The Most Important Things Travel Has Taught Me

1. Nice is the norm.

We’ve all heard of the places that supposedly have the “nicest people in the world.” Ireland. Thailand. Bhutan. India. Cambodia. New Zealand. “The Midwest.” “The South.” “The West Coast.” But travel far and wide enough, and you realize that most people are nice. And there are a heck of a lot of towns, cities, states, and countries where almost everyone you encounter is friendly and polite. It’s a relief to realize that hey, most people aren’t out to hurt you, and most people actually do just want the world to be at peace and for everyone to get along. It’s also a little disturbing to realize that the reason you think everyone in your vacation spot is so nice is that you’re used to abruptness, rudeness, and impatience back at home.

2. Stereotypes collapse under scrutiny.

There are just too many people in any state or country for them to all be the same. We know this, right? We know that not everyone in California is a far-left Democrat. We know that not all New Yorkers, Singaporeans, or Parisians are mean. We know that not everyone from Alabama spends all day sitting on a porch sipping sweet tea and dreaming about bringing back slavery. But you really, really know it – you really know the diversity of even the most heavily stereotyped places – when you see it for yourself. When you see Trump campaign signs in California. When you talk to travelers from states you’ve never been to before. When you wander around a city and experience it firsthand – and know that its inhabitants are all so different that you couldn’t experience a “typical” day there at all.

3. People have different perspectives – and for good reason.

I miss the suburbs, finding them peaceful and quiet compared to big cities. I fantasize about living in a small town in the countryside. But after seeing some really small and blighted towns, I also empathize with people who want to escape and try life in a city. I can imagine feeling relieved, like you can breathe again, after coming to a small town from a large city. And I can also imagine feeling stifled if a little town in the middle of nowhere is all you’ve ever known.

You know what I find weird about small towns and villages with traditional lifestyles? How cosmopolitan tourists think they’re so charming and cute in other countries, and yet look down on them in their own countries. Just food for thought.

When you travel, you see that a lot of people, even if they’re not starving, are unhappy and feel left behind by modern, global society. You see why people think so differently about politics in rural and urban areas. You see that individual tastes and interests and opinions and aspirations, as well as entire cultures, are largely products of geography. You start to humanize the mysterious Other.

4. You like what you like.

I went to the Grand Canyon when I was 13, expecting it to be so awesome that I would cry. But it didn’t have that effect on me. Not that it isn’t an interesting thing to see. It’s just not the type of landscape that makes me want to gape forever. It’s not Yosemite Valley (still my favorite place on Earth). When I saw the Grand Canyon, I learned something I didn’t expect at all: that everyone has their own perspective, and you can’t force people to feel the same way you do about a particular place.

The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve come to resent the way people talk about travel. Nobody can tell you the thousand places you need to see before you die. Only you can do that. You should do things you’re interested in, not what someone else tells you to be interested in. If you love the mountains, go to the mountains; if you love beaches, go to the beaches. You like what you like, so stick with that. Life’s too short to do things you aren’t interested in for the sake of doing something impressive or exotic.

5. Presence matters.

I used to have a little fantasy about floating in the middle of a rainforest, looking up at all the trees. Then in December 2011, when I was in Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to swim in a shallow pool in a river. Even though the water was cold, I took a minute to lean back and look up, realizing I was doing something I always wanted to do. That memory serves as a reminder to me to pause for a moment when I’m checking off a bucket list item and appreciate the fact that it’s really happening.

The proliferation of books on mindfulness and complaints about phones taking over our lives suggests that we, as a society, have an issue with living in the moment. I definitely do! It’s easy for even the coolest, most interesting things we do to become a blur, especially when all we do is step out of the car for a few seconds and snap a photo, or just drive by, or when all we’re doing is looking at the ground to avoid rocks, or when we’re not really “there” because we’re off ranting about politics in our minds. I’m trying to do more to live in the moment, and also to commit the sights I’ve seen to memory later, before I’ve moved on to the next thing. I was in Redwoods National Park last week, and I’m glad I stopped on the path a couple of times to really, really look at a tree, or to smell the forest. (Redwoods is one of the best-smelling places I’ve ever been.) I also went to Crater Lake, and I had to remind myself, “Hey, wait a minute! I just saw Crater Lake, which was my dream! I have to remember it!” And now I do.

6. It’s a big world out there.

Compared to the entire universe, or even just the solar system, our planet seems small. We talk about going to the moon and Mars and Europa, but at the same time, we haven’t even finished exploring Earth. This planet is huge enough that us puny humans could roam it for centuries and not get bored.

Most of us know how long it takes to drive from New York to Florida or up the California coast. But driving between places that don’t look very far away on a map gave me a real appreciation for what a vast country the USA is. I couldn’t believe how long it took to drive from New York City to West Virginia, from West Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains to Asheville, North Carolina, and then from Asheville back to New York on a Memorial Day weekend trip. Or how long it took to drive across the entire state of Pennsylvania. Or how long it took to drive from Medford, Oregon to Portland, Oregon. Now think about the fact that few people are known to have walked across the continental United States. And if the size of this country is daunting, think about the fact that Canada and Russia are larger. Then think about how many countries, including the USA, fit into Africa. It is a big, big, big world out there!

Makes me want to learn as much as I can about it! Though it’s also humbling knowing that I will only ever know a fraction of what’s out there, at least in this one lifetime.

Living my dream.

