United We Sit: A Proposal to Change Emory

Published in the Emory Wheel on September 19, 2014. Written with Adam Goldstein.

In her Sept. 15 op-ed “Emory Students Tend Towards Self-Segregation,” Aarti Dureja paints for us a divided Emory, where the high school hope of a campus without the constraints of “popularity, prettiness, (or) appearance” is revealed to be nothing but a pipe dream. Instead of looking up and out, Dureja writes, we look down and in. We’re governed by our “own social hierarchy.” We stand proudly under the glowing banner of “diversity” but find ourselves in stratified pockets, far from those who aren’t like us.

While we’re not sure “segregated” is an apt descriptor of Emory, Dureja is onto something: there are quiet but very real social constructs at play on our campus. If you’re a white Anglo-Saxon kid in Greek life, chances are that you haven’t had an in-depth conversation with the man who makes your omelet in the DUC. If you’re the Sodexo employee, you’ve likely never interacted beyond a cursory nod with the student from Nanking who wears a t-shirt with letters you can’t read.

As Dureja suggests, we’re insular by nature. That’s okay — we do what makes us comfortable.

But there’s more to the story. After freshman year, we begin to solidify our social circles, our organizations, our communities. “Sticking together” in the University setting certainly doesn’t deserve moral indictment. At a very basic level, it’s what we should be doing: fostering our interests and bolstering our own identities by learning from and feeding off of people who are like us.

That’s why Emory has created spaces where unique identities can be cultivated. We have chapels and churches, houses and lodges, labs and dugouts and diverse offices. Those are the spaces where we cultivate difference and celebrate it.

But where’s the intentionally common space at Emory? Where’s the space for the Hindu Students Association to talk to the Bioethics Society? For Emory Pride to mix with Brotherhood for Afrocentric Men (BAM)? For the PhD in the Harris tweed to sit with the mailroom employee in the collared shirt? Sure, we’d like to hope those interactions would happen organically – but often, as Dureja spells out, they don’t.

Fraternities and sororities host mixers; religious groups send representatives to discuss theological questions at the Inter-Religious Council. But Emory has no streamlined framework for social mixing, for conversation or for asking the hard questions to the only people really qualified to answer them.

We’ve heard students charge Emory with a lack of diversity. We disagree. There’s a surplus of diversity, but a deficit of the will and desire to immerse ourselves in it. To ask the right questions, and to listen to the answers.

We have an idea. It’s called TableTalk.

TableTalk is a framework for conversation between groups that would not interact under ordinary circumstances. It’s not an arena for conflict-resolution between communities that have a history of tension. It’s an accessible and intentional context for us to get to know one another, share a meal, ask the questions we’ve always wanted to ask, temporarily leave our realms of comfort and adopt new ones.

This isn’t about Kumbaya. There are neither lofty goals nor visions of rainbow-colored people entangled in one another’s hands. Our hope is not naive. It’s about being honest with ourselves, recognizing that these interactions aren’t happening on their own and taking an earnest step toward changing our broken culture.

We’ve already begun. At one TableTalk, Buddhist and Muslim students spoke candidly about the spectrum of religiosity across their traditions. At another, members of Brothers and Sisters in Christ, a black Christian fellowship, met up with Hillel students and shared biblical passages that spoke to individuals in each group. Both TableTalks ran longer than scheduled. Both introduced participants to someone they hadn’t encountered before. Both left participants asking: “Can we just keep talking?”

TableTalk’s success lies in its simplicity and humility. It convenes and it facilitates – that’s it. Leaders of cultural groups and campus organizations pick another group with whom they believe their members would benefit from sharing a meal and discussion. When we see crossover in interest, the leaders of both groups sit down with each other to draft a list of penetrating questions that will elicit honest, nuanced answers. They invite their members and they lead the discussion. TableTalk just provides the framework, the space and the food.

A TableTalk emerges from the communities’ desires to talk to one another; we give them an excuse to do it.

Join us in creating a space where a Rollins student can share a meal with the driver of her Cliff Shuttle, where Greek women and men can sit down and talk to the leaders of Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA) about the people for whom each advocates, where a Korean student can be an individual distinct from the amorphous crowd — and where we don’t need to feel “self-conscious” about who we are.

Let’s affirm each of our communities and build a greater one. Let’s grab onto the freedom to ask. Let’s take the laboratory home with us. Because that’s what’s extraordinary about college: when we retire at the end of the day, we keep living here. And here, we’re never really alone.

Join the conversation at tabletalk.emorylife.org.

