Sunday, July 24, 2005

On Paranoia, and the Murder of Jean Charles de Menezes

Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian electrician legally living and working in Britain, was recently murdered by London police.

The Globe and Mail recently reported that:

Witnesses said the Brazilian was wearing a heavy, padded coat when plainclothes police chased him into a subway car, pinned him to the ground and shot him in the head and torso.

"They pushed him onto the floor and unloaded five shots into him," witness Mark Whitby told the British Broadcasting Corp. "He looked like a cornered fox. He looked petrified."

Now, pardon me if it's not politically correct to point this out, but if you have a man pinned to the ground, and then you shoot him in the head, that is murder. I don't care what you may say about terrorists and security. Summary execution of a subdued, prone prisoner is murder, plain and simple.

This incident, alas, clearly demonstrates that the terrorists won this round by creating an atmosphere of hysteria and paranoia.

Instead of responding with random bag searches and tossing out any real concept of civil rights and freedom, the UK government should have doubled the number of troops assigned to anti-terrorist activities abroad. When London was attacked again, they should have doubled the number of troops yet again.

Fomenting hysteria and paranoia is what terrorism's all about (terror, after all, being the root word of terrorism). When police summarily murder pedestrians as a result of paranoia, the terrorists have won.

When we blithely allow, or even encourage, politicians to strip us of our civil rights, the terrorists have scored a major victory. Witness how quickly and easily our rights have been eroded since 9/11/01. How many hundreds of years did it take to achieve those rights? How long do you think it will take to regain them?

In the end, are you any safer after losing so many rights? No, not at all. Most "security" is just smoke and mirrors. So, what's the net effect of all the draconian security measures and sweeping police powers we've blindly accepted since 9/11? Well, we've dramatically increased our likelihood of being unjustly (and without due process) imprisoned, beaten, tortured, or outright murdered by the same people who a few short years ago we could confidently have said were there to protect us. Legal recourse? None. We gave that up in the name of security.

Without any checks and balances, the legions upon legions of people employed to protect us have become a greater threat to us than any terrorist ever dreamt of.

Perhaps you disagree. Maybe you don't find overzealous omnipresent security to be unnerving. Maybe all the "security" makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

Well, let's ask Jean Charles de Menezes his opinion. Oh right, he's dead. Unaccountably murdered in the name of security.

"Those who suppress freedom always do so in the name of law and order."
- John V. Lindsay

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
- Benjamin Franklin

Monday, July 18, 2005

Why Harry Potter isn't getting kids Hooked on Reading

Harry Potter has created a tremendous surge of interest in reading. Children read Harry Potter voraciously; they even read the books over and over again. However, many children aren't moving on to enthusiastically devour their local bookstore or school library. They get stuck on Harry, and nothing else. When they're done with Harry, they go back to TV and video games, and complain that books are too long or difficult to read (despite having read hundreds of pages of Harry).

Why is this? Why doesn't reading Harry Potter translate into a general love of reading? Is Harry Potter so spectacularly head and shoulders above the rest of the literary pack? Well, not really. Harry Potter is well written and well crafted, but that's simply on par with most other fantasy fiction. I think the difference is the marketing.

Harry Potter is a marketing phenomenon, and in our herd-like trend-following jump-on-the-latest-bandwagon society, this creates an unusual situation. Children who've never seen the inside of a bookstore before, let alone a public library, are dressed up in costumes and carted off to the bookstore with the flashiest launch party for each Harry Potter. Since the books are good, and because of the collective pressure to have read Harry, the children read the books. They enjoy them tremendously, but they don't take their newfound love of reading any farther than Harry.

You see, unless a movie is made, there isn't really any marketing for books other than Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings is now a great movie trilogy, and lo and behold, kids are reading Lord of the Rings. But they're not reading The Hobbit. Since the only thing they know about books is the advertising for Harry Potter, children don't realize that when they're done with Harry, more entertainment awaits them in their local bookstore or library.

The problem isn't that there aren't good books out there. I have hundreds of great adventures on the shelves lining the walls of my home. The problem is that our society doesn't encourage a culture of reading in the home. Right from the time they're toddlers, instead of reading to their children, parents are dropping them in front of the TV to watch the latest DVD. In our schools, the curriculum and demands on teachers are so heavy that many teachers don't feel they have the time to read long books out loud to their classes, or to design lessons around good literature. Of course, in school, most reading is considered "work". Teachers are pressured to constantly assess, measure, evaluate; so children are too seldom encouraged to read for the simple pleasure of reading. Giving children a love of reading is best done at home.

How do we create a culture of reading, so that kids know where to go beyond Harry? It's easier than you think. Read out loud to your children from the very beginning. Read them interesting books, not poorly-written drivel that will turn their brains to mush. Keep a dictionary at hand, and when they don't know a word, tell them to look it up. Long words are interesting. They're the meat of our language. The short high-frequency words emphasized in schools are the mere bones.

Take your children to the public library on a regular basis. Make it an adventure. Make it a family tradition they look forward to each week. Regular trips to the library (and the bakery next door) with my Mom are something I remember fondly from childhood. The library was my second home back then, and now that I'm an adult, my home has become a library. Speaking of adults, you also need to practice what you preach. Children won't become avid readers if they never see anyone at home reading a book. You have to model behaviour for them. If they see you reading on a regular basis, if they can talk about books with you, then they'll become readers. Simple as that.

Some reading resources:

Helping your child to read