The idea is freedom and human dignity

Excerpt from Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1966:

I’m sure that each of you has read that arresting little story from the pen of Washington Irving entitled Rip Van Winkle.

One thing that we usually remember about the story of Rip Van Winkle is that he slept twenty years. But there is another point in that story which is almost always completely overlooked: it is the sign on the inn of the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountains for his long sleep. When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States.

When Rip Van Winkle looked up at the picture of George Washington he was amazed, he was completely lost. He knew not who he was. This incident reveals to us that the most striking thing about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not merely that he slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution.

While he was peacefully snoring up in the mountains a revolution was taking place in the world, that would alter the face of human history. Yet Rip knew nothing about it; he was asleep. One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands.

There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. And there can be no gainsaying of the fact that a social revolution is taking place in our world today.

We see it in other nations in the demise of colonialism. We see it in our own nation, in the struggle against racial segregation and discrimination, and as we notice this struggle we are aware of the fact that a social revolution is taking place in our midst. Victor Hugo once said that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. The idea whose time has come today is the idea of freedom and human dignity, and so all over the world we see something of freedom explosion, and this reveals to us that we are in the midst of revolutionary times. An older order is passing away and a new order is coming into being.

Help Harvard protect freedom of association. Write your professors

Earlier this year, Harvard instituted some very well-meaning but misguided sanctions of students who participate in single-gender social organizations. The sanctions have been marketed as promoting inclusivity, which is a pretty-sounding word. Who is against inclusivity, after all? But the way they achieve it is by coercion and restriction of thought and association. Harvard plans to discriminate against students based on who they choose to hang out with. Discrimination is not inclusion.

This policy reminds me of a joke about post-Nazi Germany. It goes something like this. After the War, Germany was trying to heal. As a matter of unifying its citizenry, there was a great campaign to encourage tolerance among the varying and fractured subpopulations within the country. Government officials went around explaining town-to-town, “You must be tolerant. If you are not tolerant, we will compel you to be tolerant.” End joke.

These sanctions are a thinly-veiled attempt to undermine final clubs. Before I go on, let me very clear: I was not a member of any final club as a student. I am not currently affiliated with a final club. I have several close friends and former students who were sexually assaulted at final clubs. And I do not support final clubs as an institution. And I cannot believe that the administration is making me defend their existence. In fact, I’m angry about it.

But I want to know, what problem are the sanctions a solution to? The administration has already said that it plans to apply the sanctions inconsistently. According to the Crimson:

According to an email from the Seneca’s undergraduate officers to Seneca members obtained by The Crimson, Associate Dean of Student Life David R. Friedrich assured the Seneca at a May meeting that if the group removed gender requirements from its charter and bylaws, the club “could continue to operate as it always has.”

Although the Seneca will continue to only invite women to their first recruitment event of the semester, men will be allowed to attend the event without an invitation and participate in the subsequent parts of the selection process should they wish, said undergraduate co-president president Avni Nahar ’17 in an interview.

“Like Women in Business or Latinas Unidas, although men may apply, our membership can be made up wholly of women without incurring the sanctions of the administration’s new policy,” Nahar and co-president Fran F. Swanson ’17 wrote in the email, according to a copy obtained by The Crimson.

So the sanctions cannot be about combating elitism or exclusivity. So what does the administration intend by these sanctions? Just to use large, centralized power to punish people they disagree with. When I was a student at Harvard, I learned not to take away freedom of thought and association simply because I don’t like someone or who they hang out with, no matter how reprehensible I find them. Harvard should not discriminate on the basis of the organization students choose to join. Harvard’s new and bizarre brand of inclusion is based on suppressing and removing the parts it doesn’t find convenient. It is not, in a word, inclusive. And these sanctions do nothing to address the very real and very grave issue of sexual violence on campus.

As a resident tutor in Quincy House, I learned the all too grim reality that sexual violence is not confined to final clubs. It happens everywhere, including in the Houses. Sexual violence transcends group and team affiliation, race, gender, age, position, religion, or creed. Sexual violence is a rank and insidious social ill that plagues our campus. Instead of curtailing freedom of association on campus, I wish the faculty would draft courageous and targeted policies that address the real problem: sexual violence.

