My Mom and South Sudan?

My Mom occasionally buys me books that she thinks I will like. She has bought me about ten books in the past couple of years, and all ten books were far from my usual reading selection. I try my best to have a diverse reading list, but my Mom is in a league of her own when it comes to getting me out of my comfort zone. The most recent example of her eclectic curation came from the book – What is the What by David Eggers. What is the What is a nonfiction book written as a fiction book…yes I did say my Mom expanded my horizons. It is technically a piece of fiction because it is the story of Valentino Achak Deng – one of the lost boys of the Sudanese war during the 1980s. Valentino was a child when the war occurred, and hence his first memories are not 100% accurate – but doesn’t take away from the real nightmare that made up the first two decades of his life.

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When Valentino was seven, his peaceful life in the southern region of Sudan turned upside down when war broke out. The war was between the SPLA, who wanted an independent South Sudan, and the government of Sudan who wished to maintain control over the area. Southern Sudan was primarily Christian while the political north was primarily Muslim. The Islamic government wanted to bring an Islamic state to the south, and the SPLA wanted to maintain its unique Afro-Christian identity. The conflict has been known to posterity as the Second Sudanese Civil War which began in 1987 and ended in 2005. During that time, two million people were killed – almost three and half times more people that died in the American Civil War – and thousands of children were left orphaned to fend for themselves.

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A large portion of those children were boys who were too young to enter into the SPLA and fled their homes to escape the conflict. Valentino was one of 20,000 lost boys who marched from South Sudan to safe havens like Ethiopia and Kenya. The boys walked to these places many times in small groups and had to endure starvation, government attack, and even predatory animals. Valentino witnessed his friends being dragged into the jungle by lions, shot by overhead helicopters, and eaten by parasitic flies after dropping dead from exhaustion. The walk he took consisted of hundreds of miles and months of toil – on several occasions, he laid on the ground for hours unable to move from extreme malnutrition and infection.

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Valentino was able to obtain some semblance of life at a Kenyan refugee camp that was funded by the United Nations. He lived in the camp for several years until the US allowed several Lost Boys to resettle in the states. While in the States he met Dave Eggers who recorded his story and wrote the book What is the What. Through funds of the book, Valentino started his own foundation to support education in Southern Sudan. South Sudan won its independence in 2011 but is still in conflict with various internal organizations – it is one of the most depressed countries on earth. I had no idea the turmoil in Sudan until reading this book, and it has ignited in me a desire to learn more about Africa in general. Oftentimes, we get consumed with our own interests that we miss seminal events around the world. All these things impact us, and we must continue to learn and help those who are suffering. Refugees need help more than ever, and we need to seek practical policies which benefit not only the “lost” but also the countries who take the “lost” in as citizens. Thanks, Mom, for expanding my horizon, and I always appreciate your eclectic tastes – I never thought I would be mentioning your name with South Sudan. Expand your world…I am continuing my expansion by reading a book that is far from my comfort zone – Emma by Jane Austen.

Here are 9 out of the next 15 books that I will begin in June:

Nabokov, Vladimir
Tennessee Williams

Is Your Mind Coddled?

Since there is so much in the news right now about the Supreme Court, I wanted to post this commencement speech from Chief Justice John Roberts…

Now the commencement speakers will typically also wish you good luck and extend good wishes to you. I will not do that, and I’ll tell you why. From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

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First and foremost, this is not a speech related to the Kavanaugh fiasco or any type of sexual assault. It is a speech addressing the problem in today’s world of “speech” censorship. From the left and the right, people are becoming “offended” by opinions that don’t fit their worldview. On the left, this is destroying universities with call-out cultures and “trigger warnings;” students are being taught that opposing views do not have to be debated but rather chased down like a modern-day Salem Witch Trial. On the right, opposing views are looked at as “Fake News” or a conspiracy theory which gains credibility in dark corners of comment sections. Our echo chambers have gotten worse within the past decade because of our tailored media outlets.

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The real problem arises once we start teaching children – and ourselves – that the echo chamber is how the real world should operate. Instead of preparing the next generation to grow mental muscles, we are taking all the weights out of the cerebral gym. Instead of strapping on a good pair of mental hiking boots we are paving the jungle of differing opinions. This blog is a direct result of my most recent book: The Coddling of the American Mind – How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (both self-professed liberals). These two authors wrote an Atlantic article on this very subject, and that article morphed into a book after it became one of the most read articles in the magazines’ history. I highly recommend this book and the authors speak about three “Untruths” that are being taught in our society…

  1. “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” or the idea that exposure to offensive or difficult ideas is traumatic
  2. “Always trust your feelings,” or the notion that feeling upset by an idea is a reason to discount it
  3. “Us versus them,” or homogenous tribal thinking that leads people to shame those whose views fall outside that of their group

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Let me give you an example of these “Untruths” in action. Imagine an Asian student at a college and a white student innocently asking him for help with math homework. On many campuses, this question could be construed as racist and the Asian student would be supported by a Campus sponsored policy to reprimand the white student. Continuing the story, the Asian student could voice this example through social media where friends could voice “Us versus them” remarks with little rational argument: {copy-paste the following} white bigot, white privilege, misogynist, xenophobic, etc. This may sound far-fetched, but worse examples have happened on campuses. This was an example from the “left” but the antagonism from the “right” is just as bad – think about Trump’s Twitter feed. These “Untruths” lead to greater anxiety, depression, and anger among all political groups. I am not condoning hate speech or being an outright ass. I am condoning thoughtful dialogue and a thick skin because the world is not an echo chamber – our democracy depends on differing viewpoints and a populace with a good pair of hiking boots. What do you think?