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A family of compassion December 27, 2012

Posted by nickmalik in reflection.
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(Note: if you have not yet seen Les Miserables and you are hoping to see the film, be forewarned that this post has a few spoilers)

I’d like to take a moment to recognize how different my family is, and how proud of them I am for that difference.  We are a family that is not afraid of compassion. 

We have seen the stage production of Les Miserables many times as a family.  Touring productions mostly, but one notable youth production as well.  So, we know the story pretty much end-to-end.  The music players of two of my three kids has the soundtrack of Les Mis (pronounced lay-miz) on it, and all of us will sit around singing songs from the show.  It’s kind of a centerpiece, but also a well-worn tale.  We’ve been looking forward to the movie version of Les Miserables for quite a while, and here, on the second night of it’s release, the family trekked to the local theater and sat in rapt attention for 2 hours and 40 minutes as we watched Hollywood’s version of our favorite show.

On the way in, we passed others who were just coming out.   They were happily chatting about the show, and some were singing a song or two.  I figured, in a couple of hours, we’d be just like them, happily chatting about one scene or another.  

Yet, once the show started, the story took hold.  It’s not that Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe were particularly brilliant, because they weren’t.  I have kind words to say about the acting, but I’ll save that for another day.  It’s the story that captures, and it’s a story that we know well.  We listened and recognized songs, and once again, we were there, in sixteenth century France, following the lives of John Valjean and Cosette and Marius and Javert.  I will admit that I shed a tear, as I always do, when Fantine dies, and again when Gavroche falls on the barricade.

When the movie was over, and the lights came up, the audience started to rise and chat and discuss the show.  We didn’t.  My wife Marina was drying her eyes.  One of my teenagers quickly fled to theater to the bathroom so that no one would see tears.  As we left, with other families chatting merrily, our family was quiet.  We were still in the story.  We were repeating that final song in our hearts.  Realize that there were no surprises for us.  We knew the story end to end, yet we still felt it.

This is not the first time we have reacted differently to movies than your typical family.  I still remember clearly, a couple of years ago, we were watching one of the Transformers movies.  The giant robots were rampaging through the streets of a major city, tossing cars left and right.  The other folks in the theater were paying rapt attention, which robot would win.  One of my kids turned to me and said “There are people in those cars!”  It’s those moments when I know that the media has not taught my children to ignore humanity, to become immune to caring about suffering wherever it is to be found.  We notice the people while the director would have us ignore them and focus only on the hero and the villain. 

So when a story of compassion, like Les Miserables, comes to the screen, it floors the whole family.  We listen to the pain of the prisoners.  When Fantine loses all dignity, her tears became our tears.  When Cosette cries at the death of her father, we all feel her loss. 

In this world of cardboard characters and epic comic book movies where the hero battles the villain through the streets of the city without any concern for the people who live there, we notice.  And that’s different.   A difference I am proud of.

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Swiss Family Gun Control December 18, 2012

Posted by nickmalik in Politics.
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It has been only a few days since a mentally ill young man walked into an elementary school and killed 20 children and seven teachers.  This has ignited one of the strongest debates on gun control in recent memory.  One of the recurring memes in the current debate is the notion that Switzerland is a country with a high rate of gun ownership and a low rate of gun death… and therefore, we don’t have to restrict gun sales to reduce gun deaths.  This is pure propaganda.

I do not consider America and Switzerland to be parallel, and I do not accept most of the argument that the laws in place in Switzerland would have the same effects here.

Image of swiss army troopsFirst off, Switzerland is a much older country (most date the formation of the Swiss federation to 1291) with a very stable identity and population.  During the majority of that time (until 1848), they were a federation of small countries that banded together as a protective alliance.  At many times in their history, there has been strife between the various autonomous districts (called cantons).  They spent many years under direct foreign control by Napoleon.  It is from this history of both fighting against, and protecting, their neighbors that their military and gun traditions arise. 

Secondly, they have a weak federal government (while ours is quite strong).  For example, the districts (cantons) hold the authority to levy taxes.  They have NO FEDERAL TAX.  They have very limited federal power and any law (at any level) can be challenged in a direct referendum.  They have remained as a neutral power in Europe for over 500 years. While there is a "president," the title holds no special power and is simply rotated among the seven members of their federal council (elected by their legislature from within its own ranks). 

Third, they are defended by a citizens militia of about 200,000 troops, 95% of whom are drafted conscripts. Men are required to serve.  Women have the option of serving.  Their soldiers are trained and equipped and, after three months, SENT HOME.  They maintain all of their military gear in their homes.  Therefore, calling them an "armed public" is very different than in the US.  There is hunting for sport, but no parallel to our NRA, and very little street crime.  With their direct democracy system, the influence of political interest groups like the NRA is nearly nil.

Fourth, while they are proud of their openness and the fact that 20% of their population is "foreign" (and therefore non-voting), the wild majority of those foreigners are Italian and German (and thus speak the local languages).  Their business policies are notoriously protectionist and exclusive, and their culture is somewhat insular.  The number of people who are living in Switzerland who do NOT share a common understanding of centuries-old cultural traditions is very small.  Even with their relatively low level of "foreign influence" there has been a growing element of racism and xenophobia in Swiss politics.  The USA, on the other hand, has nearly no common traditions, and we substitute nationalism for real unity.

