Speak to be heard when discussing Palestinian Israeli conflict

On March 21, over 3,000 people applauded after each and every sentence of the “Pro Israel Pro Peace” sentiment delivered at J Street’s 5th national conference in Washington D.C.

The J Street president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, announced that Americans should support a two-state solution because it is good for Israel’s stability, condemn expanding settlements in the West Bank because it is good for Israel’s reputation and think critically of Israel’s government because it is good for Israel’s health.

While I agree that Americans should support two states, condemn expanding settlements and think critically of Israel’s government, I do not think we should do it because we are pro-Israel. I think we should do it because we support the sovereignty of the Palestinian people, because expanding settlements in occupied territory violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and because critical thought is necessary of any government.

I spoke with a lot of people throughout the conference, and many mentioned how hard it is for them to hear “anti-Israel” sentiment. They like J Street because it lets them critique Israel while still feeling “pro-Israel.”

I realized I was not J Street’s intended audience. J Street’s website boasts its “commitment to Jewish and democratic values” and its motto, “Pro Israel Pro Peace.” I am not Jewish, I have never been to Israel and the community I grew up around holds no views towards Palestine or Israel. I wanted to hear stronger language from the speakers, but I recognized that this conference was not catered to people like me.

Shula Ornstein ’16, another conference attendee from Brandeis, grew up with a father who is a rabbi and went to Jewish summer camps from a young age. Ornstein described Israel as being sacred in most contexts in the communities she grew up in, from the time she spent in synagogue to dinner conversations with her family. To her, disagreeing with Israel is disagreeing with her family, friends and religious community, who treat her with nothing but unconditional love.

Ornstein says it is difficult to listen to extreme critique of Israel because it feels like these critiques attack her home, family and value system. She is absolutely right: extreme language can dissuade the very people it attempts to persuade. Ornstein got involved with J Street largely because it uses language accessible to people with similar backgrounds to hers. She can engage in critical discussion without feeling like she is betraying her friends and family by further exploring other viewpoints.

We are all human. We all have topics that espouse irrational defense from us. This is true of both the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine camps. And it takes courage from both sides to discuss such issues. It takes courage from the presenter to soften his language, and it takes courage from the receiver to listen and remain open-minded. It takes true courage from both sides to try to dissect emotion to salvage logic and reason. It takes true courage to reflect. And the fact that J Street’s rhetoric allows Ornstein and others like her to reflect is paramount.

Bassam Aramin, a keynote Palestinian speaker who resides in East Jerusalem, spoke at the opening night of the conference about his life experiences and how they shape his worldview.

Aramin served seven years in prison starting at age 17 for planning an attack on Israeli soldiers. But during his time in prison, he reflected on the dangers of violent protest. In 2005, he founded Combatants for Peace, an organization of former Israeli and Palestinian combatants leading a non-violent protest against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In 2007, Aramin’s ten-year-old daughter was killed by a rubber bullet from an Israeli soldier.

After the two minutes of silence in memory of Aramin’s daughter, I expected him to condemn Israel. I expected him to be fierce, angry and emotional.

Instead, he stepped up to the microphone and spoke with a level voice, keeping his body movements minimal and controlled. He spoke about moving forward. He spoke of loving Israel and the Jewish people like he loves his own family and about how no one deserves the kind of misery he has endured. Aramin did not just say what he felt. He said what would be heard.

It would have been easy for Aramin to demonize Israel for taking his daughter’s life. But he chose to say something that the audience would consider rather than immediately refute.

He chose to say something for which there is no canned response. He did not critique Israel. He critiqued violence. And he was heard.

I spoke with Aramin later in the conference. I asked him if it is difficult to speak to a room of 3,000 people, many of whom support a state responsible for the murder of his ten-year-old daughter. I asked if it is difficult for him to dampen and cater his language for this crowd, even though they often do not do the same for Palestinians.

“I don’t speak to the people who already agree with me,” he responded. “I speak so that the people who don’t will listen.”


Embrace gaming culture

Thirty-two million people tuned in to watch SK Telecom T1 issue the obligatory “good luck have fun” before obliterating Royal Club’s Nexus in the 2013 League of Legends World Championships. More people watched this match of the world famous video game in 2013 than either of the NBA Finals or the MLB World Series of that same year.

Competitive gaming (more commonly known as esports) is becoming incredibly popular, especially among young people. But as esports takes off among students, we have a responsibility to help players the same way we help student athletes.

Many professional gaming teams have mandatory fitness regimens for their players. The Los Angeles division of Team Dignitas mandates that all players go to the gym three times a week. It also hires nutritionists and sports psychologists to maintain health standards, according to a recent post on Western Digital’s tech blog. This should be the norm for school-based and professional gaming teams. But we can do more.

Gamers on school-based teams should have minimum grade point average and class absence requirements to enforce the priority of academics, a limited number of hours of practice per week to help prevent addiction and official school recognition alongside a sanctioned practice space to feel accepted.

Some schools have stepped up. Esports is now a varsity sport at Robert Morris University in Chicago and at the University of Pikeville in Pikeville, Ky. Robert Morris University budgeted $450,000 dollars for 30 annually renewed gaming scholarships, some of which cover half of the price of tuition.