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When Things Fall into the Ocean

We were about twenty minutes into our tour of the CNN studio in Atlanta when Greg, an eccentric guide in a tomato-red polo, turned around. “Are there any questions?”

I sneered. For weeks, CNN’s unremitting coverage of MH 370 has been the object of my family’s ridicule. “Yeah,” I joked to my dad, under my breath, “Do you guys think you could report on something else?”

I was kidding, but not entirely. The plane’s disappearance had become a caricature of itself; the media had somehow dulled the sting of an unresolved tragedy. Death was reduced to a mound of cheap television gimmicks as news anchors capitalized on anxiety and held onto “revelations” until words from our sponsors. And when empty musings on Flight 370 were all that Wolf Blitzer read off the teleprompter, it wasn’t too soon for late-night hosts to poke fun at human loss.

But last week, cable news paused its coverage of Malaysian 370. In moments, a ferry boat off the southwest coast of South Korea became the new fetish of coiffed television hosts. The ship had sunk just beside island of Jindo, leaving hundreds of high school students missing in a dark and enigmatic wreck.

CNN stopped talking about one vessel that disappeared into the ocean so that it could start talking about another vessel that disappeared into the ocean.

“Their fate remains uncertain.”

“Parents await word on their children.”

“Still no word from officials.”

As quickly as the boat had gone down, the New York Times had published the final texts, instant messages, and phone call transcripts to a number of Danwon High School parents from their children aboard the foundering ship. Seong-hee told her dad that she couldn’t move “because all the kids are in the corridor. And because the ship is tilting too much.” Her family received no subsequent messages from her. Kim Beom-soo wrote to his father, “hope we can meet again alive.” They haven’t.

Today the death toll rose to 150, and the same number remains unaccounted for. The kids aboard the ship are gone. The Boeing 777’s passengers – young couples and their infant children, the stewardesses and the pilots – are also dead. There is no news from the bottom of the ocean.

But if we’re so certain of their fate – if it’s unmistakably clear – then why do we keep watching? We don’t feel resolved. There’s something compelling the media to keep talking about it, to jack up the tempo at which they ask questions, and to continue asking them at all.

Is it simply a matter of ratings? It’s convenient to point fingers at the news anchor – that albatross in a designer suit who takes the brunt of our resentment. But that’s too easy. Sure, television producers are sensationalizing their coverage, but they aren’t bending us to some supreme magnetic will; they’re tapping into an element of our own nature. We’re buying in. We keep watching.

Why don’t we crane our necks to the East, and bear witness to a roiling civil conflict in Crimea and Ukraine? Or to Yemen, where an “unprecedented” American drone strike last week killed more than 50 terrorists? These are but blips on the iPhone screen–fleeting, unsubstantial news “updates” squandered when things fall into the ocean.

We can’t stop staring into the ocean.

Why is it our impulse to eclipse real, consequential events in favor of boat crashes and airliner whoddunits clean out of an Agatha Christie novel? Why can’t we stop staring?

“Because we all fly on airplanes,” a friend of mine suggested this week. I suppose that when I read that elegiac piece on the young lives aboard Malaysian 370, I conceived of myself as vulnerable – as mortal. I became inexorably tied to those people. For a moment, I was them.

And I suppose I inhabited an uncertainty in that moment. Dad flies to JFK for business all the time. I’m flying home to Los Angeles next week. Every conference, every wedding, every funeral and break from school – everyone flies on planes.

But the mortality answer isn’t enough. If it were only our fear of death that drew us in, we might be likewise enchanted by the strife in Eastern Europe and Yemen. But we’re not. There’s something else.

During an era in which we’ve mapped everything, the plane and the boat are enigmas. In eight seconds, I can dig up the color of your childhood clarinet teacher’s Acura. In a third of that time, I can find her address. If I can’t, someone else (likely the agent mentioned in the above scenario) can. Somewhere in Russia, there’s a spectacled man who’s the object of an investigation that spans continents. Someone knows everything.

A recent piece in the Atlantic probed deeper. Alexis Madrigal’s April 22 article explored the mounting overlaps between artificial intelligence and surveillance practices, highlighting one particular convention of government agencies. “It’s commonplace for security systems to set up a number of rules-based alerts for their video analytics,” wrote Madrigal. “So if an object on the screen (a person, or a car, for instance) crosses a designated part of the scene, an alert is passed on to the human operator,” who surveys the footage.

We’re talking Google maps on anabolic steroids.

