What is Fascism, Anyway?

Mussolini Headquarters in Rome.

The word “fascism” gets thrown around so casually that it has lost meaning. It can be a clever way to call your boss a “jerk.” Or it can be a political accusation, used by left or right, to strongly disagree on policy.

The word has a real meaning, though. We would be wise to stay sensitive to what fascism looks like.

The fasces was a symbol of power in ancient Rome. A fasces is an ax surrounded by wooden rods. Notorious dictator Benito Mussolini used the symbol for his political party– the National Fascist Party.

After the first World War, Italy was down and out. Though they helped the victorious Allied Powers, they felt disrespected, left out, underappreciated. Mussolini used this sentiment to disparage Western democracy and build a coalition around himself, asserting Italian strength.

When Adolf Hitler was competing for power in a fractured Germany, he looked to Mussolini for an example. Many of Hitler’s tactics came directly from the Fascist playbook.

The fascism of Italy and Germany had a few things in common:

  • a nationalist spirit, trying to reinvigorate their country’s previous glory
  • belief that the path to restoration needs a strong leader
  • building a cult of personality around that leader
  • working to silence critics and control the media
  • consolidating industry, business, and military around the leader’s intentions
  • scapegoating and attacking “outsiders” for being disloyal or hurting the country
  • strong-arming the democratic process to gain more power
  • manipulating events and circumstances to suspend civil liberties and take total control

We know how things turned out back then. Just remember they didn’t happen overnight.


We take political freedom for granted in the United States. It’s an automatic assumption. It’s what we have. We’ve always had it, and we always will.

That is a dangerous fallacy. According to the Freedom House, only 40% of the world’s population enjoy true political freedom, measured by the existence of competing parties, the universal right to vote, valid elections, and a free press. The Greek and Roman democratic governments, from which our government is modeled, both fell into autocracy. And they didn’t fall in a day.

My generation has never experienced a serious threat to our way of life. Our biggest frustration is not climbing the ladder as fast as our parents. We get bashed for being self-absorbed. We are the selfie generation. Our faces glued to phones and TV screens, awaiting the next burst of entertainment. Self-expression bought and posted online, carefully compared to those around us. Politics, another fad, another way to express myself– as a contrarian, or an accepting and compassionate person. Or a blissfully aloof soul.

After the Constitutional Convention, someone asked Benjamin Franklin, the aging diplomat, what kind of government the Founding Fathers came up with. He replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Thousands of passionate heroes over the years have sacrificed to keep it, or to define it.

My fear is that, as we play with our shiny objects, we will lose it.


I used to think the answer to “real engagement with the world” was shutting down and logging out. Can’t even count the number of times I have deactivated Facebook or deleted all social media apps from my phone. Always to come crawling back. Lately, I feel like I am stoking a fire of online connection. Trying to stay warm, but not get burned. Sometimes I open a book or newspaper with the intention to read, and spend the next 30 minutes scrolling through Twitter, watching pro-Trump and anti-Trump users hurl insults at each other. Depressing. During those times I feel like I am managing a drug addiction.

Balance is needed, but I don’t know how to achieve it.

Anyway, the best advice I have seen on how to approach the next four years came from a tweetstorm. By an independent 2016 presidential candidate out of Utah named Evan McMullin, who has become the most vocal conservative critic of our president-elect.

He says:

If Trump governs as an authoritarian like he has promised, it will be critical that Americans do the following 10 things:

  1. Read and learn the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Know that our basic rights are inalienable.
  2. Identify and follow many credible sources of news. Be very well informed and learn to discern truth from untruth.
  3. Watch every word, decision and action of Trump and his administration extremely closely, like we have never done before in America.
  4. Be very vocal in every forum available to us when we observe Trump’s violations of our rights and our democracy. Write, speak, act.
  5. Support journalists, artists, academics, clergy and others who speak truth and who inform, inspire and unite us.
  6. Build bridges with Americans from the other side of the traditional political spectrum and with members of diverse American communities.
  7. Defend others who may be threatened by Trump even if they don’t look, think or believe like us. An attack on one is an attack on all.
  8. Organize online and in person with other Americans who understand the danger Trump poses and who are also willing to speak up.
  9. Hold members of Congress accountable for protecting our rights and democracy through elections and by making public demands of them now.
  10. And finally, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, have “malice toward none, with charity for all” and never ever lose hope!