This is an excellent first step, but it is not enough.Many schools resist recognizing esports because they claim it is not popular enough to warrant special attention. But esports is quickly becoming more popular than most sports.

League of Legends is a free-to-play online video game that was released by Riot Games in 2009. As of 2014, it boasts 27 million daily players and 67 million monthly players, making it the most popular PC video game in the world. To put these numbers in perspective, every Call of Duty game combined had 40 million monthly players in 2011, and Candy Crush currently has 46 million monthly users.

Twitch, a live video game streaming site, has more internet traffic than ESPN, Major League Baseball, and the World Wrestling Entertainmen, Inc. combined, according to Qwilt, a videogame delivery and analytics company. The Wall Street Journal reported last February that Twitch was fourth in total US peak traffic, only behind Netflix, Google and Apple. And Fortune reported on Apr. 20 that it anticipates 335 million esports fans by 2017, outstripping the NFL’s 151 million fans.

In July 2013, the United States government officially recognized esports gamers as professional athletes, allowing international players from countries like South Korea, Sweden and Brazil to travel into the United States with athlete visas.

Esports one sweeping the globe. But despite their popularity, many are still skeptical. Critics often claim that gaming leads to addiction and social withdrawal. These are both huge issues.

But gaming is unhealthy because it is unregulated and stigmatized in the United States, not because video games are inherently unhealthy. In South Korea, video games have become a huge part of mainstream culture.

Couples go to video game clubs as frequently as they go to the movies, and fans fill soccer stadiums and beaches to watch live competitions,  according to a New York Times article published on Oct. 19, 2014.

Moreover, gamers in South Korea are not addicted because the South Korean government and schools are able to better regulate gaming. Gaming clubs for people under the age of 18 close at 10 p.m. to prevent people from pulling all-nighters.

Parents will play video games with their children from an early age to teach healthy and balanced practices. Sure, people could still go to their basements and be just as unhealthy, but when gaming is a popular and fun social thing to do, no one wants to.

It is time for the U.S. to step up. We must embrace esports. Without recognition and support, gamers are susceptible to addiction and social isolation. We can easily fix this.

First, we must recognize and accept esports socially as an activity. Without this, gamers do not feel like we accept them the same way we accept basketball players or dancers. We cannot let millions sit ashamed and isolated in dark basements. We must offer gamers an accepted public space, like South Korea’s gaming clubs.

Esports is different from other competitive activities like basketball and chess, but it is not better or worse. It may not train someone to run a marathon, but it builds teamwork and good decision making skills.

Many discussions about esports derail into debates over whether or not it is an actual sport. It does not matter whether or not esports is actually a sport. It does not matter if it engages the mind more than the triceps. All that matters is that way too many people game for us to just ignore them.

It may feel uncomfortable to accept a lifestyle that is so foreign to many of us. But this is the cultural struggle of the digital age. The new culture we must embrace is not in some country whose name we do not know; it is embedded in every country with access to the internet. We use it to scapegoat young people’s attention deficits and academic shortcomings. But young people use it to liberate themselves, allowing for anyone with access to a computer to become world famous.

Esports is not going away anytime soon. We could try to fight it. But to that I say: good luck, have fun.

Stop denying jobs to people with criminal records

Employers must stop discriminating against people with criminal records. According to the National Employment Law Project, 70 million Americans have some sort of criminal record, which is one out of every four American adults. In 36 states, these Americans are required to check a box on written job applications to indicate that they have criminal records. These applicants’ chances of getting a job callback or offer are cut in half, according to the NELP’s report “65 Million ‘Need Not Apply’: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment.” 70 million Americans in 36 states are discriminated against because of a mistake they already paid for.

The “Ban the Box” movement seeks to eradicate the use of this criminal record checkbox to screen applicants before receiving an interview. 14 states have “Banned the Box” for state institutions. Six of those—Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island and New Jersey—have also “Banned the Box” for private institutions, according to the Washington Post.  Each state, however, has different legislation about when employers can inquire about applicants’ criminal records. Some legislate that employers can check anytime after the first written application, others during the interview. Hawaii does not allow employers to check criminal records until after they extend a conditional  offer of employment.

Applicants are often denied jobs for crimes they committed in the distant past or that are unrelated to the job they are applying for. Chicago resident Darrell Langdon struggled with addiction in his youth and was charged with cocaine possession.

Langdon maintained a clean record for over two decades. But when Langdon applied for a job as a boiler room engineer in the Chicago Public Schools, he was denied because of his drug conviction from over 25 years ago. His drug conviction said nothing about the person he was or the experience he had. He was unjustly denied a job opportunity. The Chicago Tribune reported the event. Once Langdon’s case gained enough attention, Chicago Public Schools decided to offer Langdon the job it had formerly denied him. But not everyone is so lucky.

The NELP argues in “65 Million ‘Need Not Apply’: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment” that “major companies as well as smaller employers routinely deny people with criminal records any opportunity to establish their job qualifications.” Some notable companies are Bank of America, Aramark, Lowe’s, Domino’s Pizza, RadioShack and Omni Hotels. The NELP also notes that “imposing a background check that denies any type of employment for people with criminal records is not only unreasonable, but it can also be illegal under civil rights laws.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, gender, national origin and other protected categories. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated, “an absolute bar to employment based on the mere fact that an individual has a conviction record is unlawful under Title VII” in its “Policy Statement on the Issue of Conviction Records” from 1987. Background checks that solely rely on a criminal record are, therefore, in direct violation of Title VII.

