy is used. However, military force is never off the table. A quick Google search on the United Fruit Company will give you a glimpse of how colonialism established a firm bellicose-Capitalist American system in the world at the start of the industrial revolution. It is this trend that developed early when the U.S. was a nascent nation and that continues on to today in some form or another. Slavery, for example, is to this day the great stain in the history of the United States. For even as the American Revolution was raging on in defense of human liberty, our forefathers never got around to discussing the worth of a human being until nearly a century later. The same could be said about the Native American holocaust and the mass deportation of American Indians out of their own lands. And yet, from an economic point of view, without these two events the American economy would not be what it is today. So we are, in one way or another, still reaping the benefits of two of the greatest tragedies in human history.

Of course, from a moral point of view there is nothing beneficial about these two terrible events. Quite the opposite. But it demonstrates from historical accounts, just how power if presented with a dilemma where economic and moral pressures are at odds, it will always choose to resolve the former first.

In the near-past and in the the present, our national shame manifests itself in our interests abroad. In recent history in the shameful alliances throughout the world which suspend Democracy and overlook severe human-rights abuses in favor of national security or profits. In South America and the Caribbean for example, Democratically elected governments were forcibly replaced with brutal dictatorships and Banana Republics with the help of the United States to attain some political, economic, or ideological goal. More of the first two than the last.

These actions decimated entire regions ecologically and economically and displaced millions. In addition it created a deep-seeded anti-American hatred that worked counter to what the United States believed Democracy was, and what it was trying to achieve. Not to mention that the effects of these early interventions are still being felt today in the mass migrations of South Americans, specifically Guatemalans, who have fled their home countries as a result of bloody civil wars in some part perpetuated by American interventionism.

Today this support continues in countries like Saudi Arabia, a nation that is as close as any brutal tyranny can become. Our alliance with the Saudis could not be any more confusing. The official position is that the Saudis provide valuable intelligence to secure the stabilization of the region, which coincidentally was partly destabilized by anti-American, pro-Wahhabi propaganda that is much closer to ISIS than to Democracy. We then purchase billions of dollars worth of oil from the very country who is, in some capacity or other, pushing radical Islamist propaganda and sponsoring world-wide terrorism with our money. Propaganda that fueled terror that culminated in tragedies like 9/11 and which we then fight by invading  and destabilizing the region even further.

To this day, Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the major human-rights violators, and we continue to do business with them.

Of course, in recent history these global pressures can be, and are, explained in some relatable context or other: defense against Communism, regional stabilization, business, etc. As they say, the ends always justify the means.

Education vs. Information: Roots of the Problem

There is little that disenfranchised foreign populations can do against American-style Capitalist hegemony, especially in collusion with their own governments. But in the United States the population still has enough stakes in the Democratic process to hold their government responsible for its failures. That we don’t–or at least that we don’t in large numbers–is a failure of magnifying proportions. I’ll explain why.

The failure starts at several points in the socioeconomic ladder. Disenfranchised and dismayed voters will not commit because they don’t believe in the political and economic process that has eroded the middle class over the decades. Ironically, politicians turn to those who do vote and favor them, which causes those already disenfranchised to become even more so. By way of restrictive voting laws, gerrymandering, and resource allocation, local governments can concentrate power and maintain numbers. While the demand for political participation exists, supply is low or impeded.

But the problem is actually worse than it seems, because most poverty occurs where there is a history of suppression and current limited education. Mistrust brews into hatred for one’s own government, even when economic situations are favorable. In turn, the government, along with other powerful agents, see these areas as economically ineffective and as a result become areas that can be easily dismissed. The issue is that when something is not adding to the pie it’s considered worthless or low priority. While underlying problems like education and the allocation of resources gets lost. As these areas grow, power then becomes concentrated into smaller and smaller circles and a destabilization of justice, accountability, and economy ensues.

It’s not difficult then to turn people against each other. In fact, the old strategy of divide and conquer functions much more efficiently when there’s a scarcity of education than by using violence. Not only does it effectively segregates and subdivides communities and races for generations, but it turns them into surrogates. All without the need to spill blood.

The result is where we are headed as a nation. A modern feudal kleptocracy where the choices and opportunities of the powerless are reduced and where the need for education in all areas of a person’s life become more pronounced. This lack of education among the population is without a doubt the root of the problem.

Although power is the staple of every government however, these American choices cannot entirely be blamed on them or even on the rich.

At a time when political education is a responsibility left more up to individuals rather than news sources, which have become increasingly partisan, people, and specifically the newer generations, now have a great burden to carry, that of searching and making sense of information for themselves. A task that requires an immense amount skepticism and judgement good enough to separate noise from content.

The fact that in this highly competitive world, where the space for information is limited and expensive, even noble pursuits like journalism are starting to become liabilities instead of assets for the consumer, and the opposite for those that own them. Whereas in the past the news were seemingly less biased and more objective, today journalistic integrity can now serve a purpose–profit for the company, a spin for the government. Of course this was always true of the latter. However, it seems that in recent years this old façade has been cynically abandoned depending on who happens to be in power.

It is a sad reality that, in the United States at least, all major news come from privately owned corporations. Corporations that not only compete against each other, but also with information that travels literally at the speed of light. And occasionally against truth itself.

It seems now that independent journalism is set to become the only objective source of unadulterated news for future generations.

The mismanagement of objective news, and the allocation, or rather trickling down, of resources toward education is a major concern in the United States–more than in most industrialized nations. Education in some parts of the country is lacking at best, almost nonexistent at worse. Of course, you can guess which communities are less adept to handle these issues, and which are privileged enough to enjoy the benefits of the best kind of education. This is a problem that affects neither Republicans nor Democrats nor Independents, Conservatives or Liberals or Libertarians, black or white. By virtue of high-quality education communities can be lifted out of poverty, as they reemerge so does the country as a whole.

Today the opposite is true. Educators in the U.S. earn less than in most other industrialized nations. In places like the Bible Belt the problem with education is in the inability for local governments to adopt secular curriculums, especially in the “hard sciences”. In prestigious, mostly Liberal universities, the problem lies in PC (political correctness) culture, which is also a case for concern.  And in the suburbs of major cities, where poverty is rampant, it is in the lack of basic resources such as transportation, school lunches, school supplies, libraries, or even teachers.

As a result of these compounding problems, people have become terribly misinformed about their responsibilities as citizens and that of their government, misinformation that they pass on to their children, mostly those in poor communities, who then grow up ignorant and further disenfranchised.

Political Parties: Divided Loyalty

Taking these factors into consideration we begin to plot a narrative. Suddenly, the names we’ll see on the November ballots are hardly surprising. In part, they are the failure of the American voter to resist the whims of the political machine, which includes loyalty to party rather than nation. But they are also the result of inefficient policy, party bickering, and mistrust in the power of elected officials and outright corruption based on, again, party loyalty. That whole money and politics marriage thing.

It doesn’t take much to alienate the voter as I’ve already said, but parties still rely on votes and a core membership that aligns with their ideologies to survive. However, if voters are able to see past their divisions, it is inevitable that policies that had never aligned with their own views will be questioned.

This stagnation of progress and sincerity in a changing world has begun a mutiny in the ranks of the two main political parties. As a result, both parties have been  forced to adopt and favor outsiders over their rank and file in the form of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic ticket and Donald Trump for the Republican. Under the current system this is a sign of deficient politics. As a whole however, this is more in line with the apparatus of an efficient government. But taking the point the further, this realization of the American voter and its subsequent repercussions, meaning the changing attitudes towards more open candidates, is dialogue between two groups: those in power and those that are not.

Naturally, populist cand  idates will emerge out of this shift. This sends a strong message that since established parties do not carry favorably with the common people, outside parties must be included in mainstream politics. At the moment this is of little consequence to the entities that have built and perfected entire mechanisms to exclude the voter and outside third-parties. Surprisingly, these methodically established systems have met little resistance or have gone entirely unchallenged.

Third-party candidates, treated as a little more than tie-breakers, serve no other purpose in the political arena other than swing votes one way or the other. Or at least that’s how they are seen by mainstream politics and by the majority of people. Most often they are not taken seriously enough to believe they can even come close to winning a presidential election even though their policy alternatives often seriously challenge the views of regular candidates.

Under the current system a third-party candidate has little chance of influencing any national election except to pull a mainstream candidate into the party’s or the people’s ideoleological orbit. Or alternatively to aid the opposition by running a parallel campaign to the party they align with the most.

The parties have been aware of this problem for a long time. Thus, they have mutually deviced ways to legally bar third-party candidates from ever participating in this process, which for many of them is the only way to make themselves and their policies known. One of those is to directly influence the information that is disseminated, literally in the news media. The other is a joint decision between the Democratic and Republican parties to raise a debate embargo to outsiders. The way they do this is by formally requesting that the candidates poll a certain percentage before being invited to a debate. But because third-party candidates have limited means to make themselves known, this is rarely the case.

Bleak as it seems,  the only way to change the game is to change the rules, which can only happen by popular demand.

