School Surveillance

Surveillance systems in schools are a $3 billion dollar industry. Several security companies now offer their services in several states. Basically they monitor, mainly via a number of algorithms, students’ emails not only those written at school but also those written from home. Google searches are also monitored. Although the official word is monitor, the word track seems more apt. The algorithms look for certain key phrases which could, they say, alert them to danger. The rationale for all this, which began after the Sandy Hook massacre, is to save lives. The companies can share dramatic examples of how suicidal thoughts were uncovered, or an instance of when within minutes after 2 boys were overheard going to the bathroom to smoke spot in secret, they were stopped.  Since there are no gun control laws, schools feel the need to engage in whatever they can to protect their students. Many schools now have police officers on their campus, sometimes with dire results. And while the algorithms alert people, the possibility for taking phrases out of context exists and is a real drawback.

 Surveillance is now a fact of life, and it is time we define where and how it is appropriate and demand the implementation of those limits. While some parents have welcomed the monitoring of their children’s emails and have asked for the results, there is something very scary about monitoring the emails of minors who have no say so and do it because we as a society are not able to pass gun control legislation.

A Belief in Government

For decades now, mainly since Ronald Reagan declared that government was the problem, trust in government and public institutions has declined.  Currently 21% of Republicans or Republican leaning independents feel they can trust the government while 14% of Democrats do.  And sadly in a partisan era more Democrats than Republicans trusted government during the Obama administration. The labels attached to each party’s underlying philosophy, for example that Democrats see government as an answer to social problems, obviously contribute to the partisanship behind trust in government. That’s why what’s going on in California is certainly worth notice. The state government is using its power to compensate, make up for, offset or contradict the laws and actions of the current administration. We’ve heard about the law making Uber and Lyft drivers employees instead of contractors, and also of a statewide rent control law meant to protect tenants against the kind of rent increases that could render them homeless. There is also a law not yet signed by the governor making medical abortions (that is the 2 pills combo) available to those who want or need it on all state universities. Chris Lehane, a former political advisor to Bill Clinton, calls this a renaissance in the belief in government. The administration is of course trying to challenge California’s resistance. But the trend may well go beyond their failure or victor, the idea that government can pass constructive laws to better the lives of its citizens may be positioned to make a comeback, suggesting we revisit the idea that government is the problem as well as the role of government in general.

“Blood” Crystals

Crystals are now part of a billion dollar industry. They are in demand by many New Age followers and others who believe in their power, usually healing power. But most of the crystals commercially available to us come from one of the world’s poorest countries, Madagascar, which is rich in several of those which are in demand. The miners, without whom those crystals would not end up in the hands or homes of those who believe in them, live in dire and abject poverty. A writer for The Guardian  shadowed them for a period of time to have a better understanding of not only how much they are exploited, but also of the harsh conditions they end up having no choice to live under. And a picture of this situation would be remiss in not mentioning that child labor is part of this system. One way to encapsulate the problem would be to say that a piece of quartz which may well sell for say a $1000 was perhaps bought for something like at most $10. The beneficiaries of this difference are the big corporations which act as middlemen. And according to the Guardian’s expose there is little evidence that the corporations making up the industry are willing to make changes. We know about blood diamonds, we know about the exploitation of many in several industries, we ought to know about the exploitation behind our use of crystals. The consumers who buy and use crystals, certainly those I know, think of themselves as conscious, as people with integrity who believe in human rights. They may now be faced with a reality as to whether their values are real or merely given lip service and also with a decision along with the rest of us—to continue and be blind to the consequences of these facts, or to take action that will work toward ending the exploitation and the dire poverty of the miners.

Hope on Death Row

A friend  began corresponding with a death row inmate in Alabama and shared the he belonged to an organization called Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty.  I was intrigued by the organization’s title and was not familiar with it, so I googled them. They are a group began in 1989 founded and run by death row inmates. They even publish Wings of Hope, which circulates among death row, the prison and links them also with the outside world.  Given the restrictions in any penal institution and particularly on death row, running an organization and publishing a bulletin is nothing short of impressive.

Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty is linked to the Equal Justice Initiative, a group led by activist Bryan Stevenson, and to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty which inspires the creation of similar organizations in other states such as Texas, New Mexico, North Carolina.

These men, and women, on death row whom we think of as the worst of the worst,  whether or not one believes in the death penalty and I am strongly opposed, are fallible like all of us, but they are also capable of not only hope despite their seemingly hopeless circumstances but also of fighting to do something worthwhile. Their spirit soars beyond prison bars reminding us that they—as all of us—are certainly more that their worst deed.