We cannot continue to scrutinize one out of every four American adults. Every single person who has served time for a crime has already faced the repercussions of their actions. We label them criminals, convicts and offenders. But they are human. They are capable of reflecting on past mistakes and changing. If they are willing to work, they should be considered for jobs based on their merits. It is better for them. It is better for society. It is better for us. We need to reintegrate our struggling citizens back into society, not cast them out permanently. We need every state to “Ban the Box,” in both public and private institutions.

Unemployment directly increases the likelihood of future crime. The National Institute of Justice noted in 2013 that “[b]eing employed substantially reduced the risk of all recidivism outcomes.” If employment helps formerly incarcerated persons stay out of prison, then we should help formerly incarcerated persons find jobs, not impede their progress.

Maintaining a cycle of unemployment and incarceration hurts the economy. The average prisoner costs $31,286 annually in taxpayer dollars, according to a study in 2012 from the Vera Institute of Justice. The United States has the highest prison population and second highest incarceration rate in the world. We are spending a lot of money to provide for people who could instead be providing for themselves, their families and their communities.

Anyone who committed a crime made a mistake, but not every mistake should determine the life of whoever made it. People with criminal records have already faced the criminal justice system and have already served their punishment.

Even crimes related to the job position should not disqualify candidates from being given an interview. For example, if someone robbed a convenience store and served a full sentence, he should be still able to apply to work as a cashier. Double penalizing in the job market is inhumane and illegal under Title VII. We are all human, and we all make mistakes.

College students, for instance, make mistakes at alarming rates. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found in 2007 that “49% (3.8 million) of full time college students binge drink and/or abuse prescription and illegal drugs.” But we do not hesitate to hire clean record college graduates. Why? Because they worked harder or are more qualified?

Convicted applicants are half as likely to even be given a job interview to demonstrate their qualifications, according to NELP. Both a clean-record college graduate and person with a substance conviction have likely abused substances. The only difference is that we forgive the college student and stigmatize the “criminal.”

We cannot uphold this double standard. We cannot discriminate against those of us unfortunate enough to make a mistake and get caught, while others walk away just as guilty. We must give everyone a second chance, as we give ourselves second chances. We all make mistakes and learn from them. We can reflect, adapt and continue to contribute. But right now we are telling 70 million Americans in 36 states that they “need not apply.”

Restructure the Electoral College to better represent minorities

The Electoral College could be a lot better than it is.

Many, notably Steven Hill in Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner-Take-All Politics, have critiqued it, especially in light of elections where the electoral vote disagreed with the popular vote (which has happened four times: 1824, 1876, 1888 and 2000). And many have suggested getting rid of it all together, but few have suggested a feasible revision to it. I would like to propose a painfully simple but effective revision. But first, let’s examine why its current state is an issue.

Each state has the same amount of electoral votes as they have representatives in Congress, with a minimum amount of three (one House representative and two senators). But each state’s electoral votes are not weighted proportionally with that state’s popular vote. Currently, the entire electoral power of a state is determined by the majority popular vote.

Now, let’s break that down. If California were split 51 percent Democrat and 49 percent Republican, currently all of the electoral vote would go to the Democratic party.

Consider that 49 percent of California can also be thought of as approximately 27 electoral votes. The eight smallest states in the United States (including the District of Columbia) only have 24 electoral votes combined. Suppressing half of California’s vote in a given election is worse than not representing the eight smallest states of the United States.

How does that make sense? We knew enough math after 1000 B.C. to handle fractions better than by rounding up. This majority-rule electoral system guarantees that the minority opinion of each and every state is entirely ignored and unrepresented in the presidential election.

The founding fathers created the Electoral College as a democratic compromise between having votes cast by Congress and a pure popular vote to determine the president, but it also had the well-known side effect of giving more of a say to states with lower populations.

Given that majority-rule systems like the current apportioning of all electoral votes to the majority candidate often suppress the wills of minorities (by definition), this seems pretty reasonable.

The solution to the problem is actually remarkably simple and similar to how English parliamentary governments hold elections. Each state should still have the same amount of electoral votes to ensure more even representation from less populated states. But the proportions of the popular vote should decide the electoral votes for each state.

In other words, if California’s popular vote was 51 percent Democrat and 49 percent Republican, then 51 percent of the electoral vote should go Democrat and 49 percent should go Republican. Yes, this means we have to use fractions. No, they’re not scary.

Now that we have our electoral votes directly represented by the popular vote, there’s no need to actually have any physical people who vote in the Electoral College. That notion, too, is antiquated in this day in age. This can be a purely mathematical calculation. Give each side (of our haphazardly dichotomous party representation) the direct proportion of the popular vote it had in electoral votes. Simple.

Now, a viable counter to this approach is that we lose the impression of a presidential candidate “winning a state.” It would no longer be the case that Democrat X had Massachusetts and that Republican Y had Texas. Some might argue that elections where the difference was in fractions of an electoral vote might slow progress because the losing side would not be willing to submit with such close results.

But if Democrat X didn’t have 100 percent of the vote in Massachusetts anyway, Democrat X never had MA to begin with. Democrat X had 70 percent of MA while Republican Y had 30 percent, and that should be represented in the election.

