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I Traded My Smartphone for an Ax Caleb Silverberg

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(Photo illustration by The Free Press)

During the pandemic, I became a slave to screens. Online classes were followed by scrolling Instagram or playing Fortnite for hours, ignoring hunger pangs while I immersed myself in a world of pixels.

My Saturdays were pretty grim: I’d wake up and drag myself to the couch where my Xbox had been waiting for me all night long. The closed shades blocked the beaming sun and any hope of enjoying it—swimming in the ocean, biking in the mountains, hiking with my dogs.

At 15 years old, I looked in the mirror and saw a shell of myself. My face was pale. My eyes were hollow. I needed a radical change.

I vaguely remembered one of my older sister’s friends describing her unique high school, Midland, an experiential boarding school located in the Los Padres National Forest. The school was founded in 1932 under the belief of “Needs Not Wants.” In the forest, cell phones and video games are forbidden, and replaced with a job to keep the place running: washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms, or sanitizing the mess hall. Students depend on one another. 

Once I heard of this technology-free oasis, I immediately applied to attend high school there. A few months later, the morning of April 12, 2021, I received the best news of my life. At 7:30 a.m., an email popped into my inbox with the subject line “Welcome To Midland!”

I screamed, “Mom, I got in!” She ran over, still in her bathrobe, to congratulate me.

September 2, 2021, was my first day at Midland, when I traded my smartphone for an ax.

At Midland, students must chop firewood to generate hot water for their showers and heat for their cabins and classrooms. If no one chops the wood or makes the fire, there’s a cold shower, a freezing bed, or a chilly classroom. No punishment by a teacher or adult. Just the disappointment of your peers. Your friends.

Armed with my ax, I found myself liberated from the constant allure of technology. I discovered the joys of engaging in face-to-face conversations and savoring moments without the urge to post them on social media. 

I embraced living off the land—a self-sustaining farm operated by Midland students and faculty. In the spring, I regularly ventured to the garden to devour handfuls of fresh strawberries. At dinners, I savored the recently butchered beef from Midland’s grass-fed cows. I began lifting weights to regain the pounds I had lost while gaming and neglecting my hunger. Living in nature without Instagram or Fortnite or TikTok provided me with an opportunity to reconnect with the world and rediscover the value of genuine human connection.

Screen addictions like mine are a ubiquitous problem today. Excessive screen time is associated with ADHD, myopia (nearsightedness), and depression. Since the release of smartphones in 2005, the rate of Americans reporting symptoms of major depression increased by 52 percent. This is something I’ve witnessed firsthand in my peer group.

Many teens find it difficult to socialize with their peers in person, and instead rely on virtual interactions via Instagram and Snapchat. At many traditional high schools, no one stops to say hello in the hallways. Instead, the halls are filled with the tinny sound of AirPods blasting rap songs beneath the silence.

Before Midland, whenever I sat on the couch, engrossed in TikTok or Instagram, my parents would caution me: “Caleb, your brain is going to melt if you keep staring at that screen!” I dismissed their concerns at first. But eventually, I experienced life without an electronic device glued to my hand and learned they were right all along. 

I am now going into my junior year at Midland School. Whenever I am home, I find myself on my phone much less, and then only to catch up on my favorite TV shows and to talk to the numerous lifelong friends I have made at school. Midland helped me change how I live my life. I’m no longer dependent on a smartphone.

I have been privileged to attend Midland. But anyone can benefit from its lessons. To my generation, I would like to offer a 5,000-year-old solution to our twenty-first-century dilemma. Shabbat is the weekly sabbath in Judaic custom where individuals take 24 hours to rest and relax. This weekly reset allows our bodies and minds to recharge. 

I envision three potential levels of a “Technology Shabbat.” The first is an immersive, Midland-like experience—living without a cell phone. The second is similar to the traditional weekly sabbath, taking one full day a week to turn off your phone. The third is putting the phone away while in educational settings like classrooms.

I went from obsessing over a smartphone to swinging an ax, and learned the power of liberation from a screen. I hope others my age can make the same journey from phone to fulfillment. All it takes is pulling the plug. 

