Saturday, September 01, 2007

Thursday, July 05, 2007


A couple of weeks ago, a nearby Massachusetts school district decided to cut off all their high school sports programs, as well as their elementary and middle school art and music classes, because of lack of funding. Parents voted against higher taxes, and so the district did what they apparently had to do.

Meanwhile, the high school across the street from my house is rebuilding a new high school, on the same lot, to replace their current building, which they’ll tear down as soon as this one is done. Funny thing is, the current building was built just 35 years ago to replace an older building, which was where the new one will be now.

This newest building will take two and a half years and will cost about $150 million. The stated reasons for replacement, according to today’s paper: inadequate science labs, poor air circulation, and a lack of natural light. Since they could have just built a new wing of science labs, the last two reasons are apparently the real point. Translation: spoiled teenagers are tired of their ugly school, and their rich parents know how to get their own way.

I don’t really like what’s happening in either place, but I don’t suppose I could do much of anything about either one. Sad thing is, I’m mostly just irritated because I don’t like the noise across the street.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Poets Die and Who's to Blame?

One of my housemates told me recently that she had a prof who talked about Dead Poets Society, one of my favorite movies, as a great example of moral ambiguity in film. I was watching it this week, so I read an essay on it in the library and thought I'd raise a question for discussion if anyone's interested. (If you haven't seen the movie, watch it before you read––it's a warm and real portrayal of friendship among guys, and it's kind of inspiring too.)

My question is, should Mr. Keating be viewed as the movie's hero or its villain?

If you need a quick review of the plot, the movie stars Robin Williams as Mr. Keating, an English teacher at a boys' prep school in the 1950's who labors to inspire his students to seize the day, eschewing societal conformity to make their lives extraordinary. In line with this, they organize a club called the Dead Poets Society, whose activities include sneaking out to read poetry together and encouraging each other to "suck the marrow out of life". Personally, I think that "seize the day" would be a tiresome slogan if it didn't reflect such an important truth. The fact is, it's easy to miss out on what we really want because we're too complacent to take a risk or work hard at something.

So Neil, one of the students, decides he wants to be an actor, even though his unyielding father forbids him to do anything that distracts from getting into Harvard so he can get into medical school. Mr. Keating says otherwise: Neil must convince his father to let him pursue his passion for the stage.

Defying his father instead of reasoning with him, Neil performs in the community theatre anyway, after which his father decides to send him to military school. Neil shoots himself that night.


The final act of the movie is the part where blame gets apportioned. The school's headmaster (Mr. Nolan), at the request of Neil's father, conducts a "thorough inquiry" which, not surpisingly, blames Mr. Keating for Neil's death and gets him dismissed from the school. For director Peter Weir, this is a gross injustice, as Mr. Nolan forces Neil's fellow students to sign a statement blaming Mr. Keating. In the film's final scene, several of the students show their gratitude and respect to Mr. Keating though one last defiant, and fairly moving, gesture.

Now, there are four possible culprits for Neil's suicide: Neil himself, Mr. Keating, Neil's father, and Mr. Nolan the headmaster.

The movie addresses each in turn:
  • Neil is portrayed not as guilty but rather as heroic, for killing himself lest his passion for life be stifled.
  • Mr. Keating cannot be guilty because he is the movie's voice of truth; surely seizing the day must be the right thing to do, so the man who embodies that mantra must be exonerated.
  • Neil's father probably comes off as most at fault for the suicide; his treatment of Neil is stifling throughout the movie, and just before the suicide he goes so far as to mock Neil's passion with a deep scorn that is difficult to watch.
  • And finally, Mr. Nolan receives some implicit blame as the representative of an establishment that demands conformity and affirms people like Neil's father; mostly though, we hate him for how he treats Mr. Keating after the suicide.
In all this, the movie tries to declare most emphatically that Mr. Keating is not at fault. And it might succeed, except for a key scene that reveals that Mr. Keating knows Neil is lying to his father. Neil tells him that he has spoken to his father, as Mr. Keating suggested, and that his father has agreed to let him perform in the play. But we don't believe Neil, and neither does Mr. Keating––we can see it in his eyes.

As much as we want Neil to be in the play, I think most grown-ups would agree that it's irresponsible for a teacher to stand aside and let a 17-year-old defy his father like that, especially when Mr. Keating knows Neil tried out for the play largely as a result of his own influence. That doesn't make Mr. Keating the one who shot Neil, but it does make him negligent and irresponsible in using his position as teacher. Neil was a minor, and his father's opinion really did mean more than Mr. Keating's.

So, to return to my question: granting that all four parties bear some guilt, should Mr. Keating be viewed as the hero or the villain of the movie?

