Defend freedom of expression from local and national threats

Freedom of expression is currently under attack and needs to be preserved at all costs. We saw freedom of expression targeted when cyber terrorists hacked Sony Pictures on Nov. 24 and when terrorists slaughtered 12 satirists from the French magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7.

These attacks were tragic. But it is worth noting that they have not had the highest impact or death toll in recent times. Just several days before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Boko Haram militants massacred over 2,000 in Baga, Nigeria. But this tragedy is not being widely covered and has certainly not inspired international outrage. Many of us had not even heard of Charlie Hebdo before Jan. 7 and would not have thought twice about missing The Interview. But these attacks got the most press in the West because they threatened Western ideals.

But Western ideals are not only threatened by extremist terrorist organizations. To find censorship, we need not look further than our own borders. The United States government actually has quite the history of censoring information. Remember that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath, two of the greatest works of American literature, have been two of the most censored and banned in the U.S.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has frequently been banned because of its use of racial slurs and purported underlying racism. Many, however, argue that the book’s satire is actually a strong criticism of racism. American author Ernest Hemingway famously stated, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” The book engages in controversial subject matter to spur critical thought, not to perpetuate racism. And critical thought is exactly what our schools should be teaching.

Censoring critical thought, however, still occurs regularly in the U.S. today. Tucson, Ariz.’s “controversial” public school curriculum that teaches Mexican-American history, culture and literature is currently under attack for its alleged underlying resentment toward other races.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction and former Arizona state senator John Huppenthal issued a letter condemning the curriculum as his final act in office.

Huppenthal reasons that the curriculum “promote[s] the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote[s] resentment towards a race or class of people,” or advocates “ethnic solidarity.” These restrictions are part of House Bill 2281, legislation that Huppenthal helped pass while serving as state senator. As evidence of the school’s violation, he cites Rage Against the Machine and KRS-One lyrics being taught in class. Huppenthal additionally references a U.S. History class syllabus which states that it “includes substantial Mexican history” and “is intended to get students to become critically conscious about the society we live in.” The Arizona state government has threatened to cut school funding if the school does not revise its curriculum.

The most ludicrous example cited by Huppenthal, however, is the poem that students in the curriculum were told to recite during the beginnings of class. It reads as follows:

“Tú eres mi otro yo. / You are my other me. /Si te hago daño a ti, / If I do harm to you, / Me hago daño a mi mismo. / I do harm to myself. / Si te amo y respeto, / If I love and respect you, / Me amo y respeto yo. / I love and respect myself.”

Huppenthal’s arguments are absurd, if not racist. The Oxford English Dictionary defines racist as “prejudiced against people of other nationalities.” Is this not a direct prejudice against people of other nationalities? His argument against multiculturalism is also hilariously McCarthyist in its inherent paranoia and lack of factual integrity. And frankly the whole “hip-hop is ruining our youth” argument is just a bit outdated. But he is entitled to his opinions, no matter how distasteful I find them.

The schools, however, are also entitled to their own opinions. If Huppenthal can attempt to ban the schools’ expression, then the schools might as well attempt to ban Huppenthal’s letter for promoting “resentment towards a race or class of people” or maybe ,just for inciting idiocracy. Why should we let Huppenthal’s freedom of expression take precedence over the school’s? Either deny him the right to censor others or subject him to the same censorship.

The website Voices in Urban Education responded to Huppenthal. The website calls the ban a “historic ignorance and blindness” and adds that “[h]uman history in this hemisphere does not begin in 1492 C.E. but rather in 3113 B.C.E. with the creation of the Mayan calendar, if not before with the Ancients in Peru.”

We demanded national response when Seth Rogen and James Franco’s comedic depiction of the assassination of the North Korean supreme leader did not go over well with North Korea.

We demanded international response when Charlie Hebdo was attacked for publishing images of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover of their magazine.

But where is our outrage when the Arizona state government suppresses critical thinking in schools?

We must be consistent. If we claim to care about expression, we should be outraged when an entire U.S. state bans teaching important history, culture and critical thinking. We cannot pick and choose. We must defend all freedom of expression if we are going to defend any of it.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s right to protest in Washington D.C., in 1963 allowed him to deliver one of the greatest speeches in modern history. His right is the same as the Neo-Nazis’ right to march in Skokie, Ill. in 1978.