The obvious implication of this is that it destructs the idea of “swing states.” It would no longer be the case that only eight states (in the case of the 2012 election) are important. Each and every state would now matter, and minorities in each given state would feel more adequately represented. Cheers to Republicans in Massachusetts and Democrats in Texas.

It’s worth noting that shifting the focus away from swing states does not at all imply caring less about small states. In 2012, the combined populations of the eight swing states totaled to 18 percent of the U.S. population. The actual eight smallest states sum up to a mere 1.9 percent. The swing states occupy more population than the average and exponentially more than the actual eight smallest states. Therefore, the swing states did not adequately represent smaller populations before, and removing them would not hurt smaller populations.

The Electoral College was developed in order to help smaller states. This idea of swing states actually hurts smaller states, since many smaller states are not swing states. Implementing electoral votes based on proportion would better represent the minority votes of each given state.

Smaller states actually require less campaigning per electoral vote. For instance, in 2013 Wyoming had about 194,000 popular votes per electoral vote whereas California and Texas both had about 690,000 popular votes per electoral vote. This means that presidential candidates have an even stronger incentive to campaign in small states.

Also, as it turns out, the current winner-takes-all system of distributing electoral votes was not even specified in the constitution; it was decided by states, mostly throughout the 19th century. Over two dozen states enforce laws to ensure that electors stay true to the majority popular vote, with some states like North Carolina fining such dissenting “faithless electors” $10,000. This means that no constitutional amendment is necessary for states to veer away from winner-takes-all mechanics—only well-supported state legislature.

The only two states that do not participate in winner-takes-all are Maine and Nebraska, though Maine has never split its electoral vote, and Nebraska only did for the first time in the 2008 election. And neither has split the vote based on the proportion of the popular vote.

There is no reason to suppress the opinion of the minority, either through a pure majority vote or through a broken Electoral College. The solution isn’t some intangible insoluble theory; it’s simple.

It just involves some fractions and a step away from tradition, one (or both) of which have apparently scared off progress for this long.

Recognize and evaluate hidden dangers of structural racism

This past summer my three-year-old nephew told me, “I don’t want to become any darker, I just want to stay white.” His father is white and his mother is black, so his skin was very light when he was born and has only recently started to get darker.

I love my nephew, but when he said this, I couldn’t help but feel shocked, angry, and sad. I didn’t actually know how to respond. I knew that what he was saying was so horrifyingly wrong, and it was a prime example of racial prejudice.

But I also couldn’t blame him. As a three-year-old, he’s incredibly impressionable and has only really had enough time in the world to absorb the thoughts and ideas of people around him.

That goes to say that he had to have absorbed these ideas from somewhere else.

He lives with his mom and his older sister, both of whom are black and neither of whom would ever promote the superiority of any race over another. He visits my siblings, my parents and me often, all of whom (including myself) are white. But we too would never promote the superiority of any race over another.

If his feelings don’t come from his family, the most influential group of people for any child, then they must come from his general experiences and interactions with society. Yes, I know, this sounds remarkably like the over-attacked and vague “society” that we all seek to salvage, deconstruct or write BuzzFeed quizzes about, but specific examples may help to clarify what I mean.

Let’s start local to my nephew’s life. His favorite TV shows, like Bob the Builder, only have white protagonists. His favorite picture books, often about trucks and trains, only feature white train conductors, mechanics or engineers. His favorite superheroes and their respective action figures, like Superman, Batman, the Flash and Spider-Man, are also all white.

Now, I’m not saying that every TV show star, literary protagonist and superhero is white. But the majority and the most popular ones are, which is incredibly alarming. Some might argue that even if that were all true and my nephew’s fictional role models were all white, it still would not be enough to induce a racial prejudice.

To address that claim, we’ll shift our lens from local to macro.

Last year I did some research on racially color-blind attitudes (i.e. how post-racial we think we are) and how they correlate with discrimination. I published a piece in The Justice that reflected much of this research, but I’ll quickly summarize for clarity.

The popular television channel MTV generated a nationally representative sample of people ages 14 to 24 (millennials) and found that a majority believes that we are post-racial as a society, with 67% believing that Obama being president is proof.

Research conducted by Brandescha M. Tynes, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found a strong correlation between racially color blind attitudes and discrimination on social media by examining participants’ reactions to racially obscene pictures (like white actors wearing “blackface”) on sites like Facebook. In other words, she found that there was a correlation between how post-racial we think we are and how willing we are to discriminate.

If a majority of us believe we are post-racial, and if thinking we are post-racial means we’re more likely to discriminate based on race, then a majority of us discriminate based on race in some capacity. Even still, some might argue that there are exceptions to the rule.

In fact, I’ve heard many argue that we at Brandeis are this exception, because we’re in the liberal Northeast on a liberal college campus or because we go to a “diverse” school (according to fall 2013 enrollment: 5.1% African American, 12.4% Asian, 6.5% Hispanic, 50.0% white, 14% nonresident alien, and 11.0% multi ethnic or race, ethnicity unknown).