The Beliefs that Hinder Criminal Justice Reform

Today concludes “Second Chance Month,” which highlighted efforts to help the formerly incarcerated reintegrate into society. Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go, and I think deep-seated attitudes about good, evil, revenge, and punishment are a significant part of the problem.

What I’m about to say applies to some degree to sentencing and prison reform, as well, but the main focus is on what happens afterwards.

Many Americans welcome criminal justice reform. Some are now going out of their way to hire the formerly incarcerated. Success stories from the formerly incarcerated abound. I’m aware this is happening, and it’s great. But it’s not the norm yet. And, disturbingly, it seems like whenever I see some sort of article about barriers to employment (or myriad other aspects of a safe, happy, productive life) for people with criminal records, there’s at least one comment to the effect of, “Oh, well, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” But, er, these people did do their time, and they’re still being punished, and a lot of us don’t care – that’s the problem.

Why? It’s partially due to some people’s beliefs about punishment: that the primary purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish people who deserve to suffer for their wrongdoing, not to merely keep the public safe or to rehabilitate criminals. While punishment has always been one theory of imprisonment, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense when applied to what happens after prison. Why should we even let people out of prison if we’re not going to let them live decent lives? If the entire point of a prison sentence is for them to suffer, shouldn’t we see more life sentences? Or at least, shouldn’t all the consequences of a criminal record be laid out in the sentence? The fact that we don’t send all convicted felons to prison for life or to death row, and don’t include in the sentence something like “You shall face barriers to housing, licensing, and employment for life,” suggests that the point of incarceration is not only to hurt people who have commit crimes.

What’s the point of paying your debt to society if society never forgives the loan?

Mike Rowe

Not allowing the formerly incarcerated to live their lives as normal citizens is irrational. Many point out that recidivism is a problem for people who can’t get stable jobs and reconnect to the larger community. Besides that, the more people gaining new skills, getting jobs, and building careers, the better it is for society. It’s pretty stupid to have a subset of the population not allowed to reach their full potential and improve the world. That’s harming society as a whole.

What if we’re talking about people who did really bad things, not just get caught with some marijuana? Well, they’re out. You may wish they weren’t, but let’s deal with the reality that they’re out in the most productive way possible. I don’t think giving someone another chance to make something of themselves is denying any harm they did. It’s just not letting what did years ago hold them back from contributing to society in the here and now. In the long run, we all benefit from that.

Also, sometimes it’s important to put your own feelings about a person or their actions aside. Just because you could never forgive a particular person for their crime doesn’t mean nobody else can. Just because you can’t look past what they did doesn’t mean we as a society can’t.

What about the victims?

Revenge for the victims is still too big a part of how we think about punishing criminals (in cases of crimes with individual victims). This is a problem because we should be more focused on community safety and possible rehabilitation of perpetrators. It also affects how we think the formerly incarcerated should be treated down the road. To let someone back into society after hurting another person can be seen as an insult to their victim. Sometimes I even hear that people who want criminal justice reform don’t care about victims and just like criminals. But it’s not about liking criminals. It’s not about ignoring victims (and vengeance and punishment aren’t really what’s best for victims anyway). It’s about doing the most logical thing for the community and the country.

Curiously, in murder cases, our concern for the victim is very high. But the victim is dead. The victim cannot be hurt by a sentence that isn’t harsh enough. The victim doesn’t care. The victim does not “finally rest in peace” once the murderer is found and severely punished. The victim does not feel re-victimized from the grave if the killer gets off, gets released from prison, or reenters society with a second chance. That’s actually a very disturbing view on life and death. The victim could be resting until the resurrection at the end of the world, at peace in heaven, journeying through another realm of existence, living on this planet again as a different person, or dead and never to rise again – but what worldview says she’s hovering around waiting to watch the killer suffer?

A murder victim might have loved ones who are also victimized by her death. But does punishment really help them, either? It’s not like they get to directly participate in the killer’s punishment. Isn’t knowing what happened to their loved one and moving on with their lives while preserving their loved one’s memory what they really need? And perhaps, if they so choose, to face the killer and explain how he’s hurt them? The sentence itself isn’t what’s going to get them to move on.

Besides, to circle back to the larger point, rehabilitating those who can be rehabilitated and getting them back into society is a higher priority than catering to a few people’s anger.

Good and Evil

Sometimes differences in opinions on crime and punishment come down to views on good and evil. There are people who believe that good and evil are real and can be objectively identified, and there are those who think crime is attributable to environmental and societal factors and has little to do with “evil.” And then there are disagreements among those who believe in a true and objective “good and evil” about what should be done to promote good and oppose evil.

I think promoting criminal justice reform and second chances for people getting out of prison is an excellent way to promote good. Sorry, but I don’t believe that the desire to punish makes you a better person than one who doesn’t have such a desire. I don’t believe virtue signaling about how you believe a certain criminal deserves the death penalty or deserves to suffer makes you a good person. You can help people who did bad things change, become better people, and do something productive with their lives, and that’s standing on the side of good, too. That’s mitigating the effect of evil in our world. That’s turning something negative into something positive. That’s not letting evil win. That’s letting love, forgiveness, open-mindedness, and just pure reason win.

There’s an emotionally compelling quote from conservative writer Daniel Greenfield that says, “Good means resisting evil. Good means fighting evil. Good means hating evil.” And I think that’s what so many people’s issues with criminal justice reform and second chances are about, deep down. I also think it’s got good and evil mixed up. As a believer in the Abrahamic God, Greenfield believes that in the beginning, there was only good. Evil rebelled against good. Evil opposed good. Good preexisted evil. Good does not exist as a reaction to evil. It’s the other way around.