These words are more than a recipe for Trump-resistance. They are basic guiding principles to keeping a republic and building a better society.

Continue reading “What is Fascism, Anyway?”

Mindfulness in School

meditateWhen it comes to learning and succeeding in school, emotional stability matters. Nobody concentrates well when they feel angry, scared, or depressed. You don’t care about your stupid teacher’s verb conjugations if you’ve grown to resent authority figures.

In a previous post, I wrote about two misguided priorities in education: force feeding a monolithic approach to math and underestimating the importance of emotional intelligence.

Good news. There are some developments in the emotional intelligence department.

Earlier this week, NPR ran a story about a school in South Phoenix that implemented mindfulness practices into the curriculum. The segment described “an increasingly trendy program,” but mindfulness is an ancient practice. Rooted in Eastern spirituality, mindfulness has been revisited by modern research psychology and is now standard fare in therapy.

Mindfulness basically means slowing down and paying attention. Notice your thoughts. Focus on the immediate thing you are doing. Notice your breathing. All emotions have physiological correlates in the body. Being attuned to these allows a person to reduce “automatic” behavioral responses and to act in more purposeful, effective ways. So instead of lashing out, a student might take a deep breath, notice the feelings heating up, recognize their meaning, and decide to respond constructively. A student needs to recognize what an impulse feels like before learning to delay the impulse (to throw a paper ball across the room) for the greater reward (of mastering verb conjugations).

Students in the Phoenix school practice mindfulness for thirty minutes a week. In the first year of the program, the school saw a 37% decrease in school suspensions. The practice is also used during disciplinary moments. Teachers can remind students to take a “mindful minute” to reflect their behaviors.

How much credit the mindfulness program deserves for reducing suspensions is impossible to determine. They did not run a controlled experiment, so other factors might have caused the change.

But an experiment does exist which shows positive effects of therapeutic interventions for students. A study out of the University of Chicago called the Becoming a Man program randomly assigned at-risk male students to take cognitive behavior therapy, oriented around mindfulness, during the school day. For the nearly 5,000 high school students who received the therapy, violent crime arrests went down almost 50% compared to the control group who did not receive the therapy. Graduation rate increased 20%.

The intervention is also cost-effective, estimating the reduced tax burden from the criminal justice system and the increased earnings potential for the students.

According to motivation psychologist Abraham Maslow, there are psychological prerequisites to reaching your potential as a human being. Higher goals of “self-actualization” can only be reached when lower needs of safety and belonging are secure. As illustrated by his famous hierarchy:


For many students in struggling schools, those lower needs are not met on a consistent basis, causing major challenges in the classroom. Pouring money and technology into inner-city schools will not close any “achievement gaps” without addressing the psychological underpinnings of learning.

Breathing exercises are not a magic bullet for improved education. One shortcoming of the Chicago study was that the improvements did not endure after the therapy sessions ended.

These innovations, however, are steps in the right direction. Students are not cogs in a standardized testing machine. Students are dynamic human beings. The more mindful we are of that, the more they will thrive.

Hail: The Internet Troll-in-Chief

trump-hugs-flag-oct-24My biggest hope for the 2016 election was that I would never have to care, ever again, what Donald Trump did or said. Even if the media insisted on covering his hot air, it would not matter.

My interest in politics over the last two years has been a professional obligation– I have been teaching government, economics, and American history. Along with my students, I watched in dismay as The Donald marched from punchline to president-elect. Two years ago, Donald Trump was a blowhard reality TV show host with a goofy combover. He was the easy butt of many a joke. Like this clip from David Letterman in 2012, about how Trump accused Obama of not being an American citizen: “Maybe he’s not a racist, maybe he’s just a guy who periodically says stupid things to get attention.”