More specifically, I'll quote the charges that the two villians of the movie level against him. The first is Cameron, the student who rats out Mr. Keating to the administration. One of the other students asks him who the administration is holding responsible for Neil's death:
Well, Mr. Keating, of course! The "captain" himself! You guys didn't really think he could avoid responsibility, did you? . . . Mr. Keating put us up to all this crap, didn't he? If it wasn't for Mr. Keating, Neil would be cozied up in his room right now, studying his chemistry and dreaming of being called "doctor".
The second quote is from Mr. Nolan, describing to one of the boys the contents of the statement he is expected to sign incriminating Mr. Keating:
I have here a detailed description of what occured at your meetings. It describes how your teacher, Mr. Keating, encouraged you boys to organize this club, and he used it as a source of inspiration for reckless and self-indulgent behavior. It describes how Mr. Keating, from both in and out of the classroom, encouraged Neil Perry to follow his obsession with acting, when he knew all along it was against the explicit orders of Neil's parents. It was Mr. Keating's blatant abuse of his position as teacher that led directly to Neil Perry's death.
So, even though as moviegoers we hate to admit it, aren't they basically right?

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Critical thinking and email forwards

Note: This is a thorough rewriting of an original post that more harshly criticized Christians who forward conservative emails. I regret the tone (sarcastic and condemning) of the original post, because I ultimately just supported the same kind of tribalism I was trying to attack.

I have incorporated some of the insights from the comments that followed the original email (in particular I should acknowledge Brad Brock, “anonymoose,” and Kevin Wells), and as a result some of that original discussion, still included at the end of the post, will appear less coherent.

My hope is that this version of the post will give a clear debunking of the supposed Dobson email and will challenge each of us to think about the ideas we adopt; I also hope that I can accomplish this without belittling anyone or pinning narrow-mindedness on a particular group that I tend to disagree with. --SDH, 12-24-07

I got an email forward this past week that I've received before:
Subject: Dr. Dobson and CBS Response
Will you please take a minute to read this, please? It's
really important to our faith.
_____Dr. Dobson & CBS Response

Apparently we are to be allowed to watch TV
programs that use every foul word in the English
language, but not the word "God" It will only
take a minute to read this and see if you think
you should send it out


CBS discontinued "Touched by an Angel" for using
the word God in every program. Madeline Murray
O'Hare, an atheist, successfully managed to
eliminate the use of Bible reading from public
schools a few years ago.

Now her organization has been granted a federal
hearing on the same subject by the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) Washington , DC

Their petition, Number 2493, would ultimately pave
the way to stop the reading of the gospel, our Lord
and Savior, on the airwaves of America

They got 287,000 signatures to back their stand!
If this attempt is successful, all Sunday worship
services being broadcast on the radio or by
television will be stopped. This group is also
campaigning to remove all Christmas programs and
Christmas carols from public schools!

You as a Christian can help!

We are praying for at least 1 million signatures. This would
defeat their effort and show that there are many Christians
alive, well and concerned about our country. As Christians
we must unite on this. Please don't take this lightly.

We ignored this lady once and lost prayer in our
school and in offices across the nation

Please stand up for your religious freedom and let
your voice be heard. Together we can make a
difference in our country while creating a way for
the lost to know the Lord.

Please press "forward", and forward this to
everyone that you think should read this.
Now, please sign your name at the bottom ( you
can only add your name after you have pressed the

Don't delete any other names, just go to the next
number and type your name and state. Please defeat this
organization and keep the right of our freedom of religion.

REMEMBER: Our country was founded on freedom of religion
and our Constitution is based on the 10 Commandments.

Agree or Delete: Instructions to sign are at the bottom.



2,236 people had typed their name into this particular email.

For anyone who doesn't know, this petition is a hoax. In fact, almost every single thing in it is either fabrication or gross misrepresentation.

To begin with, an internet petition is basically useless, because there's nothing stopping someone from either (1) making up names (since you can't check the handwriting) or (2) changing the subject of the petition once everyone's name is on it. Even assuming an email petition could work, this particular email is basically incoherent. It is written in sloppy prose with numerous mistakes (that James Dobson supposedly penned!), and on the whole it doesn't make logical sense.

Here are a few of the problems.

1. Madalyn Murray O'Hair's first and last names are both misspelled in the email.

2. Touched by an Angel ran (according to from 1994 until 2003, which is actually a long run for a tv show. It doesn't take a conspiracy to get a show cancelled after nine seasons.

3. The email is riddled with grammatical errors, such as the missing period after "God" in the first paragraph.

4. O'Hair apparently did succeed in eliminating Bible reading from public schools in 1963; but calling that just “a few years ago” suggests that this was written up a long time ago.

