Any given storm

Roadside sign commemorating Hurricane Camille in Nelson Co., Va.Power.

We are drawn to it as surely as moths are drawn to light. All of us. And right now, we’re living a demonstration of that. None of us can control a hurricane like Sandy — or any hurricane for that matter. Such unbridled power provides endless fascination in large part because it is out of our control. We can only react, as the university is doing today by closing in an abundance of caution in the face of Hurricane Sandy.

In August 1969, another powerful hurricane arrived in Virginia. Hurricane Camille came ashore in Texas. It ambled up through the Ohio Valley becoming “just” a tropical storm before making a right turn toward Virginia. Colliding with another water-filled system, Camille settled down on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Harrisonburg in Nelson County.

Stefan Bechtel, author of Roar of the Heavens, describes the devastating result:

Almost completely without warning, and within the space of eight hours, one of the heaviest rainfalls ever recorded on earth — billions of tons of rain — cascaded down these mountainsides, turning these lovely crags and streambeds into a terrifying effective drowning machine for all life below. Humans, animals, trees, boulders, houses, cars, barns and everything else were swept away in a fast-moving slurry, a kind of deadly earth-lava that buried everything in its path.

When the storm was over, 150 Virginians were dead. Whole communities had disappeared. “The rains fell so astoundingly hard that it was nearly impossible to breathe, or to hear anything above the deafening roar. So much water crashed from the sky that the entire veneer of a billion-year-old mountain range simply sloughed away.” Bechtel writes.

Unlike today, there was no CNN in 1969 Virginia, no early warning system, no cell phones or Internet. Today, Bechtel points out, news crews would be on the scene instantly. The people of Nelson County, however, were caught unaware, devastated and isolated — for days no one else knew that their world had been upended. Some communities, like Massie’s Mill, were completely cut off. Bridges, roads, including Route 29, were impassable. In one night, Camille changed their lives and the landscape of their world forever.

Camille even altered the way geologists look at change. “One geological study later concluded,” Bechtel writes, “that about two thousand years of erosion had occurred in that single night in Nelson County. And almost forty years later, mountainsides scoured clean and reshaped by that calaclysmic (sic) event are still clearly visible.”

Nelson County blogger, Susan Carter Payne, whose niece Jennifer Payne is a JMU senior, remembers what it was like. In a first person account, she writes:

I was barely six years old and about to start first grade when Hurricane Camille hit. I was fortunate that I did not lose anyone I loved. However, I remember the devastation well. I remember the water, the mud and debris, and the smell. The smell of death. The smell of pungent raw earth. The smell of exposure, collapse, and decay. A stench I will never forget. I remember the recurring nightmare of a spinning house in a downpour of rain. I remember getting a tetanus shot. I remember the immediate fear of the “Army men” and the tanks of strange bleach water they offered me to drink. 

Change is often spurred by events out of our control, by forces so powerful that we can only react: Creeping poverty, disease, civil war in  foreign nations, political unrest — or a Frankenstorm, as Sandy has been dubbed. As we watch this storm’s progress with the luxury of modern communication, we also have the job to react responsibly in its path — and compassionately and unselfishly in its wake.

Jon McNamara (‘05) with the Virginia Red Cross is in the eye of the storm, so to speak. (See the story about Jon on the JMU website.) We think about friends and family in the storm’s path. My niece in NYC who lives blocks from the evacuation zone. A friend whose most recent Facebook post was simply “evacuating.” The young mother suddenly confined to an evacuation center with three very lively children. Or the parade of utility crews in trucks heading into the red zone to help with the consequences.

The devastating power of a storm is uncontrollable. What is within our control is how we react. Susan Carter Payne also writes:  For as little as I actually experienced during this catastrophe, I can only imagine the painful memories of those who endured immeasurable pain and tragic loss. Courageous seems too simple of a word to describe these people. But this is why I don’t look to famous athletes or Hollywood celebrities as my heroes…I need look no farther than the people of Nelson County, Virginia. The heart of Nelson is where true courage resides.