I ran my own study at Brandeis to see how we compared. I took 64 students’ Color Blind Racial Attitudes Scale (CoBRAS) scores and then had the same students give three-word responses to several videos from Vine that I had selected for their notoriety of being racist. I analyzed the three-word responses using methods described in a study by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke professor of sociology. The study is titled “The Linguistics of Color Blind Racism: How to Talk Nasty about Blacks without Sounding ‘Racist.’” I found exactly the same correlation that Tynes’ study found: that people’s CoBRAS scores correlated strongly with their demonstrated racial prejudice, as determined by Bonilla-Silva’s study.

Regarding “diverse” schools, I examined this same phenomenon at my high school, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, a school with a staggering amount of diversity.

The demographic breakdown by race during the 2013/2014 school year was 33.2% African American (compared to 8.7% in the state), 11.7% Asian (compared to 6.1% in the state), 14% hispanic (compared to 17% in the state), and 37.5% white (compared to 64.9% in the state).

You would expect such a statistically diverse school to model the perfectly post-racial society.But it only struck me during my senior year of high school, when we could finally choose most of the classes we were taking, just how segregated the school was. Classes like AP Physics, AP Chemistry, and AP Calculus were over 90% white, which, given that only 37.5% of the student body is white, indicates a serious racial achievement gap. On the first day of my psychology class, which was exactly 50% white and 50% black, we were told we could sit wherever we wanted in the two rows of available seats.

It took me a moment to realize that after everyone had sat down, the entire front row of the classroom was white and the entire back row was black and that no one else had noticed.

Many of us feel personally exempted from the idea that we harbor racial prejudice. We’ll often point out that we have black friends or that we know that George Washington had slaves to prove our innocence. We misunderstand structural racism. It’s not nearly as obvious or simple as supporting slavery or not.

Structural racism is often much more insidious and pervasive, manifesting as subconscious judgements, opinions and thoughts. It’s easy to excuse ourselves from the more conscious and obvious racism, but it’s a lot harder to examine ourselves for those subtleties that are most often ignored.

I do not believe in feeling guilty for things that are out of our control.

We were all born into this society, and we didn’t create it. But we do need to be cognizant of the problem. It may not be our faults that we harbor racial prejudices, but it is our responsibility to try to destruct them. Doing so doesn’t have to change our lives drastically. We can simply question ourselves and reflect. Was the joke I just made racist? Is it weird that I hang out with mostly people from the same racial background as me?

We’re responsible for more than just ourselves. We’re responsible for everyone with whom who we live and everyone who will soon be living with us. We’re responsible for my nephew and for yours.

Acknowledge the dangers of privilege

I recently stumbled across an article from The Princeton Tory (republished in Time Magazine) called “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege,” written by Princeton University freshman student Tal Fortgang. In it, Fortgang vehemently protests the idea that all of his success in life (including his admission to Princeton) can be credited to his race or sex, and offers instead that to call someone privileged “[assumes] they’ve benefitted from ‘power systems’ or other conspiratorial imaginary institutions [and] denies them credit for all they’ve done.”

Before going forward, it’s important to note that I am a white, heterosexual male. This, of course, means that I’m writing with a particular bias based on living with those dispositions.

That being said, I observed two assumptions Fortgang makes in his article. The first is that hard work yields success, which to Fortgang, seems to denote financial and political power. The second is that we live in a society that allows everyone to work hard, and thus be successful.

I agree, in part, with Fortgang’s first assumption. For many, if not most people, working hard is necessary to become successful. Fortgang’s grandparents, for instance, who escaped the Holocaust to start a “humble whicker basket” business in the United States, would not have been successful had they not worked hard.

However, I disagree with his second assumption. There are countless people who work hard, just as hard as any wealthy or influential person, and some even more, who are not successful. Fortgang concedes that “white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world,” but does not think this is significant. Mr. Fortgang, why do you suppose white males are in these powerful positions? Is it pure coincidence? Luck?

In Fortgang’s worldview, if we live in a society that “ultimately allowed [Fortgang’s grandparents] to flourish” because it “cares not about religion or race, but the content of your character,” what are we saying about the characters of everyone who is not white and not male? Are women earning 80 cents for every dollar that men earn because women routinely don’t work as hard or are not as competent? Are African-American men being excessively stopped by police because they’re routinely more dangerous?

Fortgang’s worldview, namely that we live in a meritocracy—an entirely just society—implies that those who are not successful are solely unsuccessful because of their own failings. The idea of a meritocracy is extremely convenient for those who are successful—who could condemn the hard work that a majority of wealthy and successful people exert? But this same idea promotes faulty assumptions and prejudice on the foundations of race, gender, sexuality or whatever else we can construct to divide ourselves.

Fortgang’s belief that our society is post-racial is also known as a racial color-blind attitude. That is to say that race should not and does not matter in our society. The first part of this statement seems admirable, but the second part, that we live in a society that is post-racial, is not only false, but also incredibly dangerous.

The popular television channel MTV worked with pollsters to generate a nationally representative sample of people ages 14 to 24 to measure how young people are “experiencing, affected by, and responding to issues associated with bias.” A majority of participants believe that we are post racial as a society, with 67 percent believing that Barack Obama being president proves that race is not a “barrier to achievements.” Seventy percent of participants believe that racial preferences (like race-based affirmative action) are unfair, regardless of historical inequities.