The United States is a young, risk-taking, war-loving country with a strong central government that spends wildly on military all over the world, and whose citizens are often living in fear and mistrust of each other.  Switzerland is an old alliance of small countries that has a weak central government, has maintained risk-averse culture and neutrality for centuries and whose citizens are largely NOT in fear of each other, but rather would maintain strength to protect themselves from external influence.

Therefore, asking an American and a Swiss to follow the same laws can be done, but you will have very different effects in terms of crime rates. 

I love the Swiss, but I view their form of democracy to be the most delicate, and carefully balanced, in the world.  Their culture is a not in the same state of constant remixing as ours is (by design), and their stability is reinforced with very tight immigration and asylum policies that nearly eliminates the influence of "outsiders" while binding their citizens together in probably the most prosperous and best educated "middle class" on Earth.

While we share the same values, our cultures are different on so many levels, that comparisons are not truly useful, especially in this context.

As other bloggers have noted, the Swiss experience of gun ownership and crime is simply not applicable to the United States.

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The Trouble With Labels December 7, 2012

Posted by nickmalik in Critical Thinking, News and politics.
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I recently had an exchange in an obscure corner of Facebook with an individual.  This gentleman, whom I will not name, objected to my position on an issue of fiscal policy.  He then went on to tell me what my problem was.

The trouble with you liberals is you deal in emotions rather than facts. At least that is about the only reason I can see why you would so willingly want the government and then spend in the most foolish ways imaginable. […] The dirty little secret liberals don’t want to admit is that we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.

When I expressed that I found his attitude arrogant and condescending, and that he knew nothing about me, he responded with the statements below.

Hi again Nick. I take exception to your calling me arrogant and condescending. I said nothing in my post that should cause you to say that. To the contrary I do know something about you. You are a liberal. You don’t have to refer to yourself as a liberal. All one has to do is read over some of your posts. There is nothing you say that indicates that you are anything but a liberal. Hell, if you are a liberal, admit it. […] I had taken the time (which I don’t have enough of to be doing this) to send you some links with actual facts, but after seeing what you read and the things you have said in your posts, it’s pointless. You read liberalism, you think liberalism. Liberalism in, liberalism out. I know that right about now you are thinking that I am a stupid, illiterate, red neck conservative, but that’s okay, I understand that’s the way most liberals think of us.

So, I provided a description of “the trouble with labels” which I’m reproducing here.  The excerpt below addressed to this individual, whom I will call Frank (name changed).

Hi Frank, Thank you for writing back. 

The first two sentences of your previous response were the cause of my concern.  You see, when you label a person, you offer yourself an opportunity to treat that person as a thing and not an individual. For example, I can say "Tom is XXX" (use any label you want… conservative, liberal, black, gay, racist, feminist, whatever Tom is). Then I can say "XXX are fools."  Then I can say "Tom is therefore a fool" without ever knowing anything about Tom.  Perhaps Tom is not a fool.  Perhaps Tom is an individual.  That step (from label to person) is important in allowing an actual conversation to form.  You need two people speaking to each other.  Neither one treating the other as a label.  I will not treat you as a label Frank.  My offense came from your choice (twice) to label me.  If you want to know more, look into the writings of the philosopher Martin Buber (I and Thou) (http://www.iep.utm.edu/buber/ ).

Your decision to apply a label and then discount my words because of that label is a type of logical fallacy called an "Ad Hominem" attack.  In this type of argument, one person does not address the truth of the other’s words.  Instead, he attacks the person making the argument.   

Here’s how Ad Hominem works:  "Tom says the sun is a star. Tom likes broccoli.  Anyone who eats broccoli is a fool.  Therefore, Tom is a fool. Therefore, the sun is not a star."  The words of Tom may be true, but because Tom is a member of a "fool" group, all of his arguments are wrong.  Ad Hominem is taught.  It is a favorite of propagandists who want you to ignore the words of others.  Individuals who think critically can still be fooled by Ad Hominem attacks.  I do my best to ignore and refute Ad Hominem attacks.  That is another reason that I find offense with labels. 

Here’s the rub.  I have spoken earlier about the need to spread the word about critical thinking.  I will continue to ask people to consider ideas that may be foreign to them.  However, before we can convince, we must connect.  Two people cannot grow through a relationship unless they first relate to one another.  This is what Martin Buber means with his concept of the “I and Thou” relationship.  Buber compared it to the “I and it” relationship, where we perceive our world in the context of the things that surround us.  By using the “I and Thou” relationship, I treat the other person as a person, not a thing.  I begin an honest connection and open myself to the possibility of learning from him.  I believe that this is the first step to removing the artificial barrier that has crept into American life as a result of the years of propaganda from Fox News.  To change, we must first connect.

In my prior thread, I had wished Frank “happy holidays” to which he replied “Merry CHRISTMAS” as though I were offering an insult.

Here’s how I ended this particular thread with Frank:

Now, rather than Ad Hominem, I encourage you to actually read the articles that I cited, and then go further, and read the **actual source material** that they cite… all from non-partisan sources like the CBO and the IMF.  If you take a few minutes and think critically, you may discover that your understanding of fiscal policy has been based on incomplete or incorrect information.  I am willing to learn and grow.  I will read ANY article you point me to, and look under the article for the source material that backs it up.  I will consider the credentials of the person making the statements, and the credibility that they have in their own field, before accepting their words as facts.  Please do the same.