Sometimes people commit crimes that make us angry. Sometimes particular crimes get us really riled up. But if in your anger you lose sight of justice, truth, and reason, you’re not fighting for the good side. Being a good person is about much more than getting angry at bad people. Or at good people who did bad things. Or at formerly bad people who have changed and become good people.

Let People Change

I don’t know why lately we’re seeing a resistance to simply letting people change. Nowadays, so many of us want to dig up people’s past sins and call them out, even when they’re completely different people today. But helping the formerly incarcerated depends on letting people change. There are always going to be people coming out of prison who actually once did something very wrong – but they’re truly sorry and they want to live a different sort of life. Let them!

Acknowledging that someone’s changed isn’t saying their crime doesn’t matter. It’s not saying victims don’t matter. It’s not favoring criminals. It’s not saying law and order doesn’t matter. It’s about dealing with the here and now and not remaining stuck in the past. It’s about making the best of a bad situation. It’s about not letting mistakes define someone – or any of us! – forever. It’s about benefiting entire communities by reintegrating people who are ready to contribute. If enough people understand this, I think there’s hope for comprehensive reform and better lives for the formerly incarcerated around the country.

***
I got into this topic by following The Marshall Project for about a year when I was in law school. I started to wake up to the fact that the way we treat the formerly incarcerated makes little sense. Last year, I read “Locked In” by John Pfaff, a brutally honest, data-driven look at mass incarceration. I also follow the Charles Koch Foundation and others who are promoting reform efforts.



Don’t let anything box you in – not even your so-called passion.

I was excited when I saw this quote. How often have I done this to myself over the course of my life? Am I even doing it now?

I don’t really like being told by “experts” what kind of job to pursue or not pursue – does anyone? At the same time, the message I get from this quote is that we can’t let ourselves think “I’ve got this one passion and I have to follow it” or “I chose this career path and I have to stick with it.” Why do you have to stick with what you decided was best for yourself at 13 or 18 or 24 or whenever? New opportunities come your way and new interests develop. You could always read a book or take a class or meet a person that changes your life, and you should let these things change your life!

Think about how cool it is to be living in the 21st century, especially in a developed country. Our mobility, access to knowledge, and access to countless other humans give us unprecedented chances to make outlook-changing and sometimes truly life-changing discoveries and connections. This is fantastic! Why limit yourself?

Telling people not to be limited by following their dreams sounds paradoxical. But it’s not. When we tell ourselves that a certain job or field or role is our “dream,” we narrow our focus. That could make us miss out on other opportunities, depending on how obsessed we get with our “dream.” It could also set us up for disappointment. I’m highly interested in Family Law, but I’ve already made up my mind not to be crushed if I don’t get a Family Law position because I could always do something else with my life. Coming to law school with one particular job in mind is a risky venture. Doing anything with only one specific goal in mind is risky. And one type of job (or worse, a particular company, school, or major), shouldn’t be the endgame. As I’ve passed through late-stage adolescence, I’ve realized that what matters is building character, increasing knowledge, establishing relationships, and dying as a good, well-rounded person who made a difference. How I do that isn’t as important.

It’s freeing to realize that what made you happy once doesn’t have to make you happy forever. And just because you tell yourself you have a passion, or let the world think a particular thing is your passion, doesn’t mean you have to follow that passion to the ends of the earth. I don’t want to think about the number of times I’ve thought, “I’ve put myself on this path, so I might as well stay the course until I can’t take it anymore.” What a stupid way to live. I’m tired of living life stupidly.

What about the fact that most people can’t just drop everything for a career change? In today’s world, there are so many ways to pick up skills on the side, or acquire new knowledge at your own pace, or meet people who might give you some ideas for what to do next, that you don’t have to drop everything. And the quote isn’t just about suddenly deciding to do a 180. It’s about taking on new roles and seizing opportunities to learn, even if you never thought they were things you’d be interested in before. It’s about not letting yourself be boxed in.

The conversations I hope the college admissions scandal leads to

Though, to be fair, a home raid over fraud and bribery in college admissions is a little over the top, I’m glad this scandal broke. We need to have more conversations about whether going to great lengths to get into a big-name university is even worth it, what it truly means to do what’s best for your kids, and the disservice done to people who aren’t admitted entirely based on merit. And maybe we need to also talk about whether the FBI should be expending resources on something that didn’t result in any deaths or affect large swathes of the country.

“Where you go is not who you’ll be,” wrote Frank Bruni in a 2015 book containing excellent examples of students who didn’t get into their first-choice colleges, and maybe went to colleges that were a little less prestigious, but ended up having great experiences and becoming highly successful.* Too bad our society still seems to have missed the memo. Rationally, we all know that you can have a career without a Harvard degree, but too many people are still acting like that’s not the case. The anxiety and burnout that teenagers put themselves through, unless they truly are geniuses who can breeze through 10 AP classes, doesn’t seem worth the end result. Not when you can go to The University of Wyoming and still become a lawyer or a doctor – or whatever the heck you want to be.