The Revolutionaries of the new American nation had contrasting views on political parties. Some thought they were inevitable in a free political system, others believed that they would eventually become cause for strife. But everyone agreed that no one’s rights should be infringed upon by the government or the parties themselves. Today’s situation is a sign that old dilemmas die hard. These divisions that are becoming so entrenched into the American psyche are rapidly deteriorating the unity of the nation. We can only hope that the situation that will eventually come to a head will get resolved peacefully rather than not.

Constitutional Requirements vs Political Aptitude: At a Crossroad

As the time comes to choose a new president, there is yet another failure on our part that is more urgent and troubling, that of electing a qualified candidate.

As if the task is not made difficult enough by the issues I mentioned before, it is compounded by the lenient requirements laid out in the Constitution that grants virtually anyone the power to serve the office, provided they are elected democratically.

These outdated requirements complicate the situation further for their leniency rather than their restrictions. They are as follows:

1. Candidate must be at least 30 years of age.
2. Be a resident of the U.S. for at least 14 years.
3. Be a natural-born citizen.

There is a logic to this leniency however that the Founding Fathers purposefully allowed when the Constitution was being formulated. They envisioned the new American nation ruled by a government the exact opposite of a monarchy, where just about anyone, provided they had the qualifications, could be elected president. Unfortunately, a current uncompromising complacency to follow a 300-year old document to the letter is deeply concerning for its implications, some of which, in the most extreme scenarios, could end up suspending Democracy for future generations.

The founding fathers were well aware of this problem. Thomas Jefferson was an early proponent for Constitutional revisions. More specifically, he argued that every generation, or roughly every 19 years, the Constitution should be updated for the very logical reason that things change with time, and as a result ancient laws applied to modern times would only hold back progress. Later, these revisions were abandoned in place of the amendment process, which has been used with success and failure throughout our history.

However, considering the choices we have today, if we were to follow Jefferson’s advice, Constitutional amendments to extend the requirements for the presidency would significantly increase the quality of candidates we elect. By explicitly requiring a minimum time of public service and/or verifiable social, political, military, economic, and diplomatic knowledge, at the very least it would leave less of an opportunity for unqualified candidates to make a mockery of the election process; or worse, to allow an unprepared candidate to hold arguably the most powerful office in the world.

As the country has evolved, so has its influence in the world. The role that our country plays in geopolitics is reason enough for the office to demand strict qualifications for any candidate who would fill the seat. The fact that it doesn’t leaves the power to decide the presidency not up to the voters as it should be, but to another obscure system that is now largely useless and ineffective–the Electoral College–but which the founding fathers believed could save the country from, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “the tyranny of the [majority].”

The Constitution of the United States is a near-perfect document unlike any other seen before. It is direct and concise and as least infringing as the framers could make it. However, the framers weren’t naive in their illusions that the presidency would always be occupied by morally incorruptible men. They understood that just as the requirements to occupy the seat were lax, there had to be a system in place to disallow tyrants, even those chosen by the majority, to trade the seat for the throne.

In the early days of the republic, this protective layer between Democracy and bureaucracy was added to quell populists uprisings that might do away with the rights of the minority. The job of the Electoral College was to aid the Constitution to elect candidates who not only met the proper requirements, but who also possessed the constitution and common sense to lead the nation fairly.

Nowadays however the institution is mostly useless. With the advent of high-tech polling methods, and the inability of the Electoral College to look past party lines, it is no longer necessary to have an arbitrary body to weigh in the elections. Most times the commission will vote along with public opinion rather than against it precisely because the EC is there to represent the people. But it is also composed of party loyalists, rather than independent arbitrators. One of the rare instances when the Electoral College did not vote for the most popular candidate was in the 2000 election, when George W. Bush Jr. defeated Al Gore, by a decidedly small margin. And although it has been agreed that Al Gore won the popular vote, we know which of the candidates history favored.

As is explained in this brief article by Factcheck.org, the point of the EC is to vote past party loyalty to protect the interests of the nation not that of the state. Today, a country divided presses even harder the question of how we should elect candidates for the presidency. The Electoral College exists to prevent a “tyranny of the majority.” But if the majority is the tyranny, then how best to prevent it?

It seems more apparent now than ever that popularity, not education, plays a more decisive factor in determining a candidate’s political worth. In the majority of cases this popularity is fueled by political contributions that finance “recognition campaigns” that make the candidate known. It is only a negligible percentage of populist candidates that build grassroots campaigns by appealing to the public with sensible policies and public contributions. It’s even rarer for these candidates to receive country-wide public recognition, which hinders the chances of more progressive bipartisan politicians to ever rise in the ranks.

Of course, there are more considerations and unwritten rules that account for a candidate’s competency before being elected to the presidency. But when a population is overwhelmingly under-educated about their role as citizens, the role of their government in relation to them, the social contract to be decent citizens, and the actions, secret or open, that the state contrives, then no amount of preparation will help any leader steer that country in the right direction. This is precisely the kind of tyranny of the majority that Alexander Hamilton wrote about.

There is little however, that any fail-safe system can do against this type of tyranny. Only an overhaul of the educational system to instruct all manners of people can bring about a significant change in any society. This is the reason why there is nothing more threatening to the supremacy of power like an educated population. Our collective national weakness is that we have been convinced that as a society we cannot take care of ourselves and that we require adult supervision from people who know what is better for our future, when in fact this cannot be further from the truth.

But opening our eyes is not merely enough. We must embrace education in its totality to arrive at the best conclusion, and to make the right decisions, and not descend into the pitfalls of past tyrannies.

American Choices: Voting for A Practical Future

If we are to improve the mechanism of the government, we as a coutry must take a very careful look at the ideologies that support these mechanisms and change our way of thinking. Citizens must force elected officials to self-impose regulatory restrictions to limit outside influence. That is to roll-back unlimited campaign contributions and repeal Citizens United. We must forcibly detach by means of civilian regulation the heads of the three branches of government from their party-held positions: the president from his party, the president of Congress and senior leaders from their respective parties, and the Supreme Court justices from their loyalty to their parties.

Capitalism must be held accountable for the irascible focus on its expansion. Production should be limited to a manageable level that the planet itself can sustain. By understanding that material goods cannot ever replace immaterial goods such as knowledge and collaboration, we can limit our consumption. Consumption that also cannot replace the limited amount of resources the planet can provide for us. If we fail in this task, the generations that directly follow us will see themselves regressing to very difficult and dark times.

This is not a plea to change our socioeconomic structure. We must learn to do this without resorting to philosophically and morally corrupt ideas that we do not understand. Democracy has proven to be the best type of government for all citizens. It now falls on us to find an economic system that strikes a balance between a stable government and society, and the environment, so that we don’t bankrupt one or the other.

As a global society, we must advance by adaptation. As a country, we must catch up to the rest of the industrialized world–a term that should change to “technologically advanced world” to signal an evolutionary leap as a global group–in terms of social welfare. By this, I mean that if we have the means, it is our responsibility to raise the means of living for its poorest, most disenfranchised citizens. Not merely because it’s morally correct, but because it will, in time, raise the living standard of the country as a whole and make it a freer, better society.

Ultimately, these choices are ours to make as a free society. If we are to change our way of life for the better, we must first change our political system. By involving ourselves more. By self-educating. By making an honest attempt at understanding the greater social forces that only seem out of our control, but which are intrinsically connected to our reality. There is no need to resort to violent revolution or to wait until that time comes. These are choices that we can make today. But only if we possess the will to do so.

 

 

 

Extra Research:

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/08/c-wright-mills-power-elite-port-huron-new-left/

Sut Jhally “Advertising and the End of the World”

The Aftermath of Terror: Understanding ISIS and the Future of Our World

Last weekend France’s Prime Minister François Hollande declared a state of emergency and made the unprecedented decision to close off all of France’s borders after a large-scale terrorist attack was perpetrated in several spots in Paris leaving scores of dead and wounded.

As expected, soon after, a rush of condolences started pouring in from many heads of state and citizens from around the world who also expressed their rage at the situation and offered support for the victims.

In social media, many others whose countries had also been victimized by terrorism, sympathized with the French people by showing their support in different ways. And even hacktivist group Anonymous did its part by taking down Twitter accounts of people who sympathized with ISIS, including many of people who took to the social platform to hail Friday’s attacks as a great victory.

French Flag waving atop Caen Memorial- Nov 15th 2015 French Flag waving atop Caen Memorial- Nov 15th 2015 for the Nov-13th victims.  (Author: Benoit-Caen. Artist does not endorse this work. Creative Commons License. commons/wikimedia.org)

With the painful memory of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January still fresh in our memory, it seems France, and possibly other European countries, is now experiencing another wave of terrorism as leaders of those nations ramp up efforts to combat extremism in their own countries and abroad. Now it’s apparent that these tactics are having an adverse effect in European cities. ISIS for one isn’t having it.

But are we correct to say that these attacks are simply a balancing act of retaliation on the part of ISIS for France’s meddling in Middle Eastern affairs? Or is there something else that many, including progressive-leftists and moderates (including Muslim moderates) seem to be missing?

From the many reports circulating about the identities of the attackers and their motives, what happened in France this past Friday was neither an isolated incident nor amateur hour. It was a highly-coordinated, deliberate attack in response to, once again, not one or two things, but a myriad of events that coalesce to form a situation that can only be described here as a clusterfuck of global proportions.

