Another Needless Tragedy

By now, most people have read about the suicide of Broncos’ wide receiver Kenny McKinley. That someone so young (23) and so successful (professional athlete) could take his own life strikes so many as so senseless. We mistakenly assume that a person must be completely hopeless for depression to rise to the level of suicide. And we mistake outward success for inner happiness or contentment.

All accounts are that McKinley was a jovial, good spirited guy. With the exception of an offhand comment he made that he “should just kill” himself after his surgery, there seem to be no reports of any of the tell tale signs of deep depression, let alone suicidal ideation. One wonders how many of the signs may have been present, but not recognized.

Probably each and everyone of us has joked about killing themselves at one point or another. Of course, as someone who has tried to do just that, I usually cannot get away with that type of joke. But for the vast majority of people, such an offhand comment would raise no warning signals to others. Perhaps we should try not to joke about such things? I don’t know.

What we do need to do is better recognize the signs of depression ( maybe we need to be serious about that word, too) and especially the warning signs for suicide. I do not wish to rehash them all here, but rather touch upon a few. Take notice of changes in someone’s eating or sleeping patterns. When in emotional turmoil, a person will often have difficulty eating, some difficulty getting to sleep, and lots of difficulty getting up in the morning. Another indicator is when someone loses interest in things they normally show a great degree of interest in. This is part and parcel of an overall disengaging from the world, socially and emotionally.

Many of the other warnings are even more difficult to discern. Changes in mood can be difficult to spot unless they are so dramatic as to be painfully obvious. Jokes about dying- where do we draw the line between offhand comment and expressing an inner desire not to live? It all can be quite blurry.

Luckily, there are tons of resources regarding depression and suicide on the internet. If someone you know might be depressed or suicidal, it’s best to be proactive. Contact their network of friends and family to see if others have noticed any changes or are concerned. Ask your friend if s/he is depressed- you’d be amazed at how many people just never bother to ask. That question can open the door to a wealth of information about your friends mental well-being. And always, ALWAYS, err on the side of caution. Your friend may be temporarily angry with you for making too much of a non-emergency situation, but s/he will come to realize that you simply love them and do not want to see them hurting.

Again, as I posted before about my own struggles with suicide and depression, if you have any questions or need any help, feel free to comment here. I promise not to publish the comment. And to try my best to help.

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What We Owe (archives)

Does God call us to take care of our less fortunate fellow men? That is a question much on my mind in recent weeks. You see, as part of my daily commute to school and the gym I pass by areas where the homeless of Atlanta congregate and sleep. Every night I drive by church steps where men and women sleep. Every day I see the lines for food at the soup kitchens. And I think to myself, what is so wrong in our society that these men and women are forced to live their lives in doorways and public parks. And, why aren’t we doing more about it?

All too often we turn away from the problems of homelessness. We either chose to lament that our government does not do more to alleviate their plight. Or, we simply chose to ignore the downtrodden among us. Perhaps it is because we see ourselves in these faces. What makes me or you or any of us different from the man or woman sleeping on a park bench? Think about it. Maybe you can persuade yourself that you are somehow better off because of your own life choices or that you are inherently better than these people. But, if you look deep inside your soul, do you really believe that?

I look at my own circumstance and I have a very comfortable life. I have a graduate degree and will finish my law degree in another 18 months. I drive a reasonably nice car and have a fairly high standard of living. But what if I was not born into the family I was? What if my parents could not, or did not, have the means to support me? What if my dad had lost his job when I was ten? Or if my mother had been stricken with breast cancer? Any number of small changes in life could have put me in those same soup kitchen lines and sleeping in church doorways.

There are those among us who content themselves by blaming the homeless and poor for their plight. And, sure there are some folks who made wrong decisions that caused their problems. But there are many others who simply have not made it in our society through no fault of their own. If you are passed through school without being able to read or write, is it your fault? If you have a mental illness is it your fault?

There are tens of millions of people in America who go hungry and without shelter every day. And yet we can spend billions of dollars to invade foreign countries? We give away huge tax breaks to millionaires while others cannot afford a cup of coffee. We encourage the exportation of jobs to third world countries while the only job some people have is washing windshields in traffic.

To say that we have our priorities skewed is an understatement. All of the world’s religions include in their teachings a calling to serve the poor. Yet we fail to heed this call. We have grown selfish and callous towards those who are less fortunate. We seem to be of the belief that the way to happiness and knowing God is to have the latest and shiniest goodies. We build ornate palaces in which to live, spend and worship, while allowing our brothers and sisters to sleep outside like wild animals.

We must change our ways if we are to ever attain salvation. We must help her out when she is down; mend his scars when he is injured; feed her when she is hungry; clothe him when his clothes are torn. In short, we must heed God’s call to service; we must cease our consumerist ethic, where happiness is judged by material wealth and replace it with a new one in which service to others and being a good person are of primary concern.