Fortunately, there is a motion to protect students’ right to free association on campus before the faculty right now. Members of the Faculty of Arts and Science will vote next Tuesday, December 6, on the motion. I have written to faculty I know to urge them to support the motion.

Here is a letter I sent to Howard Georgi, the Residential Faculty Dean (formerly called House Master) at Leverett House:

Dear Chief,

Since the election, I’ve rededicated myself to the people, institutions, and values that are important to me. Because Harvard is important to me, I’m writing to ask you to vote in favor of the motion before the faculty next week to protect students’ freedom of association. Harvard should not discriminate on the basis of group affiliation.

First, I want you to know that I was not in a final club as an undergraduate. And I have close friends who were sexually assaulted in final clubs during my time at the College. I do not support final clubs as an institution.

But I also have friends and former students who were sexually assaulted on campus in the Houses. Sexual violence at Harvard is a very real and grave problem. And I am in favor of policies that will protect students from sexual assault.

The sanctions against the final clubs are well-meaning, but an answer to a different question. It does not tackle the challenging and important problem of sexual assault on campus. Instead, the sanctions have been marketed as a way of embracing inclusivity. But it is an inclusivity by coercion and restriction of association and thoughts, which is no inclusivity at all. I do not want to punish people simply because they hang out with people I do not know or necessarily like. That’s not what the Core education taught me.

I hope you will help the administration abandon the current sanctions and draft new policies that tackle the problem directly: sexual violence on campus.

Will you support the motion next week?

Thanks for your time and your support of the House system.
All the best,

If you know someone on the Faculty, please send them a similar note to support the motion to protect students’ freedom of association.

I really cannot believe President Faust and Dean Khurana are making me defend final clubs. Really. Sheesh.

Wayfinding among the Sacred

On a recent trip to the used books section of the Harvard Book Store, I asked a friend of mine, who is training to become a minister, to suggest an introductory title to religion. He picked out Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. The staff had flagged this book as one of their picks, too, and previously caught my eye. So last week I went home with a copy of my very own.

In the introduction, the author explains that for the purposes of this book, the sacred is merely the opposite of the profane, which makes sense given the title of the book. It’d be surprising if they were secretly the same thing, wouldn’t it? At this point the text only hints at what that relationship between these “two modes of existence” actually is.

Shortly thereafter, the book dives in on sacred space. According to this account, sacred places mark identifiable fixed points in the landscape, against which a person can orient himself relative to the rest of the world. In contrast, profane space is “homogeneous  and neutral”. I suppose that because profane space has no distinguishing features, it’s impossible to navigate. But I find that counter to my intuition and to my experience. Landmarks have existed for a long time, and not even most of them are temples.

I live in Cambridge and visitors stop to ask me directions all the time. “Follow this street until you pass three stop lights, then make a left. Continue until you see Chinese restaurant on the right side. If you pass a supermarket parking lot on your left, you’ve gone too far.” Now, in these directions I’ve mentioned lots of landmarks to help strangers find their way. Yet I’d be hard-pressed to find much that is sacred in the stop lights, restaurant, or parking lot. Landmarks do afford familiarity to otherwise unfamiliar space. And they might signal safety or danger. (Don’t walk around that pond at night!) But sacrality? I think that they can, but aren’t required to. I’d be willing to concede that I’m wrong.

If everything that I use to orient myself is in some sense sacred, I’d be okay with that. But that means that just about every space I’ve visited is sacred. That absolutely everything carries with it some sort of special spark is a very, very old idea that I might be willing to admit to if you asked me directly. On the other hand, that makes sacred spaces, when considered as a whole, a  large homogeneous space itself. And that sounds suspiciously profane. (Unless, of course, each sacred space is sacred in its very own snowflake kind of way. Now, I may be simply confessing my my own limited capacity to experience the sacred, but a lot of my transcendent experiences have felt more or less the same to me. That shared feeling is, in part, how I know that they’re transcendent.)