To be honest, if a Bachelor’s degree wasn’t necessary for office jobs that an 18-year-old could perform as well as a 22-year-old, and if so many people (I included) didn’t want to go to graduate or professional school after undergrad, it would be fair to say that college was a scam. The quality of knowledge students walk away with is not worth the money. (Some scholars actually agree with my assertion.) A few thousand dollars for private lessons, subscriptions to The Great Courses and similar services, book purchases, and maybe a few audited courses at a local college – not to mention free library cards and free websites – could get you as good an education as $200,000 for a four-year top-tier university experience. You could grow intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually through a self-designed program of study – probably even more than in a university setting. It is also not necessary to go to college to “find yourself” or become mature, as we tend to learn, experience, and change a great deal over four years anyway, especially years in which our brains are still developing.

I even hold this opinion about my own experience. One of my majors was philosophy. I don’t think it was a worthless degree because it was in philosophy, a much-misunderstood subject. (Quite frankly, political science and business majors laughing at philosophy majors is hilariously ironic; looking at you, pols.) And in some sense, no degree is worthless, as some employers really are just looking for the piece of paper that certifies that you can read, count, and use a computer, and many graduate programs don’t require any particular major as long as you’ve taken certain courses. However, I think my philosophy program wasn’t nearly as rigorous as it should have been, as I didn’t emerge able to have many serious debates about philosophical topics; I only understood a few areas of philosophy, and that’s all that was needed to complete the major. This isn’t because I didn’t listen in class or engage with the professors – I did. But, in my opinion, many degree programs are, ironically, too flexible, allowing students to major in a subject while only knowing a bit of it. While many of us are only looking for a stepping stone to graduate school, is it right that others should spend money or go into debt for an education that did not really require that much time or money? Especially when a four-year education is being billed as some special time of magical discovery that it really isn’t? Especially when a lot of graduates could have been trained to do their jobs directly by employers or during much shorter and cheaper programs? (The fact that people are going to “bootcamps” to get marketable skills after already earning a Bachelor’s degree says a lot.)

In reality, what the wealthy people involved in the scandal did was not about securing an education for their children. It was about pride and vanity. If a very wealthy person wants a child or someone else they love to be “educated,” they could pay for international trips, museum tours, lectures, books, subscriptions, and private tutoring. If they want that child to have a degree, there are hundreds of colleges in the U.S. alone that are considered “good” or reputable schools and would accept someone with average academic credentials.

Going to a top school – let’s say, one of the 50 most selective colleges – will give you a greater chance of getting accepted to a top graduate program. Some schools certainly do produce more brilliant philosophers or brilliant mathematicians or more brilliant what-have-you than others. But let’s be real; if these kids couldn’t get into an elite college on their own merits, they weren’t going to get into the best graduate programs and become brilliant scholars anyway. So, again, what’s the point of lying and bribing to get kids into the elite schools? It’s about bragging rights.

To get a little ranty: Cheating on an exam for your child isn’t doing what’s best for your child. Lying about a disability to get testing accommodations isn’t doing what’s best for your child. Creating fake profiles to trick recruiters isn’t doing what’s best for your child. Letting your child think that their college’s rank defines them isn’t doing what’s best for your child. Teaching your child integrity, honesty, and self-awareness (for example, knowing which universities and career paths are suited to your abilities, interests, and maturity level), is doing what’s best for your child. I am rather sick of parents claiming they’re doing what’s best for their children while doing things diametrically opposed to their children’s welfare.

To expand on another point, going to a college you’re not prepared for – or going to college at all when you’re not ready – isn’t helpful to your future. Going to a decent college and actually getting your degree is better than going to a top 50 college and dropping out. Going to a decent college and graduating with honors is better than going to a top 50 college and struggling to keep up. Waiting a year or two to figure out what you actually want to do with your life – and get some real-world experience and maybe some self-directed education – is better than going to college at 17-19 and having no idea what’s going on. To be fair, I wasn’t brave enough to admit these truths when I was in high school, either, but we as a society need to be brave enough. I don’t disagree with most of the headlines I’m seeing these days: College admissions is broken. Something’s gotta give.

On a different note, the punishment for the scandal is already outstripping the crime. Home raids, really? Six-figure bail, really? The threat of jail time for this? For mail fraud (and it’s not like The Firm, where mail fraud the charge used to arrest actual murderers)? On the flip side, those who say this happens all the time in the form of large donations to universities are missing the point. Blatant lying is a lot worse than making donations. Still, a lot of the people involved here can be and are being dealt with privately; applications are being denied and coaches are getting fired. That seems like the obvious remedy. The basic principles of justice still matter, even in an outrageous situation like this.

*Just the description of this book gets the message across: Over the last few decades, Americans have turned college admissions into a terrifying and occasionally devastating process, preceded by test prep, tutors, all sorts of stratagems, all kinds of rankings, and a conviction among too many young people that their futures will be determined and their worth established by which schools say yes and which say no. That belief is wrong. It’s cruel. Thank you!

There Were No Good Old Days

I was recently reading a post about nostalgia that probably doesn’t need to be read beyond the first couple of paragraphs. The author opens up by explaining why he doesn’t really long for the 1970’s – come on, no one actually liked being unable to leave their house while waiting for an important phone call because they didn’t have an answering machine. (I understand, as I personally don’t miss the ’90’s and early 2000’s, and I never wish I’d been around in the ’60’s, ’70’s, or ’80’s. Really, I don’t.) Yet the post only covers nostalgia for recent decades in American history and foregoes the chance to explore the phenomenon in greater depth. Nostalgia for our own pasts, for previous decades of pop culture, or for distant eras of human history does seem excessive nowadays, and I wonder why.