Thus it is with the courageous — those who suffer cataclysmic change and who react the right way to it — those who use power and its mayhem wisely. Our job — as a community that believes in the mandate of positive change — is to clean up, to restore, to heal, to lift up and to befriend — and that effort should be no less powerful than any given storm.

I strongly recommend Stefan Bechtel’s book, Roar of the Heavens, which John Grisham describes as “a riveting account of what it was like to live through the most intense hurricane ever to strike the U.S. mainland.” It’s a great read.

Deadly bubbles

photo by istargazer

photo by istargazer

For some time now, the news coming out of State College, Pa., has gotten worse and worse. The scandal involving the venerable football program and its all-too-venerated coach sheds a cold and chilling light on what happens when success masks dark secrets.

On all levels, the story is tragic. For Penn State. For the Paterno family. And most poignantly, for the young victims. The story explodes the notion that wise, smart, highly educated individuals can always be trusted to do what’s right. The lessons learned from the Penn State scandal are deep, meaningful and should be heeded by every administrator in every business, university and organization.

But what is most fundamental about the scandal, and what is perhaps its most important takeaway, is a simple truth often overlooked: change should be wisely considered and welcomed when it is right.

At the heart of the Penn State scandal is the now sadly exposed truth that no one wanted things to change. The bubble in Happy Valley grew bigger and thicker and the air inside grew fouler and fouler to the point that no matter how dark and hard became the pressures that could have — that should have — burst it from the inside, nothing did until  David Newhouse, the editor of the Harrisburg Patriot-News, broke the story

An article on CNN’s website this morning, tells the story of one brave academic who dared challenge the status quo at Penn State. To her initial detriment, and now her eventual vindication, Vicky Triponey, then Penn’s vice president overseeing student affairs, stood up to the administration, and most importantly to the vaunted football coach. She tried to change the system for the better.

But they would have none of it. They loved “The Penn State Way,” and come hell or high water, they weren’t going to let anyone change it. They were determined, all of them, to keep the bubble they loved intact, the myth alive and the money, prestige and accolades flowing.

Then the floods came, along with a living hell that certainly hastened Joe Paterno’s death.

The inability to see and explore change is shortsighted, if not wholly foolish. Whether change is imminent in one’s individual life or in the life of a university, change almost always holds something positive. Change is healthy, renewing, refreshing and often life changing.

That’s why Being the Change is so important to JMU. It grounds us, focuses us forward not inward, and it gives us the freedom and the mindset to value the future — to look critically at what is and optimistically at what might be.

Simply put, it is the wise acknowledgement that we are never as great today as we can be tomorrow. And perhaps, just perhaps, the constant examination of our status quo will save us from getting caught in a bubble filled with deadly air.

A debate-able change

Civility comes in small quantities these days, especially in an election year. Too often words are used like whips in the hands of the inexperienced. They often miss and frequently inflict pain and confusion. Instead of civil discourse, we are too often assaulted with sarcasm, snarky name calling and unsupported assertions.

One group of JMU students is changing that. They are practicing the art of civil debate — and apparently doing it very, very well.

“In the final sweepstakes rankings JMU finished as the fifth ranked team in the country according to the National Debate Tournament sweepstakes rankings,” says Mike Davis, JMU director of debate.  These comprehensive rankings that measure an entire season are the highest JMU has attained since 1991.

The team was ranked 11th by the Cross Examination Debate Association and second in the American Debate Association national ranking, finishing for the third straight year in the debate world’s top three rankings.

Individual debaters racked up significant accolades as well. Nine JMU debaters were named National Debate Scholars, the debate equivalent of Academic All Americans, according to Mike.

The team of history major Mark Waugh (’12) and communication studies major Oliver Brass (’13) were named to the CEDA All-American team putting them among the top 30 debaters nationwide.

Daniel Spiker (’13), a public policy and administration major, and his partner Cari Rand (’15) won the DEBA Nationals Tournament Novice Championship.

Allison Bailey (’13) and Alexandra Norby (’15), both international affairs majors, took home top speaker honors at the James Madison Invitational and Liberty University Debate (novice division) Tournaments, respectively.