It’s important to understand that some of these reasons carry more weight than others in determining the motives behind these vicious attacks which, as always, kill more civilians than they do elements of the infrastructure of the target group or country–and to be perfectly fair here, that goes for both sides.

But we also cannot ignore another important fact that most people often overlook, and that is that the repercussions from these attacks–meaning the rain of bombs that will continue to rain on ISIS strongholds–are as coldly calculated into the model of the act of terrorism as the act itself. Meaning that ISIS, who has already claimed responsibility, not only expects vengeance but they in fact welcome it.

Why, you may ask, would they want retaliation.

As far as I–in my limited knowledge–can see, there are a few valid reasons that perhaps you may not be aware of.

Off the Fringe

It’s quite easy to label ISIS as murderous lunatics. And it’s equally simple to say that ISIS is just a bi-product of geopolitics gone wrong. However, while you may be right about one, or both, the facts actually point us in the other direction.

Ever since ISIS (initially an offshoot of Al-Qaeda) stemmed away from the root organization in the early 2000s, it has worked hard to establish “legitimacy” among the local players in the region. At times, this has not been easy. But with the escalation of war activity by the US-led coalition in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria that left entire regions ungoverned, and the abundance of civilian sympathizers both events created, ISIS, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has not wasted any time in recruiting a large force for the purpose of creating the Caliphate he said he would build. By taking full advantage of the governance vacuum in Syria, ISIS under the replenished leadership–including many who had served under Saddam Hussein, including generals and commanders who now oversee military operations–began successful offensives in Iraq and Syria and very quickly began to gain ground.

Of course this is a very simplified explanation of the ISIS-AL-Qaeda alliance, but for the purpose of this post, it’s more than enough.

Although this all sounds like clockwork we cannot ignore the sad reality that the main motivation behind what can only be described as openly-clandestine acts of war (a terribly ambiguous term) has turned out to be more religious than political at this point. So, once again, while you may be right that ISIS is the product of foreign affairs as the United States and our allies armed and disarmed insurgencies in the Middle East during and after the Cold War, and that they truly are murderous lunatics, at this point the religious radicalism in this organization has become so pronounced that the political reasons have effectively ceased to exist.

Unlike their Muslim counterparts in other areas of the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who have clear goals in mind, such as the liberation of Palestine and the eradication of Israel, and even Al-Qaeda, who is more theologically-based, although still political–ISIS is unique in that more than anything it seeks to establish a Caliphate (essentially an absolute theocracy) that will follow the exact model of ancient Caliphates dictated by the literal interpretation of the Quran.

So for us to say that ISIS’s motives are purely political, it makes liars out of all of us.

ISIS has for some time now, worked very hard to establish themselves as even more extreme than all other groups cataloged as terrorist organizations by the U.S., the U.N., the E.U., and others. The strategy here, if there ever was one, is to play into people’s fears and emotions, and up until now it seems to be working wonderfully.

"Escenas de la Guerra contra ISIS"- Trans. "Scenes of war against ISIS." Leopoldo Christie. Creative Commons License. commons/wikipedia.org

“Escenas de la Guerra contra ISIS”- Trans. “Scenes of war against ISIS.” Leopoldo Christie. Creative Commons License. commons/wikipedia.org

Since before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, countries and individuals started censoring themselves and each other for fear of offending an invisible enemy that could strike anytime, anywhere. Many of us have made it our business to condemn those who point out the faults in Islam and Islamic extremists by labeling them Islamophobes or “racists” (a term that wouldn’t even be applied correctly), but what those so-called “progressives” don’t seem to realize is that this is perhaps the biggest disservice we could be doing for our communities and our way of life. There is, after all, a way to discuss bad ideas without alluding towards derogatory or hateful undertones regarding a whole population (Islam as opposed to Muslims).

At the same time we give the bad guys a free pass on our freedom of speech. Emphasis on the “our” because of the history of our own societies and our acceptance that speech should indeed be free. This is precisely what ISIS and other terrorist organizations are working towards: a collective psychology molded by fear.

But they also play into people’s emotions  by making use of something so elemental in people’s hearts and minds that it transcends politics, alliances, and even reason: religion.

Other groups with specific goals in mind operating in different parts of the region, groups like Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, et al., are the products of history and of very specific circumstances derived from foreign policy blunders. They are also good PR firms in their own right, and they have only gotten better and better at it. These yahoos are not only crazy, they are also highly organized and very adept at manipulating social media to recruit members, which has worked very well for them in recent years. But while these other groups use religion as a lightning rod to attract extremists, even if they believe what they profess, ISIS seems to take the religious rhetoric to heart, leaving all the political baggage that defines all other groups among the rubble of their conquests. This makes ISIS unique. They have taken the Al-Qaeda model and perfected it.

ISIS is peculiar in that they are not an organization so much as they are the embodiment of an ideology. Its leadership not only understands the endless power religion has, but knows how to tap into that well, and the reason is simple: they believe every word they say to their very core.

There’s a movie called “The Siege” (very apropos in this situation) where one of the characters, a C.I.A. officer investigating terrorist cells in the U.S. along with an F.B.I. agent, tells her partner, “In this game, the most committed wins.” That rings true every time you hear the news.

When al-Baghdadi announced that there would be a new Caliphate on Earth, most dismissed the claim as nothing more than extremist mumbo-jumbo. What people at that time did not realize was that their radicalism was so beyond what we had seen before, something so ingrained into their very psychology, that they truly believed–whether the leaders knew otherwise or not–that they were the messengers of god sent to Earth to bring about an apocalypse, and that only as the Earth was engulfed in fire, could every “innocent and moral” being ascend to heaven.

I’m not making shit up here. These guys have taken the most literal interpretation of the Quran and applied it to the real world. Scary isn’t?

If we have learned anything from history is that literal interpretations of holy books usually lead to disastrous consequences. Google “Holy Wars,” if you don’t believe me. But their plans go further than that and I’ll explain what I mean in the next section.

ISIS knows that it doesn’t have the capabilities, yet, to fight a large-scale war with any country, especially countries who have powerful allies on their side (think the EU), which initially was the reason why they limited their aims only to the local chapters they created as they opened way inside Iraq and Syria. Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS did not plan to engage their fighters in foreign soil. Note that this doesn’t mean they did not support stand-alone acts of terrorism by home-grown extremists who were loyal to their ideals. But instead it seemed less-than-clear that they would devote all of their energy towards expanding their hold in that region before operating abroad.

It is more than evident now that they have radically shifted course.

Now, as the world braces for what seems to be a new type of warfare, we are finally beginning to understand how ISIS operates and what they have in mind.

Three major outcomes will stem from deliberate acts of violence and terrorism, which in some countries will converge and feed off of each other in a symbiotic relationship that will centralize gubernatorial power and strip away citizen rights. Not to mention radicalizing the other side.

Retribution and Endless War

The first of these outcomes is that retribution will envelop the Middle East in conflicts for decades. These conflicts will spread, as they already have, into quasi-guerrilla wars that will be taken to the streets of the places we deemed “safe” at one time, which is exactly what groups like ISIS want.

As France vamps up military action, and its allies join in, the world will begin a second wave of wars that will go on for the rest of our lifetimes. Atrocities and injustices will happen on both sides as defenses and attacks are passed back and forth, with civilian populations bearing most of the casualties.

ISIS will undoubtedly continue its attacks on the world’s cities in order to provoke a self-fulling prophecy of apocalypse as dictated on their holy book. And as more attacks and threats unfold, future leaders will inevitably be forced to protect their own populations by any means necessary. This will follow the second outcome which has been happening for some time now.

Totalitarianism: The All-Seeing Eye

As the world becomes engulfed in obscure conflicts with irrational actors, governments will find in a scared and willing population the means to tighten their grip of control with the valid excuse of protecting their countries and their citizens. Valid to a very limited extent.

As 9/11 has proven, clandestine government programs designed with the aim of gathering intelligence at the global level will effortlessly expand to monstrous sizes, giving these governments the tools to police their own citizens faster and easier. These are not sensationalist claims, it is already happening as we have seen with the PRISM and MUSCULAR programs run by the American N.S.A. and the British G.C.H.Q. agencies, not to mention all other intelligence agencies around the world, and with help from major tech corporations like Google, Facebook, and others. With some luck, a portion of these programs will be monitored (although the chances are slim). In reality most of these clandestine surveillance programs will be so secretive that in the future–as it is today–they will not even be known by lawmakers and the general public.

Eventually, fear will work just as good for this side as it does for the other side, and most nations will enter a new era of governance where most central governments will hold immense power and sway over their own populations. But why convince your own people that what you’re doing is for their own good if the enemy can show them more effectively? This is the beginning of the third outcome.

Radicalizing the Other Side

It’s already happening. As I type this, scores of lawmakers around the world have vowed to end the radicalization of Islamism. A few others have vowed to do this the only way they know how, with “good old Christian values” and their own brand of crazy.

One of the (un)intended consequences of what ISIS is doing is radicalizing the other side in hopes that this will bring about the last holy war, where the soldiers of god (which one?) will fight the final battle against the infidels and defeat them. I’ll admit to you that I’m not sure which side I’m talking about here.