Another study run by Brendeshca M. Tynes, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, found a strong correlation between racial color-blind attitudes and racial discrimination on social media. In other words, those who believe we are post-racial tend to have less opposition toward stereotypical images online (i.e. “gangsta parties” that feature white actors in blackface).

Curious by these results, I ran my own small study on a sample of Brandeis’ student body. I had 64 students view two videos featured on the social platform Vine that had each been critiqued as racist in one study and two newspaper articles. Students then wrote a three word response to describe their reactions to the video and filled out a version of the Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale. The CoBRAS was designed by psychologists and social scientists to measure racial color-blind attitudes, with assertions such as “Racism is a major problem in the U.S.” with which participants rate their agreement.

I analyzed the three word responses using a composite analysis between what is described in Tynes’s study and what is described Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s, a Duke professor of sociology, study “The Linguistics of Color Blind Racism: How to Talk Nasty about Blacks without Sounding ‘Racist.’” I found a statistically significant correlation between students’ CoBRAS scores and how “racist” their language was.

If racially color-blind attitudes can provoke prejudice, why do we harbor them? Fortgang fears that if we acknowledge that society is not just, and that it does indeed divide on race, then “everything I’ve done with my life can be credited to the racist patriarchy holding my hand.”

But our efforts and success need not be completely diminished nor completely attributed to ourselves. We must acknowledge some edge, albeit not all-encompassing. Of course no such edge could be responsible for all, or even most of Fortgang’s achievements. But to deny that any bias exists is naïve and dangerous—it allows us to continue on comfortably without addressing and changing the prejudices we all still harbor.

Fortgang, you need not feel your achievements are undermined—I’m sure that if you or your family had not worked as hard as they did, you would not be where you are today, and that is something to be proud of. You need not apologize to anyone—no one is asking you to. But you simply do need to recognize that structural racism does exist in our society, and that its effects are far too important to be ignored.

We’ve known about the NSA all along

Last week, I heard a colleague from the Computer Science department mention that his job is to monitor the campus’ downloads and streaming (yes, this includes porn). Apparently, the Brandeis community makes some, and I quote, “exotic” choices in their Internet browsing material. A guy next to me freaked out upon hearing this. “Isn’t that a violation of our rights, or something?”

Rights to privacy have been hotly debated since Edward Snowden revealed last June that the National Security Agency was maintaining electronic records of American citizens, without us knowing. Libertarians and liberals alike have been outraged at this infringement upon their perceived right to privacy.

I have no issue with Brandeis’ monitoring of our Internet traffic (in fact, it’s not prohibited by the Fourth Amendment because it’s a private institution), or with the NSA monitoring our phone calls.

I also have no issue with Edward Snowden—in fact, I think his disclosure of information makes him one of the bravest, smartest and most Time Person-of-the-Year-Worthy people out there. I have no issue with keeping what the NSA is doing private or public, I only have an issue with the notion that any of what the NSA has been doing is news, or that it even matters.

We’ve all known from the start that anything we put online was fair game. Those of us who grew up around the Internet have been given fair warning by parents, teachers and anyone else with formal experience with the Internet that anything that’s put on the Internet is not private. Remember the Patriot Act? Sure, Facebook has privacy settings, but faith in such a contract is naïve at best. Whether we like it or not, anything we put on the Internet (social media in particular) is for other people or society to see. After all, why else would we put it there?

This monitoring also does not affect us at all on a daily basis (we didn’t even know it was happening until we were told it was). Many of us have gone everyday before last June, and even past it, illegally streaming Sherlock, Downton Abbey, and Lord of the Rings movies. The only way it would’ve affected us is if we committed an act of terror (or illicit pirating, in the case of Brandeis’ monitoring) and got unexpectedly caught in the act. It appears we’ve lost the right to break the law in private.

People will cry “Big Brother” and demand recognition of our dystopic, apocalyptic state. Now that the government knows our plans for this Friday night, they can more easily ruin our lives. The sad truth is that unless one is flagrantly posting about their planned terrorist activities, no one (not even the NSA) cares about what is on their Facebook accounts, in their messages to significant others or on their blogs.

In fact, there aren’t any NSA agents sifting through our messages and electronic paraphernalia at all. There are computer algorithms that will flag anything worth reading. No human eyes will ever see any of our stuff unless it gets flagged (and it hasn’t been, if you’re reading this newspaper). What the NSA does care about, however, is protecting us against violent, terrorist attacks.

Many liberals I talk to find protective measures like this unnecessary, stating that they encourage discrimination and infringe upon our intrinsic right to privacy.

But these people have often never been in any sort of actual danger. They’ve accrued the belief that any protective measures are superfluous because they’ve been brought up in extremely privileged, protected places because of agencies like the NSA.

How often do we have to worry about school buses with our children being blown up? How often do we have to worry that our homes will no longer be standing when we get back from school or work?

Regarding an intrinsic right to privacy, I believe we have one, but not when it comes to the Internet. If you want a private conversation, have it in person. If you want a photo or video to remain private, don’t post it on the Internet. Anything posted on the Internet publically is a cry for attention and we should not conflate our desire for attention with a “right” for privacy.

There are serious issues in the world, and there are places where people wish they had the resources for their government to monitor Internet traffic to stop bombs from going off in the streets.

While the dissent toward the NSA comes from a good place, it’s important to remember that we’ve known it’s been happening all along, it doesn’t actually affect us, and, in effect, it doesn’t actually matter.

