Monday, December 31, 2012


My politics are pretty moderate for the most part; the half-joking way I describe myself politically is “excessively centrist”.  My friends and others who are liberal, left-leaning are convinced I’m a heartless right-winger, while conservative, right-leaning friends and enemies alike are certain that I’m a bleeding-heart communist.  Taken together, that tells me that I’m about in the right spot – somewhere in the center of all the extreme right/left madness.

But if you think about it, there’s an implicit thesis here:  The best position on most social and political issues lies somewhere in the middle, between what the far right and the far left believe.  Furthermore, the closer one’s position is to dead center, the more likely it is to be correct or wise or whatever.  Folks on the right and the left alike surely don’t believe that is the case, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes.  Here’s why.

An important “given” in evaluating any issue is to consider all sides before deciding where you stand on it.  Be it evolution vs. creationism, raising taxes vs. cutting government spending, loosening vs. tightening restrictions on illegal immigrants, or just about anything else – one cannot come up with an intelligent opinion without considering the arguments on each side.  If you believe otherwise, then read no further, because this is a bedrock assumption that underlies logical decision making, as well as the rest of this essay.

Let’s use the idea of stronger gun control as an example for this discussion.  If one says that much harsher gun laws are a necessity and that there is no room for compromise, then that implies that the gun rights crowd is either ignorant or illogical.  And vice-verse: the Second Amendment fanatics who won’t even consider more restrictions on gun ownership must implicitly see the other side as being misinformed and/or just plain stupid.  Now of course, either side could be right, but what are the chances? 

To figure that out, let’s expand this issue just a bit to talk about Democrats and Republicans in the U.S.  Since most Democrats favor stricter gun control while most Republicans do not, this isn’t much of a stretch; nevertheless, I am tweaking the conversation a bit here.  But at any rate, the question now is:  How smart and how educated are Democrats compared to Republicans?  Because if one group or the other really is uninformed and/or .... a bit slow, then that would justify ignoring their views and sticking with the opposite, extreme view.  But if they’re not, well, that suggests something entirely different. 

As someone in academia, the consensus view I get is that Democrats are, as a whole, more intelligent and also better educated than Republicans.  I suspect there’s something to that, but probably not as much as academicians, who tend to be Democrats themselves, believe.  A quick scan of Internet websites and articles on the topic seems to suggest that the average intelligence levels of Democrats and Republicans are about equal (such as ).  Similarly, Democrats and Republicans have about the same overall levels of education, except in the category of post-graduate university study, where Democrats have a pretty big edge: 58% of voters vs. only 40% for the Republicans (

To be honest, though, I have mixed feelings about folks with graduate degrees and those who operate in academia (teachers and professors).  On the one hand, they are more likely to be knowledgeable about a variety of topics than someone without an advanced education.  But on the other hand, high schools and universities are notoriously skewed towards liberal views in most parts of the country.  So the knowledge one gains in school is likely to have been presented in a biased (liberal) manner.  I haven’t confirmed this claim through research and data, but suspect that there's sparse evidence otherwise.    

An example of this liberal bias in schools is Howard Zinn’s popular A People’s History of the United States, which several of my colleagues use in their history classes.  This book is widely acknowledged for its  extreme leftist bias, and George Mason University's History News Network recently named it the second least credible American history book .  It missed getting first place by just a small margin to Jefferson's Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson, by the way, as biased on the right as Zinn’s book is on the left.  (  While A People's History is noteworthy for its groundbreaking work in social history and willingness to look at the darker side of our nation's history, few objective historians believe A People’s History should be taken as a realistic view of our history; it's too deeply flawed by its non-stop bias.  Yet I don’t think my esteemed colleagues and most of the thousands of other teachers/professors who assign the book present Zinn as an example of a biased, far-left author (he was, in fact, an ardent Marxist), but instead give students the idea that his book is really telling it like it is. 

This connects to the other concern about those in academia:  Most teachers/professors have little “real world” experience, having gone directly from high school to university to teaching, without the benefit of a career outside of academia.  As such, their views tend towards the ivory tower, theoretical variety, not tempered by the realities that often conflict with knowledge found in books and from professors.   

As a result (of liberal bias and often the disconnect from the real world found in schools) many students leave high school and college with a distorted view of American history, among other topics. Overall then, I think that being better educated is a good thing, but may also carry with it some negative baggage. 

But back to the greater point.  Whether liberals are smarter or better educated as a whole than conservatives, the fact remains that there are a great many intelligent and well-educated people in both of our two main political parties.  According to the Gallup group in 2011, 31% of Americans were Democrats and 29% were Republicans (the rest were independents).  Other estimates show much the same picture: there are about as many Democrats as there are Republicans in the U.S.  That means there are millions of each, and out of those millions, surely there are many thousands of Democrats and many thousands of Republicans who are more intelligent and better educated than either you or me. 