Lastly, I wish you a wonderful Christmas and hope that the spirit of love and friendship fills your home this holiday season.  As for myself, I will have a warm and beautiful Hanukkah with my family.  Please do not be offended that I chose not to wish you Hanukkah Sameach in my earlier post.  I did not want to assume that you and I shared a religion. 

All the best.

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The New Challenge of America: reaching the fact-free 48% November 11, 2012

Posted by nickmalik in News and politics.
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It’s early November and Obama has won re-election.  Our Republican brothers and sisters are busy pointing fingers and making accusations about who’s to blame for their loss.  However, Democrats have a big problem as well.  We witnessed the Republican party run the most fact-free campaign in history, and we watched in horror as 48% of American voters bought in to it.  (If you don’t believe that Romney told lies, you may want to check out a blog written by Steve Benen who tracked them: as of election day, he had managed to rack up a record-setting 917 false statements).  

Wake up, my brothers and sisters: It’s going to happen again, and sooner or later, a liar will succeed in getting into power based on falsehood.  The challenge that we must address, starting now, is to convince millions of Americans to think critically, to listen and consider ideas that don’t agree with theirs, and take input from multiple sources.

Frank Rich wrote a reasoned and impassioned recap of the Republican bubble in New York Magazine a few days ago (link).  His article ended with a sad announcement: If truth can’t command a mandate, no one can.  One would hope that a well-seasoned writer and professional journalist such as Mr. Rich would use his skills and position to begin to address this challenge… to reach out to the masses who voted “fact free,” but that did not happen.  There are many reasons why Frank Rich’s article will not have that impact.  Here’s my list:

  • The article is published in an outlet that is not commonly read by conservatives.
  • The article is written such that a poorly educated citizen would find it confusing to read. 
  • The article conflates the voters with the party.  Arguing against the party will not convince the voters.  Arguing that voters are unintelligent will not convince them either.

This is not a criticism of Frank Rich.  His article was probably not intended to have any lasting impact.  But a lasting impact is essential to avoid living through this again.

We cannot count on the folks who make these mistakes to do our job for us.  We will have to do it ourselves. 

We, the individual citizens of conscience, the consumers of science, the respecters of fact, the compassionate majority, we will have to individually and personally make the case to our neighbors that they have been misled.  We will have to teach them how to think critically, something normally reserved for college students at a liberal arts university. 

We will have to do that by listening to their concerns, communicating complex ideas with the metaphors that they are comfortable using, and explaining how to find sources of information that are not polluted with bias.  We will have to teach our neighbors and friends, especially those who have been listening to lies, to think critically.  Specifically, we will ask them to trust democracy more than they trust media, to value facts from reputable sources, to break down rhetoric into simple logic, to listen to leaders with specific and proven skills, and to accept the notion that the repetition of a message does not make the message truthful or accurate.

It is not impossible to reach our neighbors.  Some are too far gone, but most are not.  We must try.  Our democracy depends on it.

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Is Pay Equality in the Best Interest of Married Women? November 10, 2012

Posted by nickmalik in News and politics.
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Before you point out that I’m not qualified to discuss what is in the best interest of women, I will agree with you.  Most of the following post comes to me on Facebook, from the wall of a friend.  I’m sharing it because, well, it’s interesting and thought provoking… and a little bit cynical.  It was written by Tonya Britton of Houston Texas a day or so after the Presidential Election.  During the election, it was noted that single women voted strongly for Obama while married women were more evenly split for Romney.

“Megyn Kelly of FOX News suggested that the divide between married and single women is a result of single women’s expectation that the Government would take care of them. That single women are trying to "marry" the government. Given that she framed the marriage divide as one in which a woman is either taken care of by her husband or taken care of by her government leads me to a single conclusion: Conservative married women view their husbands as cash cows whose job it is to financially care for them.

Given this construct, these women are likely not concerned about women’s rights to the same degree as single women because these women incur substantial economic benefits from marriage. They are able to leverage the higher wages provided to male heads of households, so increasing women’s wages will only serve to increase competition against their primary sources of income. When a husband dies, the retired widow can apply for his social security or hers, the difference of which is likely to be substantial as his lifetime income is greater. The difference between his SS and hers is an entitlement paid to her that she did not earn. Married women and their children can also access health benefits through their husbands’ employer.

Because employer-paid healthcare is a transfer fund- it is derived from the profits generated by labor – single women in the workplace supplement the incomes of stay-at-home mothers, which frees additional income for those women to be able to afford to pay out-of-pocket for reproductive healthcare. Single women’s reproductive healthcare costs must be paid out of pocket, an expense that is sourced solely from her income, with no supplemental assistance.

As an aside, married women with children derive other benefits from the tax-payer (secondary schooling, parks and other community services), therefore it is in their best interest to ensure that wages in their community remain high. It would intuitively seem that they would wish to increase single women’s income, except that the vast majority of single income persons do not own homes and therefore do not substantially contribute to the tax base (i.e. property tax) and those that do own homes, often lobby for tax-payer investments in their communities that do not directly benefit families (i.e, higher end retail, art galleries, nice restaurants, etc.). It is to the married woman’s benefit to support policies and laws that build families within their communities, while discouraging those that would entice the relocation of both low and high income single females into their neighborhoods.