In 2000, after the Clinton administration stopped “blunt(ing) the accuracy” of civilian positioning devices, the GPS fell in price, ultimately becoming a fixture of most new tech gadgets. Only fourteen years later, with two swipes and a click, there’s a university library on my lap. My whisper can command a three-by-five piece of metal to bring me a pizza, or at the very least point me in the direction of one. In 2014, for every thing there is to know, there’s a person who knows it. For every place there is to find, there’s someone who’s found it.

Except for Flight 370.

We can track down the replaceable: keys and cell phones, cars and credit cards, but we can’t find a colossal hunk of metal and more than 200 souls. And we’re only beginning to find those kids, and plaster a cause atop the senselessness of the wreck. When we’ve learned every letter and read every book, our sporadic spurts of illiteracy feel unnerving. But they’re mesmerizing.

When things fall into the ocean, we feel an elegant, cathartic pain. In all of our knowing and all our certainty, in all the conceit of our 21st century omniscience – we still don’t know.

There’s something soothing about not knowing; even in discomfort, there seems a weight lifted off humanity’s shoulders. For a split second, we’re free. We can be at ease in our impotence.

Next time the man in the tomato-red polo asks if I still have questions, I’ll keep my mouth shut, and wonder.

A version of this articled appeared in the Huffington Post.

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A Snowden Pardon Would Not Set a ‘Dangerous Precedent’

Two lawmakers in Norway announced Tuesday that they have nominated Edward Snowden as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement comes amid a pair of debates surrounding the actions of the infamous NSA whistleblower.

The first debate — perhaps the more sexy and compelling of the two — is in vogue in barbershops and diners, civics classrooms and gym locker rooms across the country. It’s the one that recently arose over dinner in my fraternity house, when Brandon, a journalism major and a vocal advocate of free expression, called Snowden a hero.

Greg — a friend of Brandon’s whose first birthday present was a .22 caliber rifle and who spent his early days on a sprawling Texas ranch — responded, rushed and emphatic: “Why don’t we just tell all criminals that it’s okay to break the law, as long as it’s for a just cause?” The tension that so separates Brandon and Greg is emblematic of the ideological gulf between Snowden’s advocates and his detractors.

The other debate on Snowden, however — perhaps less stimulating, but nonetheless significant — lines the pages of op-ed sections and hides deep within the innards of the blogosphere. It’s not about whether Snowden’s choices were qualitatively good or bad; it’s about the implications of letting him off without punishment.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times’ editorial board ushered us into a new chapter of the whistleblower conversation. In its first major opinion of the year, the board argued that Snowden — upstaged for TIME magazine’s title of “Person of the Year” only by the world’s premier religious leader — deserved “a plea bargain or some form of clemency that would allow him to return home,” or at the very least be offered “substantially reduced punishment” for exposing troves of incriminating evidence against the US intelligence community.

After the Times‘ piece came a firestorm of pushback. Clemency for Snowden would be a slippery slope, critics said. A sign of weakness, enticement for America’s miscreants, the dawn of an era in which moral integrity would trump invariably legality. We’d kiss jurisprudence goodbye as the streets trembled with stampedes of ex-cons, like something out of the Lion King.

I’m exaggerating, of course — but only a bit. Following the editorial, Business Insider’sJosh Barrow turned rapidly to the web, tweeting that the argument was “a radical case against our diplomatic and intel apparatus” cast in an “oddly casual” light. New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer told reporters that if Snowden believed himself in earnest to be the pinnacle of a “grand tradition of civil disobedience,” he could prove his bona fides by facing the legal system he so vehemently condemned.

In general, the counterargument to the Times‘ editorial went something like this: We are a nation of laws. Those who break the law must be subject to punishment. Edward Snowden broke the law and must accordingly be subject to punishment.

At best, that’s a specious argument. Realistically, it’s naïve and simplistic.

Rebutting Barrow, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf pointed out that a pardon for Snowden wouldn’t set a precedent of any sort — let alone a dangerous one. The concept of clemency exists “precisely because there are instances when applying rules we’ve generally decided upon would be unjust and counterproductive,” he argued.

Friedersdorf is right. Clemency is never the rule; by definition, it’s the exception. Most Americans live their full lives on the legal thoroughfare, without slipping into the dim alleyways of true crime. Of the minority who commit serious offenses and put society at risk, a proportionately tiny number lands any form of presidential mercy.

The system works on the basis of consistency and the understanding that those who seek to subvert the rightful order must first consider their choice in the context of its consequences. But the Constitution makes room for anomalies — special cases that merit deviation from that consistency.

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1:

“The President…shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

And grant them they have.