Grade inflation at Brandeis University

Last December, I read an article about Harvard University’s grade inflation in their school newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. According to the article, Harvard University Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris released the median grade as an A- and the most received grade as an A.

I laughed. How silly was it that such a prestigious institution could have such low standards?
Last week, I picked up a copy of the Justice and saw an article titled, “Median fall grades released to the public.” I grew excited at the chance to shove Brandeis’ higher academic standards in Harvard’s face. According to the article, however, Brandeis students received a median grade of an A- and maintain an average grade point average of a 3.4.

I was ashamed and humiliated. All of my pride about working hard in classes to achieve high grades began to dissipate; what did this mean for me as a student? Did this mean that I was taking easy classes and that my grades simply reflected that? Brandeis Senior Vice President for Communications Ellen de Graffenreid defended Brandeis’ grade inflation by stating, “The averages and the distributions have been remarkably stable over time, which would not indicate a pattern of grade inflation.”

Are we supposed to feel better that grades have always been inflated and that this isn’t simply a recent trend? To make matters worse, she later added, “The averages at Brandeis are consistent with those at other elite colleges and universities.”

Adapting the old “If you can’t beat them join them” ideology is not permissible. Rather than conform to the norm, we should be setting new trends and maintaining non-inflated grades.

Some might offer that everyone receiving high grades simply means that everyone is just doing really well in their classes. But this is incorrect. A high median grade simply indicates that grades have lost value as an intellectual currency. Best put by Syndrome, the evil villain of Disney’s The Incredibles, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

There are valid arguments as to why grades shouldn’t exist in the first place: they cause competition in an area where some believe competition isn’t necessary, they don’t always accurately represent what people actually know and they often yield bias to those who test well, among other reasons. But those arguments are irrelevant because, whether we agree with them or not, grades are currently the main metric by which students are evaluated. Grades are weighed heavily on applications for internships, graduate schools and even jobs.

It is concerning to think that we would be disadvantaging our students by issuing comparatively lower grades than other universities. However, if we come out publicly in strong opposition to grade inflation, and call out other elite institutions on their grade inflation, the issue will become more well-known among employers and recruiters, and the issue as a whole can begin to be solved. It’s the other schools, not us, who will be disadvantaged.Additionally, Brandeis could even distribute “adjusted for inflation” grades which compare current Brandeis grades against the school’s past inflated standards, or against a national average. This would map the C a student might receive against the A- they might have received before Brandeis became conscious of the issue. Rather than passively accepting the standard around grades as a necessary evil, we need to correct it through leading by example.

Grade inflation also provides a ceiling for learning—a point at which one becomes complacent with his or her current progress. This is ironic since one of the original purposes of academic assessments was to provide a floor for the basis of knowledge that someone should possess. For example, when lifting weights, you don’t set a finite goal of 100 pounds, then reach it and stay there. You constantly increment the weight once your current weight becomes too easy. The process never ends; it’s simply revised at each iteration.

If an A- or A is easy to reach, students are able to stop working once they’ve reached it. And why should this ever be a lesson educators encourage? Learning has no definite starts or stops. But providing an easy-to-reach maximum grade perpetuates the falsehood that it does.

As educators, as students, as lovers of learning, we need to hold ourselves to higher grading standards.

No justice in death

John J. Geoghan was a Catholic priest who molested nearly 150 boys over the course of thirty years. He was exiled from the Catholic Church in 1998 in the face of numerous allegations, and was found guilty of indecent assault and battery in 2002 when a college student testified that he had been molested by Geoghan in a swimming pool at the Waltham Boys and Girls Club in 1991. Because he was only found guilty of the one charge, Geoghan was sentenced to 9 to 10 years in prison. On February 23, 2004 Geoghan was murdered in his cell by Joseph L. Druce. “Justice” was served.

Joseph L. Druce was serving a life-without-parole sentence for a 1998 murder. He had been picked up as a hitchhiker by 51-year-old George Rollo. After realizing Rollo was gay, Druce attacked him, stuffed him in the trunk of Rollo’s car, drove him to a wooded area, and strangled him. Druce is a reputed member of the Aryan Nations neo-Nazi group.

Geoghan’s murder had been meticulously planned months in advance. At 11:48 a.m. on February 23, 2004, all 22 cells on the block were opened for prisoners to return food trays to a common area. There were supposed to be two correctional officers on guard by the tray return area, but one of them was pulled off to escort another inmate to the nurse’s station. Druce snuck into Geoghan’s cell and used a book, nail clipper, and toothbrush to jam the cell door so that it could not be opened electronically. He then gagged Geoghan, threw him to the ground, repeatedly stomped on him and jumped on him from the bed, then strangled him with a pair of socks. Guards weren’t able to get the door open for 7 to 8 minutes. Geoghan was pronounced dead at 1:17 p.m. with the cause of death as ligature strangulation, blunt chest trauma, bro-ken ribs, and a punctured lung.