I think part of the problem lies in our formation of quintessential memories, the few experiences that come to represent an entire phase of our lives. We forget that a lot of the good things we remember didn’t happen every day. I miss the 2015-2016 school year, but I also have to remember that I didn’t really go to my favorite coffee shop every day, or go for walks in the woods every day, or get lavished with praise for my academic achievements every day. I do have some fond memories of that time, but sometimes I was very busy with things I didn’t feel like doing, sometimes I was stressed about an assignment or got an answer wrong in class, sometimes the weather was poor, etc. Similarly, people might long for the years when their children were little, forgetting that for all the times they ran around carefree in the park, there were just as many times when they had to yell at their kids to get chores done or were frazzled because they were running late to get to an activity. Or people might long for high school, forgetting that for all the times they spent laughing with their friends at the lunch table or going to parties, there were just as many times when they were freaking out about grades and whether they would get into college.

As we get older, it’s tempting to want to be young again, but we forget that being young is terrible. It’s no mystery to me why suicide is one of the leading causes of death for 15-24 year old’s. When you’re young, it’s difficult to see how your life can turn out all right despite any mistakes you’ve made, and it’s difficult to understand that the passage of time makes things better. Deep down, it’s hard to believe that you’ll get over a fight with a friend, or a bad grade, or confusion about your career trajectory. The young have great capacity for regret, because they can’t see that someday their present regrets won’t matter. They also have great capacity for stress and anxiety, even as elementary-school-aged children, and unfortunately, adults are unsympathetic.


Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out…

Right, because childhood was just a blur of rainbows and ponies and all you did was eat candy and sit in front of the TV and play on swingsets and you never worried about being yelled at by grown-ups and you never got frustrated by school and homework and you never had any problems with your friends and no one was ever mean to you and you never began to ponder morality and ethics and humanity’s most ancient philosophical questions and you never got scared by things you heard on the news. Like, duh.

This was totally every day of every person’s childhood.


Somehow, incredibly, people actually experience complex thoughts and emotions before high school. Shockerrrrrr.

At the micro-level, nostalgia can prevent us from recognizing the good in our own lives. At the macro-level, romanticizing the past is actually pretty dangerous. It’s one of the many problems shared by both the far left and the far right in politics. The world was supposedly once a happy place where humans lived in harmony with nature and with their communities, and modernity has ruined it. Of course, there couldn’t possibly have been a legitimate reason why people left their farms and small villages to go work in factories.

Whatever vision of a happier, freer, kinder past you have in your mind, it didn’t exist. Nature can be beautiful and interesting, but also unempathetic and cruel. Through diseases, storms, and earthquakes, nature kills. We protect ourselves from the elements much more than we ever did, and we’re better off for it. People have always been violent towards each other; in fact, human beings were probably more violent in prehistoric times than we are today with our advanced weapons. No race or nation of people ever lived up to its ideals or behaved like the ideal image you have in mind. Indigenous people didn’t just sit around weaving baskets before Whitey came and introduced the novel concept of war. Early America wasn’t pure freedom and free enterprise without government interference. The 1950’s weren’t a magical time when everyone was super thrilled about gender roles and picket fences and kids freely roamed around all of God’s creation because there was no such thing as a criminal.

Life’s getting better, and the inability of some political factions to get it through their heads that life’s getting better is pushing them towards worn-out, disproven social and economic theories that will only make life worse. Speaking of politics, nowadays it’s common to think that politics wasn’t always this polarized and uncivil, but that’s simply not true. Social media and the 24/7 news cycle feed into polarization in their own way, but it is a problem that has always existed – not just in the most obvious cases, such as the Civil War and the unrest of the 1960’s, but always. The fact that we actually talk about how divided we are and decry hatred and intolerance is a good thing.

I don’t really believe that there weren’t some years in your life – perhaps in each of our lives – that were happier than others, and that there aren’t some traditions or ancient ways of life that we can still learn from. What I do believe is that we need to stop longing for good old days that never really existed, and let ourselves move forward.

A Book Both Nuanced and Unequivocal

Noah Rothman’s recent book, Unjust: Social Justice and the Unmaking of America, is an exercise in intellectual honesty.

Rothman, a fellow Drew University alum and writer at Commentary and RealClearPolitics, struck me as highly intelligent, so when I found out about his book, I jumped at the chance to get it. It sounded intellectually rigorous and daring. And it is, but in ways that surprised me.

The book provides an overview of “social justice” and “identity politics” from their early roots in the United States to the fall of 2018. However, this isn’t a complete evisceration of the concept of social justice. Nor is it entirely one-sided. Rothman argues that “Identitarians” are a danger on both the right and left, and that those on the right are similar to the leftist “social justice warriors” they’re supposed to hate. He harshly criticizes President Trump and his supporters who do not try hard enough to oust racists, fascists, and conspiracy theorists from their ranks, while at the same time condemning Antifa and other left-wing radicals. Extremism is Rothman’s target, and his main argument is that the pursuit of “social justice” has gone too far. He thinks most Americans are good people who need some civics lessons, and can still be led away from the excesses found in any party or ideology.