Certainly some of those Republicans are only out to "protect the rich and keep minorities down", while some of the Democrats are "communists who want to destroy the America we love", as members of those parties are quick to characterize their adversaries.  But apart from being rude stereotypes, those kinds of characterizations have the added disadvantage of being largely inaccurate, as most Democrats and most Republicans are decent people who only want the best for all Americans.  And if those things are true, i.e. both parties have highly-educated, intelligent people who want what's best for the country, then we are led to conclude that there must be valid, well-thought out reasons for supporting both liberal (Democratic) views and conservative (Republican) views.  This, in turn, suggests that extreme leftist or extreme rightist views fail to acknowledge (or are perhaps unaware of) the merits of other points of view, and are therefore unlikely to be correct or wise – to give the best answer, as it were. 

That reality reminds me of the Bell Curve often used in assigning test grades.  In curving grades, a few people are going to get A’s and F’s, more people are going to get B’s and D’s, and the biggest chunk will get C’s.  Probability wise, then, the further we are from the center (a middle C), then the less likely one is to get that particular grade. 

I think it’s the same with political opinions.  It’s certainly possible that a very far-right or far-left view is correct on a particular issue, but the odds are against it.  That would require that all of those intelligent, educated people on the other side are totally wrong, or do not have the country's best interests at heart.  Again – that is possible, but not likely. 

On the other hand, as we move more to the center from the extremes, we can accept the validity of what each side sees.  Liberals may be looking at different facts than conservatives, or simply interpreting them differently.  The centrist view basically says: “Look, you make some good points and so do the other guys, and the best answer is likely to be one that recognizes this fact."  Then it just comes down to how much each of us values the merits of the various points.  You see more merit in the conservative views, so you’re a conservative-centrist, while I see more merit in the liberal views, so I’m a liberal-centrist.  But we’re not so far apart, and we can function effectively and civilly this way.

That’s what is so sorely lacking in the U.S. these days – effective functioning and civility in politics, based on the ability to see all sides and find common ground.  Accordingly, that’s what I’m going to continue teaching in my classes: The most sensible understanding or opinion is likely to be somewhere in the middle, the one that acknowledges valid points from various perspectives.  Students who insist that their far-right or far-left views are the only possible answer have the right to do so, but they are going to be continually challenged in my classroom to show how that can be.  And to whatever degree that strategy mitigates the liberal bias they find in their other classes, well - that is as it should be.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Too Many Senseless Shootings

We’re all pretty much on the same page, sad and angry about the senseless killing of 20 innocent little children along with a number of adults last week.  What to do about it?  Stricter gun control is the first thing that comes to most people’s minds, and the horror of this latest massacre may be enough to finally make that happen.  But is more gun control the answer?

As with most other issues, I’ll take the middle ground here.  On the one hand, I’ve been a member of the NRA (on and off) for over 30 years.  The “on and off” part refers to times I’ve let my membership lapse, as I did earlier this year, out of frustration over the NRA’s  intransigence when it comes to sensible gun control.  So I guess that’s the other hand.  I don’t like the fact that the NRA won’t even consider some of the more modest gun control proposals.  Even worse, I hate the way they’re always crying wolf when it comes to having our guns taken away.  They’re too paranoid about that possibility, in my opinion, and that drives much of their sometimes-irrational behavior.

Going back to that first hand though, it’s not true that “there is no reason to own an assault rifle in our country”, as many are saying.  There are several reasons for doing so and they’re like this:
1)      They’re a lot of fun to shoot for recreational purposes
2)      They’re a decent long-term investment
3)      They’re a good choice for certain types of hunting
4)      They’re a good choice for self-defense, especially in case of some great social crisis
5)      They provide a deterrent to the rise of a dictatorship or other unpalatable form of government at some future date
6)      There’s evidence that gun control folks see the banning of assault rifles as just the first step in banning virtually all gun ownership in America

But the question should be:  Are those good enough reasons, in light of all the deaths and damage they cause?  Hmmm….   Let’s take a closer look first.

Reasons #1 and #2 are basically true and won’t generate much argument, but reasons #3 and #4 are less clear.  As an avid hunter myself, I know that an AR-15 or similar rifle firing .223 caliber bullets is not a good choice for most hunting situations.  The sporting magazines have featured ads and articles in recent months about hunting with these kinds of weapons, in an attempt to burnish their image – “see, hunters DO use these!”  But I’m not buying it.  Except for a rancher trying to protect his livestock from packs of coyotes, or farmers dealing with herds of wild pigs destroying their crops, there are better choices for hunters.  And even in the coyote/pig scenarios, there are a number of other, non-assault rifle choices that would be just as effective. 