Not to make a direct comparison between these two parties, but more and more Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, an ultra-right fascist organization that openly calls for the rejection of immigrants, non-whites, and non-Christians–and the American Republican Party are starting to sound very much alike. And what’s more, people are listening.

These, and many other, organizations advocate for the eradication of Muslims. At the same time, they build up and spread the idea that only Christianity can end this evil. To these people it has never occurred that they are only the other side of that coin.

Even friends of mine have expressed their humble opinions that “their god is a false god, and ours is the only true god.” Please take a moment to understand that logical dilemma.

Racism, bigotry, and xenophobia will increase to exorbitant levels–unfortunately it’s not only the religious who will be turned, but even the fragile moderate base will begin to collapse as fear sets in. We can already see it in our own countries and communities as people often conflate the terms “Muslim” or “refugee” with “terrorist”, and reject these people fleeing war-torn areas where many of them have been victims themselves of atrocities by ISIS or even their own governments.

There have already been reports that terrorist sympathizers might have infiltrated the refugee wave that landed on Europe a few weeks ago and even ISIS has said as much. So it’s not a baseless fear that governments and people have that at some point in the future their cities will be attacked. Unfortunately, many people whose homes and lives have been ruined by war will once again be the victims of hatred and discrimination in a whole new land, all because it plays well into ISIS’s plans that the infidels fear and hate Muslims, whether they are their Muslims or not.

Damages

While it is true that Islamism is at the forefront of these recent troubles, it would be unfair to paint all Muslims with the same brush. However, to dismiss this as an entirely extremist problem is also not accurate either, after all, the tenets of Islam do support the literal interpretation given by ISIS, even if most Muslims don’t. The problem is not Muslims, the problem is extremists and our failure to speak out against them for fear of offending or being labelled as bigots or Islamophobes. As far as the refugees who flee war-torn nations in the M.E. and North Africa, they are hardly to blame for these terrible events.

The world stands united with France in this terrible moment. But before the bombs rain and we unanimously decide that all Muslims are evil and we are the good guys, a few things to ask ourselves: Where is the compassion for the victims of other terrorist attacks throughout the world and why hasn’t there been an outcry for victims of similar atrocities like the ones in Beirut and Kenya? Where are the flags on Facebook and the hash-tags? What are we as individuals doing to combat extremism of all kinds?

One essential question to ask is whether strong nations only support strong nations; whether we only support our allies; or whether we are prepared to repudiate acts of terrorism wherever we find them.

As far as France goes–our oldest ally–we stand with them. We shed the same blood and the same tears. We have similar values and similar views. And at this terrible time, we are all French just as they were Americans on 9/11. But if there’s anything that I can leave you with today is that we are also all Kenyans. And Beirutians. Hell, we’re all humans! So when will we start acting like it?

Speak out, and encourage others to speak out, against extremism of all kinds, otherwise our future might be a lot shorter than we thought, and the apocalypse the other guys are striving for might come sooner than we would want.

It’s a good thing that you show support for the victims of these terrible tragedies. It’s good that you pray, but… Well, I will let the Dalai Lama end this with some words he said following this tragedy, words that are wiser than any I could conjure:

“We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

School Me: America’s War On and For Education Pt. 1

The year is 2015 and America is fighting a war that has nothing to do with WMDs, drug-lords, or crazy religious fundamentalists in some remote country. Nope. The war is at home and we’re fighting it for and against ourselves to win and lose even though we’re doing everything we can to lose it (to win it) while fighting to win it (to lose it). Confusing isn’t it?

Just like any war, the battles we’re fighting each and every day leave collateral damage behind, only this time the victims are not enemy combatants, or traitors, but our children. Our what? Yup, kids. But even more importantly what our children represent- the future.

If this sounds drab, dark and slightly apocalyptic, is because it kind of is. I might be a bit melodramatic, that at least is true, but that’s only for effect. But we can at least agree on one thing, that the education system in America is failing from the bottom up and soon this war that our politicians, our corporations, our religious institutions, ourselves and each other are fighting will set us on a path that eventually will lead us to one of many eventual demises.

So, sit back and relax, and let’s explore how the war on education is rotting the core of what America is. A war that is unnecessary and easily winnable, but a war that we seem determined to keep fighting for better and for worse.

 

First Steps

 

Think for a moment about how you raise your children, or if you don’t have any children just daydream for a second about how you would raise kids if you had any. It’s a scary thought, I agree. After all, going to any Chuck-E-Cheese anywhere in America will make you think twice about having kids if you don’t have them, or make you re-think your choices if you do. And although making kids is probably the most fun you will ever have, raising them is no picnic- at least not a sunny one. Each stage of raising a child has a different level of difficulty that no one expects. Life is uncaring as to your early baby-planning or your college fund, and it’s something that not even the wealthiest parents in the world can prepare for. Remember that having money doesn’t exactly mean that they will turn out to be the best people in the world- in fact, sometimes it’s quite the opposite. It’s then that the old adage fits perfectly: No one is ever truly prepared for kids. That’s just one of those inescapable universal truths that every parent learns one way or another.

But think about how you were raised. You turned out fine, right? Kinda? Don’t feel too bad if you still live with your parents, or if you’ve been to juvie, or at 30 you don’t have a stable job, or haven’t gone to college yet or blah blah blah. All you have to do is turn on the news and you’ll immediately feel better and realize that “kinda” maybe isn’t all that bad. Agreed, it’s a half-assed way to live life, but in context, “kinda” is just the space between good and bad and nothing else. You are at the center of the balance and only you have the power to tip it one way or the other.

But what got you there? Sure, a lot of people talk about genes and outside influence. But if you pay close attention, you will notice that while DNA plays a huge role in who you are, for the most part, what you do is closely related to how you were raised. And this is where we start.

You’ve probably heard the saying “education begins at home.” People don’t just say it for nothing, the path to education begins from the moment you come out of the womb and continues throughout those first fragile formative years. By the time formal education begins (meaning school), kids are already walking and talking, and like it or not they have also adopted some of their parents’ ways of thinking including basic forms of thinking and prejudice. And you can’t really blame the way they are- at least not during the first few years of school- on their schoolmates, seeing as how they spend most of their time behind school walls, because the behavior had to have come from somewhere in the first place. So being totally frank, if your kid is an asshole in school it’s mostly not his/her fault. Then again, it’s not mostly your fault either- although you did raise them. No excuses to be had here Biebs.

But that really is an interesting question to ask, whose fault is it for children’s bad behavior? Is it the parents’ fault; is it the schools’ fault? Is it no one’s fault (genetics)? Environmental? Chemicals in the food? Media content? Someone has to bear that responsibility, but who? In my non-expert opinion I believe the problem to be an unequal combination of all of these factors with two being the main culprits- the parents and the education system. “Why me?!” I can hear parents and teachers yelling in unison. Well, again, child-rearing begins at home. It’s simple, if your kid watches Jersey Shore and acts like the douchebags in it, it’s only because you allowed them to. If your kid curses it’s not her fault, she probably doesn’t even know what it means. If your kid punches some other kid, it will inevitably be part of his genes to be prone to anger, but it’s learned behavior that dictates how he will behave in the future given the appropriate instruction and/or punishment. In other words, morality is instilled at home. Technical instruction is given at school.

Consider this, conventional wisdom- and science- tells us that the perfect age to have kids is in your 20s. Too young (20s-) might mean an unstable financial situation and too old (30s+) could mean more of a burden on your body.  Of course there are more things to consider than just a good job and a good uterus, but for the most part you’d want both to be in good condition. But the thing that no one really thinks about is that no matter at what age you get pregnant, the thought of becoming a first-time parent can be a daunting and scary thing to prepare for. It’s only logical that you would need help with that responsibility, not only from other parents but also from experts in child-rearing and education. After all, you want to give your child the best possible start.

This 2008 report by statesmanjournal.com, details how 95% of funds going towards education are allocated only for formal education, which means that what the state spends on education is only relevant until after children have already been acclimated to their parents’ way of thinking. Forget sponges,  during those formative years children’s brains are more like powerful (and fragile) machines that react to nurturing just as much as they do to nature-ing. In fact, there’s research to suggest that due to neural interactions, a child learns much faster than you do.

What this is all saying is that between the age of 0 and 5, a child’s brain develops faster and stronger than it will ever do in that child’s life; during those years the information it acquires is essential for his/her psychological development and it is crucial in establishing a well cemented base for future learning. And yet- at least in the U.S.- less than 5% of the educational resources are going towards this age-group. Why?

I’m not sure exactly (or maybe I’m too incompetent to find out why- thanks school!) but it seems that those in charge of the money do not consider this to be a priority even though amounting research suggests that more money should be put to good use in this area. It appears the government trusts YOU too much with your own child not to offer much help.

In my opinion, more resources should be allocated to implement government-subsidized child-rearing classes that continually evolve with new research, to help young parents and/or first-time parents raise their children better until they start school. I’m sure there is something like that already, but is it enough? It’ll take a whole generation to find out.

Of course, education has changed in the classroom. If we read into that history and compare educational methods, say, from 100 years ago, then even the poorest of nations has a lot more information to impart in the classroom than they did before- and hopefully better methods also. That they don’t want to or don’t care to is another matter. That also varies by country, by region and even by school.