While there’s no direct evidence to suggest that the prison facilitated the murder, many questions remain unanswered. Was it really coincidental that Geoghan was kept on the same block as Joseph Druce, a known homophobe who was serving a life-sentence for strangling a homosexual man? Was it really coincidental that only one correctional officer was on guard at the time? Was it really coincidental that the guards were unable to intervene for 7 to 8 minutes? I’m not suggesting a systemic conspiracy, but it’s no hidden fact that pedophiles and rapists are not treated well in prisons. Was Druce a lone vigilante or a soldier? And if the latter, who issued his orders?

Regardless of how it was done, the reaction to the murder was almost as atrocious as the act itself. One of Geoghan’s victims, Michael Linscott, said of the murder, “I thought about the victims that are still here that he would have to face had he lived…In my opinion, he got off the easy way.” Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney for more than 200 alleged victims of Geoghan, added, “Many victims are disappointed … They wish Father John Geoghan had time to be in prison to reflect.”

While this sentiment is understandable, and could be sympathized with even, it is not just. Geoghan’s mur-der was not the righteous end to his story, but not because it was easier than life in prison. Geoghan molested children. But if you, me, or the state issues an execution, directly or indirectly, and feel no remorse, we’re no better than Druce. Some see Geoghan’s murder as justice—he was a pedophile, so he deserved it. Some see injustice that Druce wasn’t murdered—he was a murdering homophobe, so he deserved it. But both of those views are oversimplified. There are no heroes or villains, no winners or losers, only tragedy. Killing Geoghan did not take away what he did to the countless boys. Killing Druce would not bring back George Rollo or even John J. Geoghan.

We as a people should not cheer on murder—we should vehemently protest it. We as a people should not sit silent to the atrocities of our brothers in jail—we should scream in their defense. Everyone has certain unalienable human rights. We as a people need to recognize that.

Pope is a model for religious and non-religious alike

Saint Francis was born in Assisi, Italy in 1181 or 1182. He was the son of a rich cloth merchant and enjoyed a carefree adolescence and youth. At age 20, he went to war and was taken prisoner for almost a year. After he was released, he became seriously ill, which marked the beginning of a new chapter in his life. When he returned to Assisi, Francis embraced his spirituality and detached himself from material concerns. He met with lepers and extended a kiss to one. In rags, he lived among beggars at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Francis’ father questioned his son’s generosity and servitude to the poor. While standing before the Bishop of Assisi, Francis stripped off his clothes and renounced his paternal inheritance, choosing to instead live as a hermit. In one famous episode, he went to the tattered small church of St. Damian, where Christ on the cross came to life and told him: “Go Francis, and repair my Church in ruins.”

Former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician, and literature teacher Jorge Mario Bergoglio has not stripped naked (yet) but has acclimated to papacy with striking parallels to his namesake saint. Bergoglio is from Buenos Aires, Argentina, making him both the first South American and non-European pontiff. He’s also the first Jesuit to be elected head of the Roman Catholic Church, and the third pope to be named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.

Where I grew up, organized religion was synonymous with discrimination and closed-mindedness. This held especially true for the Catholic Church. So when I heard about a new pope on my Facebook newsfeed, my initial reaction was skepticism—surely this was just another figurehead perpetuating the same hate that had always been associated with the church.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Pope Francis has entered the world stage as a down-to-earth man who follows the beliefs he preaches, who has acted as a role model for world leaders, and who has shown me that organized religion can be good, really good.

Unlike many world leaders, Pope Francis lives by the ideas he preaches. The Argentinian pontiff has kissed the head of a deformed man, washed the feet of a female prisoner in a ritual formerly restricted to men and even taken a “selfie” with some tourists. He drives a Ford Focus instead of the traditional pope’s Mercedes, has shunned the spacious papal apartment in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace to live in a small suite in a Vatican guest house, and instructed Archibishop Konrad Krajewski, the man in charge of distributing money and food to the poor, to sell his desk and get out of the Vatican. “Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor,” Francis instructed. Poverty has been the biggest focus of Francis’s papacy thus far, and he’s made his dedication to it very clear.

In his first major document, “Evangelii Gaudium,” he’s labeled trickle-down economics theories as “a new tyranny” and as expressing “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” He’s not the first pontiff to take such a stance on wealth inequality, but he’s certainly one of the first to target it with such specificity and to uphold his preaching.

Many, including conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, responded by attacking Francis’s condemnation of trickle-down capitalism as “dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong” and as “pure Marxism.” Francis responded, “Marxist ideology is wrong. But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I do not feel offended. There is nothing in the exhortation that cannot be found in the social doctrine of the Church.” That roughly translates to, “I care about the poor not because I’m a Marxist, but because I’m a Christian.”

To see a world leader, let alone the head of the Catholic Church, act in such a way has shaped the way I view both the Catholic Church and world leaders in general. Seeing the church set on a mission to help people who are in need, namely the poor, is revitalizing. Francis condemned the church as being formerly “locked up in small things, in small-minded rules.” He added that “[w]e are about the healing mission of the church, not the theological police work that had maybe been preoccupying us … I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Francis recognizes that under the former pope, Benedict XVI, the church became overly focused on marriage and abortion. While Francis doesn’t offer revolutionary ideas on these issues, his demonstrated efforts to help the poor serve as a constructive, rather than a destructive entity, which is exactly what this world needs.

My skepticism almost persuaded me into ignoring the news about the Pope altogether; I couldn’t be happier that it didn’t. Not only do I now have faith in the Church as an institution, I have faith in organized religion in general.