Caleb is a 17-year-old rising junior at Midland School in Los Olivos, California, and one of two runners up in our first-ever Free Press high school essay contest. For this piece, he has won a $1,000 cash prize and a lifetime subscription to The Free Press. Read our other runner-up, Isabel Hogben, on teen porn addiction

Tomorrow, we’ll announce the winner of our contest. And if you want to support our mission of fostering the next generation of independent journalists, become a Free Press subscriber today:

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Also: We’re hosting our first live debate on September 13 at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles! Has the sexual revolution failed? Come argue about it and have a drink. We can’t wait to meet you in person. You can purchase tickets now at thefp.com/debates.

 

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WATCH: ‘This Is My First Rodeo’ | Ben Meets America Ben Kawaller

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In the latest stop on his cross-country quest to understand America, Ben Kawaller watches men hurl cows to the ground.

Last month I attended The American Rodeo in Arlington, Texas, a city of around 400,000 souls situated between Dallas and Fort Worth. This was my first rodeo, and it did not take me long after entering its host venue, the gargantuan Globe Life Field, to realize that I did not know what a rodeo was. If you’d asked me six weeks ago to define the term, I would have said something like, “It’s when you watch someone career around an enclosed pen on an animal.” 

Which is actually not too far off. But what I hadn’t realized is that a rodeo is actually a sporting event. 

You see, some people are especially good at bending these animals to their will, and if you are one of those people, you can win competitions for things like making the animals run very fast, or tying the animals up very quickly, or not dying while trying to sit on one of the animals.

Of course, I wasn’t really there for the games; I was there to talk to the crowd about what makes our society so divided. If you’re tuning in for the first time to my new series—“Ben Meets America”—I was born and raised in progressive Brooklyn, I now live in West Hollywood, and I will admit to being soft in some fundamental way. Suffice it to say I get a more transcendent high from watching a torch song than I do from watching a man hurl a small cow to the ground.

But, in fact, theater and rodeo have their similarities. If you’ve been to a play in recent years, you will have suffered the degradation of a “land acknowledgement.” This is when the audience is told before the show—either in an announcement or in the program notes—that they’ve gathered on land stolen from whatever Native American tribe existed there years ago. My sense is that some of this is rooted in the idea that America itself is fundamentally illegitimate. Whatever’s behind it, the inclusion of a land acknowledgement has become de rigueur.

I did not think conservatives did land acknowledgements, so I was surprised when the Native American actor Mo Brings Plenty appeared before the start of one of the competitions and performed a minute or two of indigenous wailing. I believe the intent of this was to, well, acknowledge the fact that Native American bloodshed was central to the expansion of the American West. What I did not expect was the incongruence of what came after. Watch the video and you’ll see what I mean. I’m still puzzling over its significance.

In the end, however, I decided I prefer the conservative version of a land acknowledgement. Unlike the inane liberal sacrament, it appears to be capable of expressing two truths at once: that oceans of indigenous blood were spilled in the creation of this country, and that we live in one of the greatest nations on earth.

Even if one of our favorite spectator sports is man versus cow.

Only paid subscribers can see Ben’s video on The American Rodeo. Become one today and scroll down to watch.

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April 14, 2024 Garamond

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Senate spotlight: A Trump Republican’s China problem Judd Legum

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November’s election will not only determine which party controls the White House but also the United States Senate. Currently, the Democratic caucus holds a narrow 51-49 advantage. Control of the chamber will come down to a handful of competitive races. This is the first installment in a series that takes a deep dive into the issues shaping these campaigns. 

In Ohio, businessman Bernie Moreno (R) is attempting to unseat Senator Sherrod Brown (D). Ohio, once a swing state, has been trending Republican. Moreno’s campaign strategy is to attach himself at the hip to Donald Trump. He refers to himself as the “Trump endorsed Republican nominee for US Senate from Ohio.” This helped him easily win the Republican primary against a field of more politically experienced opponents.  