 

Resources: Substance and Style

 

But education is dependent on more than one factor, not only on what we know. For example, children who live in poor nations, in conflict-ridden areas, and girls more than boys are much more at risk of missing out on the kind of education that children are afforded elsewhere. This is something we know, but still not enough resources are available to help with children’s educations besides a few charitable organizations and UN programs. Food availability, distance,  parent’s marital and social status, social conflict, etc. These are all factors, among many more, that can greatly affect the chances of a child going to school.

But what about here in America? Surely we don’t run into issues like those. Do we?

If you’re naive enough to think so, you are dead wrong. Recent studies show that the link between poverty and children’s educational development is strong stateside. And with poverty come a whole slew of other problems: family instability, domestic violence in some cases, and behavioral problems.

For example the Bible Belt, which is the Southernmost area of the United States, is the poorest clump of states in the nation. Not coincidentally it is also where students K-12 are the least educated. This interesting report by the Huffington Post finds the connection between what each state spends on education and children’s education ranking by state, among other criteria.

But lack of money is not the whole problem. Ironically, having it and not using it properly can be just as detrimental.

Look around you. Most people now have more than three devices to use to watch their favorite shows, download music, read stuff on the internet, watch cat videos, blog, vlog, etc. Just now I’m sitting at my desk watching Netflix on an iPad. My laptop is sitting right in front of me, my phone is in my pocket, my TV five feet away from me, and my roommate’s TV ten feet away. Each and every one of these devices capable of doing all of those things I mentioned and more. So in a fifteen feet radius I have more computing power at my disposal than all of the computers in the world combined during the 60s. You see where I’m going with this?

Somehow we haven’t realized that the future so many sci-fi writers wrote about in past decades is now! We are not making use of the technology that we have at our fingertips precisely for the most noble purpose there is: the advancement of education. Or at least, we’re not doing it enough. Any parent should walk into a classroom and see their tax-dollars at work (or at least a bigger chunk of it) in the form of a personalized computer for their kids. We have enough resources to provide every child in America with an iPad to use and to learn from.

Schools should prioritize what they teach our kids. Cursive writing is not a priority, computer science is. For the sake of our future generations, it is imperative that we get rid or minimize non-essential subjects and replace them with advanced sciences and skills that they will need in the future.

This very day, most countries are sitting on endless mines of information and we simply do not use the tools at our disposal to get to the treasure. Like the likable character Roman on the film Ocean’s 13 once said, we are “…analogue players in a digital world.” The children in our classrooms are still using notepads and pencils when they should be using iPads and stylus pens. And even poor nations have these capabilities, if they spent more on education that is.

The internet came at a time of vast technological advancement and that advancement doesn’t seem to be slowing down but rather speeding up. Not only has technology caught up with the power of the internet itself, but it’s now helping it grow faster and stronger. That’s something to exploit to the maximum.

The perfect analogy to use here is a dam. We are like fish, living in a little puddle of information while water trickles down from a wall. On the other side of the wall is a vast lake that we just can’t get to. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that what any of this represents.

This knowledge that I talk about is universally beneficial. But is knowledge even enough? With the amount of information that we now have at our disposal, it is more than just an excuse not to impart it correctly. We have come far from when used the abacus to make simple calculations, now we use calculators. Perhaps it’s time we upgrade, and not just what new technology we have available, but also in our right to use it. Teachers should encourage children to use the technology at hand to acquire as much information as possible; but we as parents also need to learn Information in bulk is not necessarily education. Another problem I see today with the way schooling (institutionally and at home) is done is that we are too preoccupied teaching children what to think, and not necessarily how to think.

 

Making the Grades: The Evolution of Teaching Methods
Image source: www.topeducationdegrees.org

 

Scoresheet

 

Considering that the United States is still a technological, military, and economic superpower it’s only logical that we should also reign as an educational giant as well. And yet, in terms of primary and secondary education we’re not in even in the top 10 in two of the most important areas!- science and math. By now it’s probably been drilled into your head from several different sources how education in America is lagging behind other countries in K-12 education, especially in the mentioned disciplines.

This research by pewresearch.org, with data from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), shows that improvement in areas like math and science for American students has been a slow one, and we still shadow many countries, including most industrialized nations.

The average scores indicate that for all 15-year-olds from various nationalities who participated since the triennial survey was last taken in 2012, the United States scored in 27th place in mathematics, just above Sweden and Hungary but lower than any of the major industrialized nations in the world with Singapore taking the top spot. As far as science goes Americans fared a little better in 20th place, scoring well ahead of Italy, Norway, and Russia.

It’s encouraging to know that we are doing better than we did a couple of decades ago, but let’s not pat each other’s backs just yet, we’re not that well off. If we take into account our massive budget, we should be spending much more on education that we give ourselves credit for. There is no excuse why these scores shouldn’t be much higher.

The 2014 federal budget  provided $71 billion in funds to the Department of Education, or 4.6% of national spending. Yeah this is a huge number, but it’s nothing compared to the gigantic $526 billion allocated to the Department of Defense.  That’s seven times more than what the DoE gets! You would think that those 71 billion dollars would put us ahead of little Singapore in something as small as math and science education, a country with a relatively small GDP of $298 billion compared to America’s $16 trillion, but somehow something just doesn’t fit. Of course, Singapore doesn’t have nearly as many enemies as the U.S. and their budget doesn’t allow for much international expenditures as our does, but… come on! 71 billion dollars! If Singapore can subsidize its entire education system and pay its teachers better than we do ours, then surely we can move some money around and give the DoE a couple more billion dollars and do the same or something similar here. It would not only make sense, it’s the right thing to do.

This is a noble competition in which every country should strive to take the top spot. Education is nothing to compete over, except when we’re doing it against ignorance and the countries that can afford to do so are helping themselves by coming to the aid of those at the bottom and helping them rise.

 

Put To the Test

 

We talked about outdated technology. Now let’s talk about outdated methods. In the post-internet era, we are still teaching children with the same methodology that schools used from before even the fall of the Soviet Union, despite psychiatry, psychology and neuroimaging making new important discoveries every year, including child rearing and child behavior. And unfortunately one of those areas in which we don’t seem to be advancing but rather regressing, is standardized testing.

Children today in the United States get tested on as if they were all about to colonize Mars! You might be thinking “what’s the big deal? So they get a few tests here and there.” But they don’t just get a few tests here and there. While testing is an important part of learning, just like everything else, in excess is counterproductive. Kids today get tested on English, Math, Science, Physical Education, History (one of the few subjects that actually evolves merely for its content, or rather by its content). They get tested two, three, five, sometimes even ten times per trimester. They get federal testing, state testing, school testing and on top of that, they get regular periodic tests. Dozens of hours are spent on just testing these kids; and you as a parent are left thinking, “What the hell are they teaching them that they have to test them so much?” Mars huh?

Many parents- perhaps even you yourself- are now wondering if we are overtesting kids. A lot of them are wondering if all this testing is actually leading us somewhere or if we’re just walking to the edge of a cliff. And many are starting to push back.

Well, it didn’t take long for the issue to become political. Now Congress is also starting to ask the same questions parents around the nation are asking- “Is there a benefit?

To get to the root of the problem we have to observe our own kids. When they get ready to take a test, are they doing everything they can to learn the information and use it on the test, or are they doing everything they can to pass the test no matter how they do it? And if it’s the former, is the information even being retained?

Where I’m going with this is that if school is supposed to be beneficial in the sense that it’s meant to be a knowledge machine, why are we throwing nuts and bolts into it thinking it’s helping when it’s just breaking everything inside?

But don’t be too quick to blame teachers. Many of them also think that testing- or rather administering tests the wrong way- is bad for our students; psychologists have taken careful notice of what goes on when we overtest and have arrived at the same conclusion- when it comes to testing, or more importantly, to learning, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

 

Homework? So 1900s

 

“Oh no, don’t mess with the homework dude! That’s my off time.” Some parents are undoubtedly thinking this. Kudos to you if you actually help out your kid with her homework, or with that science project that we all know will turn out to be a papier-mâché volcano.

Well while it will help you bond better with your kids, making them bury their noses in a notebook for three or four hours a day will not necessarily do anything.

Just like exercising the muscles, working out the mind also has a resistance limit after which there is no beneficial gain to keep pushing. Well, it turns out that contrary to what you may believe (possibly arrogantly about yourself), humans have a rather short attention span of just minutes. For adults it happens to be between 15 and 20 minutes while children have much shorter attention spans.

What does this tell you about homework? Yes, you might be walking by their rooms and they’ll be pretending to read the book. Hell, they might even actually be trying. But I- and more importantly, psychologists- assure you that while their eyes are scanning the words, their brains are flying far far away.

Like over-testing, spending too much time doing homework seems to have a negligible result in standardized testing, and in more cases than not, it directly hurts the chances of a better score. This study from researcher Jose Muñiz from the university of Oviedo in Spain says as much- while effort, parent aid, and [daily] frequency of homework helps a lot, spending more than two hours a day on homework doesn’t.

The alternative is much simpler- school should make learning much more accessible by allowing students free expression and help mold the young mind into something desirable to pursue. While parents need to devote the time to fine-tune that learning at home, and not necessarily doing homework.