On the issue of reproduction, we often hear that single pregnant women should give up their children for adoption because there are “a lot of families who wish to adopt.” If that is the case, effectively, upper class married women stand to gain by being provided access to children without having had to incur the physical, financial, or emotional (burden) of actually having to bear them.
From a single woman’s point of view, I do not wish for the government to care for me. I do, however, seek a government that protects me- from those who view me as more of a resource, than as a human being. And that, at the end of the day, is the point that I think most Republicans, including Ms. Kelly, refuse to acknowledge.” – Tonya Britton

There are some interesting economic points in Ms. Britton’s argument.  From a personal standpoint, I am in no position to argue the issue, because I am a married man, not a single woman.  However, from an economic standpoint, there are some things I can weigh in on.  First off, the following statements are true:

  • Married women incur significant economic benefit from their husband’s income
  • Retired widows can apply for the social security benefits of their deceased husband, often earning more money than with their own (this is the case today with my mother).
  • Employer-paid healthcare benefits married women.  In all likelihood, it is the chief source of healthcare for married women who are not in the workforce themselves.
  • Married women with children derive substantial benefits from tax-payer funds (good schools, good parks, good community services)
  • Single income people are less likely to own their own home than married people (see source).
  • Single pregnant women are often encouraged to put their children up for adoption.

That said, some of the conclusions, while possibly true, are not a direct logical conclusion from the facts presented. 

  • For example, while married women derive benefits from their husband’s income, the divorce rate is still substantial.  25% of couples who married between 1990 and 1995 did not see their 10th anniversary (see source).  Any woman who is voting to keep pay rates down for single women must do so believing that they will never actually be single themselves.  If women are so calculating as to vote to keep pay rates down for other women to benefit themselves, how is it that they are so short sighted as to believe that they will never be single? 
  • While it is true that employer-based healthcare benefits married women, the cost of reproductive care comes out of their pocket just as assuredly as if they were single.  The benefit of paying for reproductive care is much more related to income status than marital status.  That said, I believe that women have no problem remembering how difficult it was to pay for contraception when they were young and broke, and see it as a fairness issue to make sure that young women have as much financial burden as young men.
  • While it is true that single mothers are encouraged to put their kids up for adoption, the motivation most frequently cited is that married couples are usually better equipped to handle the stresses of parenting… not to provide a supply of fresh babies to lazy rich women.

I think the argument above is interesting.  However, it appears to be missing the primary reason that single and married women are voting differently: their husband.  If married men are voting for Romney, women have a person in their house who is arguing for Romney.  Some will want to keep the peace.  Some will trust him to make the decision. Some will agree because they share a trusted leader (like a pastor or priest) who tells them both to vote for Romney.  Some may even fear their husbands.  Regardless, their husband’s viewpoint will impact theirs.  (Note this works for Obama as well… but Obama is not strong among older white men where these indications are more likely to apply than in younger, or more racially mixed, couples).

This isn’t to say that women don’t have their own mind and their own rights to vote.  It is simply the reality that marriage requires compromise and concession.  The choice of a president may very well be part of that compromise.  It is not listed in the reasons above, and I believe it should be. 

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Proposed: US Constitutional Amendment on election processes November 5, 2012

Posted by nickmalik in Uncategorized.
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As I watch the ever increasing avalanche of bad news about the broken system that we use to elect our leaders, I am in agreement with David Frum who provided a well worded call to repair it. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/05/opinion/frum-election-chaos/index.html?c=&page=1

I would propose that there is a structural problem that obstructs consistency: lack of anyone who is accountable for ensuring election systems are actually set up right.

I propose that we create an independent federal agency the will run all elections nationwide. Its leader will serve a four year term, by having the president offer a list of appointees to the Senate, and having the Senate pick one.

The amendment is necessary because this is a state responsibility now, and it must move to the federal level.

I propose that it read: The United States Government shall ensure that all elections in the United Stated are performed in a manner that is open, fair, accurate, and ensures that all legal citizens shall have an equal opportunity to have their vote counted.

Shall we tolerate intolerance? September 24, 2012

Posted by nickmalik in Politics, reflection.
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The news this week has been about a set of manufactured riots across the Middle East that used, as a pretext, a YouTube video that insults Islam.  It is true that the video insults the Islamic prophet.  It is also true that it was online for a number of months before the riots erupted, and that the riots were timed to erupt on September 11th.  If that doesn’t strike you as “manufactured,” you aren’t paying attention.

I can tolerate the truly uninformed.  If a person has been misled, it is easy to see how they would riot about an insult that comes from the USA.  After all, in most Middle Eastern countries, their own governments have the power to prevent the creation of a movie, and imprison a film maker.  Those governments also have the power to tear it down and remove it from the Internet.  Those folks would find it incredible to believe that the US Government, a superpower with vast resources and wealth, does NOT have the power to compel a commercial company (Google) from taking down a video.