In chapter one, I think that Eliade overstated his case or I misunderstood it. In some instances I do believe that sacred spaces help people orient themselves in the world, but I do not believe that every thing that helps people—even very religious people—orient themselves is sacred. It’s like how all squares are rectangles, but most rectangles are not squares. So too with signposts: most of them are profane, but a few of them are sacred to some.

Please tell Mary Fallin not torture, experiment on human subjects

Oklahoma has secrecy laws that makes it virtually impossible to find out where it gets the drugs executioners use to kill prisoners sentenced to death.

The drugs that executioners used for years are not available because manufacturers (in Europe) refuse to sell them in American markets. As a result, state executioners use drugs made in small batches, which may not be pure or even what they purport to be. State legislatures create protocols to administer drugs in untested doses and untested combinations. They are very literally experimenting on human subjects.

Last night, the state of Oklahoma experimented Clayton Lockett. And the experiment went terribly wrong. For forty-three minutes, the state of Oklahoma tortured Clayton Lockett. From James Downnie at the Washington Post:

Tuesday night, Oklahoma tortured a man to death. At 6:23 local time, a doctor began to inject Clayton Lockett with a sedative. Seven minutes later, convinced Lockett was sedated, the doctor then began to inject the second and third drugs in the lethal cocktail that were supposed to end Lockett’s life. But Lockett “began to twitch and gasp” after having been declared unconscious. He called out “man” and “something’s wrong.” He then “struggled violently, groaned and writhed, lifting his shoulders and head from the gurney before the blinds to the [execution] room were lowered 16 minutes after the execution began.” The doctor “intervened and discovered that ‘the line had blown,’ said the director of corrections, Robert Patton, meaning that drugs were no longer flowing into his vein.”

A fuller account can be found at the New York Times.

Being outraged, I wrote a letter to Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, who demanded the execution take place despite a stay by the Oklahoma State Supreme court, to show compassion and stop executions in her state until it can be done responsibly.

Here is what I wrote:

Dear Governor Fallin,

Please show true Christian love and a confirmed faith in the American democratic process by stay executions in Oklahoma an independent third party has determined a proven medically safe way to kill prisoners.

An independent third party cannot include anyone on your staff or who reports to someone in the state legislature.

(1) Will you agree to form an honest, independent party to review your state’s execution protocols?

(2) Will you agree to stay executions until a proven, safe, humane protocol to kill prisoners has been established?

A concerned American,
Joshua A. Reyes

Please write to her, too. You can email her here.

Wiser not wetter

While I’ve been training for the 1000-meter flatwater sprint all week, sadly, all of my workouts have been on land. The rental facility that I use stops issuing kayaks after 6pm this time of year. My work schedule keeps me from Cambridge into the mid-evening and therefore quite dry. I’ve been scheming ways to get onto the water in the early morning or later after I get back home, but until then, I’m bound to the gym. The weekends are another story, however. And to ready myself for tomorrow’s lesson, I returned to the river to practice on my own.

There was a bustle at Paddle Boston when I arrived around 11:30 am. A line emanated from the tent which guards the entrance to the dock where newcomers must sign waiver forms and hand over IDs. Another line wrapped around the small cabin that houses the cash register for paddlers who had just returned. No one looked too wet. And as a matter of course, a third line filled the docks which are already crowded by life jackets, paddles, and boats. Despite all of the people there, very few of them were workers. School is about to start and many of the staff are college students on summer vacation. With September just a few days away, most of the attendants have quit, leaving one exasperated woman to man the boats with only occasional help from her tiny dog.

Initially she told me to hop into a recreational kayak. I felt bad asking for a sea kayak instead; I didn’t want to be trouble. She let out something between a sigh and huff and disappeared for a moment. When she returned, I had a sky blue sea kayak. The fin on the bottom was exposed. She reached for the cord to retract it and mentioned to me, “This is how you pull in the.”

Skeg,” I interrupted to let her know that I was an insider, too.

“Yeah,” she replied. Her pace was a little slower and tone a little warmer than before. “Well, get in. I’ll push you in water from here since there’s such a line.” Trying not to sour my new friendship, I did as she said silently and swiftly. I signalled my readiness with a brief nod.