If the Chinese finally succeed in bringing down our Internet and electrical grid, or some other mass disaster hits the U.S., then I guess owning an assault rifle with multiple 30-round clips might look like a good decision.  But again, there are other options such as a Browning-BAR or, Ruger Mini-14 Ranch rifle, which perform much like assault rifles but lack the heinous appearance that drives all the loonies to choosing an AR-15.  And then there are shotguns and other choices that would serve one well in times of social anarchy.  But really – what are the chances of that anyway?  So # 4 isn’t all that convincing either.

I think there’s some merit to # 5.  Just because we’ve never been threatened by a dictatorship or been taken over by a foreign power doesn’t mean those things could never happen.  As fighters in Syria and countless other places (Iraq?) have shown, even a bunch of guys with assault rifles can make a stand against a much more powerful military force, at least until heavier weaponry becomes available.  That, of course, was the main reason for the Second Amendment (whether you believe that it meant guns for individuals, or guns for state militias).  And you can’t really take away all the guns now because we’re not worried about such a scenario, and then 20 or 50 or 100 years later try to bring them back when circumstances change.  That would almost certainly be too little, too late.

Similarly, I think there’s something to # 6.  I haven’t kept up on this because I’m not one of those who’s freaked out about a conspiracy to take away all our guns.  But I’ve read quotes from some gun control leaders over the years that are troubling.  Some of those folks would prefer to make it illegal for anyone other than the cops and military to own just about any kind of firearm; they don't like guns of any type.  They know that trying to take away uncle Joe’s deer rifle ain’t gonna fly in this country, at least not as an opening gambit.  But they figure that if they can get the assault rifles first because everyone hates them, then it will be easier to go after the handguns next, and then the semi-auto rifles, then all rifles and shotguns. 

Paranoid thinking on my part?  Maybe.  But still, a possibility.  One of the related concerns here is that earlier definitions of “assault rifles” described features that were also found on a great many legitimate hunting rifles.  That’s one of the reasons rational gun owners opposed those earlier assault rifle bans.  And it would seem to be a slippery slope, from banning true assault rifles, to later banning rifles that have some of their features, to banning all rifles, and so on. 

So now let’s go back to the big question: Are those good enough reasons?  Mostly, I think not.  We can stop selling AR-15s and 30-round clips without really taking away a meaningful degree of anybody’s freedom or rights.  Any small damage to their 2nd Amendment rights are more than made up for by a likely gain in overall public safety.

But I don’t think we solve the problem that way, certainly not for many, many years.  We already have something like 300 million guns in the hands of private citizens, millions of which are “assault rifles” stored with millions of 20- and 30-round magazines and probably billions of rounds of ammunition.  How long will it take for those to wear out, break, be confiscated or otherwise be removed from the equation?  Decades.  It’s true that by stopping the sale and/or ownership of these items, we’ll at least be taking a first step in reversing the trend of horrible tragedies like Sandy Hook, but significant progress is unlikely to come quickly or easily.

Too many other factors are at play.  The treasured American traditions of fierce independence and widespread gun ownership, absent in so many other countries.  Our penchant for gratuitous violence, despite the experts telling us that hyper-violent movies and video games play “no role” in our society’s violent behavior.  Selfishness and narcissism, where it’s all about me and my 15 minutes of fame; screw everyone else!  Not to mention all the millions of Americans suffering from some form of mental illness, many of whom are unknown to us until something snaps inside them.   

Stricter gun control isn’t the answer, but I think it’s got to be part of the answer.  Maybe it can’t stop some sick young man in Connecticut from stealing his mom’s legally-acquired, safely-stored guns, but it might stop others.  In light of the excessive cost of being the world’s most heavily-armed country, I think we can live with no more AR-15s being sold.  No more rifle clips over 4 rounds (typically the max that’s legal for most hunting), no more pistol clips over the 7 rounds that was typical up until a couple of decades ago.  More stringent and consistent background checks.  And if these first steps lead to where some fear they might (attempts to take away all guns), then I guess we deal with that if and when it happens.

Meanwhile, pray for the little kids, their brothers and sisters, moms and dads, schoolmates and teachers.  And pray we have fewer idiots pulling this kind of crap, rather than more idiots being inspired by it. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012



That was the lettering that went along with a cool design on t-shirts my school sold in the 1990s, and a creative way of getting across the message of ending racism.  In a place where students and staff alike are as likely to be black, brown, Asian or “all of the above” as they are to be white, Eracism was a pretty important concept.  I bought one of those shirts and wore it for many years before it finally gave out and got recycled. 

Discrimination encouraged here!  That, written large on my whiteboard, was what greeted students one morning, and it sure got their attention.  "Why would you want us to discriminate, Mr. Strebler; I thought you didn’t like racism?  But discrimination, just like racism, is a word that is very often misunderstood and misused, and that was the point of the slogan on the board.