Let’s not kid ourselves (pun not intended), homework will not go away anytime soon- although it should. However, the way in which homework is done can have a great impact in how well your kid advances not in class, but in understanding. Psychologists and sociologists have concluded that the manner in which you as a parent help your kid with homework makes more of a difference than you taking direct control. This just plays into the whole idea that kids need to be allowed free rein and explore imaginatively, rather than being dictated to and limited.

 

Invisible Roadblocks

 

If you thought I wasn’t going to mention religion in this one, you are dead wrong.

Already too many states in the United States (guess which ones) teach creationism along with evolutionary biology by local political mandate, despite the 2005 landmark Supreme Court case Kitzmiller v. Dover, where the court ruled against the teaching of creationism, or the word-savvy intelligent design, in public schools.

In the first link provided (in the hook “too many states”) you will find an interactive map of all the states that have, in some form, a creationist curriculum that openly challenge evolution science as something more of a fable and not completely testable. The fucking irony.

As if it wasn’t enough to have kids recite a Pledge of Allegiance (something bordering on creepy and Big Brother-y), and one created in part to sell flags, Eisenhower added the word “god” to counter the godless Communist threat back in 1954. As if being godless was actually what inspired Stalin to kill 100 million of his countrymen… or as if adding the word “god” to the pledge actually helped.

The point is that since the pledge and even before it, schools still have the nerve to question hundreds of years of data without base. These people are more than eager to teach their absolutely unverified and untestable version of the “truth” to all children alike, without regard or consideration for children’s backgrounds, something which puts everyone behind. And on top of that, the children of secular parents are being punished for something which they have little control over.

If you know this blog then you must know that my feelings towards religion are ones of suspicion and contempt. I, along with millions of others, feel that religion is in its most intrusive,  most harmful, and most illogical form when it is taught in the classroom.

Personally, I see no useful purpose for religion in today’s world, not even- and especially- as a moral yardstick. Contrary to popular belief, science can now explain morality thoroughly without the need of superstitious rituals. Yet, a lot of people don’t see it that way. They hold on to the old beliefs and what’s worse, the religious are playing the last card they have to play, children. Because they are innocent and thus impressionable, it is easier to manipulate a child to believe in abnormal things.

I would be understating the issue if I said that religion has absolutely no place in public schools, not just legally but also in terms of relevant information. And before we get into a theological debate, you should note that I said religion, meaning all religions. What is especially troublesome about an imposition of religious rituals or religious teaching in school is that you can’t possibly accommodate the thousands of religions that exist in the world in a place that intends to make use of the most down-to-Earth (pun intended), verifiable, and impartial information there is. Which is why science is there to save the day.

While religious fundamentalists argue about whether the Earth is 6,000 years old or 10,000 years old based on nothing else than Bible interpretation, the core of science has gone out and researched endlessly and compiled all known data into verifiable textbooks that kids now use in the classroom. It is unfair, not to mention arrogant, for religious parents and teachers to force distorted views of the world as they see it to kids who will very much grow up believing this stuff. What they fail to realize is that everything has a connection to something else. For example, teaching a kid that the Earth is younger than some known tree species we know might not make much of a difference if the child grows up to be a musician or an actor. But if that kid wants to become a biologist, or anything science-related actually, he or she will be the laughing-stock of academia a la Waterboy. 

I’m not saying that you don’t have the right to believe in whatever you want to believe, just not in a public taxpayer-funded school. The Constitution of the United States expressly prohibits the teaching of religion in places funded on the taxpayer’s dime, so in the interest of fairness, or at the very least for the sake of your child’s future, keep the Bible at home or at church where they belong, not in the classroom.

 

Okay, Einstein, what’s the best thing to do?

 

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

The concept of school is an ancient one. For thousands of years people have been teaching each other what they know about the world. It hasn’t always worked the way it should, but it has worked- case in point, we know a lot about a lot today. So it would only make sense that school should be an institution where knowledge is born and not merely cascaded down. However, it seems that’s actually the way it is. The institution has come to a point where individuality is repressed in favor of mass instruction. Something especially apparent in testing- which we mentioned before.

Do you remember that part on Forest Gump where Sally Fields’s character tells young Forest that he’s the same as everyone else, but then when the principal tells her that her son is different she comes back with, “Well, everyone’s different…” Of course it sounds way funnier in the movie, but it’s true, we’re all different and we’re all the same in different contexts obviously. Yet, school seems to want to make us all the same. At least in the way that we learn.

Like I mentioned before, now we know with proof what we’ve always known subconsciously, that kids learn at different rates and with different techniques. Some kids learn best by reading, others by looking at pictures, others are better at math than they are at history. The point is to instill in students a sense of comfort. To play their strengths and work their weaknesses, but what tests do is assume that every student is the same. Again, benchmarking is important because there definitely needs to be a basic average level that every student needs to be in every subject, but it seems that we’re only stopping there. Where’s the individuality? Where’s the push for greater knowledge?

You might infer from what’s being said that exclusion will lead to kids becoming territorial- even more so- but what we’re trying to achieve is just the opposite- inclusion. And inclusion is key. Due to many factors, some kids will learn faster than others. That’s just one of those things not even a teacher can control. However, taking into account those earlier things I mentioned about psychology, psychiatry, and technology, surely we can devise ways to measure kids’ performances without having to burden them with endless homework assignments, stressful rounds of testing, and outdated teaching techniques that don’t do much more than make kids loathe school, and as a consequence possibly even learning. They have enough to worry about in the recess yard to make them worry about what goes on inside the classroom.

 

Graduation

 

Let me conclude by saying that I am no education professional, medical professional, or an expert in any of the fields mentioned here, so do read this with a grain of salt. I merely offer my personal opinion on an issue that I consider to be one of the most important ones in our time, but more importantly for the future.

Of course there are many more things that can affect child behavior and learning capabilities: nutrition, bullying, outside influence, etc. I will probably touch on these subjects later on in other blogposts. But for now I just wanted to go a bit more in-depth about how education is not being given absolute priority in our country and elsewhere in the world.

The question to you is, do we really want to stress our kids out? School is undoubtedly necessary for our children, it’s not only a right of passage, it will prepare them at least in an academic level for the things they will need to know in the future. In the courtyard they will get a taste of what’s to come in life in terms of social connections; while the classroom is supposed to make them wonder about the bigger things. Children are supposed to go in to school with a hunger for learning, not to be afraid to do so. We need to demand, as well as help forge the better way to make the former happen and avoid the latter. Is stressing them out more important, or teaching them? Is showing them more important, or letting them discover? Is it more important to tell them which problem to solve or teaching them how to solve it? Are we hoping to build robots, or thinkers? Do we want them to come out of high school reading about the future or writing it? It all starts with learning. But learning is also a process. I guess the most important question of all is: are we doing it right?

 

fascinating book

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In part two I’ll be talking about college and the roadblocks students encounter while trying to continue their education at the next level in America and abroad, the consequences of these limitations, and what we can all do to help each other and ourselves.

And please leave a comment, a question, or curse me out if you want to if I missed something you believe is important or if any of my information is wrong. I welcome all feedback! And if you’re a teacher or a parent, I don’t mean to step on any toes, I welcome your thoughts as well.

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Interesting Reads:

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/07/09/36jouriles.h33.html

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/spending-too-much-time-homework-linked-lower-test-scores-180954814/?no-ist

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/15/cutting-through-the-stupid-on-annual-standardized-testing/

http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/21-things-that-will-become-obsolete-in-education-by-2020-474.php

A Universe of Knowledge

 

 

What’s Been Happening Lately

 

Excitement galore people!

I just finished reading Andy Weir’s “The Martian”and I have to say that if you haven’t picked it up yet, you are missing out on some great literature!

In the same way that Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” spark an old curiosity for space exploration, Mr. Weir’s book- which is being turned into a movie by Hollywood and scheduled to be released next year- does the same, and in a great way!

Praised for its technical accuracy and flowing story line- even by actual astronauts- this story about an astronaut who gets stranded in Mars after a series of freak accidents is a total page-turner. From the moment that you open the book until the last paragraph read, it’s evident that Andy Weir did his homework researching each and every element of space exploration, not just the big-picture stuff, but even the most minute details, and it is these that make the book so realistically possible. Most authors will only go so far as to research only the essential stuff while leaving some room for interpretation or for fantastical elements (what is known as “creative license”), but as we seem to enter a new literary age of hyper-realism, it’s clear that Weir did not wish to leave anything up in the air. And as you read paragraph after paragraph you begin to imagine the scenario come to life in a way that leaves no room for creative licenses to distort the story. The math alone will make your head spin, but Weir is always careful not to lose you. Told from a first-person perspective, in a sort of entry  log or diary-type situation, all the technical stuff is essential to the story, but if you are not math-savvy, don’t worry- neither am I; the story takes care of itself and unfolds effortlessly, even with the math which is told as if you yourself were NASA, being part of the tale in a one-way conversation with our hero. But the calculations that Weir clearly did research on, baffle you, but they don’t belittle you. In fact, its gravity pulls you stronger and faster and soon enough you’re sitting there amazed at all the technical bits that are often missed in the science-fiction genre.