“Well, aren’t you going to adjust your foot pegs?” she asked. To be honest, I didn’t remember how far down the pegs were supposed to be. During my lesson the week before the instructor had adjusted them for me. My feet were on them. And that seemed right. So, I replied quickly, “They feel good.” What a mistake.

Once I was in the canal, the winds seemed to kick me side to side. The boat tottered beneath me in reponse. My abs clenched. For a moment, I forgot to breathe. And then I began what I could remember of the forward stroke. Toe-to-hip. Turn to the other side. Toe-to-hip. Turn and repeat. Somehow I was more unsure of myself than I was my first time out. The water was less familiar and I was more afraid of falling in. Still, I inched out of the canal.

Now in the open Charles, I suddenly realized that my right foot was up further than my left. And I remembered how I was supposed to sit in the kayak: somewhat frog-legged, with knees pushing on the braces on either side of the hull under the coaming. Damn. My foot pegs were too far down and uneven, and I could already feel my hips straining. I headed upstream under the Longfellow Bridge toward the only landing I could remember, up near the Harvard River Houses and Week’s footbridge, where I could stop to rearrange the pegs.

The entire time, my boat kept lurching to the right. I thought it might be the wind pushing me to one side. The week before, the entire class kept floating to toward the shore as a pack. I put my paddle down to check which direction the currents would take me. To the left! “Ah, so it is me,” I thought. My paddling was so lopsided, it overcame the wind. Every few strokes I paused to right my course. It was those mismatched and misplaced pegs. I picked my knees up higher against the boat. That seemed to help. I looked around at the other craft on the water. Everyone else appeared to be going straight. Then the wind picked up again.

It’s really amazing how low to the water you are in a kayak. Waves that you would never bother to notice from land suddenly command your attention by force. It was hard for me to gauge their size, a few inches, possibly a foot but probably less. But when you’re only three feet above the water, ripples become mountains. After being batted to the side by a small caravan of waves, an old Anglo-Saxon poem the Seafarer popped into my mind. When I discussed it in a waterless meeting room for a college course on Old English poetry years ago, my analysis was sharp. With all the comfort and courage that only cowards could have, I judged the author and his culture as small and afraid. They believed in monsters; I did not. But there, floating alone in my 13-foot boat, all that dross about the grim cold ocean and terrible tossing of the waves and unforgiving gale started to make sense—despite its being a tame New England summer day.

I turned around and headed home, still lurching to the right. This time with help from the wind.

Class is at 8:30 tomorrow morning.

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.

Clean up at Fenway

Above: The Angels slew the Red Sox 11-0, but the score didn’t matter. Fenway is one of America’s great cathedrals. Being inside is always a religious experience for me. And a bad sermon can’t spoil the majesty of a truly sacred place. So, I say, “Take me out to that transcendent ball game. Let me be part of the crowd.”

The great rain divide at Fenway

Above: When the rains came late in the game, the crowd was parted in two: on the right there were those who were dry; on the left, those who loved so much.

Race is Different than Money

This winter I’m taking a course on urban education. Our first topic: segregation and desegregation in schools.

Firstly, what do we mean by segregation? As a working definition, I’ll offer that segregation is the spatial pattern of people across some attribute. So we could talk about segregation by race, by income, or by favorite ice cream flavor. Once we pick something to measure against, we find that every city is segregated according to this definition. What matters is in what way the segregation manifests and the consequences on the populace the pattern has. Segregation patterns can be uniform, with all groups distributed more or less evenly within a region, or clustered. Likewise, we could also calculate the extent to which subpopulations are isolated from each other—which also gives a rough estimation of how often members of one group is likely to run into someone outside of their group. I think when we talk about ‘segregated’ groups, we typically mean highly clustered populations that are isolated from the other groups in the city.

I don’t think that clustered, isolated groups are necessarily bad on their own. I love visiting the North End and Chinatown. Because they’re both T-accessible, it’s easy for me to get there. (Though, both neighborhoods have had rough pasts.) And Harvard Square is the nicest place I’ve ever lived. Score one for segregation!