American presidents have offered legal leniency to those who have committed sedition, land fraud, extortion, and robbery; to citizens who have refused to testify in federal court and those convicted of forgery. They have pardoned polygamists and draft-dodgers, mutinists and murderers. Presidents have forgiven Americans for voluntary manslaughter and for accepting illegal bribes; for opening fire in the House of Representatives; for attempting to assassinate a president; for tax evasion, treason, and violating neutrality laws. And, yes — for perjury, blasphemy, and disloyalty, and for breaches of the Espionage Act.

Indeed, there are better justifications floating in the political milieu for ending Snowden’s asylum in Russia and bringing him to justice in the United States: Most lawbreakers who are granted pardons are first subjected to the legal system — and accordingly, a legal ruling. In trial, details about these cases come under full and exhaustive scrutiny. The public can hear and study the arguments in favor and against the person in question.

Even so, worries of creating new norms remain untenable. The law works because it’s steady and uniform, reliable and stable. Law itself is the precedent to normative societal action. Following it isn’t novel; it’s the way things work.

Edward Snowden broke the law. And presidents can pardon lawbreakers.

Clemency for Edward Snowden would not forge a new model for law in the United States. President Obama would simply be embracing his place in a long line of executives who have used their constitutional prerogative to identify those whom they deem worthy of clemency. Presidents can exonerate lawbreakers. That’s the precedent; whether it’s a dangerous one is a question to pose to history, not to President Obama.

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Understanding the Iran Interim Deal in Seven Points

As negotiations closed last weekend in Geneva, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told reporters that he hoped this deal would “remove any doubts about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” John Kerry painted the negotiations in a different light, saying that the deal “impedes (Iran’s nuclear) progress in a very dramatic way.” Some have called the deal a tectonic shift in the region, while others have scoffed and written it off as just another cog in a machine that won’t work. So what’s really going on? I’ve broken down the implications of the deal into seven key points.

Why does Iran want nukes so badly?

Nuclear weapons make countries relevant. Nations enrich uranium and seek nuclear capability so that they can attain a certain level of both national security and prestige among world powers. For an Islamic country in the Middle East, that sort national security would signal a permanence amid severe volatility and an ongoing upheaval of the status quo. As the centrifuges spin, and Iran hurtles closer to that dreaded 90 percent enrichment mark, it becomes more of a viable force and louder voice on the global stage. As one White House official said this week, it’s a matter of national pride.

(Additionally, a majority of Iranians believe that the nation should have a nuclear power program as an alternative form of energy.)

Obviously, that’s a deeply flawed mentality given the realities of Iran’s current predicament. The problem, of course, is that no one else wants Iran to have that “security” – at least for now.

Why are all these countries – many of whom have nuclear weapons themselves – so devoted to stopping Iran from having them?

The argument goes something like this: nukes aren’t the coveted bargaining chip that Iran thinks they are, nor are their attainment the threshold Iran needs to cross to be taken seriously. Iranians celebrated in the streets Sunday as the first round of negotiations closed and officials announced an interim agreement that would relieve up to $7 billion in sanctions. There’s a sense that the waters of Iran’s economy will begin to flow after years of self- and externally-imposed drought.

Economically robust countries with a clear future, strong infrastructure, and room for growth (and, yes, with the money to build a strong military) get a voice. Iranians are poor. Oil revenues have been cut back by half as crippling sanctions have taken effect in the last half-decade. And because of past choices and priorities, Iran is stuck. That’s the goal of sanctions: to force hostile nations to decide between continuing to implement its antagonistic policies and allowing the well-being of its own economic sectors.

Would Iran really bomb Israel?

Beyond smoke and mirrors and rhetoric to inflame the radicals, Iran has no real rationale to bomb Israel. In a region with no shortage of problematic countries, Iran is far and away the most ostracized in the international community. With a 20 percent global approval rating, it is more politically isolated than Syria and treated as a greater threat than are its neighbors. Statements by government officials, state-employed scientists, and others in positions of authority brim with rhetoric that scare Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state and disturb those with a stake in the region’s stability. But Iran wants a bomb for the same reason the United States, Russia, Pakistan, and India wanted one: to have a bomb. Organizations like United Against a Nuclear Iran and the diplomats who met in Geneva last weekend know that Iran very likely has no intention of bombing Israel.

What should I know about this deal?