I, too, am intolerant… I am intolerant of intolerance.  We have a choice when dealing with uninformed people who riot when they are insulted.  We can choose to limit our own speech, and be cautious of our words.  We can choose to say less, and agree to never insult one another.  Or we can choose to respect free speech, even when it is offensive and sick.  We can choose to agree with Voltaire’s comment “I do not agree with what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it.”

Tolerance is tough.  It means standing back and letting people speak, even when they are being outright offensive and sometimes disgusting.  When the Westboro Baptist Church shows up at the funeral of a soldier with protest signs that indicate that your young men and women are dying because G-d hates Americas tolerance of homosexuals, I am disgusted.  When the Tea Party supporters come to a protest march with posters that depict the President of the United States as a modern Hitler or in the context of a racist epithet, I am offended, but I stand back.  More than stand back, I stand up for their right to say awful things.

Why?  Because the alternative is much worse.  The alternative is to outlaw some form of speech, and that is wrong.


Recently, a leading Islamic organization has renewed calls for a change to international law that would restrict free speech.  That change would mean that it becomes illegal for anyone to say something that offends someone else’s religion.

Consider that for a minute.  It becomes illegal to offend a Muslim by insulting Mohammed.  OK… but what else happens when you do this?

It means that a religious person has MORE freedom than a non-religious person.  A pastor can call you anything he wants, including a socialist, a fascist, a bigot, a demon, anything… but you can’t criticize him, because that could amount to insulting his religion.  The Muslims will claim that blasphemy would be strictly defined, and that works for religions that are large and well organized.  There are a few dozen of those in the USA.  But how many “small” religions are there?  How many denominations of Christianity?  How many brands of Islam?  How many branches of Judaism?  How many sects of Mormonism?  How many others?

I don’t have all the numbers, but this I do have:  According to the Dictionary of Christianity in America (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1990): “As of 1980 David B. Barrett identified 20,800 Christian denominations worldwide . . .” (“Denominationalism,” page 351).  Barrett “classified them into seven major blocs and 156 ecclesiastical traditions.” This is from the Oxford World Christian Encyclopedia (1982) of which he is the editor. Also, according to the United Nations statistics there were over 23,000 competing and often contradictory denominations worldwide (World Census of Religious Activities [U.N. Information Center, NY, 1989]).

If there are 20,000 divisions of Christianity, most of them would be quite small… a single church.  A single congregation.  Would an insult to the leader of that church amount to an insult to his (self-created) religion?  How can a blasphemy law  be created that would NOT favor that pastor’s right to speak over yours or mine?

Passing a law against free speech, in any form, is insane.  It serves war, not peace.

The real solution is to provide tolerance education to everyone in the world as part of basic education.  The solution is not to tolerate intolerance.


Quick update.  Apparently, Reading University in the UK has banned their atheist society from campus because they behaved in an intolerant manner during a “Freshers Fair” by placing a post-it note with the word Mohammed on a pineapple (link).  After that got them kicked out of the fair, the student union passed a rule requiring all organizations to sign an agreement not to offend anyone.  The atheist society decided not to sign the agreement and they are no longer a recognized group.

Clearly the atheist society behaved in an intolerant way.  They intentionally insulted Muslims.  However, would they have been so quick to target Christians?  By way of comparison, if they had taken a carven statue of Christ on a cross, and dressed Christ as the devil, and then put a sign on the cross below his feet saying “The Romans Were Right,” would there be controversy?  Given that most grew up in a Christian society, would such a display have offended the society members themselves?  Did their choice to target Muslims represent a disagreement with all religious dogma, or was it outright hatred of Muslims?

The atheist society had every right to speak openly and freely about an important idea: that free speech can be infringed by religious people.  On the other hand, the organizers of the freshers fair had a different purpose: to make incoming freshmen feel welcome.  Who is right?

I would add this fact: There is a time and a place for controversial speech.  In a civilized society, controversial speech is a requirement, but it must be clearly delineated from hate speech, or one’s attempt at provoking intolerant behavior will simply succeed.  The students, in this case, were clumsy.  Their case could have easily been made by ensuring that they were clear about their intent, or that they simply invite students to have a discussion about tolerance before provoking violence.  They missed an opportunity, and continue to do so.  Let me repeat: controversial speech must have a time and a place.

I believe that a speakers corner is one such time and place.  If a person stood up, at a speaker’s corner, and held a pineapple aloft with the word Mohammed emblazoned upon it, they should be defended (possibly from outright violence).  On the other hand, in a classroom where a Physics professor is trying to explain the Special Theory of Relativity, jumping up on a desk and presenting the decorated crucifix I mentioned above would be clearly inappropriate.  Why?  In both cases, you have a gathering of people, right?  Answer: because the purpose of the gathering MATTERS.

I believe that the atheist society at Reading University is guilty of not understanding this simple concept: that there is a time and a place for every discussion.  I believe that the student union is also guilty of the same thing.  One wants the right to say outrageous things in inappropriate places.  The other wants to prevent them from saying anything outrageous at all.  No one considered the middle option: that discussion of an offensive and controversial thought should be specifically invited, in a particular time and place, and that folks unwilling or unable to listen to their message, could simply agree to stay away.

That is not what happened.  It’s a lost opportunity.