Moral judgments aside, self-selection can have a big influence on patterns of segregation, at least it can in models. The positive feedback loops reinforce small, individual choice to generate large-scale patterning. Schelling’s model of segregation is a classic, good first example of what I mean. In this model individuals exhibit only a slight preference to have neighbors that are similar to them. The individuals in this model are not racist. (Or maybe they are. I don’t have a good functional definition of racism yet.) When individuals find themselves in a neighborhood that is too unlike themselves, they move somewhere else at random, possibly to a neighborhood more dissimilar from themselves than the last. Even with this mild, partially blind behavior, a totally segregated structure emerges.

In more relaxed models that completely ignore race, even more realistic patterns of segregation form. In this class of model, individuals simply choose to live in the nicest area they can afford. As if by magic, isolated poor and rich neighborhoods form. Depending on the details of the model, wealthy suburbs appear spontaneously. If we use socioeconomic status as a proxy for race, it’s the same old story. Except this time, we have a systems-level mechanism that generates isolated, poor communities that lack the power to advocate for equitable resources and very rich communities with disproportionately high share of public goods insulated by a buffer of middle class individuals. Race was not the cause; money was.

When was ask whether it’s morally justified for a white family to send their kid to a predominantly white school, I think it’s important to know what about the school is so attractive. Do all parents value differentiated cultural and social understanding across many kinds of experience? Are they likely to value it more than a pretty campus or reputation of success by its graduates? Sure, in some cases the choice may be motivated largely by racism. But I’d expect that in many cases, it’s mostly a matter of ensuring access to the most and best resources possible for their child. It just so happens that low-resource groups aggregate, even in the absence of race.

I believe that diversity (of background, experience, perspective, and the like) is important in schools because, as has been mentioned a few times by others, students learn how to navigate social situations outside of school from the people they meet in school. But when we talk about diversity, do we really mean racial diversity? As an example, imagine that an elite, wealthy, mostly white college in the Northeast has recently been chastised for admitting a student body that is not sufficient diverse. Consequently, the school begins recruiting wealthy black students from Africa, some of whom attended the same boarding schools as students already enrolled in the college. In time, the student body comes to be half white, half black with an even mix in all classes and housing situations. In what sense, if any, has the college increased diversity on campus? Do you think the college has produced the diversity they were previously lacking?

While I think that racial segregation is a problem, I don’t think race is necessarily the capital-C cause. In a world without racism, economic segregation will still exist. But I’m willing to bet that in a world with no financial disparity, a lot of the troubles we associate with racism would evaporate. And so, I think race will play a secondary part in the solution to segregation. In fact, I think that race may even obscure the issue of access to equitable education for all. (I’m not sure if that’s what we’re really trying to achieve, but I think it’s a good start.) Instead, I believe that the struggle of the American education system is one of power and status. As such, I think we should talk about resource allocation (including strategies that move students to resources as well as bringing more resources to students), causes and effects of socioeconomic segregation, and cultural and pedagogical practices that systematically discourage/motivate students to learn the skills required to become an informed and capable citizens.

Possession is less than nine tenths.

Walking into a library doesn’t make you literate. Owning a speedo doesn’t make you a swimming superstar. Nor does having a chemistry set make you a chemist. Sure, all of these statements make sense. It’s hard to argue otherwise. So why was I so shocked this morning when I realized that scribbling my appointments into a calendar doesn’t make me organized? That’s right, I woke up bright and early to play squash with a friend from college—I even had the decency to send a polite text message to her while heading over to the courts.

“Hemenway, I’m on my way.”

She responded with a real, voice-to-voice telephone call. Her voice was laughing, though. It looks like I’ll need to wake up, bright and early, again, tomorrow morning How can this be? My Google calendar was wrong. I was wrong.

Moral 1: Having a resource is only half the story. You need to know how to use it well, too. (The computer scientists have a phrase for this sort of situation, “Garbage in, garbage out.”)
Moral 2: I should get an assistant.

At least I got some quality practice in.