But JMU’s debate team is doing more than winning debates. They are spreading the art of civil discourse. Overall the team was named the second best public debate program in the U.S. in part because of “efforts to expand the Madison Cup and our efforts to reach out to area high schools,” Mike says.

The debaters offer a debate camp, a middle school camp and a coaches camp every summer. This year’s debate camp starts on June 19. And as the result of a $49,000 Arthur N. Rupe Foundation grant, a new class on public debate will be offered this fall — no doubt spreading the wisdom and sensibility of civil discourse.

Maybe all the talking heads at CNN, CBS, ABC, FOX and MSNBC should enroll.

To learn more about JMU’s award winning debate team, visit their website:

The ought-to-be-bridled freedom of speech

Language is a magnificent construct with which we can express beautiful subtleties, clever thoughts and challenging ideas. We can discuss thorny issues. We can visit controversies. We can work toward solutions.

Or we can beat each other over the head.

Anyone who peruses the Internet frequently will have noticed a trend in the discussions: an unfiltered proliferation of words flourishing on Websites, blogs, online publications, Facebook pages and Twitter. The ability to “speak” with inflammatory, disparaging and downright mean words is a temptation that apparently befalls many people.

Here some samples that I found posted today (and these are the mild ones):

Alas, the GOP field of candidates reminds me of going to the supermarket to find that this year’s crop of fruits and vegetables is rotten to the core. (Washington Post)

No matter what happens the US is done, finished, over.  All bow to your corporate masters. (New York Times)

I am ashamed of the people who are supposed to be running this country…it’s a “my way or the highway” attitude in Washington DC.  They are a disgrace. (CNN)

We Americans take our freedom of speech very, very seriously.  It’s right up there with breathing.

We speak fearlessly and the press foolishly takes our “pulse” with such comments. How many times have you heard “news” people, say “this is what people are saying?” Add in the “tabloid effect” — the likelihood that the most sensational, outrageous and often the most irresponsible comments will rise to the top of the discussion — and one has to wonder: How valuable is this, anyway?

While often people are blowing off steam as they pontificate, such loaded, thoughtless rhetoric rarely advances civil discussion. Political correctness has banned whole categories of words; it’s a shame that all malicious phrases (akin more to baseball bats than words) aren’t banned from print or posts. But alas, they are not, and I don’t suggest it. Instead, we should dispense with them ourselves.

Far too frequently, online “discussions” — and I use that term with a certain amount of sarcasm — sound more like verbal beat downs. (“McDonnell is an idiot”; “Obama is the anti-Christ”) Reason and civility are lost to the unbridled sentiments of frustrated individuals. The status quo seems to be “say anything you want and turn a deaf ear to the consequences.” Piling on this way in expressing one’s dislike for a particular political candidate, an elected official or a specific piece of legislation is common, and frankly, quite unhelpful.

Far more infrequent are discussions that explore interesting, controversial and divisive ideas with candor and civility, with honesty and open mindedness. Sadly, these are exceedingly rare.

Once in a while, however, you’ll come across a thoughtful comment that makes you think and that adds to understanding. Earlier this month, Nathan Alvado-Castle commented on a post on this blog about being “green.” In the same thoughtful way, John Reeves commented on a post about Sudan. What they wrote added  new dimensions to the discussions.

Both Nathan and John exercised “free speech” in positive, reasonable and valuable ways. Perhaps commentators elsewhere should follow their lead.  Neither yelled, condemned, name-called. They expressed viewpoints with reason and consideration — and frankly, it was refreshing. So, Nathan and John, thank you!

Somehow we need to change the tone of discussion from the current dismissive rants to comments that further discourse. And while I would never imply that freedom of speech should ever be quelled, I would suggest that thinking before one “speaks” online — or anywhere else — is a policy that might make our sacred freedom far more productive. So let’s change the tenor of of freedom of speech; let’s bridle our own, so we can really talk.