Why these two groups cannot compromise is an indication of the failure of our society to teach what it really means to be tolerant.


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Can Universities Open the Minds of Bigots? August 19, 2012

Posted by nickmalik in reflection.
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Bigots are not born.  They are made. 

Parents, teachers, religious leaders, youth leaders, friends, and even enemies conspire to teach young people to close their eyes, and minds, to different ideas.  Universities are often the FIRST time, and in some lives, the ONLY time, when a young person is challenged to address the assumptions that have been spoon-fed to them their whole lives.  To be a bigot is simple.  All it takes is the belief that you are “right” regardless of evidence.  All it takes is unwillingness: the unwillingness to consider alternative viewpoints, to engage in debate, to accept the fact that their loved ones have been responsible for limiting their perspective rather than expanding it.   To spot a bigot is easy.  Find someone who is unwilling to listen. 

One of the reasons that my father, Dr. Anand Malik, taught for over 30 years at the University of Tennessee, although he was qualified to teach at much more prestigious institutions, was his dedication to the unique value that a university provides.  A university’s unique value comes not only from confronting bigotry, but breaking through it… to opening minds to new ideas and broader understanding.  Some will not change, but many will.  Teaching at a university in Tennessee afforded him the opportunity to address far more bigotry than at more elite institutions.  He had far more impact there.

I am so very proud of my father.  He had every reason to despise bigots, yet he chose not to hate.  He had been a victim of bigotry, hatred, and ignorance, and chose to overcome it.  My father grew up in Lahore (a city that was in India prior to the partition of that country).  As the son of a Hindu father and a Sikh mother, he was happy there… but the anger and hatred that erupted during partition drove armies of bigots into the streets to riot and burn and attack and kill.  Thousands of people were dragged from their homes or workplaces and beaten (or trapped in buildings set on fire).  My family left in a hurry with few possessions.

During the civil rights movement, my father took difficult political positions in the Faculty senate.  He asked the university to confront long-standing policies that kept black students segregated and disenfranchised.  The institution of "Tenure” protected him.  That is one of the unique values of a University: protection of the right to speak honestly, especially when it is not popular with those in power. 

This week, another professor had to face bigots at a southern university.  This time, it was Dr. Charles Negy, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, faced bigotry in his upper-division course on Cross Cultural Psychology.  Dr. Negy, a Mexican American graduate of Texas A&M University is just as personally aware of the implications of bigotry as my father was.  He has seen bigotry in action.  He is very well qualified to teach the course he is teaching. 

This time, apparently, the bigots in his class identified themselves.  Dr. Negy sent an e-mail in response which was posted onto Reddit.  I have copied his letter from Reddit onto this blog because I support Dr. Negy’s viewpoint.  For those folks who don’t realize it, Dr. Negy doesn’t have tenure at the UCF.  He is an Associate Professor, and can be fired for taking a principled stance, although there is no evidence that he will be.  That said, his stance is controversial, especially in the South.  He has asked his students, who learned their bigotry from their parents, to challenge their thinking.  Some of those parents will be certain to apply pressure on the administration to fire Dr. Negy.  If enough of us speak out in support of his principled stance, there will be counter-pressure to help him. 

Here is Dr. Negy’s letter to his students. 

Hello, Cross-Cultural students, I am writing to express my views on how some of you have conducted yourself in this university course you are taking with me. It is not uncommon for some-to-many American students, who typically, are first-generation college students, to not fully understand, and maybe not even appreciate the purpose of a university. Some students erroneously believe a university is just an extension of high school, where students are spoon-fed “soft” topics and dilemmas to confront, regurgitate the “right” answers on exams (right answers as deemed by the instructor or a textbook), and then move on to the next course.

Not only is this not the purpose of a university (although it may feel like it is in some of your other courses), it clearly is not the purpose of my upper-division course on Cross-Cultural Psychology. The purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to struggle intellectually with some of life’s most difficult topics that may not have one right answer, and try to come to some conclusion about what may be “the better answer” (It typically is not the case that all views are equally valid; some views are more defensible than others). Another purpose of a university, and my course in particular, is to engage in open discussion in order to critically examine beliefs, behaviors, and customs. Finally, another purpose of a university education is to help students who typically are not accustomed to thinking independently or applying a critical analysis to views or beliefs, to start learning how to do so. We are not in class to learn “facts” and simply regurgitate the facts in a mindless way to items on a test. Critical thinking is a skill that develops over time. Independent thinking does not occur overnight. Critical thinkers are open to having their cherished beliefs challenged, and must learn how to “defend” their views based on evidence or logic, rather than simply “pounding their chest” and merely proclaiming that their views are “valid.” One characteristic of the critical, independent thinker is being able to recognize fantasy versus reality; to recognize the difference between personal beliefs which are nothing more than personal beliefs, versus views that are grounded in evidence, or which have no evidence.

Last class meeting and for 15 minutes today, we addressed “religious bigotry.” Several points are worth contemplating:

  1. Religion and culture go “hand in hand.” For some cultures, they are so intertwined that it is difficult to know with certainty if a specific belief or custom is “cultural” or “religious” in origin. The student in class tonight who proclaimed that my class was supposed to be about different cultures (and not religion) lacks an understanding about what constitutes “culture.” (of course, I think her real agenda was to stop my comments about religion).