  1. The UN’s premier nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), now gets to inspect the assembly of centrifuges and uranium mines through surveillance cameras and on-the-ground visits at Iranian nuclear facilities. These inspections will be daily at Natanz and Fordow and more sporadic at Arak.
  2. All uranium that Iran has been enriched to 20 percent must now be either diluted to a lower percentage or converted to oxide form.
  3. Iran can keep the centrifuges that exist, but can’t install new ones. In other words, the centrifuges that have been set up, but are not operating, can’t start operating.
  4. Iran can’t enrich any new uranium beyond 5 percent.

Cool bullet-points, but what do they mean?

They mean that in a perfect hypothetical, Iran is deciding through this deal that the health and prosperity of its people are more important than its production of nuclear weapons. The costs of sanctions outweigh the benefits of highly-enriched uranium.

Okay, but do you really buy that?

No, not really. Many – including Israel, Saudi Arabia, any many top American lawmakers – are skeptical of the suddenly-cooperative Islamic Republic, which has a history of wanting it both ways and refusing to compromise. Yossi Klein-Halevi wrote Monday of Israel’s belief that Iranian officials “will persist in doing what they’ve done all along: lie and cheat, but this time under the cover of a deal.”

In truth, the eased sanctions are only a small fraction of the billions in frozen assets and halted contracts that have piled up in recent years. But Bibi Netanyahu sees this deal as the world’s way of giving Iran a few months of carte blanche. Michael Doran, a Brookings Institution fellow who once ran the National Security Council, agreed on Sunday, writing that the agreement signals America’s implicit willingness to channel money to Iran’s terrorist proxies in the Middle East – Hezbollah and the henchmen of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Some commentators have also noted that the emergence of an Iran deal could very well be the point to the death of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Obama administration. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an advisor to Mahmoud Abbas, said publicly that the American decision to facilitate the agreement in spite of Israel’s strong opposition sent “an important message to Israel” on the United States’ priorities.

There’s plenty of justification for being suspicious of Iran’s intentions. In October 2003, representatives of France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, and Iran met in Paris and struck a deal that temporarily suspended Iran’s production of enriched uranium. This was intended to be something of an interim agreement, like the one announced Sunday – a liminal process that would eventually lead to the real accord.

There was no real accord. In early 2005, Iran’s parliament voted to resume the nation’s uranium enrichment program “for peaceful use” only. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president later that year, and nuclear facilities like Isfahan ratcheted up their production. That September, the IAEA condemned Iran and talks with the Paris group broke down.

In 2006, the UN Security Council’s permanent members and Germany (the so-called “P5+1”) reached out to Iran, offering to open new trade routes and allow for several light water reactors in exchange for the suspension, again, of reprocessing and enrichment. Iran turned down the offer and opened its heavy water facility at Arak later that year.

The P5+1 went through similar processes in 2009, 2011, and again earlier this year. Each time, talks broke down because Iran either failed to comply or reneged on a promise.

What’s different now?

Just the president of Iran, really. The only tangible difference I perceive is a newly open, non-hostile relationship between the Iranian leader – President Hassan Rouhani – and the leaders of the P5+1. Rouhani was involved in Iran’s earlier suspensions of enrichment and has generally been more of a mollifier and an appeaser of global interests than his direct predecessor, who advocated and embodied an outwardly antagonistic approach to the Western world.

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The School that was Too Certain for Curiosity

Written for the Emory Wheel:

“Do you know what the most common question philosophy majors ask after college is?”

“No, what is it?”

“‘Do you want fries with that?’”

I cringe and log another mental tally mark. Mr. Adler — a member of my local community — is trying to warn me. He wants to protect me and point me in the right direction.

To him, I’m a lost dog who’s veered off the path and is unable to find his way home.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tasted this flavor of advice. I’m used to the suggestion that my study choices — history and philosophy — render me unemployable. That I’ll be impotent and lost in the post-collegiate job market seems to be a natural consequence of the deadly fusion of multiple interests and an uncertainty in course.

The comments seem to drip with more and more condescension as I careen further and faster down the track to my worthless diploma.

I don’t argue with Mr. Adler, though. Instead, I smile and with an uneasy chuckle, tell him not to worry about me — that I have it figured out.

But I want to say more. I want to tell him that I don’t have it figured out. Not all the details, anyway.

I want to tell Mr. Adler about my school, where the lawns are manicured, the shirts are starched and the fraternity houses employ cleaning crews to mop up after Friday night’s festivities. I want to tell him about the corridors of prestige and privilege, where ambitious 20-somethings walk at a brisk pace toward a ticket of admission to the highest echelons of American society.