When you look up discriminate in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (this is what we used in the dark days before Wikipedia), you see that, just like most words, it is defined in a number of ways.  It is only the fourth definition that refers to “make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit; against a certain nationality.”  The earlier, more generally correct definitions have to do with telling the difference between one thing and another.  For instance, a wise voter can discriminate between a qualified candidate and one not so qualified, while a discriminating diner can tell the difference between a good meal and a so-so meal.  Similarly, only the last definition given for discrimination has to do with prejudice against someone or some group. 

And that was the point of what was on my board.  Students should make judgments – they should discriminate – about the various things they hear on the news, from friends, family, and teachers, and about what they read in school books.  They should differentiate between credible and not believable, make good decisions more so than bad ones, etc.  The other point, of course, was to get the kids thinking about what the word itself means, and how they so commonly misuse it.  Discrimination – as properly defined – is mostly a good thing. 

It’s kind of the same idea with racism and racist.  Students have been programmed to believe that virtually any mention of a person’s ethnicity, nationality, or color is “racist”.  But that’s just not true.  Webster’s defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capabilities, and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”  The excessive insistence on political correctness in our society has had the unfortunate side-effect of making people, especially youngsters, see “racism” in lots of places where in reality it does not exist. 

Saying something about “that black dude” or “a Mexican girl” or “this Jewish guy” is no more racist than referring to “that skinny white kid” or that “tall blonde chick”.  Those terms (Mexican, skinny, etc.) are simply adjectives that help identify someone.  Unless there’s some additional comment or intimation that the black guy or Jewish gal or white dude is inferior or superior to anyone else, there’s no racism going on.  Nor does saying that Mexicans tend to eat a lot of tortillas, Jews eat matzo on Passover, Chinese-Americans generally put a lot of pressure on their kids to do well in school, blacks experience higher rates of MS, or white folks generally have finer (thinner) hair.  These are verifiable facts, not judgments, and by themselves imply nothing about inferiority or superiority.  As such, these kinds of comments don't constitute racism.

Anyone who knows me knows how close I am to the Mexican people and their culture, that my best friend at school is a black guy, that I love my Jewish heritage, etc.  So when I refer to those groups of people, racism is hardly what's on my mind.  Yet I freely use those kinds of descriptors, or claims, knowing that they might shock and even offend some people.  Why?

Well, part of it is my mischievous nature; a willingness to push people's buttons and stir things up a bit.  But much more importantly, as a teacher, I’d like students to be more realistic in their attitudes about racism and discrimination.  I want to present another model, a more correct understanding if you will, of political correctness to counter the message they’re getting in our liberally-skewed educational system. 

It’s just plain wrong that Mexican, Jew, black, Asian, and similar terms are viewed as being negative. 

I’m proud of being (ethnically) Jewish, and I think Mexicans and blacks and whatnot are proud of who they are.  There’s nothing wrong with being “a Jew”, and I don’t like people implying that it’s an insult.  The same goes for the rest of them; Mexican isn’t a bad word, nor is black or Asian or whatever.  I consciously use those terms to try to help students get past the idea that they are negative, that they are insults. 

Those who think they are bad words, insults, examples of racism – the problem is on their end and how they perceive those terms.  

Then there’s the story of YiQiu, a student of mine several years ago who had just moved here from China.  Now part of my goofy nature is that I’ll sometimes use a British or French or other accent when talking about people from those countries.  And mostly the kids love it - YiQiu especially.  One day as we were reading from the history book he said “Mr. Strebler, do the accents!”  And so I started reading with a German accent, then Russian, then Irish, and YiQiu was cracking up; “that’s so funny, Mr. Strebler!”  Then I did a bit of a Chinese accent and all of a sudden “That’s not funny, Mr. Strebler; that’s racist”, YiQiu said in all seriousness.  He was very offended.  So what’s going on there?

Why is it OK to have some fun with an Australian or Italian or Southern accent, but it’s not OK to do an Asian accent?  Well, part of it goes back to the idea of perception.  If he, or someone else, perceives that they’re being put down, then they’re going to see an accent or a comment as being racist – even when it’s not.  And of course there is the fact that Asians (and Latinos, and blacks, etc.) have been discriminated against in the past, and it’s still sort of a sore subject with many of those folks. So the issue can be a bit tricky and one may unintentionally cross a line of sorts....  That's probably why most people shy away from dealing with the issue, I suppose. 

But it’s OK - even healthy - I would suggest, to talk about one another’s ethnicity and whatnot, and even to have a bit of fun with it all.  This doesn't promote racism, it helps us get past it, in my opinion.  So I’ll keep up with my silly accents, and keep making fun of myself and the stereotypes of old white guys as much as I sometimes make fun of the stereotypes of other groups.  That may be irreverent; it may be seen as insensitive at times (and I am sorry when that happens); some may see it as inappropriate for a classroom teacher – we can have a spirited debate over those claims.  But what it is not is racism, at least not racism as that word is properly defined.

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