Next semester I will be teaching psychology instead of government. I was looking forward to ignoring politics for a while. Life would go on more or less how it’d been the last eight years. Trump would quickly fade into irrelevance. I could tune down the volume on the Republican backlash against Hillary.

That was the devastation I felt on election night. Of course these thoughts swirled: How could so many people fall for this scam? ‘Blue collar billionaire’ my ass. How could so many Republican leaders capitulate to a fake-conservative hijacking of their political party?

The real devastation, though, was realizing I would have to pay attention to Trump’s words and actions. Because now they matter.

We have an internet troll for a soon-to-be president. Literally. According to Wikipedia, an internet troll is:

a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for the troll’s amusement.

And with 16.5 million followers on Twitter, the president-elect can cause quite a ruckus.

Case in point: Last week, Donald was sitting at home watching Fox News, when a segment came on showing people burning the flag to protest his election. Promptly, Trump tweeted to his peeps: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

Nevermind that flag burning is a constitutionally protected freedom of speech, upheld by the Supreme Court. My high school sophomores know that. Nevermind that citizenship cannot, by law, be revoked as punishment for anything, let alone for exercising free speech.

Nevermind because the goal was not logical discussion but an emotional response. Flag burning is abhorrent to many people. The emotional response pitted the “patriotic” against the “flag-burning traitors,” making it seem like defending free speech was tantamount to burning the flag yourself. The internet exploded with vigorous defenses and accusations. And yes, some people burned flags in front of Trump Tower.

Second case in point: Trump accepted a call from Taiwan. U.S. leaders have not communicated directly with Taiwan’s leader since the 1970’s. U.S. leaders communicate directly with Beijing, China.


It’s complicated. We have a “One-China” policy. Diplomatic relationships are delicate. History has happened. China has nuclear weapons. Stuff like that.

Predictably, the internet exploded. In true form, Trump responded to the criticism by defensively tweeting his peeps: Hey guys it’s not my fault– Taiwan “CALLED ME.” He then echoed a point already making it’s rounds on Twitter: The U.S. has sold weapons to Taiwan in the recent past, so how’s a phone call any different? Liberal hypocrites!

People are still trying to figure out whether the call was part of a strategy or not. China lodged a formal complaint with Washington.

What does it all mean?

Buckle your seat belts. Trump is volatile. He’s about to be President of the United States and he’s now trolling the entire world.

They say hope for the best but prepare for the worst. That’s been hard for me to do. Feeling urgency to resist. Feeling anxious, imagining worst-case scenarios for my community and world. Nothing to do right now other than to put one foot in front of the other, make a positive difference within my sphere of influence.

An Educator’s Take on the Civics Test

can_you_pass_an_8th_grade_civics_testArizona passed a law last year called the American Civics Act. It sounds real noble: All students must demonstrate knowledge of civics — facts about history and government — in order to graduate from high school.

Arizona is a trendsetter. A pioneer in the wilderness of American education. Already, the push is on for other states to enact similar laws.

The logic went like this. People should be more knowledgeable about history and government. New citizens must take a “naturalization” test demonstrating some basic knowledge about America. Shouldn’t our high school students demonstrate the same basic knowledge?


Who knew? All of this time, the failures in our education system, the problem of uninformed citizens, low voter turnout…

All we needed was a 100 question multiple choice test.

Because it includes all the essentials of civics, like: “What year was the constitution written?” and “What is one of the longest rivers in the U.S?

Other questions are mind-numbing: “Who was the first president?” Or insultingly simplistic: “What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?”

And thank God they included this question: “What is the deadline for filing federal income tax forms?” I mean, how have Americans been paying taxes all these years without having been held accountable by this test?

We don’t want to create a barrier to high school graduation, though. So you pass if you score 60%. You can re-take the test as many times as you need. No problem.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, an advocate of the law, was thrilled when a 16-year old developed a study app for the test. Real innovation, and an important tool to help students graduate from high school.

Except that the test itself is online. The first link when you google “Arizona Civics Test” is a link to the actual test and the answers.

The reality on the ground here in schools is that the civics test is a complete joke. It serves the dual purpose of wasting instruction time from the very subjects you pretend to care about, and forcing underpaid, overworked educators to print, proctor, grade, and document the scores for all students.