I want to explain to him why I’m spending my evenings in conversation with Thoreau and Beckett instead of trying to fit into a pre-professional study course that feels like a hand-me-down sweater two sizes too small. I want to tell him that a year and a half ago I turned on my laptop and opened my email to find a window with a simple message waiting for me: an elite university wanted to give me a carte blanche — a breathing room I’d never have again.

I wanted to tell Mr. Adler that his comment wasn’t an anomaly. It’s only a symptom of a broader and more disturbing phenomenon: the tunnel vision of the modern American college student and the society that not only tolerates it, but also incites it.

Imagine this: you step into a car dealership that carries every car on the market — used Corollas, the latest Jaguars and Teslas, even the Ferrari convertible from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” And then, in that “get-yourself-something-nice” kind of way, the salesman turns and hands you the keys to all of them. That’s what it means to be at Emory.

But that’s not how we see our time here, is it?

No, at Emory we attach ourselves to the “pre-.”

We sift through that box of keys and pluck out one or two. We test the cars that will bring us the furthest distances in the fewest minutes. Those are the cars we like — the ones we can use, the ones that will get us to where we’re going.

But where are we going?

Our way of life starts early. In high school, we followed the formula that promised to get us here — we hated studying for the critical reading section of the SAT but did it anyway. So it was, and so it continues to be.

But we only have a finite period to devote to test-driving. To explore, to read and think and to reflect and compare. To be wrong more often than we’re right. And to reject. And we let the keys slip from our hands and fall into that compromised pre-professional abyss.

Maybe you’re driven by passions for healing the sick and giving sight to the blind and view the pre-med track as the most effective tool in reaching those goals; maybe you see the university GER system as limiting; maybe pure, intentional motivations are pushing you toward the “pre-.” Surely we need nurses and doctors, researchers and statisticians, investors and stockbrokers. Indeed, society soars on the coattails of such ambition.

But the seas won’t rise and the skies won’t open if Goizueta Business School students take chemistry and pre-med students take accounting. Professional success doesn’t have to come at the cost of broader curiosity. Context and perspective — an understanding of the greater whole — inject meaning into our ambitions and pursuits.

When we opened that email and read that invitation to Emory, we were being asked to extinguish the lamps that have always guided our paths and set new ones alight down an uncharted road. To break down assumptions, then build up new ones and break down those new ones again.

We were being invited to read Kant one hour and Hawking the next; to be part of a discourse that spans centuries with Leibniz and Lincoln, Oppenheimer and O’Keefe, Du Bois and the Dao.

We were being freed, for just a few moments, from the constraints of the “pre-.”

To stare down the barrel of financial instability is nothing short of terrifying. But to the extent that Emory students know how to read and reiterate, they must also be able to think, communicate, convey and contextualize. No man lies on his deathbed wishing he’d spent more time worrying about how to read a spreadsheet. These years are called “undergraduate” because they serve to establish the basics, the fundamentals, the fertile soil from which more will grow.

How are we to understand our place in the cosmos if we have no grasp of the greater whole? Art calls this idea perspective: from an inch away, a painting is only a jumbled smear of color. Judeo-Christian religion calls it Sabbath, a day apart from the rest and a frame of reference to sweeten and round out our approach to the other six.

Mr. Adler isn’t unique, nor will his advice soon become the voice of the minority. But he’s wrong. In the modern liberal arts college, ambitious doesn’t have to mean certain. Driven doesn’t have to come with a direction. Dreams of Wall Street and private practice do not have to outshout the whispers of the curious.

And philosophy doesn’t have to come with fries.

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His Own Standard: Why We on the Left Must Hold Obama Accountable

Since September, the Obama administration has been under fire from a Republican weapon that seems to reload with aggravating perpetuity. Weathering attacks on the specific responses to the tragedy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, President Obama sought to mute a chorus of commentators in the presidential debate at Hofstra University last October. Speaking about the American diplomatic corps, Obama absolved others of ultimate wrongdoing:

“They’re my representatives. I send them there – oftentimes into harm’s way…Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible.”

The Obama of national security is accountable, responsible, and when necessary, culpable.

That approach is historically sound. When the Deepwater Horizon turned the Gulf of Mexico black in 2010, BP CEO Tony Hayward couldn’t shrug, hold up his palms, and point the rig’s mechanics. (We know this because that’s exactly what he tried to do.) In the wake of Benghazi, Obama expressed without reservation that – even in the minutia of these national security issues – he had been responsible for prevention and must be liable upon disaster.

But when last week told a tale of two scandals – both underscored by the Libya barrage that will not cease – that air of accountability emptied out of the Obama administration. It became evident that Obama’s feelings of direct responsibility were isolated to the realm of national security.

