Thursday, December 3, 2009

Redefining Justice

This past Monday, 89-year old John Demjanjuk began a trial in Munich on the accusation that he helped force 27,900 Jews to death during the Holocaust. This is his second trial as an accused Nazi. The first, in 1988, in which he was convicted and sentenced to death, was overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1993 after concluding it was a case of mistaken identity. This case arrives at the end of a long, global manhunt, spanning over 70 years, of finding those guilty of terrible Nazi war crimes and holding them to account.

The problem is, this seemingly justifiable and avenging act is sending us the wrong message about justice.

We're taught at an early age that vengeance is the wrong kind of justice. While an effective way to keep playground brawls at a minimum, this phrase doesn't capture just how wrong it is. At the heart of vengeance is something much more repulsive—a blind, emotional, selfish motivation that has utter disrespect not only for themselves as the victim, but for society around them.

Here in London, I work with a Member of Parliament (MP) who serves a constituency with a myriad of social problems, such as high teenage pregnancy, broken families, and everything else in between. I visited the constituency recently and heard from a mother a shocking story. For as long as she could remember there was a young boy who walked by her house, who looked “sullen and dangerous”. She learned that he was from a broken family right across the street that didn't care for him “in the slightest”. Ten years went by, and one day her neighbor's 15-year old son was murdered in his own home—by this same sullen and dangerous boy.

Like John Demjanjuk, the boy will receive scathing media coverage and negative public response decrying him as a monster to society—all before he is convicted, of course—and then sent to prison. The state's job is then done; they've done all they can in their effort to bring boys like him to justice and avenge the life of the innocent victim. These two cases relate because both approaches society takes to resolve their crimes does not take into account the larger picture. When we talk about the Holocaust, why don't we talk about the British, French, and even American governments, who not only knew about concentration camps and Hitler's “Final Solution” plans, but in some cases praised him for it? When we talk about the boy murderer, why are we ignoring the fact his parents didn't raise him properly, or that the UK government spends more money on prosecuting and imprisoning than education or social support?

People may say “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Little do they know just how blind it makes us to the disrespect and injustice that this mentality fosters. It is beyond disrespectful, to the victims of any serious crime, to treat the wrongdoers with an approach that does nothing to prevent that situation from happening again—to you, me, or anyone else. Vengeance is a reaction to an individual, not a prevention for the future. To take revenge, then, is despicably selfish, considering the mentality doesn't care if it happens again somewhere else—as long as “they get what they deserve”.

In contrast, proactive justice makes more sense in preventing injustice. In Germany, it is mandatory for all students to visit the concentration camps and learn of their grandparents' mistakes (I visited recently, and fell in awe of just how aware Germans were to their history). In my MP's constituency, schools and social centers are implementing what they label as Early Intervention measures, which targets children 0-6 in the effort to provide them the support and stability needed to prevent them from falling into a socially instable situation. Seventy years after the Holocaust, Germany is internationally renowned for tolerance and openness to immigrants and diversity; barely a decade after my MP's Early Intervention programs have started, crime is on the decline and education on the rise.

In Germany, Britain, and at LMU, it's up to us—society—to redefine what justice is. If that seems like too big a task, yes it is: because it's how we interpret cases like John Demjanjuk and the boy from Britain that determines how our society sees justice. The more we react selfishly, the more vengeful and blind we will be, and injustice will go about business as usual. The more we take steps to stop injustice where it begins, the more effective we will be in keeping society safe—because, with both our eyes intact, we can see just how connected and interdependent we all are.

Education of the Whole Palin

Nearly a year after President Obama was voted into office, Sarah Palin has returned. I've never been more thankful to be as far away as possible from the US, where I'm sure there is a media maelstrom of cheesy interviews and winking every five seconds at Barbara Walters. But then I realize how much my revulsion is rooted in a deeper fear I have for the US—that “going rogue” will drive us insane.

There are a great deal of Americans who belong to a re-surging minority of populism—a narrow, twofold worldview in which one, that America at home should glorify the Average Joe-Six-Packs and “ordinary people”; and two, that America abroad is the sole shining light of the world, always right and always just, incapable of doing any wrong.

If that sounds like Sarah Palin, you're catching my drift. For whatever reason John McCain picked Palin, she came on the scene when the time was ripe for a politician like her. The populists were down and out for the count this time last year. Bush and the Republican Party had become swear words, a liberal President was about to be elected on a mandate of change, and the economic crisis had questioned a core virtue of populism, capitalism. The populists trembled. Eight years under Bush had made them too comfortable; they weren't prepared to live in a country that was going to put aside the “Average Joe” for the real average American—the average American who couldn't afford a suburb and have a stay-at-home mom take the kids to soccer practice.