Our freedom to speech is not the same as an obligation to accept the ideas we hear.

We are afforded the ability to disagree, to contest and to challenge. We are afforded the ability to think, and we had better let our schools exercise it.

Maintain Civil Discussion on Israel/Palestine

Last week, I was asked by the Justice to write a piece on the Palestine-Israel conflict. I said no. I was asked because the Brandeis Israel Public Affairs Committee was already due to submit a piece on the conflict, specifically focused on the war in Gaza this past summer, and the Justice wanted to showcase a “point/counter-point” section. Seems like a great idea, showcasing an important and complicated conflict, and allowing the reader to decide for themselves with whom they most agree. But still, I said no.

I don’t try to hide my beliefs; I fully support Palestine. I share plenty of op-eds from other news outlets on Facebook and am fully willing to discuss the issue with anyone who asks me. Still, I did not want to write the article.

My discomfort is housed, maybe, in the polarization and distortion of the issue on campus. It is polarized because the same people who are generally open-minded and compassionate vehemently oppose any Palestine-Israel viewpoint that is not exactly the same as their own. It is distorted because the issues of the conflict have been muddled with issues of prejudice and discrimination. I have been told verbatim, “Most people who support Palestine are actually anti-Semetic” and “If you don’t support Israel you hate Jews.”

To hear people accuse me of hating much of my family was maybe laughable at first, but by now is nothing short of sickening. I love the Jewish people as I love the Christian people, the Muslim people and all other peoples. But I take issue with the State of Israel. Israel and Judaism are not the same thing; one is a religion, philosophy and way of life, while the other is a political entity. The two should not be confused.

Though I’ve been more personally affected by it, the extreme pro-Israel camp is not the only one to grossly oversimplify. The extreme pro-Palestinian camp will often allege that the entire pro-Israel camp is Islamaphobic and tyrannical, which is, of course, not true.

A good friend of mine who supports Israel has told me he feels that extremely uncomfortable in more liberal circles. When they blame Israel entirely for the numerous deaths in Gaza, he does not feel comfortable voicing his opinion that it may be more complicated than that, fearing he will be judged personally and stereotyped as “a Jew doing his duty” for his opinions on the issue. 

I asked him about it while writing this article and he said, “I think of myself as pretty moderate…but a lot of people feel very strongly that anyone who shows any sympathy toward Israel is intentionally marginalizing an oppressed people.”

Imagine if instead of questioning character, discussions were composed of constructive Palestine-Israel peace plans or historical discussions of the Palestinian and Israeli people. Imagine if both parties were willing to compromise.

But instead, the over-simplified pro-Palestine argument assumes that any who are pro-Israel hate peace, oppressed people and Islam. And the over-simplified pro-Israel argument assumes that any who are pro-Palestine hate peace, oppressed people, and Judaism.

This is all completely ludicrous. Both sides want the same thing: peace. But the discussions veer far from civil because of deep emotional attachment to the issue. This sort of attachment often results in conversations fueled by emotion and not reason. We see the other side as an enemy, not as a person.

In fact, this lack of etiquette is not just localized to Brandeis. Last July, television host Sean Hannity invited Yousef Munayyer—a Palestinian American who is the executive director of the Jurusalem Fund, a nonprofit working to raise funds in aid of the Palestinian people—onto Fox News for an interview. But “interview” is a generous description of what occurred. Hannity bombarded Munayyer with screams throughout the entire interview—“Is Hamas a terrorist organization? What part of this can’t you get through your thick head?” The interview speaks for itself and I strongly recommend looking it up.

But even if the rest of the world is being intolerant and ridiculous, why are we? We’re a community that values “social justice” and “truth unto its innermost parts.” We have such powerful and constructive discussions about sensitive topics that much of the rest of the world still struggles with—sexual assault, gender discrimination and racism. Why can we not have such discussions about the Palestine-Israel conflict?

This is not about my opinions on the issue; this is about people not feeling comfortable enough to voice their opinions. This is about students and professors alike being lauded as inhumane and racist for speaking up. This is about a discussion housed in intimidation, assumption of character and dehumanization. And it’s time for that to change.

My expertise after a week of blogging

Writing a blog post is way different than writing anything else.