You can read Nathan’s comments here:

You’ll find John’s comments here:

Juan Williams, Helen Thomas and Civil Discourse

Juan Williams

Juan Williams, Image by Fairfax County Public Library via Flickr

Today has been awful so far.  I woke up to news that so outraged and disappointed me that I was shaking.  I learned that Juan Williams, a veteran journalist for National Public Radio and a commentator for FOX television, has been fired.


Apparently, Williams said on Bill O’Reilly’s show, The Factor, that whenever he boarded an airplane and saw a woman wearing a burqa, it made him nervous.  For this and for conceding a point to his host, he was fired.

As a long-time news junkie, a political science major, a writer and a journalist, I have always been interested in honest and open discussion on even the prickliest and most inflammatory issues. I have long liked Williams for crossing back and forth across ideological battle lines and for offering thoughtful contributions to any discussion. The ability to do so without consequence is fundamental to education, to progress, to the foundation of civil society.

Now Williams’s voice is gone from NPR. On top of the Rick Sanchez firing at CNN and Helen Thomas’s “early” retirement, it seems that getting fired for expressing an opinion is a growing phenomenon.  People used to lose their jobs for things like thievery or violating the public trust.  Now they get magazine columns and television shows.  What does that tell us about the ethics underpinning our public discourse? What has happened to our First Amendment?

Public discussion — in American media, at least — has degenerated into what amounts to cordoned camps, throwing rocks across the proverbial walls. We are not longer listening and discussing, we are name-calling. Instead of listening and talking, we accuse each other of fear mongering, lying, ignorance, extremism, stupidity, idiocy, evil — even of being witches and whores.  If it weren’t so serious, it would be comical.

Real change in a civil society requires discourse. Ironically, few understand that like Williams, who has written extensively about the struggle of African Americans to gain civil rights.  For too long, their voices — their opinions — were dismissed.  They were fired from the public square. Earlier this year, Williams addressed a crowd during the opening of a new museum telling the story of segregation at the historic train depot near President James Madison’s historic home Montpelier. Williams said, “This is a place of justice. This is a place that tells the truth.  This is a place where you can take a child and say this place shaped our history as much as Madison shaped our history.”

I wonder how our current discourse, like the depot, will shape our history? Keith Olbermann’s (MSNBC) condescending vitriole adds little to the discussion.  Sean Hannity’s (FOX) smug self-righteousness doesn’t either.  But somewhere in the middle, I had always counted on Juan Williams to bridge the gap, to enter into either arena with thoughtful ideas. As a commentator on NPR, he brought honest, interesting and unbiased illumination to issues.  As a commentator on Fox, he often challenged the conservative point of view, delivering reasoned and intelligent perspective.

Williams was one of the last sane voices.  And now he’s been thrown out of camp. I am disappointed beyond measure at NPR’s decision. I have long considered them last bastion of true journalism and the one place where I could go to hear both sides of a story.

One of my favorite parts of being on a college campus is the incredible variety of disciplines, opportunities and opinions. For instance, across the complete spectrum of political thought from liberal to conservative, everyone is heard.  If you don’t believe me, listen to what students themselves say. Here’s the link:

At JMU, diversity of thought and opinion is valued. Different opinions are respected. We have to co-exist.  We have to be civil.  We have to disagree, and perhaps more importantly, we have to agree to disagree.  That’s what Dave Rexrode (‘01)  and Dave Mills (‘02) do.  One heads Virginia’s Republican Party and the other heads Virginia’s Democratic Party — and they’re friends. It’s also what my local NPR station, WMRA, works very hard to promote. The alternative is a campus where probing thought, where over-the-top and out-of-the-box ideas are never explored.  A college cannot — and should not — exist if it has only homogeneous thought.  Opinions matter.  At JMU, differing opinions are the sparks that ignite change.

Now tell me, what do you think?

Here’s the link to the Washington Post story:

If you want to read more about JMU’s civil campus, check out this link: And be sure to watch an upcoming issue of Madison magazine for a story on the two political Daves.

Finally, in the interest of civil discourse, below you’ll find a link to the memo NPR sent it’s affiliates explaining Williams’s firing.


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