One of the best things about the book is Rothman’s skillful use of concrete examples that make his points impossible to deny. If you ask, “Oh, come on, when have Trump supporters ever done anything as violent as people on the left?” or “Oh, come on, when has Antifa ever been just as bad as white nationalists?” or “Oh, come on, when has a white man ever been targeted for being a white man?” or “Oh, come on, what has Trump ever said that was so emboldening to racists?” or “Oh, come on, when have social justice advocates actually hurt or excluded anyone on the basis of race?” or “Oh, come on, when have college students actually shut down legitimate speech?” Rothman has a clear, detailed, well-sourced answer. In fact, this is probably the most distinguishing feature of his book, when compared with other writings on the drawbacks of social justice or “Identitarian” movements. It makes it useful to people who want to have a serious discussion on how to fix America’s political situation.

I also consider Unjust remarkable in that it does much more than vaguely state that there are good and bad people on “both sides.” Rothman gives credit where credit is due and explicitly, unequivocally rejects hatred, violence, and mob mentality wherever they are found. Though he loves his country, he does not pretend that our entire history is glorious. Though he comes from a conservative perspective, he has no problem calling out conservatives and Republicans for inappropriate, irrational, and unjust behavior. He abhors racism, LGBT-phobia, and other forms of bigotry, and genuinely believes in equal treatment under the law for all people regardless of race, gender, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, and other qualities – and acknowledges that many others on the right, including many Trump voters, do the same. He also doesn’t hesitate to expose and criticize those on the left who advocate unequal treatment under the law to remedy real or perceived injustices. He shows a principled commitment to classic American values.

Rothman’s objectivity, logic, and diligent research are admirable and a great credit to his educational upbringing, to the conservative movement, and to the American experiment. If all political leaders and thinkers in this country and other Western nations take a leaf out of his book, the future is bright.

Are titles getting more obnoxious and condescending, and why?

I don’t know if this is a new trend, but I constantly see posts marketed to me with accusatory or patronizing language in the title. I don’t get it because I think it’s a big turn-off. “This is why you failed the bar exam.” “This is the mistake you always make when you argue.” “This is why you didn’t get the job.” “Here’s how to stop hanging out with toxic people.” “Hey, loser, here’s how to stop being a miserable failure with a shitty life!”

I get a little miffed. Excuse me? No, I don’t need to lose weight, reorganize my home, and cut a bunch of people out of my life. Er, no, I’m not interested in reducing my “screentime” even if it is the next big thing. I don’t need all this unsolicited advice in my face, especially when it’s worded in such an offensive manner.

And then we have titles that make ridiculous promises. “Here’s how to make a ton of money blogging!” “Here’s the one thing you need to do to get into your first choice grad school!” Uh, huh.

I guess this must be really working, though, because I swear I see it all the time. I’d think a less aggressive approach that doesn’t assume things about the reader is more effective. “Want to make money off your website? Here are some tips.” But what do I know?

Trends I hope will die down in 2019

  1. TBT posts
    • Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to look for posts that reflect the current season, so pictures of a trip from six months ago are kind of irrelevant. Besides, I’m going on social media to look for updates and current events… that can’t just be me, right?
    • What’s even weirder about TBT’s, though, when they’re frequent, is it makes you look like you’re either milking some special occasion for months on end just to see how many likes it can possibly generate, or you’re trying really hard to make it look like your life is super exciting when nothing’s going on right now. (Mashable gets it!)
    • When instagram accounts for famous people do it constantly, the implication becomes “TBT to when she was in her 20’s and attractive.” Kinda offensive, don’t you think?
  2. Drinking stories
    • Do y’all think boomerang pictures of glasses clinking are still cool and magical-looking? Because they’re pretty boring, not gonna lie. I think even Colin Creevey would be over it by now.
  3. Complaints about “millennials” and “Gen Z.”
  4. Getting your news from comedians.
    • Seriously, people? I’ve been waiting for this to be over since 2011.
  5. Posts that try to pull you in with titles like “THIS IS WHY YOU’RE SO UNHAPPY AND WHY YOU’VE FAILED EVERYTHING”
    • Gee, thanks but no thanks.
  6. Lists of signs that you’re in love, that you’re with the right person, that you should get married, etc.
    • I’m going to be completely serious for a second and give you the only relationship advice you really need: When you know, you know. Ya know?
  7. Posts about how you wish you could still talk to your friend but you’re afraid to talk to them because it’s been a while and you don’t want them to be mad but you’re sorry and you’re a horrible friend, etc, etc, etc.
    • You can’t put that all on the other person. If you want to talk, talk. If you don’t get the response you’re looking for, then at least you know it’s time to move on.
  8. Thinking all dogs are perfect angels and nobody can possibly dislike a dog without being Satan.
    • Yeah, dogs can be great. But some are not so great. There are poorly trained, disobedient dogs out there. I’ve met bad dogs. And dogs just do not mesh well with every human personality. It’s not some moral failing to not like dogs. And just like not every adult thinks your children are the smartest, funniest, cutest, most well-behaved children on the planet, not everyone thinks your dog is the most delightful fluffball in the world and gets positively thrilled to see it inside stores and restaurants. #sorrynotsorry
  9. Telling people to not have a political opinion and stick to their own profession.
    • If a Hollywood actor isn’t entitled to an opinion, why is a truck driver from Iowa?
    • Not that I don’t think most Hollywood actors’ political positions are bonkers, but they are human beings with brains and capable of forming an opinion.
  10. Pressuring everyone to constantly be posting a political opinion.
    • Nobody is required to use their social media profiles as a platform for discussing topics of national interest. And no, not everyone who’s withholding is doing so because they’re selfish, stupid, or too privileged to think about it. And you don’t have to make excuses for not talking about something right away. If you’re having too many feelz to talk right now, you don’t have to say anything at all. Nobody’s keeping a literal tally of woke points that you’re missing out on.
    • Consider that sitting on your phone retweeting some political B.S. you won’t remember next week instead of hauling water from a river is a form of privilege. #foodforthought

Do what you want… but I’m going to hold out hope.