Here’s a more serious 60% figure for you. Beginning last school year, 60% of Arizona public schools reported unfilled teaching spots. There is a shortage of teachers in this state.

The main reasons people don’t go into teaching, or leave teaching after a short stint:

  1. Low pay, high stress
  2. Lack of respect, lack of support
  3. Forcing us to do meager tasks that don’t improve learning

I work at an Arizona public charter high school. By law I am qualified to teach government and American history. Students are required to pass both classes to graduate. There are already state standards on what should be taught.

Based on professional experience, I believe the civics test will have approximately zero impact on student learning. I would wage decent money that, measured at any time after graduation day, the class of 2016, who didn’t take the test, would demonstrate the same understanding of civics as the class of 2017, who will.

Even if the measure of “understanding” was the same crappy 100 question multiple choice test.

Looking Forward in the Age of Trump

flag-wildernessFeeling some solace this morning in the wake of a seismic result in the 2016 presidential election.

First, grateful on Veterans Day for the courage of those willing to suit up and face danger on everyone’s behalf.

I don’t agree with lots of war-making decisions. Hate the reality of war. Wish we had an education force as dynamic and well funded as our military.

Our troops don’t make those choices. They are ready and willing when called upon. Thankful and indebted to them.

Forcing myself to see perspective this morning:

  • If Clinton had won, the other half of the country would be equally horrified and pissed off.
  • Lots of people who voted for Clinton weren’t too happy about voting for Clinton.
  • Lots of Veterans voted Trump.
  • Lots of all kinds of decent people voted Trump.

A good quote I read in the Economist said that Trump voters “took him seriously but not literally, even as his critics took him literally, but not seriously.”

Perhaps the vote can be interpreted as a rejection of the establishment, not as an endorsement of specific proposals. There is hope that rhetoric is rhetoric, and governing will be different.

There are some signs for optimism:

  • The proposed Muslim ban has already been removed from the Trump website.
  • Sheriff Joe Arpaio was voted out of office here in Maricopa County.
  • Despite the Trump victory, most Americans oppose a border wall and mass deportations.
  • More than half of Americans voted against Trump.

Those targeted by rhetoric, though, have the right to be upset and fearful.

Grateful for the reflective attitude of my students this week. My students felt a need to express themselves, but rejected the logic of the week’s walkouts, protests, and rioting. That won’t change anything. The fight to support DACA, the fight to support the DREAM Act– those fights will make a difference in their lives. Proud of my students for recognizing this and challenging each other in heartfelt discussions.

So it goes. Not happy that the voice of the right-leaning anti-establishment movement is an impulsive reality TV show host who hates reading, stokes racist fears, and preys on women. Not happy this person will be the President of the United States.

But this is our reality, and everyone must respond vigilantly as their conscience requires.

It’s hard to imagine  right now, but I believe that unity will emerge with time. I’m hopeful for building stronger communities as a result, and can already sense that happening among my students.

The President does not, and need not define us.

On Civic Responsibility

Despite the frustrated sigh of my last post and my desire to check out from the disgusting political scene on display in America, I am not apathetic about civic engagement.

It seems like we are living through a transformative time in history. Digital technology is changing everything about our lives– how we relate to each other, how we do business, how we consume and disseminate information, even how we educate. Simultaneously, a globalized world is emerging, creating opportunities for expanded awareness, but also causing widespread nationalist resistance. It seems we are fighting over how this new era will play out.

No one is a bystander in this cultural and political struggle. Our very lifestyle is a statement. What media we consume. How we spend our money. Whether we vote. Whether we defend our values, or stay silent while others scream.

There are warning signs that threaten the stability of the country. Read any political news and you won’t read very long before seeing the word “unprecedented” thrown around about this election season. Compromise is the essence of democracy, and it’s hard to forsee an environment in which any compromises will be made. The fundamentals of our democracy– balance and separation of powers, peaceful election transitions– are in jeopardy. The Supreme Court is a political weapon, not an arbitrating body. The alt-right is spewing radical, dangerous rhetoric which is not likely to fade under a Clinton administration.