What happened in Libya was deplorable because that which could have been prevented wasn’t prevented. Where security personnel should have been proactive, they were shoved into a corner and forced to be rushed and reactive. It all happened more than five thousand miles from the White House, but Obama took the fall. He held himself to a higher standard.

But last week’s IRS case laid bare an imbalance in Obama’s priorities. Though his appointees – or bureaucrats hired by people who fit that bill – engaged in something steeped in moral and legal turpitude, their transgressions were minor in the scheme of things; the scandal concerned quotidian domestic financial issues. No death, no carnage – just taxes. The agency’s office is just five blocks from the White House. And what’s been the White House response?

Obama is “concerned by every report he sees on this,” Jay Carney told reporters last Tuesday, “and that is why he looks forward to finding out what the IG report says.” In short: the president will take no responsibility before someone of consequence pins it on him.

Not proactive, reactive. Not accountable, evasive. Obama shrugs, hold up his palms, and point to the rig’s mechanics. Suddenly, he’s Tony Hayward at the Resolute Desk. An incongruence in governing.

The virtually simultaneous revelation that the Department of Justice seized hundreds of phone records prompted a similarly aloof response from team Obama. AP White House reporter Jim Kuhnhenn asked the first question at the May 14 press conference, immediately following the disclosure. His query can be boiled down to its premise. “In every instance,” Kuhnhenn scolded Carney, “either the president or you have placed the burden of responsibility someplace else.” A far cry from the buck-stops-here Obama of October fame.

The first chunk of Carney’s response amounted to a surface defense of the president’s record on First Amendment issues. Then he shifted the scope of his answer to White House jurisdiction over Justice cases. “We are not involved…with any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations,” he said, adding that “those matters are handled, appropriately, by the Justice Department independently.”

Again, Obama is innocent until proven guilty. His head bobs above the waters of responsibility until he’s drowning in them. The question arises: who’s in charge during the perennial White House side-step?

Perhaps the answer is the president’s surrogates – the people who run the departments being investigated. But when Attorney General Eric Holder was initially asked about the seizure of AP phone records, he told a media pool at the DOJ that it was “getting into matters that are beyond my knowledge.” His recusal from the matter left him uninformed as to “what the circumstances were here…and I frankly don’t have knowledge of those facts.”

I’m a self-declared political liberal and voted for Barack Obama last November. That seemed a clear indication that I wanted him running the country, fully informed and profoundly engaged. The more than 51% of eligible voters that opted for him reflects a similar sentiment. The de facto administration policy can’t be precautionary ignorance and retrospective hand-wringing.

The political left mustn’t echo the absent-minded rhetorical gunfire of the right; but it should make President Obama the subject of real targeted criticism until his “buck-stops-here” mentality takes the form of a coherent, comprehensive policy that encompasses his administration’s involvement in tax and law questions as much as it does issues of national security.

We don’t yet know if the IRS and DOJ allegations will grow into convictions, but regardless of circumstance, Obama’s policy should be one of continuity in accountability, not of strategic ignorance that leaves him blindsided and irreproachable. “I’m always responsible,” he said in October. I voted for that Barack Obama.

Posted in 2012 Presidential Elections, Journalism and Media, Law, National Security, Political Goings-On, Political Polarization, Tax Issues | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Boston’s Scar: On Our Expectation of Tragedy

Written for the Huffington Post:

When I was seven, I watched terrorists fly airplanes into buildings. When I was five, two teenagers killed their teacher, and then their classmates, and then themselves in an attack on their high school. Before I turned one, a truck exploded in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds and injuring almost 700. And three weeks before my nineteenth birthday, the Tsarnaev brothers allegedly visited brutality on the Boston Marathon.

If it happens over, and over, and over again, should we accustom ourselves to tragedy? To terrorism? Should we become used to breach after breach of decency? Would it benefit us to force ourselves to foresee mass-casualty incidents?

If we had expected Boston, would we feel any less pain?

Every worldview is built on a first premise – the bedrock assumption upon which all else rides. We assume that there exists an Almighty presence – powerful and unseen – and therein we find religion. We assume a basic set of properties – physical rules, features of time and of space – and along comes science. We assume that zero means nothing, and so we have math; that “I” refers to oneself and that “he” refers to another, and so we have language.