So when Palin received the VP nod, the populists rejoiced—and mobilized. A year later, the Rush Limbaughs and the Glenn Becks have stoked the fires of populism that Palin ignited. President Obama has made it ambitiously clear that he wants to start a national dialogue to reform the most broken parts of our society, like immigration, homelessness, and poverty. Hopefully he knows what he's wading into, because those are the issues the populists will feed on. People like Palin are enraged by such initiatives because in their worldview, they, being the “hardworking backbone” and “heartland” of America, see themselves as deserving the most attention from the government.

Why care about populism? First, it just doesn't add up. America and white picket fences are yeah, great, but we're far from perfect. Why see America as the shining light of the world, when we have people starving on our streets and have over two million people living homeless every night? The essence of populism involves refusing to acknowledge the harder facts of life when you yourself have it good. I've yet to hear a good argument saying this attitude makes our society the best in the world.

Which is why my next point will really make you cringe: being LMU students, we have an obligation to fight against populism and not ignore it. Populism exists because people don't want to step outside their comfort zone, and populism gains momentum when we think it's a harmless thing. The great thing about our education here is that, done right, it challenges the foundations of how we see and interact with the world. This University's greatest asset is its ability to make us thrive outside of our comfort zones. So it makes sense to say that with our $200,000 education of the whole person, we have a personal obligation to, in whatever our futures, challenge others and open their minds.

Let me be clear and say that we are not evangelists. Like fighting fire with fire, we cannot fight populism with another ideology or belief, because it only makes those who are populist narrow their worldviews even more. No; our weapon is that beautiful LMU mission: education. Open-mindedness. Encouragement of people to go outside their comfort zones to try and understand the complexity of the world. Populism is defeated when we use stories and personal experiences to show that life can be led in a different way.

Which is why populism is so easy to believe in: the world is full of perspectives and overwhelming complexity, and it's so much easier to stay behind the white picket fence and live life with one pair of eyes. But that is why the LMU graduate is as far away from populism as possible: they're afraid of understanding that complexity. We're not.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Putting Intolerance on the Refrigerator

I adore LMU, but I admit I wasn't impressed—or surprised—to watch the racism incident unfold this past month. I say that I'm not surprised because there are issues on our campus that, like it or not, are eating us and our identity as a university away bit by bit.

First and foremost, this issue isn't isolated or even unique. As an Resident Advisor last year, I came across over twenty instances of intolerance to every minority community on campus. Each time I documented them I shook my head with my co-RAs and wondered how in our day and age this could keep happening.

This past February, when I was Editor-in-Chief of Passion Magazine, I organized an event on the Israeli-Palestinian situation to discuss not politics, but perspectives, on the issue. In planning the event, I came across people from both sides who told me I shouldn't hold the event—it would be “too difficult”, or students “wouldn't be interested”. We ended up having more than 70 students St. Patrick's Day (all sober and interested) show up that night for a successful discussion that ran an hour over.

It was then my RA and Passion experience intersected and revealed an unfortunate insight to a deep and looming problem on our campus—we don't like talking about uncomfortable issues. Despite over twenty documented situations of intolerance in my dorm, there was maybe three of four statements put out by the University last year addressing them (and those were documented by me; there are 98 other RAs on campus). Despite myself, the Passion staff, and those 70 students who showed up last February, there were still people who tried to prevent us from having that dialogue. In regards to the recent intolerance incident, as one faculty member said on the Loyolan website, “LMU can do better” about informing the community than just one or two letters a year.

These situations are all part of two ominous realities that exist at LMU. First, we are at a university. To sweep any issue, no matter how uncomfortable, under a rug is to contradict our very existence as an academic institution. The second issue is that of our community. Not only are we a university, we are a Jesuit university. More than any other organization in the world's history, the Jesuits have emphasized education, open-mindedness, and community. How do we ignite others to justice and peace if we are too afraid to talk about issues that concern the very well-being of our community and development as human beings?

In the movie “Milk”, about the San Franciscan politician Harvey Milk who is murdered for his successful gay community activism, he in one scene receives a vulgar and demeaning death threat in the mail. When his friend attempts to throw it away, Milk takes it and puts it on the refrigerator. As his friend looks at him in fear, Milk says calmly, “You don't get it. If you put it away, hide it in a drawer, it'll just get bigger and scarier. Now it's there. We'll see it every day. It can't get us.”

The students who marched in black on Tuesday get it. The 70 students who showed up last St. Patrick's day get it. The ones who don't get it are those who think that we students don't want to have the “tough” conversations. They are forgetting we're the reason why this University exists in the first place. Even more, they are doubting our potential as agents of change—a potential that I hope to dear God they believe in, considering I and 5,000 other students are paying $200,000 for this University to help develop it.