Some Mottos

I’m loathe to write this post, because I know it’s going to be short and what I’m about to write—and my essential character, therefore—can easily be misinterpreted. Still, in the last two days people have accidentally uttered things that I think could be motto-worthy. However, one of my implicit mottos, one that I will not formally list, is, “You shouldn’t have too many mottos.” After all, it’s hard enough to carry around a handful of maxims throughout the day. Many more and I’d run out of the computational resources necessary to live by my own standards.

It is my hope that once I’ve got these things committed to (metaphorical, digital) paper, I’ll be able better to organize them, combine them, and generalize them. That’s right: it’s time for a spring cleaning of my wintered philosophies.

So here they are in chronological order:

  1. You can never have too much butter fat.
  2. Treat a person like dirt and he’ll stick to you like mud.
  3. I am smarter than my genes.
  4. I am more patient than a five year old.
  5. Be the person you want to attract.

On Friday DJ accidentally pointed out that I’ve ignored the deterministic components of nurture in the old war between nature and nurture. So maybe it’d be worthwhile to add

  • I can outgrow my environment.

And this morning my aunt Robin called to discuss her responses to Carol Dweck’s book on self and motivation theories that I mentioned a long time ago. I told her that I find her receptiveness to what Dweck has to say encouraging. Her response could warrant a more permanent place in my daily life:

  • It doesn’t matter what you think if it’s not working.

Do you have any words of wisdom that I should consider introducing to my list? You know I love comments.

Making Proper New Year’s Resolutions

It that’s time again: the start of a new year. And while my cat hasn’t seemed to respond to the fleeting opportunity to mend one’s ways that the beginning of a new year brings, I have. In order to honor that age-old tradition of turning over a new leaf and calendar all at once, I’ve decided to make some new year’s resolutions of my own.

I applaud those people who pause long enough mentally to arrange their lives, reflect, and respond accordingly. I think it’s important to remove ourselves from the hustle and bustle of our own lives, make the familiar unfamiliar, and critically examine where we are and where we’re going. But in my experience, people have got the technique all wrong. Few people know how to come up with a proper resolution. And without a good resolution, how could you ever hope of using it to signpost your journey through the coming year? So I am here to impart my deep if not self-important insight to you, free of charge.

I remember my mother calling me one early January to wish me a happy new year and to share her resolution for the new year. “Josh, this year my resolution is to be happier,” she told me over the phone. Likewise, my dad resolved to make more money. And this year, for about twelve seconds, I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if I managed my time more efficiently? Sure, these are all nice things to wish for, at least on the surface, but good resolutions they are not. (I hope my parents don’t mind my saying so here.) It’s hard to argue with anyone who wants the time and wealth it takes to be happy. (It takes wealth and time, doesn’t it?) So what makes these resolutions to bad? Well, two things.

A year is a long time, and it’s hard to keep track of long-term behavior when you experience it only in the moment. For this reason, avoid making resolutions that are fuzzy. Resolutions need to be stated in a way that gives you an easy way to know whether you achieved them. You need to build a measure into your goal, so you know whether you made it or not. In this way you have a mechanism to figure out how to adjust your actions if you’ve run off track. For example, instead of resolving to “be wealthier,” try to save 10% of your paycheck each week in account that you can’t touch until next year. It’s easy to check whether you’ve been saving over the course of a year. It’s a lot harder to evaluate your relative wealth from 365 days in the past.

Not only is it hard to know whether you’ve achieved a fuzzy goal, it’s hard to know how even to start. How in the world does someone go about “being happier” anyway? Resolutions should suggest a planned course of action. To kill two birds with one stone, I’m going to venture that a regular, regimented work-out routine would make me happier and force me to manage my time more efficiently. According to search trends on Google, it looks like a lot of people feel the same way. Look at how the number of searches on term “gym” spiked at the start of 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007.

But we have to be careful to make sure that our resolution to go the gym has: (1) a well-defined goal, and (2) suggests a way to achieve that goal. So this year, I’ve resolved (2) to go to pool three days a week, so that I can (1) swim a mile without stopping. And, oh, to be more successful, too.

Happy new year, everyone.