It’s much less formal than a newspaper article, much less “academic” (by which I mean pretentious) than a traditional essay, much less cited than a research paper, and certainly much punchier and shorter than just about any other style of writing.

On a blog, If people have to take more than five seconds to read something, they won’t. Common causes of such a behavior are: vocabulary words that you learned through memorization, long sentences, paragraphs longer than a couple of lines, boring content, etc.

To fill a paragraph with pedantic material is like starting a sentence with a preposition; it marks the sentence as airy or waspy, disengaging any reader interest, exacerbating the reader’s affinity for drifting off, and providing a generally lackluster opening, which in my experience, determines most of the interest for a particular body of writing. Using a semi-colon is similar in its effects because it provides a logical separation of thought without as much melodrama as a period, though producing sentences that run on and on (normally referred to as run-on sentences) seems not to do too well either, unless the writer has time to craft it just so, perfectly aligning every noun, verb, and adjective into the right formation, ensuring a nice, all-but-crunchy 700-word paragraph that sounds the least similar to Mad Libs as possible.

You didn’t read that last paragraph. Or at least I wouldn’t have. It’s way too boring and I used a thesaurus to write it.

We’re taught to write like that in school to sound smart. We sound smart to elevate us about those who don’t. All we really end up doing is screwing over some 9th graders, who end up wondering why they have to memorize the meanings of ablution, abnegate, and abstemious.

Some people (many, actually) will only read the headline of a blog post and summarize all meaning from that, so headlines usually end up sounding like marketing ploys to gain readership–“You’ll Never Look at the World the Same Way Again!”, “Want to Know How I Cured Depression?”, etc.

Even the mere sight of a long blog post will turn people away before they even begin to read it. And on that note, I bid you adieu.

Why I run

The other day I ran up and down all the steps of a stadium for the first time. The first few flights felt great; I felt energized and confident about this whole endeavor. But by the time I reached a fourth of the entire thing, I could feel it–in my legs, lungs, heart, and head. At the halfway mark, I was “making deals with the devil”, as my friend who was running with me put it. At somewhere around three fourths, in a delirious and dehydrated state (it was also around 90 degrees and so humid that the air felt like soup), I started to question why I was running in the first place.

What was I gaining out of this? I certainly was losing a lot right now–sweat, feeling in my legs, and the will to keep going. I thought back to the most common pieces of advice I hear, “do it for the ladies” or “it’s summertime, you need that beach body.” Surely, for someone college-aged like myself, this is also motivating. It’s vain, but so are we at times, I’ll concede to that.

But I also started to realize a fault in this school of thought: there is an achievable end. As soon as I deem myself attractive enough (which, assuming I’m not terribly self-deprecating, should happen at some point), I’d lose the urge to keep working out. I’d have reached my end. It would also become easy to coerce myself with excuses. “Well, I feel pretty good about the way I look today, and I didn’t eat anything that unhealthy. Maybe I deserve a break.”

The reason this is a big problem to me is that running, swimming, biking, or whatever, have never been about the physical outcome. They’ve been about the mental discipline. Now, I know the word discipline sounds like it’s something you’d hear spoken in a movie about samurai fighting to reclaim their heritage or whatever, but seriously it’s important.

One thing I’ve always loved about exercising on my own is knowing that I’m the only one accountable, on all ends. If I mess up, I’m only affecting myself, but also, and maybe more importantly, the only thing keeping me going is myself. When I’m tired, sweating, hurting, and feeling like I should just give up, the only reason I keep going is because I’m making myself, and there’s something rewarding in that.

As I reached this conclusion, I started to push myself a bit harder, and my body began to push back against me. It didn’t seem like it was going to be as easy as it was in the sports movies’ 3-minute chumps-to-champs reels.

I also thought back to a reason a good friend of mine once gave, “every time you work out, you become a better person.” Now, whether or not you agree with that as an academic, it’s a damn good motivation if you can make yourself believe it as a person.

With that in mind, I reached the seven-eighths point and couldn’t bring myself to do anything more than walk. But I kept walking, my body pushing me to go more slowly. And when I reached the final two flights, I sprinted (which probably looked more like flailing) and collapsed immediately after finishing the final step, knowing that I probably just ran one of the slowest stadium times in history, that I’d be terribly sore the next day, and that neither of those two things mattered at all.