Monday, October 26, 2009

LMU's Nobel Problem

Kudos for you reading another commentary on President Obama's Nobel win. The one thing I'm not missing as I study abroad here in London is the fight over whether or not Obama deserved the MVP award for world leaders. To be fair London media is even nastier than ours—think about what would happen if the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks wrote for The National Enquirer—but at least the British don't bring semi-automatic rifles to rallies waving badly photoshopped Obama signs with Hitlerstaches.

That aside, I'm noticing that in all the noise the left and the right are making, no one's talking how the Nobel affects Obama and his next three to seven years. What I mean by that is what Obama represents: change we want to believe in. Obama campaigned as the leader who would bring not just the US but the world into a new era of diplomacy and peacemaking. So far, so good—his handling of Iran, the international economic crisis, and renewed talks for nuclear disarmament all prove he's got what it takes.

The problem with the Nobel isn't about the lack of things he's done though. Saying that he'll rest on his laurels is closer, but still off the mark. The Nobel isn't making Obama too comfortable—it's make us too uncomfortable. Specifically, our generation—the generation that was instrumental in helping Obama win in the first place.

A year ago on this campus seven Nobel winners came for a four-day event. I was there, watching Jody Williams roar to the crowd that she didn't win it by sitting on the sidelines. I was there, watching Desmond Tutu share his story of defeating apartheid despite being imprisoned, beaten, and having to watch people die and suffer. I was there when our entire campus watched spellbound as seven peacemakers told us that if we wanted peace, we not only had to work for it, but fight for it, with all our hearts and passions.

Compare what these people did with what Obama has done.

Then, make the connection. These winners didn't have anybody rooting for them when they started, so their drive for peace was long, arduous, and difficult. But it made them and their cause stronger, to a point that really did change the world.

The fact they had no expectations, in effect, made them better peacemakers. So what happens when all the world's expectations are lumped onto a man who never went through what Jody Williams and Desmond Tutu went through—a man that also happens to be the most powerful leader in the world?

Going back to LMU, the fact that we are all-in on the President's potential is not healthy for us either. We are now linked to his potential success or failure. Obama not meeting our expectations will not only fail bringing about peace, but it will shatter the hopes of a generation of Americans.

I still have faith in our President, but I was very disappointed when he chose to accept the Prize. It would have been the ultimate symbol of his potential if he said, “Check back with me in ten years”. It would be have a powerful statement to tell the world that he acknowledges change is something we can't believe in until we make it happen. It would have been the best diplomatic move in American history to tell the world that peace isn't that easy.

But by accepting it, he's made his job harder. Because it's no longer a laurel. It's a chain that binds him to our generation, our country, and the world's now-impossible expectations. This isn't healthy for him, for us, or for change.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Information Overload

I don't know about you, but I'm getting really overstimulated by conversation. Everything from the health care debates (is bloodbath too harsh?) to Kanye West flipping out at the VMAs is making my brain nauseous. Yes, nauseous. As in my brain is keeling over from the fact that despite all the information we come across every day, very little of it seems relevant or important. Yet it just keeps coming, whether we like it or not.

This is actually more common of a concern than you'd think. The Information Age has given the world unlimited access and scope to almost every reach of the accumulated knowledge of human history. Information that can now be accessed in a microsecond-Google search took months, even years, to access barely fifty years ago.

But if knowledge is power, and with power comes great responsibility, we are at a crossroads. At this two intersection are two looming questions: Does too much information muddle the human mind, or does it motivate us—in learning lessons from the past and being aware of the future—to better the world? And what happens when, with so much information swirling about, false or twisted information gets injected into the system?

I tend to believe, in regards to the first question, that we are on the right track. There may be people out there that consider their obsession with Bradgelina or purse chihuahuas relevant to their life's meaning, but luckily (er...hopefully) those aren't the people who run companies or countries. As for the people who will be in power someday (us), I can speak from experience and conversations we are using the boon of the Information Age to our advantage. Whether it's the LMU student who learns about unfair wage practice at the LAX Hilton, or the University of San Francisco kids who discover that human trafficking still occurs in the US—we are doing something about it. Never before has humanity's problems been so out in the open; never before have we risen marvelously to the occasion.

But, like my poor nauseous brain can attest to, the fact we have access to so much information does not mean its all true. Yet we seem to think the opposite. A perfect example is the recent financial meltdown, in which situations like subprime mortgages (Wall Street telling Main Street he can buy a million dollar home with a $15k salary) screwed everyone over—yet everyone believed it at first.