As the world comes together in this age to begin a new chapter of space conquest, this book, whether it self-includes or not, is part of a new wave of interest in space, a legacy that was briefly forgotten after the last of the U.S.’s Apollo missions and the Soviet Union’s Luna missions concluded.

For the past several years, new breakthroughs, both in technology and in research, have been building up to tackle the mother-lode of all space projects, Mars.

On December 5th, the unmanned spacecraft Orion– an updated version of the old Apollo spacecraft, and in a way the first of its kind- completed two full laps around the Earth before splashing down just off the coast of Baja California. Technicians and scientists working for NASA (that’s the guys that put someone in the moon all those years ago) declared that the launch, trajectory, and crash had gone exactly as planned, in other words a perfect flight. Completely flawless. Now that is good news because eventually, that same rocket will deliver a payload of supplies, technical equipment, and research stuff…oh yeah and humans, to Mars sometime in the 2030s. Mars. Not shitty, old moon, but Mars. Okay it would still be pretty cool to send someone up to the moon again, but you gotta walk before you can crawl. Or something like that.

If it works, that’ll be a huge step for mankind and something that we have dreamt about doing since humans had imagination. I mean if we put someone on the surface of the planet at any point during the 2030s- albeit without killing them- then that means that less than a hundred years before the crew of the Apollo 11 landed on the lunar surface, and a little over a hundred years after the invention of the airplane, a yet-unknown crew will have set foot on Martian soil, effectively colonizing the planet in the name of mankind.

This is very exciting for a lot of reasons. For one, it would be the most ambitious project humanity has ever worked on. Secondly, it would give us a foothold into another neighborhood turning the planet into a sort of gas station that would help us hop onto other worlds. Eventually- I mean far into the future- I’m sure humanity will be able to colonize all the other planets, providing us with immeasurable information about our little galactic corner. Thirdly, the moment the first human sets foot on Mars, we will know for sure that we are not grounded to this world forever; that day we will know that there is always a horizon to cross. But the main reason why all of this is exciting, is that perhaps humanity will come together for some other purpose than destroying ourselves and the only home we have ever known.

But that’s not the only thing that’s been going on lately.

Over the next few years another very ambitious, although much less dangerous, project will poise to tackle another one of those scientific conundrums that at some point even scientists thought would be impossible to accomplish. I guess we still haven’t learned not to use that word anymore- impossible.

With a “little” tool called the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, researchers at M.I.T. will be taking high resolution images of the black hole that lives right at the heart of our very own Milky Way galaxy. And if you know just how much of a diva our black hole is (that sounded weird) then you might guess just how hard it is to paparazzi a pic of it.

In this groundbreaking project  all the major super-telescopes around the world- and outside of it- will work in tandem in unprecedented collaboration to basically turn them into a giant mirror the size of Earth. Working as one, the new “it” will be programmed to snap a series of composite pictures of unrivaled quality (even by the Hubble Telescope) that, if it works as it is supposed to, will finally prove the existence of black holes by taking the very first picture ever of the one that resides near Sagittarius A.

Super-massive black hole (SMBH) swallowing nearby star. photo credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via photopin cc

Super-massive black hole (SMBH) swallowing nearby star.
photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center via photopin cc

How is it that we know where black holes are, if their namesake says it all? Up until now, the famous black holes we hear so much about have only existed on scientific papers and in computer simulations, even though there is very strong evidence that supports the idea that such phenomena actually exists in the universe. Scientists and researchers have been able to find where these black holes exist by measuring the loops and velocity of the stars that surround them (and the ones being gobbled up by them) with great success although lacking in actual visual technology. By using an array of existing equipment and powerful infrared and radio telescopes, these astronomers have spotted where most major super-massive black holes, or SMBH, are.

But why haven’t we done this before- you may ask? As I said before, black holes by definition are exactly that- super-massive vacuums that range in size, from several million solar masses to several billion (meaning the weight of several billions of our suns); however, they are totally and completely black. That’s because their gravity is so powerful that any information they eat, cannot escape, and that includes light- so far as we know. Hawking Radiation, named after astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, does a good job at explaining what goes on in the life of a black hole. By using light refraction and other methods, scientists have a pretty good idea of the size of these monsters and where they reside. And it just so happens that with some very advanced math (more advanced than your run-of-the-mill high school physics), they know just where to look. Up until now, the only impediment we ran across was that we didn’t have a sophisticated-enough camera to take that picture. Well, that is just about to change. And if it works, not only would they prove a theory that many thought could never be proven, but we, as humanity, would be taking a huge step forward in science, and THAT my friends is worth talking about.

Now if for some reason you think this is bullshit science or you believe that it cannot be possible, when you consider the amount of resources and thinking that go into making this possible, your head would spin faster than a neutron star (for this specific science reference check this out).

Just think about this, from our planet to where astronomers believe this SMBH is located- at the center of the Milky Way in the cluster of stars that is known as Sagittarius A– is a distance of 26 THOUSAND light-years. That means that going at the speed of light, it would take you 26 thousand years to reach it. That translates to a measurable distance of 141,087,012,989,961,860 miles. quatrillion is it? Not sure, but that’s a lot of numbers. Anyways, even with the most star wars-y ship ever constructed, there is nothing we could build that can go at the speed of light and thus, nearly impossible that we’ll ever see one up close. Then again, impossible is not something that applies anymore.

As for a wormhole that could bring us close to the black hole- impossible, they are purely theoretical, despite what the movie Interstellar might suggest. And besides, who the hell other than Matthew McConaughey- and maybe Han Solo- would want to get close to an object that swallows you forever? Okay I would actually want to see one…but still! Even though the math does have some evidence that wormholes could exist, they are not nearly as observable as black holes, and that is saying A LOT.

And then there’s the telescope itself. The technology involved in the project is state-of-the-art, and it even makes the Hubble Telescope look like a disposable camera next to a Canon EOS. Not to mention the painfully exacting level of coordination that it requires to coordinate most of the world’s major telescopes. The most precise atomic clock ever constructed was tailor-built specifically for this project in order to get all these major telescopes to work together in tandem.

So imagine being able to peer through the lens of a very, very, very expensive camera that is able to take a few pictures of something we cannot see, at a distance that is inconceivable. Not an easy thing to do. And that is why it is impressive.

 

The Push for Knowledge

 

It is the hunger for knowledge that drives humans to forgo the quickly-aging concept of conflict and war in order to discover the secrets the universe has in store for us. In a more adult way, we are like children being distracted at playing Indians and cowboys by the fireworks.

Right now, the world is currently experiencing the most peaceful era yet since we evolved into our current form of existence. I know what you’re thinking, “Are you fucking nuts?” Yes I agree with you, just when the world seems to be at its most fucked up, how can anyone say that nations are at their most polite behavior with each other? That says a lot about our nature. But if you step away from a minute from the constraint of time and become omnipotent- not sure how you could achieve that, but if you manage it let me know- then you would see that most of the wars that have been fought throughout history have been wars of ideologies and greed and not exactly for the acquisition of resources. I’m no one to argue with an historian, but I will venture my personal opinion and say that from my own look at history, it seems that until very recently, we’re talking merely a few dozen years, wars have been fought for the acquisition of resources. Even if it might appear that kingdoms and governments went to war for the natural resources of other nations (England and France are experts at this), with a little research what we start to realize is that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, conflicts due to ideologies are quickly becoming the thing of the past. Now this is actually a bad thing, for it means that the types of conflicts we are engaging in now are becoming increasingly about resources and less about “you don’t think what I think so therefore I must kill you.” Even at its most depleted, the world had healed enough that every nation- or nearly every nation- had enjoyed a higher level of natural comfort that urbanization has now taken away. So what we are left with is to investigate other reasons for why conflicts happen other than to take the same stuff that the people we are conquering already have.

Ideas. Mankind has fought and died for them, only because we had nothing to fall back on. In the good old days when you could make a claim about pretty much anything and if you made it sound convincing enough turned out to be “true”, nobody had the burden of proof. This created a huge problem because what the majority said, was law. This is a momentum that was violently halted several times by those in power who had different ideas about how the world was and about the questions and answers that a sixth grader could easily answer today. What we were left with were endless conflicts and violent suppressions of knowledge precisely because we knew nothing.

Since reason made its leap, humanity has slowly realized that the need for war is an obsolete human concept, a bad habit that is hard to get rid of. More and more people are banding together to cash in from the accomplishments of earlier men and women who dared to ask how and why. And their curiosity is justified. Scientific projects like the I.S.S. (International Space Station), the thousands of research efforts to eradicate disease, those others aimed to create more sustainable ways to keep the planet producing fuel and food for us while at the same trying to keep from destroying it, are only possible because more and more humans know now that together we make bigger and more significant leaps than the small steps we all take alone. How could any one country hope to do this all by itself? It would be nearly impossible, it takes a whole world to make it happen.