And then there’s that broader, less theoretical set of assumptions that guides our behavior. The social norms and societal conventions: we assume that others won’t raise their voices in the library and that they’ll recycle their empty Coca-Cola cans. Then, the expectations of heavier consequence and loftier import: that shoppers will pay for their groceries before they leave the store; that other drivers will stop at the stop sign; that a run through town will go unbroken by IEDs, a sidewalk will be unrattled by nails, and restaurant windows will remain unshattered by bitter reverberations.

The thinker John Locke had his own first premise of human interaction. He called it the “state of nature.” It was the idea that men live in peace until the quiet is breached – until rights are ignored, or disregarded, or assaulted. Change rises out of the embers of injustice. We follow the rules until someone else breaks them.

The rules were broken on 9/11. We shifted our collective consciousness to reconcile the gulf between our American idealism and the hard reality that razed two towers. Did that day change our assumptions, our expectations of one another? Have we become a passive people living in a weary stupor, awaiting the inevitable? A young classroom eliminated at gunpoint. A movie audience mutilated by the bullet. A Patriot’s Day marred by a billow of smoke and ash. All in the same year.

Would we be better off accepting violence as our new first premise?

Maybe. We know that, according to medical authorities at several Boston hospitals, every victim who wasn’t killed on site on April 15 will likely survive. How could that be? “What we saw unfold was the cultural legacy of the September 11th attacks and all that has followed in the decade-plus since. We are not innocents anymore,” wrote one area doctor in the New Yorker. “Everyone’s imaginations have come to encompass these once unimaginable events.”

As the week’s violence drew to an close, we saw a wave of reactions from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s high school and college classmates. They seem jolted. According to one friend, the suspected bomber spoke cryptically about the event just a day after he walked unscathed from Boylston Street – during the crippling confusion that followed the explosions. “Yeah, man, tragedies can happen anywhere in the world,” Tsarnaev  said, according to CNN, at a UMass Dartmouth gym, “It’s too bad.”

Tsarnaev cynically voiced an expectation of tragedy. But is it something the rest of us really prepare for? That he was comfortable with expecting tragedy may well have enabled him to carry it out. If we believe violence to be inevitable, why shy away from our guns?

Americans find ourselves shocked, disquieted time and again when terror rears its head. Writing for the Boston Globe, one doctor on the scene shared an alternate perspective on the medical response, saying that he had “never been in any kind of tragedy like this.” Neither had most of his colleagues seen trauma of this sort. “These events are not something the medical community generally prepares for.” Terror and massacre are still the American exception, not the rule.

Yes, the anticipation of moral turpitude is sewn into the fabric of our nation: our government has black hawk helicopters, predator drones, and a nuclear arsenal that could blow up the world several times. The constitution calls for a well-regulated militia. We’re not naïve.

But speaking in Boston last Wednesday, President Obama said that the city had been thrown from a certain “state of grace.” Somewhere, John Locke nodded in approval. In this country, as in Boston, grace is the rule – the expectation. Last Monday was the exception. One day we grieved for the dead, and the next we danced in the streets, celebrating a return to normalcy. The state of grace does not account for improvised explosive devices.

Leon Wieseltier authored a piece in the New Republic earlier this week that critiqued the pervasive American desire to “move on” immediately after tragedy. “Only a stupid society would come away from the events in Boston with its sense of its security unshaken,” he wrote. “There is a scar.”

But it’s important to remember that we’re shaken because we’ve been caught off guard. And though we must always seek to avert that scar, that incision, when we miss the signs or let something noxious slip through the cracks, we should feel deeply shaken.

No, we cannot move on immediately, but the violence in our backyard does not reflect our essential being; it is – to borrow from James Joyce – a nightmare from which we are trying to awake; a truth that we are coping with; a fracture that we are trying to heal. The bombings at the Boston Marathon were a blow to our senses, a tremor within the very ground we stand on. To have expected it would have been a tragedy in its own right. We should be shocked, and we should be appalled.

Premeditated killing is not a circumstance to which we can be sensitized. To get used to death and terror would be to walk down a path that leads only to paranoia and mutually-assured destruction. We can’t get used to it. We must always hurt. If we expect tragedy, then we will let fall the full weight of contempt on every man, woman, or child who looks and talks like the Tsarnaev brothers. If we expect tragedy, then we will come to conclusions about millions based on the actions of two.

When that first premise is broken, our task is to fix it; to walk a cautious and ever-hopeful path; to be grounded by empathy and revel in our capacity to restore and reroute the state of grace when it is breached. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s nineteenth birthday marked the year that he would allow his expectation of violence to overtake him. I pray that mine will usher me into a world in which we assume grace, elude bloodshed, and never grow comfortable with tragedy.

Posted in Gun Debate, National Security | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment