How to Be Reasonably Well Informed

A few weeks back, I was conversing with a friend, and she was appalled at how conversant I was on a wide-array of issues: sports, culture, and politics. In her mind, and I do not begrudge her this, my main source of information came from Ancient or more recently Medieval epic poems. Naturally, she was correct that I spend most of my time either in a gym or reading old books, but what I was surprised at is that she had no idea just how easy it is to be informed in this digital age. With major news, sports, culture, and political sources now largely being consumed online, it is easier than ever to know what the social, cultural, political, and generally news-worthy events of the day are without ever seeking to find them. So long as one uses some social media service, Twitter and Facebook being the best I have found, one can quickly change one’s Newsfeed from a desolate stream of cat videos and baby pictures into a steady torrent of rich content, or a true RSS feed (Really Simple Syndication/Rich Site Summary). All one needs to do is to “like” the following sites–ones which now auto-populate my Facebook feed–and one will receive a steady stream of relevant content on a variety of topics daily.

News Sites: Now, instead of weighing-in on just how liberal or conservative these sources are, I will simply leave this link here which does it better, and I will encourage anyone to “like” a healthy balance of each source–the point of the news, of course, is to inform one’s view of the world, not to bias it.

News (Liberal):

  1. The New York Times: Generally considered a liberal news outlet, it offers a wide range of articles on issues domestic and international while also offering a balance view of economic and political issues through its famous liberal commentator, Paul Krugman, and its famous conservative one, David Brooks–neither are Trump fans, however.
  2. The Washington Post
  3. The Los Angeles Times
  4. USA Today
  5. CNN

All you have to do is click “like”on these sources on Facebook, and their articles, free of charge, will appear on yours Newsfeed 24/7. Like the sources above, and you will be off to a good start.

Conservative Political/News sources: Admittedly, a few of the following three sources can be incendiary at times (number four, in particular), but in the interests of balanced coverage, the following three sources are useful for understanding a strong conservative perspective.

  1. The Wall Street Journal (owned by News Corp–who also owns Fox News)
  2. The Chicago Tribune
  3. Fox News Network
  4. Breitbart
  5. The Blaze

For fairly balanced international coverage of US and international matters, the following International News Sources are excellent:

  1. Financial Times
  2. The Guardian/The Guardian US
  3. BBC
  4. Der Spiegel
  5. The London Times

Now, onto political resources:

Politics:

  1. Politico
  2. Vox
  3. The New Republic
  4. The National Review
  5. The National Journal
  6. The Nation Magazine
  7. The Atlantic (also a cultural resource)
  8. The Jacobin
  9. Slate
  10. Harper’s Magazine

Like the sources above, and you will have the beginnings of strong and balanced coverage of major and minor political happenings in real-time. Again, these will simply show up in your Newsfeed ready to inform you.

Next, in order to take a break from the heavy hitters above, cultural literacy is equally important to knowledge of domestic and political happenings. The following few sites will do a fine job of “hipping you” to current trends in fashion, art, music, and style.

Culture:

  1. Rolling Stone
  2. The New Yorker
  3. GQ (Gentleman’s Quarterly)
  4. Esquire (can be sultry)
  5. The Atlantic
  6. Vice (sometimes NSFW)
  7. Cracked (a slightly more intelligent take on Buzzfeed)

Getting even more specific, here are a few sites which will keep one updated on matters of

Science and Technology:

  1. Scientific American
  2. Scientific American Mind
  3. Gizmodo
  4. Tech Crunch 
  5. Popular Science
  6. Popular Mechanics
  7. BBC Earth.

If matters of education, elementary through higher education interest you, here are a few choices:

Education:

  1. The Chronicle of Higher Education
  2. Edutopia
  3. The History of Western Thought (Ha!)
  4. The Atlantic (again)
  5. TED (not a personal favorite, but it has its uses)

And finally, if one wishes to learn about sports and sports happenings, the following sources will quickly get one up to speed.

Sports:

  1.  ESPN
  2. Barstool Sports (divisive and frequently offensive language,ideas, and images–but a substantial multi-million person readership)
  3. Fox Sports
  4. The New York Times
  5. Sports Illustrated

And if one has a desire to be high brow and literary, these few sources are unparalleled.

Literary:

  1. The New York Review of Books
  2. The Times Literary Supplement
  3. The London Review of Books
  4. The LA Review of Books
  5. The Paris Review

Now, as written above, all one needs to do is to click “like” on the sources above via Facebook or “Follow” on Twitter, and each will immediately begin to populate your newsfeed. This will allow you not only to receive seemingly disparate information from varied sources but allow you to see trends in reporting that might otherwise remain unseen to you if you did not have such a wide array of resources at your disposal.

All the above said, this list is by no means exhaustive, but if you have been wondering how, exactly, one goes about receiving and sifting through the seemingly infinite data available today, this is a good start.

On Equanimity

Today, after working out I was greeted by one of my favorite things: a blinking green light on the top right corner of my cell-phone. A friend had messaged me via Facebook. What a delight! Now this friend has obviously seen some of my recent Facebook posts and possibly even read my most recent article on maintaining civility between private citizens, in contrast to the behavior of our political figures. He jokingly asked, “are you becoming a social justice warrior now?” Fair as this question seems, especially as I have been “championing” civility and open discussion between private citizens both online and in-real-life lately, it hides a subtle and sinister desire to quell open discourse.

For context, this friend, intelligent as he is, works in finance and is likely taken by and deeply influenced by his daily reading of Breitbart.com. Well, that is one way to perceive him in order to write him off in the way that he attempted to write off my thoughts– undoubtedly by thinking of me as a “liberal teacher championing the issue of “black lives matter.” Neither perception, however, would really do justice to the other person and would likely, if maintained, result in an all-too-common unproductive and unnecessary opposition to one another. In contrast to my initial adverse emotional response to him, I might also, just as honestly, perceive him as a current and former employee of a humanitarian organization with a special and personal insight into issues of race in America. Very different, indeed. And he might just as well perceive me as a non-unioned charter school educator specializing in the implementation of “Great Books” curricula (often accused of being conservative to the core against contemporary diversity initiatives)– these are dramatically different ways of perceiving the same person. Such misunderstandings are extremely common, and this is largely, I believe, due to private individuals, rather than doing the hard work of learning the subtleties and intricacies of each others’ beliefs, preferring or finding it more convenient to think of each other as public figures beholden to public beliefs neatly divided along a liberal or conservative line. This is hardly ever truly the case with thinking individuals, who are largely a mass of clear and confused thoughts, but always capable of listening, thinking, and changing their minds.

About my political beliefs and alliances, however, let me be clear. I agree, full-sail, with Emerson’s assessment of placing doctrine above discernment in his seminal essay Self-Reliance:

“The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the government or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers, — under all these screens I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And, of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blindman’s-buff is this game of conformity. If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side, — the permitted side, not as a man, but as a parish minister? He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation. Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right. Meantime nature is not slow to equip us in the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere. We come to wear one cut of face and figure, and acquire by degrees the gentlest asinine expression. There is a mortifying experience in particular, which does not fail to wreak itself also in the general history; I mean “the foolish face of praise,” the forced smile which we put on in company where we do not feel at ease in answer to conversation which does not interest us. The muscles, not spontaneously moved, but moved by a low usurping wilfulness, grow tight about the outline of the face with the most disagreeable sensation.”

The full text of this short and perennially relevant text may be found here, and I recommend that everybody read it. Emerson’s contention, which I maintain, is that one’s thought ought not be dictated by party-politics nor even, I would add, the general talking points presented and repeated over and over again in the public sphere via the media. This is neither an attack on parties nor the media; this is an exhortation to use one’s discernment to discuss, develop, and determine one’s thoughts in accordance with one’s own thoughts and reasons. This is what it means, truly, to be free or liberal (from the latin word: libero–to be set free), and also what it means to maintain an ancient and medieval value, discernment, and to be conservative (from the latin word: conservare: to protect or safeguard).

So, rather than paint my friend as some party-minded conservative and ignore those aspects and thoughts of him which makes him far more moderate, and vice versa, instead of identifying myself with the liberal aspects of my profession (as seen in one way), I stand for and argue for equanimity. Equanimity, as a word, comes from the latin word Aequus–“equal, even” and animus–“mind”. It means to maintain composure and even-headedness in our language. As opposed to becoming angry or forcing one’s self or another into a doctrinaire position, I argue to maintain the middle, the place of thought and calm reflection in a time when the storm winds are rising.

In response, then, to my friend’s question, “are you becoming a social justice warrior now?” I will remove the word social, and with it its liberal connotations, and leave just the word justice there. I am now, avowedly, an advocate for justice, or justice as fairness, or “blind-justice”, as I imagine any American, really, ought to be.

 

On Civility and Democracy

Last night, at dinner, during a light-hearted and superficial Saturday night conversation with friends, I made the mistake, in a moment of openness, of saying that over time, as I have slowly gained more political and social awareness through directed and non-directed effort, that I have developed a small passion for certain political issues (surprise!). The comment was meant to relate how weird it feels to slowly and unconsciously develop into an adult–when did this happen and how? A girl to my left, upon hearing this, immediately stopped me and said: “Stop, so what do you think of ‪#‎blacklivesmatter?” Taken by surprise by this particular and intrusive question, especially in the wake of so many other domestic and international issues, and having genuinely made my statement to share in the particular burden and process of our generation, I answered simply and honestly that I agreed that, of course, black lives matter. I then, perhaps ruffled, drolly asked whether she upheld the notion that “all-lives-matter”. She then responded, “like, don’t make yourself special. Like, everyone matters–don’t make yourself special.” She had been a political science major in college.

I wanted to respond to her that, at the least, the black lives matters movement, as I understand it, is lobbying for (a) equal rights under the protection of law–and more than that–equality of treatment and perception. And that it (b) serves to demonstrate and remove systemic prejudices (and acts of violence) which appear to be occurring at an alarming rate against a group of our citizens, fellow Americans.

But I could not. Her opinion was steeled against reason, and was therefore not an opinion at all, but a prejudice—a moment of small tyranny. Her reasoning was this: “don’t make yourself special”, as if crying out for justice were in some way a request for special treatment. My other friend quickly steered the conversation away from politics, sensing the tavern was soon to become a classroom, and we went on with our nights. But I remember how it felt to hear those words, and I saw then, as I see daily, the necessity of stronger educations for all, not just some.

As a teacher, my political involvement does not occur along strict and divisive lines. My contribution to politics, or the polity at large, is to teach students to think in a rational and rigorous manner in order to consider issues of philosophy and literature. I then teach them to research arguments both in support and opposition to their nascent thoughts in order to deepen and broaden their understandings of significant issues of Western culture. I consider this their Western heritage. Lastly, I teach them to discuss their thoughts in reasoned, intelligent, and open ways amongst each other in seminars. They discuss issues of philosophy and literature in my class. The hope is that these skills and themes will be represented in their actions and words later in life. Perhaps these thoughts will turn towards the personal or political when they are older, and then they will have the skill-set and attitude necessary truly to analyze their thoughts and others. This is, admittedly, a small contribution to society, but it is what I offer.

If this message is advocating for anything, it is for meaningful discourse between individuals. This is where real, substantial, connections are forged. But in order to have these discussions, we must be informed, scrupulous, and willing to listen while presenting information as we know it in a process of mutual respect, not simply stating uninformed opinions in the hope that others will blithely agree in an unaffected manner.

People today are angry. And anger precludes rational thought—we have known this since well before the Roman Stoics founded a school of philosophy based on the controlling and containing of one’s emotions. Homer’s Iliad, which I teach, begins with rage afterall. And Virgil’s Aeneid ends with it; in both stories, the emotion has a devastating effect, whether engendered by gods or men.

Not to be melodramatic, but this emotion, if allowed to lead to disunity and incivility between peaceful citizens, friends, is exactly what ISIL wants. Their avowed intention in committing barbarous acts of terrorism is to sow disunity and discord in sovereign states in order that they topple themselves from within. If we forget how to engage with each other, regardless of our specific ideas on political policy, then we are losing a far larger battle than simply an argument. We are playing into the hands of an enemy—an enemy which wishes us to forget our love for each other and our ability to rationally discuss major issues with each other (intelligently using our first amendment right), and rather to act in the service of violent emotions, like animals. I will deny them this victory, personally, and I encourage you to do the same. I suppose if we disagree on how best to do this, we can at least talk about it.

The Iliadic Nature of Pokemon Go!

When one thinks of Pokemon Go, Niantic’s new mobile-based augmented reality video game, one’s logical next thought is unlikely about Homer’s Iliad. And why would it be? One is a brand new iteration of a twenty year old franchise, catching on like wildfire, and another is a nearly three thousand year old epic poem. Even the wildest flights of fancy would have trouble bridging the language, location, medium, and message gap between the new and old, or would they?

What makes Pokemon Go novel is its tromp into the new ground of augmented reality. Rather than game-play experience being the usual withering on a coach, drinking and eating whatever sugary junk keeps one cognizant enough to play, while one’s body effectively fattens or fades in the service of strengthening a virtual avatar, Pokemon Go offers players the chance to explore their own real world settings and local venues by offering added incentive to get off the couch and out of the house by making Pokemon appear “in the wild” outside one’s house. So if one wants new items and new Pokemon, a player must (unless he or she has incense), leave the comfort of his or her home, use his or her legs, and travel about like a “real” Pokemon trainer in order to improve his or her standing in the game. Does this still not sound like the earth-shattering conflict between Achilleus and Agamemnon, nor the tragic fates of Patroklos and Hektor? Well, let us draw the connection tighter, then.

It is precisely the augmented reality function of Pokemon Go which makes it so similar to the Iliadic world. You see, while playing Pokemon Go, the player is still moving throughout the actual world, while catching, trading, and fighting Pokemon, on location through the medium of one’s cellular device. This essential feature, of augmentation, is what connects the world of Pokemon to the world of Homer. For in Homer’s Iliad, it is not Pokemon which exist within the augmented reality he constructs, but the gods. In fact, in Book V, Diomedes is given the ability to see and attack the gods (imagine he is given an i-phone to look through), just as one’s cellular device allows one to fight all manners of divine animals, Pokemon, in one’s otherwise mundane world. It is precisely the excitement of living amidst the unseen, the inscrutable, and the otherwise occult, or hidden, natures of creatures or gods, which makes this game so addictive and interesting, and also so similar to what adds grandeur and scope to Homer’s Iliad.

Without the maneuvering and machinations of the gods, one is left with the impotent and flat Troy, universally derided for stripping to majesty from our primeval epic. Without augmented reality, and the novelty of moving through our normal world while finding that which has never been there and yet always has, Pokemon has hit on both an ancient and truly novel concept. It has brought the notion that there exists within our world that which is worth seeing, precisely because it is not of this world, back to life.

Now a common joke now shared through memes is that Pokemon Go has achieved in mere days what Michele Obama did not accomplish in eight years in the White House:

This meme is of course unfair, but the point it makes is worthy of expansion: this simple video game can, in becoming viral overnight, affect the habits and beliefs of an entire generation of people. On the one hand, this may simply be due to good marketing or a strong platform, but on the other, it may be the result of something which has been true in America for a long time: there is a vacancy in the spiritual life of Americans which allows for them to want and support any attempt to augment reality by adding a deeper level of connection to the world. This function was once served by the Christian faith, but in this time, fewer and fewer Americans find themselves faithful and fulfilled by such dogma, especially younger millennials.

Elsewhere, I have written that there is evidence of this spiritual desire and questing in today’s education. So, today when you boot up your Pokemon Go application, and go out into the world seeking that which both is and is not, remember that you are not simply seeking higher experience and a larger Pokedex, you are seeking the meaningful mythical and religious experience which neither religion nor education, in their current forms, have the power to sate you with.