Reflections on the 26th Annual Animal Law Conference and an Outsider’s Recommendations for Animal Rights Activists

Animal law is a fascinating new field. Not only does it touch on several long-established areas of study – property, torts, family law, criminal law, trusts & estates, and even a bit of constitutional law –  it raises fundamental philosophical questions about the meaning of property, rights, and personhood. Because of the myriad ways animals are used, abused – and loved! – in human civilization, there’s always a new and exciting development in animal law to look out for. Of course I’d take the chance to go to the conference both this year and last year to learn more!

Last year’s conference covered topics ranging from the use of animals in entertainment to the best methods for prosecuting animal abuse. This conference stuck to a theme: animal agriculture. Still, there was variety; some speakers focused on the growth of alternatives to animal products, some on how to use the law to secure justice for the most victimized farm animals, and some on the negative consequences that factory farming has for humans and the environment. All panels were thought-provoking and optimistic, and loaded with new insights and information for insiders and outsiders alike.

calf
A calf on Farm Sanctuary in New York.

I didn’t come to animal law through the animal rights movement. I actually became acquainted with the animal rights movement because of animal law. It opened me up to all the ways animals suffer at our hands, and just how lame the excuses are. It made me care. However, I’ve never been an activist. I’ve been interested, but not committed. As someone who wants to see more rights and protections for animals, I’d like to share some thoughts about reaching the masses. I’m by no means claiming I’m the only person who has these ideas, but the following are a few things I heard little or no discussion about and think need to be said.

Remember that a lot of people still think you’re nuts. The internet has basically turned veganism into a joke. Stereotypes abound. Vegans can’t walk into a room without announcing that they’re vegan. Vegans eat roots and twigs all the live-long day. Vegans never consider the possibility that their lifestyle might not be viable for everyone at this point in time. Vegans believe that just because they buy “cruelty-free” products, every consumer choice they make is perfect. This all may be unfair, but it’s out there. Rightly or wrongly, people have felt like they’ve been judged by vegans and other animal rights activists, and judgment begets judgment. They’ve chosen to dismiss vegans without thinking critically about the issues.

There’s also plenty of farm propaganda out there. I’m not just talking about the billboards you might see advertising the wonders of dairy products as you drive through the countryside. People claim, whether they genuinely believe it or not, that people who work on farms care about their animals and have no choice but to treat them nicely, or else they wouldn’t make any profit off of them. Sure, more and more people are recognizing the moral implications of factory farming, but it’s still not everybody. There’s still a need to reach people who believe that the good things they’ve seen on farms are representative of farms everywhere, and people who swallow the farm propaganda because the reality of animal agriculture is inconvenient.

veg

At the conference, I encountered people who feed their dogs a vegan diet. This makes sense; what good are you doing by declining to buy animal products when you’re just going to buy them for your dog? But lawd, there are people out there who would like to strangle dog owners who do this. Although these dog lovers swear their dogs are healthy and happy, I also know that people push the idea that not feeding a dog meat is tantamount to abuse. One Animal Legal Defense Fund staff attorney I met was surprised to hear this; “I guess I live in a vegan bubble,” she said. I’m sure it’s invigorating to constantly be surrounded by people who are as dedicated to your cause as you are, but keep in mind how many people still need to be reached.

I say this because a lot of people can be reached. I’m not saying there are hundreds of thousands of people putting out anti-vegan messages on social media, but hundreds of thousands of people can read one post. Remain aware of the hostility toward your movement and counter it with your own messages.

Recognize that not everyone who agrees with you as immersed in the movement as you are. It’s safe to assume that when you go to an event hosted by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, you’re surrounded by a lot of people who are passionate about animal rights. But some people attend animal rights/animal law-related events out of curiosity or because they care about specific animal issues. Activists should acknowledge people on the outskirts of the movement and try to keep them interested. Which brings me to…

Show the graphic images. You need people to believe you. You need people to believe there’s actually a problem. We were spared graphic photos a few times during the conference. I would do this as little as possible, especially when it comes to talking about factory farming. Realize that a lot of people are in denial about what really goes on, and make it impossible for them to deny. This means photos and videos that clearly depict abuse, pain, and suffering. This means many of them, from as many different sources as possible. Yeah, people will get upset, but what this movement needs is for people to get upset. Change isn’t going to come quickly otherwise.

I don’t mean to preclude pictures of animals that look happy, though. Photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, the keynote speaker for the banquet dinner, was right to show us animals in pain and animals living peacefully at a sanctuary. It’s important to portray animals having a wide array of sensory and emotional experiences. A video I saw once of a cow dancing as it was set free was just as powerful as one I saw of chickens getting violently stuffed into drawers. Make people confront the fact that animals can feel pain and fear. Make people wonder if animals can understand affection, peace, gratitude, freedom, and happiness. Both will lead to greater concern for animal welfare, and from greater concern will come greater change.

Deal realistically with how staggering the numbers are. Billions. That’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around, no matter what we’re quantifying. More animals are killed for food every year in the United States alone than there are people on Earth. If you had a cent for every animal killed for food worldwide in one year, you’d be in the richest .01%. Even if we believe that killing these animals is wrong, what can we do about it? Where are they all going to go?

