Saturday, February 13, 2016


Dear Spike,

I'm not registered with a political party, and while I have the option of voting in the Democratic primary in our home state, I probably won't do so.

I suppose that makes what I am about to share with you a moot opinion, but I'd thought I'd share it with you anyway, because there is an increasingly heated debate going on among our progressive friends that I imagine you might someday want to understand.

At its best, this debate has been quite nuanced and interesting. At its worst it has been sexist and destructive. Either way, it's complicated, but it sort of comes down to this question: Is it wrong to vote for a woman because she is a woman?

You're just eight years old, but you already understand privilege quite well. You understand that our family, largely by virtue of historical factors that are far out of our control, has enjoyed practically unfathomable benefits of wealth, power, safety and stability. As you grow older, some of your friends who are in a similar socio-economic situation — and even some who are better off – might try to convince you that we're not as privileged as we could be or should be. That's unadulterated bologna. Historically speaking, we're practically royalty.
I'm a white, middle-class, college-educated man born to parents who taught me the value of hard work, esteemed education, and helped me understand that there is a difference between being entitled and feeling entitled. I've had a few opportunities to see that latter lesson played out in my life as I've occasionally sought to move from one job to another. I'm pretty sure, for instance, that I've lost out on a few opportunities here and there to minority and female candidates, and I'm very much at peace with that. It doesn't wash away my privilege to grant someone else an opportunity when all other things about us are practically equal. (And, of course, they're not equal, for I cannot possibly conceive of how much my own race and gender has contributed to the fortunes I've enjoyed in this world.)  
For all of these reasons, I have no qualms with the idea of Affirmative Action, which at its most basic simply states that when all other things are practically equal, the progressive move is to help the person who comes from a historically less privileged group.

And that brings me to the debate at hand: Should voters consider Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's gender when they decide whether to support her or Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States?

I know that not everybody see things this way, but when I look at Clinton and Sanders, I haven't yet seen one person who is a substantially better choice in every meaningful way to be the chief executive of our nation, the commander in chief of our military, and arguably the most powerful single human being on our planet.

Our country is in dire need of an honest chief executive — advantage, I suppose, to Sanders. Our nation is in dire need of someone with a deep and nuanced understanding of the international challenges we face — advantage, almost certainly in my mind, to Clinton. And yes, I'd like someone who can help reduce the influence of money in our political system. Advantage to Sanders for being a virtuous broker of that goal; advantage to Clinton for being someone who might actually be able to move the needle — since I'm not sure we can expect more, giving the political, legal and constitutional obstacles before us, than needle moving when it comes to this problem.

For me, all of that comes before gender even enters the mix. But I'm not sure it has to be that way.

For all of the good and all of the bad that President Barack Obama has done since his election, I believe the most substantial contribution he will make to our nation, over and above what I would have expected from any other Democratic president (or, quite frankly, from any president of either party) is that he was our nation's first black president. As I have written to you before, there will never be a time in your memory in which a black man had not been the leader of our nation. 

For all of the good and bad she will do while she is mayor of our city, I believe the most substantial contribution Jackie Biskupski will make, over and above the potholes and streetlights she will fix just like any other mayor would, is that she is the first gay mayor of Salt Lake City. You will never live in a world in which it is inconceivable that a lesbian could be the mayor of the capital of the most conservative state in our union.

It is therefore to me not inconceivable in any way that more good could come from having a woman in the Oval Office than bad could come from what she might do once she gets there, over and above what any president — man or woman, black or white, God-fearing or atheist, capitalist or socialist — will do.

Someday, perhaps, there will come a time when the power brokers in our country look less like me and more like you — and when they look less like us and more like the rest of our nation. And perhaps there will also come a time in which someone might distinguish themselves as so capable, so different, so uniquely qualified as to be a clearly better choice than anyone else. I know some people feel that they are seeing this in Sanders. By the same token, some people see this in the demagogue who is currently leading the national polls for the Republican nomination.          

For my part, I have never been and do not expect to ever be satisfied with a president, or with any politician for that matter. It greatly troubles me that we are so quick to elevate people — who are supposed to be putting themselves forward as potential public servants — as heroes and saviors. I don't see Clinton or Sanders as anything more than flawed human beings who each have potential to help and to harm the progress our nation is making, and whose future failures and successes cannot possibly be known, since the challenges they would face as president cannot possible be known.

And so, as to this debate, I suppose my answer is this: I would not see a vote for a woman because she is a woman as a vote against liberalism, progressivism or virtuous citizenship, let alone feminism. I would conclude it was righteous, reasonable and rational. I would conclude it was an affirmative action on behalf of a nation founded on the principle "that all men are created equal," and which still has a long way to go before realizing that all women are, too.


Friday, February 5, 2016


Dear Spike:

It's 2:42 in the morning, and I'm up to my blood-shot eyeballs in papers from my students.

The next few weeks will be like this. Then a few things will happen. First, some of these students will drop out of my class. Next, those who remain will slowly start to improve. That will make things easier, but not easy. Teaching is never easy. Not good teaching, at least.

I don't have to work this way. It seems clear to me that there are plenty of teachers out there who have figured out how to do just enough to get by. I suppose they must get more sleep than I do, but I don't really understand what else they get out of that arrangement. Why teach if you're not going to teach?

You can do whatever you want in life, kid, but since both of your parents are teachers (and your grandmother, too) I suppose there's a decent chance that you might decide to try your hand at this teaching thing, too.

If you do, you'll almost certainly be expected to adopt a teaching philosophy. You will be tempted to brush over this. Please don't do that. Take it seriously.

I won't bore you with my whole treatise on teaching, but I'll share with you a few parts that are important to me.

• In all things, I set high standards in deference to my belief that we value most that which we have worked hardest to achieve.

• There is no perfect approach to teaching... our diverse and dynamic culture demands that even the most excellent educators must shift their thinking and approaches from time to time, and even from student to student.

• I believe in the power of education. 

• I am very fortunate to have been given the honor of helping my students become better thinkers, communicators, citizens and storytellers.

Over the years, I coupled my teaching philosophy with my creed — a simple statement of personal beliefs that help guide my actions from day to day, and which I began developing as a sophomore in high school and which I'm still working on today.

I doubt anyone will ever ask you to develop a creed, but it's a worthwhile exercise. 

Here's mine: I will work harder today than I did yesterday; I will care more today than I did yesterday; I will be more passionate today than I was yesterday.

I don't know if these are the best rules to teach by and live by, but they work for me. Whether you teach or not, I hope you'll recognize the beauty and benefit of having some personal rules that guide your journey in life and which you reflect upon from time to time.