5. One sentence reads, “Their petition . . . would ultimately pave
the way to stop the reading of the gospel, our Lord and Savior, on the airwaves of America”. So grammatically, in that sentence, “the gospel” is "our Lord and Savior"?

Then, right before the list of names, it says, "PETITION TO REINSTATE PRAYER IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS:".

Wuh?! The email starts out saying it's in direct response to the petition to the FCC to ban religious programming on public airwaves. Prayer in public school may be a related topic, but it has nothing to do with the FCC. The body of the email discusses one topic, but then someone seems to have just tacked on a petition for a different topic at the bottom.

Fact checking and the internet

Despite all this, it’s easy to see why people would read the email and assume it was legitimate; most people accept what they hear from people they tend to agree with. (More on this below.)

But, if someone were suspicious, how could they go about checking whether it was true or not?

At this point we're in luck, because the one part of the email that is accurate is the fcc case number in question. When I first receive this email, I went to and typed "2493" into the search box there. If you do that, the first result is a link, titled Religious Broadcast Rumor Denied, that explains the hoax. There also are other ways to research the claim:

  • If you google "Madalyn Murray O'Hair fcc" (without quotes), the second link explains the hoax.

  • If you go to Madalyn Murray O'Hair's wikipedia page, the bottom of the entry explains the hoax.

  • If you google "Madeline Murray O'Hare" (the incorrect spelling found in the email), the top five links all explain the hoax.

  • (the urban legends site) has a page on this hoax, which you can find by typing "O'Hair" into their search box.

If you made it to the FCC explanation page (or to an older page with more information at this link), you would find that two guys named Lansman and Milam filed a petition in 1974 to prevent sectarian groups from using a couple of public access stations (which no one watches anyway), and the FCC turned them down in 1975. Turns out their request was unconstituational.

But what you really ought to know is that the FCC, since that time, has received millions of phone calls, form letters, and (more recently) emails from Christians opposing this supposed conspiracy. That means people were typing up chain letters, sticking 10-cent stamps on them, and dropping them in the mail to the FCC before I was born. That's 33 years of Christians mobilizing in response to a form letter written by a crackpot.

What does it mean?

I think I’ve demonstrated that it’s not difficult for someone to check up on this kind of forward if they have questions about it.

That means that most people who forwarded this email must have assumed it was trustworthy enough that they had no need to check its facts. Moreover, it suggests that when we are presented with a position that we already agree with, we tend to accept uncritically what we’re told; in these kinds of cases we often don’t bother checking up on the facts.

I'm sure there have also been thousands of Christians who have seen this email, assumed it was a hoax, and deleted it. However, there’s good reason to think that those people (along with myself) hear lots of other ideas about religion or politics, in the course of our lives, that we accept uncritically. Personally, I disagree with the viewpoint of this email, and never would have forwarded it, so I can’t claim any real virtue for having tried to debunk it.

What seems to be the case is that many, many people (in this case Christians) will agree to just about anything, as long as they think it's supported by people they generally agree with. As long as something is an ostensibly (conservative) “Christian” cause, all you have to do is show people where to sign.

My first thought was that this makes Christians look bad, which I'm sure it does.

But on further reflection, the potential consequences are a lot more serious, especially considering that Christian America often directs its efforts toward wielding real political power rather than passing around ineffective petitions. My question, then, is this: In what other areas are Christians liable to join a cause without considering its real implications? Some suggestions:

Evolution: Do most Christians really know anything beyond the basics of evolution (or creationism, for that matter) when they vote for new textbooks?

Abortion: Do most Christians know which groups of people have abortions and why?

Homosexuality: When the question comes up concerning whether gay couples should be allowed to adopt children, do most Christians actually know anything about gay couples, or do they just assume they're all twisted child-molestors who don't deserve such a right?

War: If our president sounds Christian (like the fcc email sounds Christian), how many Christians will just assume that he's supporting a “Christian” cause and go along with it?

I know people can make arguments in favor of the supposed “Christian” stances on all these points. Furthermore, the questions can be flipped around. As someone who grew up in Texas but lives in the Northeast, I have often witnessed blue state folks dismissing the views of conservative Christians as if they are not only wrong but absurd. It’s easy to find, among supposed proponents of free thought, examples of the same kinds of suspicion and disrespect we see reflected in the email forward I’m addressing.

Is it any wonder that our political language is so divisive and that we rely on political might (i.e. getting a majority of the vote) to change policy rather than focusing our efforts on persuading people who disagree with us? I don’t want to trust people to make policy decisions if they support pretty much any initiative that sounds like something they agree with. And yet this seems to be how people work.

God help us.