"And what is a good citizen? Simply one who never says, does or thinks anything that is unusual. Schools are maintained in order to bring this uniformity up to the highest possible point. A school is a hopper into which children are heaved while they are still young and tender; therein they are pressed into certain standard shapes and covered from head to heels with official rubber-stamps." ~ H.L. Mencken
Look, Boys! Now You Can Fight Like Real Men!
My editor at The Aquarian requested I gear this week's column towards the under-18 crowd. Hey, no problem.
So first things first, young ones, let me say there's one golden rule in life, and it's a rule they don't always teach you in high school. Don't cut in line? Raise your hand before speaking? "I" before "E" except after "C"? No, no, and no -- though those are all good rules to follow. But the golden rule is much simpler than that. It is: Ask Questions.
Whatever you do, and wherever you go, you should always, always, always ask questions.
"But why?" you say.
Now let me explain:
Once upon a time, there was a man named Thomas Jefferson. I don't know if they still teach about him; last time I checked, some school boards didn't want to. At any rate, you might know him as our third president, or the guy who wrote the Declaration of Independence. But he was more than that. He was a rebel -- like 50 Cent, or Burt Bacharach, or whoever it is you kids listen to these days. In fact, Jefferson believed in challenging authority, and he proved it when he said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." Yet this radical's presidential victory was called a bloodless revolution. Go figure.
The moral of the story is you'll only have to draw blood in defense of your liberty when you let others wrap their hands around it first. So guard your freedom like you'd guard your gym locker. And keep the establishment on its toes. You'll find in life, after all, that the status quo often suppresses youth and innovation, and failing that it tries to swallow them.
Case in point: Bill O'Reilly's rap music obsession and the TV ratings that go along with it.
Or take MP3s, for example, which supposedly take food off Lars Ulrich's table. The recording industry says file-sharing on programs like Kazaa "undermines the creative future of music itself." These people are so full of crap it's coming out their mouths. Music is older than both Kazaa and the RIAA. In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut puts "all music" in a league with Armistice Day and Romeo & Juliet as one of those rare "sacred things." Music isn't going anywhere. Ever. And the RIAA knows this.
So kids, don't be afraid to ask if the gatekeepers are protecting the future of music, or just their place in it. Do your own research and draw your own conclusions, but don't be afraid to ask if "corporate personhood" is, in fact, what's stealing food off Lars Ulrich's table. Don't be afraid to ask if MIT professor Henry Jenkins is right when he says, "As currently understood, the First Amendment protects media producers, but not media consumers" -- and don't be afraid to ask how the assault on our participatory culture "contradict[s] everything we know about human creativity and storytelling."
You're going to hear a lot about voting over the course of this year. People are going to say you have no right to an opinion if you're 18 and don't vote. But whereas the right to vote is government-given, the right to an opinion is given by God. Don't be afraid to ask how ignoring the first right voids the second, or why you're only allowed to participate in your culture when you're choosing between two presidential candidates from the same secret fraternity. And, while we're at it, don't be afraid to question the Oprah/Geraldo/Sally Jesse school-of-thought on fraternities -- they're a lot more fun than the talk show hosts let on.
Above all else, my friends, feel free to question widely-held opinions. Not because the fact that they're widely-held means they're wrong, but because you'll never know for sure until you find out for yourself. Let me give you one for-instance and then I'll let you go.
My hero when I was a kid was Abe Lincoln. Actually, let me correct that: My hero when I was a kid was Hulk Hogan, but my hero when I was your age was Abe Lincoln. So anyway, back in the day, I used to write research papers with help from a set of 1989 World Book encyclopedias, which I still own. Their Lincoln entry sums up everything I ever learned about this fair and noble man. It begins like this: "Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865), was one of the truly great men of all time." His greatness, you see, wasn't just an opinion. It was talked about as absolute fact.
Eventually, though, I went to college and minored in history, and one of my senior-year professors told me the Civil War wasn't "about slavery," as I'd always been taught. Slavery was a part of it, sure, but freeing black folks wasn't even Lincoln's goal. Indeed, as Lincoln put it: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."
I later learned -- especially through the writings of Thomas DiLorenzo -- that slavery ended peacefully in many countries just years before our Civil War. I also learned that the Emancipation Proclamation didn't free the slaves. And that's just the tip of Honest Abe's top hat; his government also silenced anti-war papers and imprisoned Northern protestors.
So are these the markings of a "truly great" man? For me, it shifted my entire political perspective, but what it does for you is something you'll have to decide on your own. The point, though, is many facts and conflicting opinions were downplayed or hidden in my education experience, and no doubt a lot has been downplayed or hidden in yours. It's all a part of the public record, but we'll never learn it unless we think to ask.
Of course, no one asks questions like this in high school, and believe me: No one asks in the "real world," either. They don't want to sound stupid. My advice? Dismiss this fear. Albert Einstein started off asking the silliest questions he could think of. Things worked out for him. Now imagine the impact you can have if you start asking questions young.
So get in the habit of critiquing the old guard. Respect the status quo, but then make 'em earn it (except for your parents, who more often than not deserve the benefit of the doubt). John Ashcroft is famous for saying we should "be vigilant," and asking questions -- more so than duct tape -- is just that. There's comfort in going where the herd takes you, and that's fine if you want it, but keep in mind teamwork's a useless virtue when teammates bring the same thing to the table. Even teams work better when members aren't afraid to think for themselves.