This might be a good argument for “Reducetarianism,” which is exactly what it sounds like. If everyone reduced the amount of animal products they consumed year after year, we would see less and less demand for farmed animals, and the numbers would get less and less crazy.

The movement against factory farming also runs headlong into the “One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic” problem. Hearing about one animal dying might make us mad. Knowing that the same thing has happened to billions of others might just make us numb. It’s easy to care about a pig living on a farm sanctuary whose picture you’ve seen and whose name you know. It’s not easy to care about every other pig living on the planet. Maybe Jo-Anne McArthur has that depth of feeling for animals – not picking on her, she’s truly a beautiful person, inside and out. Maybe Susie Coston, a sanctuary director who loves every cow like a family member. But most of us simply don’t have that capacity. Our hearts do not cry out for every single animal living on every single farm in the entire world. The desire to change something comes from knowledge in our rational minds that our treatment of animals is wrong; it does not come from an outpouring of compassion for each animal in existence.

Keep the joy in cooking. Baking and cooking shows are wildly popular. People love to make, look at, and eat ridiculous desserts. For some, making food on a daily basis is genuinely exciting. It’s going to have to stay exciting for most people to get behind the movement to reduce and eventually replace animal products. Some raw vegans might be happy just eating carrots and granola – and some people might be afraid that that’s what all vegans actually want us to do – but plenty eat colorful, creative meals. From what I’ve seen, the Animal Law Conference has interesting food that can appeal to everyone. Maybe it sounds frivolous right now, but the general population does need to hear that food will still be fun after the eggs and butter are gone.

Emphasize the human side, because you might not gather as much sympathy as you’re hoping for otherwise. I know that factory farming’s detrimental effects on human beings were discussed at the conference, as well as the benefits alternatives can bring. It’s a good idea to keep doing this, because, unfortunately, some people might think that a room full of people crying over chickens isn’t all that interested in human welfare. (People are dying in wars and you’re talking about this?) I know that caring deeply about one issue doesn’t preclude you from caring deeply about another. I know that highly compassionate people were in the room with me; the masses need to know it, too.

Thanks for reading!

impossibly-cute-puppy-8

Brief Thoughts on Traveling Alone

I’m not here to tell you that you absolutely must travel by yourself, or that you must go to any particular place. I for one am sick of being bombarded with articles telling me what I “need.” Having just gotten back from my second solo weekend getaway, I’m simply sharing some thoughts on why traveling by yourself can be exciting and good for personal growth.

I didn’t take an entire trip by myself until a year ago. It was kind of embarrassing that I hadn’t done it before the age of 25, but I had to start sometime, right? The logistics aren’t difficult – booking a flight, getting to the gate, and checking into a hotel are pretty self-explanatory processes. The fun part is when you step outside and play the role of the tourist, absurdly charmed by parks and coffee shops that aren’t much different from the hundreds you’ve seen before, marveling at another city’s public transportation system, proud of yourself for getting your bearings within a half-mile radius.

And it is fun. I’ve enjoyed the freedom to go at my own pace, to see no more or less than what I’m interested in, to eat when I wanted, to go to sleep and wake up when I wanted to. Maybe I’d eventually wish I was sharing the experience with someone else if it went on long enough. I don’t know. My solo adventures have been limited. I’ve gone to Portland and Chicago for weekends for the Animal Law Conference (which I’ll talk about elsewhere). I’ve gone on ten-mile walks alone and explored other towns. I’ve taken school-sponsored trips to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia and then wandered off to do my own thing for the next eight hours. That’s it. And even then, I’ve enjoyed a sense of freedom and excitement.

I’ve found that the weekend trips I’ve taken have an advantage in that I didn’t take much, if any, time out of school or work, and I can jump straight back into real life. I’m not disoriented. I’m not exhausted. I don’t need a vacation from my vacation. But I’ve still had enough time to get something out of the trip. And I’ve had the joy of learning that I can indeed be a competent adult who can get herself to another region of the country and back in one piece.

I’ve also felt a level of responsibility for myself that I hadn’t on group trips. I had to look out for my own safety. I had to make sure I was showing up to the right place at the right time. I had to be the one to ensure I was having fun, not rely on someone else to make the fun happen for me.

There’s another positive I’ve found that might sound curious at first: when I go somewhere alone, I remember it. I don’t have to look at pictures to remind myself of what the Portland streets I walked down looked like, or the places I ate, or the views I saw. Even the excursions that have only lasted one day are vivid. I remember everything I did in Washington, D.C. alone. I remember days I’ve walked to Nassau County or Manhattan from Queens; I remember walking to Summit or Morristown or Harding from Madison, NJ –  I remember it in detail. This makes some sense. When you’re on your own, you’re paying attention. You’re not following someone else or passively sitting in a car, trying not to fall asleep. You have to read every street sign and the names of buildings and the train maps. You’re not distracted by your group; you’re taking everything in. It also probably has to do with the length of time I’ve spent exploring a place alone – it’s easier to remember one special and exciting day that stands out from the rest of the month than all the details of a special and exciting two weeks, and that might be true no matter how many people you’re with.

Having realized all of this, I can’t wait to spend more time adventuring alone – whether it’s exploring a new neighborhood or town or a faraway state. And I hope you all will, too, whenever you get the chance!

lake michigan
When you’re on your own, it’s easy to say, “Hey, I’ve got an hour to kill. Why don’t I take pictures of the lake?”