In a potential second term, Trump is vowing to declare economic war on China, promising to “tax China to build America up.” Trump’s plan is to revoke China’s most favored nation trading status and impose a tariff on Chinese goods of up to 60%. (The policy would cost the typical American household thousands of dollars annually and increase inflation.) Imports of “essential goods” from China, including electronics, steel, and pharmaceuticals, would be completely banned

Moreno has taken a similar approach, saying he is running for Senate to “Beat Communist China.” To bolster his anti-China credentials, Moreno claims to have a history of combating Chinese power. These stories, however, don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Moreno made his fortune through buying and selling car dealerships. As his wealth increased, so did his interest in Republican politics. In 2011, former Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) appointed him to the board of trustees at Cleveland State, one of Ohio’s public universities. Moreno served as chairman of the Cleveland State board from 2016 to 2018.

Confucius Institutes, which offer “Chinese language and culture programs,” were established at numerous U.S. universities beginning in 2005. They were partially funded by the Chinese government. Over time, there were bipartisan concerns that Confucius Institutes were being used to promote Chinese government propaganda or even to facilitate espionage. On the campaign trail, Moreno has repeatedly claimed that, in his role as chair of Cleveland State’s Board of Trustees, he eliminated the university’s Confucius Institute.

Here is how Moreno described his role in a March 2023 campaign event:

I chaired the board of trustees at Cleveland State University, and I’m very proud of the fact that when I was there, we got rid of our Confucius Institute. We made certain that we focused everybody on student achievement, and we respected free speech on campus.

He made a nearly identical claim in October 2023. But it is a lie.

Moreno’s service on the board ended in May 2018. Cleveland State did not shut down its Confucius Institute until 2021. The truth is, while Moreno was on the board, he repeatedly approved funding for Cleveland State’s Confucius Institute. In 2016, when Moreno was still vice chairman, he voted to approve $38,000 in funding for the school’s Confucius Institute. The following year, as chairman, Moreno voted to re-up the funding. Minutes from these meetings show that Moreno did not express any concerns about the Confucius Institute

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Moreno told the Columbus Dispatch that he deserves credit for the elimination of the Confucius Institute at Cleveland State because of “his role in the hiring of Harlan Sands, who was Cleveland State’s president when the institute closed.” There are a couple of issues with this response. First, this is not what Moreno said previously. He clearly said that the board “got rid” of the Confucius Institute while he was chair. Second, Cleveland State did not eliminate the Confucius Institute because of the initiative of President Sands. Cleveland State, along with nearly all other universities, closed its Confucius Institute after Congress passed legislation in 2018 and 2020 limiting federal funding for universities that maintained the Confucius Institutes. From 2019 to 2023, the number of Confucius Institutes operating in the United States went from about 100 to fewer than 5.

The truth about Moreno and Chinese-made SUVs

“When I was a General Motors dealer, I sold Buicks. The Buick Envision was made in China. I told General Motors I wouldn’t sell one of them, don’t even ship it to me,” Moreno said during a February 10, 2024 radio interview. “They threatened me and sent me all kinds of nasty notes… we have to actually take this stand…”

That story, which Moreno also told during his brief run for Senate in 2021, is a lie. 

In reality, Moreno sold the Buick Envision at his dealership for at least five years — from 2014 to 2019 — and promoted the vehicle repeatedly on its social media channels, an investigation by NY1 revealed

A December 13, 2016 video published on the “Bernie Moreno Companies” YouTube page begins with this testimonial: “My name is Kayla McCullough. I purchased a 2017 Buick Envision from Buick GMC of Beachwood… I highly recommend you visit the team at Buick GMC of Beachwood, a Bernie Moreno company.”

Moreno’s campaign “acknowledged to Spectrum News that his dealership did sell the Chinese-made SUVs.” It claimed that “in response to the closure of the Lordstown Plant here in Ohio [in March 2019],  Bernie made a decision to stop any new inventory of Envision’s from being sold at his dealership. After he sold off the inventory he already had on the lot, he refused to take orders for more Envisions.” This explanation, however, makes little sense as the Envision was also produced in China and never at Ohio’s Lordstown Plant. Moreno’s dealerships also continued to advertise for the Envision months after the closure of the plant. 

 

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