But this is human nature. We like believing things that aren't true. I argue that the game has changed, though, and for the better—because there's a fourth party involved. The three other parties—corporations and business, media, and government—used to be the only way we got our information. Now, with email, blogs, and Skype, they have competition from, egad, ordinary people.

Problem is, fat cats don't want to get skinnier. Think of how much more in-your-face the media, businesses and their advertising, and government has gotten in tandem with the Information Age. They've figured out that if they can get our attention first—and with enough punch—they still have the advantage.

Which leads us back to square one: overstimulation, my poor nauseous brainwaves—

And conversation. Processing too much information may at times bog us down and prevent us from thinking clearly (or even wanting to think at all). But the means of overstimulation is also the best defense against it. The contrast is in its content. Like the old saying, “You are what you eat”, we are what we think. Garbage in, garbage out.

Thus the case for conversation—good conversation, that is. For it is in conversation with multiple perspectives, opinions, and thoughts that, in the very clash of these ideas, a product emerges steeled and resolved in its conviction. That is why LMU students are faring so well with the Information Age; we are using conversation to integrate our information into our actions and better ourselves and the world.

And that is why I write: to further encourage this culture of conversation. Join me weekly to explore new perspectives and ideas on everything from politics to pop culture. It is my hope that the more we think, in both our minds and out loud with others, the better equipped we will be to face the promises and the perils of the Information Age.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Easier Than Thinking

I once had a professor who asked me whether I was an optimist or a pessimist. When I answered “both”, he laughed and said that, sooner or later, I would end up becoming one or the other. When I asked him why, he shrugged and said that it was easier for people to take sides in how they viewed the world.

That single phrase—that, sooner or later, we all become one or the other—disturbed me in its simplicity. If I'm too critical, could I really appreciate life? If I'm too optimistic, could I really live life realistically?

Then I asked, why did my professor think that way? Why say with so much certainty that people become one or the other? His explanation gave me the answer: it was easier for people to take sides in how they viewed the world. Easier than what? Thinking?

And that was when it hit me.

Today, there are too many people who tell us what to or how to think. Not only that, but modern culture operates too fast for us to question what these people say. The result is that we literally have no time to think—so we let others do it for us. Not sure who to vote for in an obscure election? Look at how other people are voting in an opinion poll. Don't know what you're hungry for? Wait for the first fast-food commercial.

We may not delegate the production of all our thoughts to others. We may even spend time on thinking through who or what we should trust with our worldviews, such as religions or political ideologies, and then letting them take the wheel. But isn't it ominous when your life is so busy that you have to delegate your thinking to someone or something other than yourself?

It's also a comfort zone issue. In the movie Hotel Rwanda, a cameraman finishes filming a road filled with hundreds of dead bodies during the Rwandan genocide. When a Rwandan tells him he is glad the American people will finally see the truth, the cameraman grimaces, remarking that the most they'll do is shake their head, say “That's terrible”, and then go on with their dinners.

Whether or not it is distance or modernity, as the cameraman alludes to, doesn't affect the point: that those who are better off than others like staying on their hills, because descending those hills means immersing themselves in the more difficult truths of reality. This bottom line leads into what I call a Culture of Absolutism—the resulting way of thinking in which complex issues are simplified for the sake of expediency and easier comprehension. Not only does this degrade the issues themselves, but the willingness on behalf of society to understand these issues for as they are—whether or not they are easy or unpleasant to swallow.

How do we fight this culture of absolutism? Doubt your faith. Rethink your ideology. Descend from your hill and see the world as it is, instead of listening to someone else describe it. Think of how much stronger Thomas was when he doubted Jesus' resurrection. Think of how Galileo transformed the way we see the world when he doubted that the sun revolved around the earth. It is only when we doubt, rethink, and explore the unexplored terrain that we find stronger faith in what we believe and more conviction in our ideas. 

LMU is at an interesting crossroads, in that, while its mission—as both an educational institution and a Jesuit university—implies that on its grounds every issue is open to critical thinking, dialogue, and debate. But we are not immune to the Culture of Absolutism. There are several issues on this campus that have been deemed untouchable or unable to be criticized or debated. The Loyolan, Passion Magazine, and countless students have done an admirable job in the past of addressing these issues, but seeing as they are still prevalent, the entire student body must make an effort to insure that critical thinking is the number one value on a college campus.

If we want to see our world change for the better, we must first start with how we see ourselves and the world. If we are either-or, we are confined to one narrow perspective. If we think critically, and without fear of losing our innermost convictions, we have the powerful opportunity to walk thousands of miles in other people's shoes—and see more of the world's truth and beauty.