  2. Students in my class who openly proclaimed that Christianity is the most valid religion, as some of you did last class, portrayed precisely what religious bigotry is. Bigots—racial bigot or religious bigots—never question their prejudices and bigotry. They are convinced their beliefs are correct. For the Christians in my class who argued the validity of Christianity last week, I suppose I should thank you for demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry looks like. It seems to have not even occurred to you (I’m directing this comment to those students who manifested such bigotry), as I tried to point out in class tonight, how such bigotry is perceived and experienced by the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the non-believers, and so on, in class, to have to sit and endure the tyranny of the masses (the dominant group, that is, which in this case, are Christians).

  3. The male student who stood up in class and directed the rest of the class to “not participate” by not responding to my challenge, represented the worst of education. For starters, the idea that a person—student or instructor—would instruct other students on how to behave, is pretty arrogant and grossly disrespects the rights of other students who can and want to think for themselves and decide for themselves whether they want to engage in the exchange of ideas or not. Moreover, this “let’s just put our fingers in our ears so we will not hear what we disagree with” is appallingly childish and exemplifies “anti-intellectualism.” The purpose of a university is to engage in dialogue, debate, and exchange ideas in order to try and come to some meaningful conclusion about an issue at hand. Not to shut ourselves off from ideas we find threatening.

Universities hold a special place in society where scholarly-minded folks can come together and discuss controversial, polemic, and often uncomfortable topics. Universities, including UCF, have special policies in place to protect our (both professors’ and students’) freedom to express ourselves. Neither students nor professors have a right to censor speech that makes us uncomfortable. We’re adults. We’re at a university. There is no topic that is “off-limits” for us to address in class, if even only remotely related to the course topic. I hope you will digest this message, and just as important, will take it to heart as it may apply to you.

Charles Negy

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Outrage over the death of Trevon Martin March 30, 2012

Posted by nickmalik in News and politics.
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As I post this, it is late March, and Trevon has been dead for a little over a month.  There are new investigations into the case, triggered in large part by an online petition and the publicity generated by social media.  The originator of the online petition, as it turns out, is an Irish-American named Cunningham who attended a traditionally black university (Howard).  In an article on this interesting footnote, many of the commenters berated Mr. Cunningham for starting the petition “before all the facts were known.”

Their criticism makes no sense to me, because the facts would not have been known if it weren’t for the online petition.  You see, the police were done.  The investigation was called off.  There was not going to be any further attention, and no further facts were going to be discovered in the case, because the case was effectively closed.  According to the prosecutor’s office, there was no crime

That is, it was closed until it was REOPENED by Mr. Cunningham and Trevon’s parents and millions of other people who were outraged by the insane behavior of the Florida elected officials who figured it would be cool to ignore the death of an unarmed teenager whose only crime seems to be the color of his skin. 

Some of my friends believe that my outrage in this case is simply hyperbole… that we should all calm down and just trust the justice system.  I believe that the American justice system is part of the problem; that it failed Trevon just as it has failed tens of thousands of other people.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a nice clear cogent argument to support my belief… until now.

Today, I read the following post from someone who is well educated in legal matters.  I’d like to share this contribution with you, and keep it for reference, so that the next time someone asks me why I believe justice was averted in the original investigation, I would have something to point to.

This is a post made by Michael Marowitz in response to an MSNBC news article on Cunningham.  I did not edit it in any way.

To those who decry Cunningham’s efforts as unjustified before all the facts of the incident become known:

Under the law of self-defense, the amount of force used to defend must be proportionate to the amount of force used to attack. There’s an old saying that applies here: you don’t bring a gun to a fist fight. Even if everything Mr. Zimmerman says is true, that he was attacked first, his admission that he had shot an unarmed man would have given rise to his arrest in most states of the union. He can use the doctrine of self-defense to defend against whatever charge or charges will ultimately be brought, but that happens in court after charges are brought, and certainly the possibility of raising self-defense as an affirmative defense is no basis for not placing him under arrest and requiring him to post bail to secure his freedom from incarceration prior to trial.

The Florida Attorney General who declined the suggestion of the case detectives that a manslaughter case be charged against Zimmerman and has stopped Zimmerman from being arrested is one villain here. He has used his prosecutorial authority to depart from the norms of criminal law–authorities always arrest a confessed killer who gunned down an unarmed man. And people who have protested against this injustice have every right to complain of disparate treatment.

However limited the known facts are, those facts that are not disputed demanded that an arrest be made. Moreover, this case shows how dangerous stand-your-ground laws are. There’s a concept in constitutional law that says that some laws must be struck down as void for vagueness. In simple words, if a law fails to have clear standards to be applied, the law should not be applied. In Florida, the law allows a gun wielder on the streets to shoot dead anyone who the shooter believes is going to do "harm or commit a violent felony." As stated earlier, ordinary self-defense requires any that the person asserting the defense must show that lethal force was necessary to stop a lethal assault, which plainly wasn’t the case here. Whether its NRA, the ALEC commission, Wal-mart, or gun manufacturers who pushed this Florida law and similar laws in 20 states intended this result of not, it was clearly a conceivable outcome of such a vaguely worded law and it substantially dilutes protections against the excessive use of force in self-defense. In fact, such laws are an abomination of classic self-defense principles that have governed Anglo-Saxon law for centuries.