It is true that wars of ideologies still exist, you see them all the time on the news. But so do the wars for control of natural resources, and it is unfortunate that in this day and age, more and more battles are being fought to claim the resources of other nations. This only means that we should be doing a better job at keeping the planet healthy and alive. But it also means that there is still time and that opportunities should not be squandered fighting for them, but working actively and proactively to share them. It is illogical to use the resources you are fighting for, to make war to destroy another nation for those same resources. In this endless cycle of destruction, these resources like oil and natural gas and coal pollute not only the planet itself, but our future. And while the water-wars are claiming more lives every day, on the other side of the world, we couldn’t be happier about getting our new swimming pools installed. This is not a criticism for either party, for we should all be able to enjoy a drink of water as well as a morning swim, but it is a harsh criticism at the inability for all of us to help each other.

Meanwhile, there are idiots still fighting 14th century wars. And as the guns and bullets (objects shaped and created and dominated by scientific principles used for nefarious purposes) fly all about, those who fire them are still stuck in the notion that they know everything there is to know without any proof whatsoever. While the rest of the world is already several steps ahead of the curve, these miscreants are still killing each other over what a curve is. Now this wouldn’t be so bad if these children didn’t drag the adults behind. By this, I’m not saying that the rest of humanity doesn’t have a responsibility to stop this type of behavior, or that we should be content with the ignorant killing each other, but simply that some ideas warrant more attention than others. In my personal opinion if I have the choice to stop two idiots from killing each other over what the color red means, or to be able to peer into the depths of space with a telescope, admittedly 99 times out of 10 (you read that right) I would choose the latter. Of course if I can get the idiots to stop fighting by letting them peer into the universe themselves, then even better. But realistically it can’t be done simply because of the adamant ingrained hatred these idiots have for knowledge. What we come away with is a deep sense of sorrow that the rest of us can, quite literally, see the stars that dot the night sky, while others merely imagine that they’re there.

But do we have the resources to make the proverbial blind see? The answer is an easy ‘yes’. I would assume that if the transcendental works of Plato, or Newton, or Curie, or Einstein, or Hubble, or Hawking could bring us nearly infinite sources of energy like nuclear power, or things like rockets that shuttle us to structures of unimaginable size that house people that live outside of our planet, or devices that allow us to see trillions upon trillions of miles into the heart of the cosmos- then we certainly have the power and ability to get everyone on Earth involved in the future that all these people imagined for us.

 

What Does Science Do For Us? 

 

Science dominates our wor…err… our universe rather. It is is not a concept that can be divorced from our physical reality because it itself is our physical reality. Science is not just one thing that we can choose to ignore if we don’t like one, or all elements of it, it is an explanation for how things work, for how they are, for why the are. Science is both the interpretation of the order of things and the order of things themselves. But what is most beautiful about it is that we don’t have to rely on the interpretation of anyone else to know it is there, we can see it for ourselves if we are willing to look.

Everyday, the various fields of science create, destroy, discover, unearth, build things that only the crazy minds of all those science-fiction writers have thought of. In essence, science as a whole is a discipline of creativity.

A friend and I were talking about astronomy the other day and she explained to me how she is in love with math. I told her that I love that math exists (and how could it not), but that I cannot understand it even though I have such a passion for it as an amateur observer. As our conversation went along, she said that sometimes to think about math is to think outside the box, and I corrected by telling her that from what I’ve seen, especially in all those Wikipedia articles- probably the easiest way to read advanced math for me- is that all the math that has been discovered by all of those men and women who have dared to go into the crazy that crazy and abstract territory, have formulated these theories outside the box. There’s no other way really. Math in essence is a gift for those who are crazy enough to be that creative, and a curse to all of those who simply understand it. Math being the framework of all things scientific, is rebellious in that more rules exist outside of it than within it, we just haven’t discovered them all yet.

But from a practical standpoint, science has given humanity everything we see around us. Everything from your shitty old cellphone to your shitty new cellphone. Just think about the world that we are living in today and you will realize that all the stuff you see is the product of scientific discovery. From the pavement we walk on, to the very shoes we wear, to the cars we drive and yes, even the pollution that they cause.

problem solving concept

I know what you’re thinking- … okay I don’t know what you’re thinking but I can guess. Yes science can and has been used for nefarious purposes, in fact science is always being used for nefarious purposes. Guns, poisons, missiles, explosives, nukes! All of these inventions cause pain and suffering every single day. So why trust something that creates morally reprehensible objects of death! Valid question. Nuclear power, for example, has brought much calamity to humanity since its discovery. During World War II- a time when most of mankind’s greatest discoveries went to cheapen humanity’s ingenuity by being applied to things to kill other humans- two whole cities were obliterated and literally leveled due to man’s appetite for destruction. Over time, thousands of lives have been extinguished both in intentional and unintentional incidents involving nuclear power, some of them very recent. It is a bit depressing, after all, to know that the first thing created after the discovery of nuclear power was specifically invented to incinerate the bodies of living people, and whether or not you believe that dropping those bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved more lives than they took, we will never know. What we do know is the unprecedented destruction that they caused, not to mention the millions of lives (Men, women, children, the elderly, and animals) that they took as the terrifying mushroom clouds towered up into the Japanese skies. And then there’s the peace-time accidents such as those in Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the most recent in Fukushima. But if we look at things objectively- hard to do when you’re talking about human lives, or any lives actually- since their invention, guns alone have killed many times more people than all the nuclear accidents combined. And just like any other invention, guns too hold a special place in the Wall of Shame of human inventions. In this case, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that nuclear power has been grossly misused, when it could be used, as it has been, for peaceful purposes, creating cheap energy that is virtually limitless.

Yes, science can be scary and deadly, but it is also a thing of beauty. And without going too much into philosophical or religious themes, I can also say that contrary to what many people believe, science does offer a moral framework that we need not look anywhere else for, and it lies in the peaks and valleys of human comfort (to borrow from Sam Harris‘ “The Moral Landscape”). By how we behave with ourselves and others, we can infer as to the type of people we are and the type of humans we hope to be. By learning more about the world and about the universe and about humans and how we relate to everything and to each other it is possible to have a good moral standing when it comes to knowing what to do with the power at hand. In effect, science can bring us together, as it has before.

 

The Humans of Today

 

And then we have the scientists who actually push the envelope to educate and inform the people about what science is, how it works, and why it’s useful. People like the astrophysicsts Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye “the science guy”, and the team of the Orion project, and the White Coats who work in labs and hospitals all over the world, and those honest ones who wish to advance this knowledge, all of them, a few among many, who wish to change the environment of ignorance that still to this day plagues our schoolrooms. With their own knowledge, they wish to entice people to learn about science and to be curious about it.

And behind them there are students, artists, bloggers, reporters, and amateur scientists, or simply the ranks of the curious, always pushing for new discoveries and always standing by when called upon for help. These people are the modern humans of today who see a benefit to all this. Those are the humans that our early ancestors considered gods as they wondered what was in the plants and in the waters and in the stars as they gazed up at the firmament.

science

The humans of today, well most of them at least, understand the importance of scientific discovery. And one of the beautiful things about science in general is that we can all be players to a game for which its rules we all understand and one where we all stand to benefit in some way. Which is why we are spending more and more money on scientific research worldwide- granted, not as much as we should be spending, but still a lot.

But as we acquire a deeper understanding of those mysterious and hidden things, it would serve us well to exercise a measure of control in the way we use that knowledge. Unless we want to see the next invention disappear an entire country into a plume of dust a la Angels and Demons, we need to be morally responsible for how we use science and be held responsible for when we misuse it. It’s bound to happen again, hopefully our discoveries will not end the planet as we have threatened to do in years past.

 

WHY SCIENCE?

 

Why not? Nothing else is- or has, for that matter- advanced knowledge the way science has in all of human history. Let’s go back a couple of million years when our primate cousins were starting to get down from the trees and were experimenting walking upright. The thing we now know as science was pushing these creatures to discover new “heights”. Now let’s move forward a few thousand years. Sometime in our early past, a person discovered how to make fire, how to carve a wheel out of stone, how to wield iron; all of these examples of our early ingenuity are examples of the early science of mankind. And although we don’t know the names (if they even had names) of these early humans, their discoveries remain with us to this day. That’s pretty impressive for someone who still fought sabretooth tigers!

So as we enjoyed watching the meteor shower that just happened a few days ago, or the bright objects in the firmament some of which are planets, other stars, and yet others objects made by the hands of men and women, we can be certain that scientific inquiry will not only find ways to explain the seemingly unexplained but can also create seemingly impossible things to create in a universe where the “impossible” is just another frontier waiting to be crossed.

 

 

A beautiful nebula (irregular galaxy, NGC 4449) over the Earth

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For more information about the Orion spacecraft and other space articles, check out these interesting pages:

http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/5/7338839/the-first-test-flight-of-nasas-new-orion-spacecraft

http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/8/7353221/us-navy-rescued-orion-from-ocean-nasa

http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/files/OrionMARAugust2013.pdf

http://news.yahoo.com/russian-scientist-spies-mountain-sized-asteroid-heading-way-170022867.html

And if you wish to know more about science in general check out these websites:

http://www.livescience.com

http://www.nasa.gov.

http://www.howstuffworks.com

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Oh and by the way, if you wish to see a really intersting movie about one of humanity’s brightest living minds, you should check out “The Theory of Everything” about astrophysicist Stephen Hawkins’ life. It will not disappoint you.