My fear is that the ugliness causes ordinary human beings to disengage, while the radicals on each side tear the country apart.

I’m not sure exactly how to engage constructively in such a divisive and emotional time. But here are a few thoughts.

Avoid trolling

Much of our public discourse happens on social media, and much of it is not pretty. Trolls are intentionally provocative. Spewing rants and memes, mocking the other side, bandwagon outrage– this does not help us increase our awareness of the complex issues facing society.

I am inclined to ignore trolls on the internet. Maybe if they were ignored, their intensity would diminish. A good rule of thumb would be: If this person is not trying to engage in meaningful dialogue, no need to respond or take it seriously.

On the other hand, it’s tough to ignore things you feel strongly about. Baseless claims, racism, hypocrisy– they demand a response. Some even call for platforms like Twitter to  monitor and shut down anonymous and hateful posts.

Stifling free speech is a tough sell. And some people enjoy entering the fray and throwing punches.

The only corrective I can offer is teaching and modeling responsible internet behavior.

Read newspapers

I can be as guilty as anyone on this front, but a major problem seems to be the abundance of superficial, emotionally charged, or blindly partisan opinions. Fueled by cable news and social media.

We could wisely guard against these shortcuts by taking some time to intentionally find good information. The internet is throwing uncertainty into the business of journalism, but at the moment, traditional newspapers and magazines still provide the bulk of news gathering, reporting, and analysis.

Skimming a feed doesn’t do the same as picking up a print newspaper or subscribing to a digital version of the newspaper. Even a weekend read would do much to increase awareness of the world around us. Local newspapers also help people discover how to participate in the democratic process.


Much of the how the next few years play out will depend on how people vote. Not only in the presidential race, but for the House and Senate, and in state and local races. And voting happens more than every four years.

I understand cynicism when it comes to voting, especially during this election. Terrible options. Uninspiring human characters. Sick of politics. Busy lives. What will one vote matter. But voting does matter, your vote does count, and the outcomes of elections do impact our lives.

Voting is not the only way to engage in civic life. You can donate money to causes. Write your representative. Join a community organization. Volunteer your time. Whatever.

We live in a precarious time. Please engage responsibly.

State of the Race

sunsetWith polls close in the Presidential Race of 2016, and with the media wheels spinning the outcome of the first debate, a moment to reflect.

I will admit to feeling a certain despondency of late. The race is draining my hope in humanity. At least, it’s been a practice in emotional detachment.

But reality is never far away.

And as I sat here trying to formulate my thoughts, my frustration grew…so instead, I deleted a few hundred words musing on the candidates, and decided on something different.

The sun rose and set yesterday, and for this I am grateful. There was plenty of oxygen to breathe. I ate three meals, and some snacks in between.

I decided to go for a swim after work at the neighborhood YMCA. I am grateful to live next to a gym, and grateful for physical health to be able to swim. I am grateful for the means to afford access to such a nice facility.

On the walk home from the gym, the setting sun lit up the clouds. The weather is cooling the desert air just a bit. Just enough to notice and appreciate the changing of the seasons.

When I returned, clean water flowed from my faucets.

Not everyone in my community can brag of these niceties. As a matter of fact, on my walk to and from the gym, I passed several homeless members of my community.

These individuals cannot brag of running water and three squares per day. Sometimes I drive past them on my way to work, listening to NPR, pondering the presidential race.

The other day a homeless person in New Jersey found one of those bombs in a dumpster. He found it in a backpack, took it to a safe place, and called the police.

He was hailed a hero. Got written up in stories for the newspaper. Someone wanted to honor this hero and started an online donation page. Within a week, the man had an apartment and job interviews lined up.

The man turned from a nobody to a somebody.

Maybe we are all, already somebody. Maybe we are all deserving of a place to live. Maybe we are all worthy of recognition.

Maybe the “big-picture” is not what it seems to be. Maybe life is not a race or a competition. Maybe life is a lot simpler than what it sounds like on the news.

In any case, life goes on.