The only exception of late to the use of lethal force as a defense is the allowance that people in their homes may use lethal force against burglars invading the home. By taking the principle of the use of force outside one’s home, the purveyors of deadly weapons and their supporters have placed every citizen at risk of wrongful killing by wannabe John Waynes like Zimmerman. Stand-your-ground laws are legal abominations that should be eliminated wherever they have been adopted.

Michael L. Marowitz
J.D., J.S.M. (Master’s in law with emphasis on constitutional law, Stanford Law School, 1981)

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If your loved one had died on 9/11… January 9, 2012

Posted by nickmalik in reflection.
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I follow, online, the musings of a thoughtful and provocative individual named Harry Tucker.  This morning, Harry posted on Facebook about an e-mail he had received, from a stranger, asking about a friend of his who had died on 9/11.  He wrote about the e-mail in his blog.

I never had the honor of meeting Harry’s friend Mr. Narender Nath.  I knew many people who were in New York that day, and I worried about them, but my friends were across the street, at the World Financial Center, and were not injured.  Mr. Nath was not so fortunate.  From the way Harry describes Mr. Nath, I’m sure I would have liked him.  The world is 3,000 parts sadder and lonelier for that day, and over 100,000 parts sadder and lonelier for the wars that followed.  The world has lost so many people because of the arrogance of criminals in leadership positions.

Most of the responses to Harry’s post, on Facebook, were positive.   Most of Harry’s friends commented about how touching it was, or how inspiring, that a family, thousands of miles from New York, had taken a poster from a baseball game with the name of a 9/11 victim and had framed it in their home.  This particular family had received the name of Mr. Nath and had found Harry online to ask if he knew of Mr. Nath’s family address.

I say “most” of the comments were positive because there was one exception: me.  My first response, upon hearing of this curious chain of events, was to respond as follows:

Honestly this story is a little bit creepy. I’m sure that given a choice between being alive or being a conversation piece in a distant living room, Mr. Nath’s family would choose the former. I doubt his widow will be offended, but on the other hand, how would you feel if the death, not life, of your loved one was enshrined in a stranger’s home?

I sure hope I have not offended Harry or his friends.  They were puzzled by my response on Facebook.  Most found it inspiring that a family, thousands of miles away, had chosen to remember Mr. Nath.  I do not find it inspiring, and the fact that I feel so differently is driving me to write this reflection. 

A few years ago, my father passed away.  It is normal, in the grand scheme of things, for a son to someday have to face the death of his father.  That does not make it easy.  I stood and spoke at his funeral, and was the executor of his will.  I miss him every single day.  How I wish he were still with me, to see how his grandchildren have become such wonderful young adults.  He loved them, and me, with every joyous fiber of his being.  Anand Malik was, and remains to me, the leader of the band

As I was writing the words I planned to say that day, I thought about the things he would want to hear, and about how he wanted to be remembered.  In the days and weeks that followed, I thought about how I want to be remembered, and it changed my life.  Since then, I have strived each day to be more memorable to my family, my friends, and the people I have come into contact with.  I have thought about the results of my life, and my own vision of the purpose of my being here.

I have always felt that it is the job of a “good man” to leave each room a little “better” than when he arrives.  Taken metaphorically, that means to make sure that my touch on the world is one of improvement, value, kindness, respect, integrity, and love.  As a result, I want each person who remembers me to remember the things I have done, and the way I lived.  I want them to remember the example I set, and the honorable and loving children I helped to raise.

That was going through my mind when I considered this story.

The thoughtful family that received this poster, in a baseball game, knew Mr. Nath only by his name.  They took the time to research him online, and I hope, through the writings of his friends, Mr. Nath is being remembered for his contributions.  However, the reason that this anonymous family wanted to learn about Mr. Nath was not because of who he was… it was because of how and where he died.  If Mr. Nath had died one day earlier, or had died in a car accident, or had passed from liver cancer, he would not be remembered a decade later by strangers in a distant place.  His family would have missed him just as much, and his light would have gone out just as early, but his name would not have been on a placard, handed out at a baseball game, and held up high during the playing of the national anthem.

So, yes, I found it creepy that a man who was surely loved by his family and friends was being remembered, in kindness, by a stranger based solely on the circumstances of his death. 

Someday, I will die.  When I do, I want my family and friends to remember me as a thoughtful, creative, kindhearted man, who contributed works of art, expanded the field of knowledge in his way, shared his passion and creativity freely, and instilled in his children a love of hard work, integrity, and hopefulness.  I want to be remembered for having an exceptional life, not an exceptional death.

Of course, I harbor no negative feelings to anyone else in this story: not to Mr. Nath or his family, and not to Harry and his friends.  My feelings are my own and I would not presume to suggest that other people should feel as I do, especially about something so deeply felt as the attacks that day.  If Mr. Nath’s’ family ever reads this message, please know that I am sorry for your loss and will keep you in my prayers.  But if the day comes when I pass away, I ask that you remember the man, and forget the date… for one day, no matter how spectacular or tragic, does not make a man, nor does it unmake him. 

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