(originally posted September 2006)

Aiming for Mediocrity (archives)

Mark Kleiman had a good post about public education. I believe his main point, and one which I agree with him completely, is captured by this paragraph:

One of the many bad features of NCLB is that it focuses entirely on the bottom of the distribution. Our smartest students are being systematically cheated. That’s less true in rich neighborhoods than in poor ones, but it’s true everywhere.

In email follow up, Mark said that, “the logical implication of no child left behind is no child allowed to get ahead.” This is something true not only of NCLB, but of modern education policy in general. Since at least the late 1960’s the US public education system has poured funding into special and remedial education programs, to the detriment of gifted and talented students. Though I fully support special education, and have worked in that field, I realize that education funding is a zero sum game. Though we can argue and agitate for more education funding, in the end the pie is of a fixed size and every dollar going to the one student is not going to another.

This is a sensitive subject because of the prejudices people infer when you call for greater resources for gifted and talented students. This is especially so because up until more recent times, students with special needs were cast away by our public schools. And what I am arguing for is not a return to those days. But what I am calling for is an understanding that gifted and talented kids have special needs as well. Just as a slower learner needs assistance in keeping up with his/her peers, a more advanced learner needs materials and challenges to keep him/her occupied until the rest of the class catches up.

Until we recognize the needs of advanced learners and begin to provide resources for their educations, our entire system will be one that shoots for mediocrity. Just look at NCLB as an example. The focus is on bringing the slower learners up to some standard. Now, one can argue about what that standard ought to be, but it hovers somewhere below the mean. It would have to in order to ensure that a majority “succeeds.”

In education, and perhaps society in general, we are uncomfortable with inherent variations in intelligence. That intelligence is distributed on a bell curve (not to be confused that racist tome) makes us queasy. We want to believe that all children can get to the same place educationally, assuming we provide them with adequate resources. But in reality, this can never hold true. Intelligence is no different from athletic or artistic abilities.

These natural variations provide fertile ground to examine our values. Do we believe in equality of opportunity or equality of outcomes? If we believe in the former, then we should not be uncomfortable with some students achieving more. After all, we regard varying degrees of musical ability in children as unremarkable. Why is it that education drives us to regard unequal outcomes as inherently bad?

Two possible reasons come to mind, one rational, the other emotional. On the rational side, our country has a history of pervasive racism, more than a dose of sexism and institutionalization of special needs children. This fuels a perception that the variation in outcomes we see is the result of socio-cultural factors. Maybe we believe that if not for those factors, variation would be minimal. Or, we simply feel that intelligence is not normally distributed. Maybe we are unwilling to accept that reality.

No matter what the driving force behind our belief in equality of outcomes, we must resist that urge. There simply is no possible way to achieve that goal. Not only that, but many strategies aimed to reduce variation are actually attempts to enforce mediocrity. In our attempts to lift the boats of those less gifted we have abandoned all of those whose ships are not only floating, but cruising.

(originally posted March, 2007)

Media Musings (archives)

I just love alliteration, don’t you? Anyway. I have been thinking more about the media and why it continues to do such a poor job of covering the news. I’ve also given some thought to the incredibly negative reaction some media-types have towards those who offer criticism from what might be termed the Left. I believe that both have the same root cause.

For the past twenty years or so, conservatives and the GOP have made an all out effort to discredit the media. From charges of liberal bias to the creation of Fox News, there is a pattern of behavior that is not mere chance. It has been their mission to delegitimize the press, thus preventing objective and accurate criticism of conservative/GOP policies and agendas.

At some point these critiques became valid for some members of the media, and certainly for their corporate bosses. Now, there are certain members of the media whose objectivity ought to be questioned merely because of their relationships- Chris Matthews’ brother was a GOP congressional candidate; Howie Kurtz’s wife is a Republican fundraiser; Daryn Kagan dated Rush Limbaugh; Terry Moran’s brother runs one of the most trafficked right wing blogs; etc. But beyond these folks, there has been something more than a reluctance to challenge GOP narratives.

It is, or ought to be, the media’s job to report and analyze the news. And that means to consult experts, talk to politicians and their staffs, etc. and then report their results. Instead what today’s media tend to do is play a game of he said, she said. Left out is any notion of objective analysis or expert opinion.

Indulge me a somewhat strong hypothetical- Republicans say the universe is geocentric, Democrats say it is heliocentric. The story would read in a fashion similar to watching a tennis match. Instead what we ought to expect is a story recounting what each side claims, but with a predominating strand of scientific evidence that the universe is, in fact, heliocentric.

It is the media’s unwillingness to call a spade a spade that has led us to where we are right now. A land where Karl Rove and Tony Snow can construct reality out of whole cloth. And their media lapdogs merely print their latest talking point.

However, that is beginning to change as liberals continue to challenge the media and the quality of its work. Groups like Media Matters for America (see box on right hand side of page) and blogs like Crooks and Liars have shined the light on untrue and unfair reporting. And that is where the backlash against blogs and liberals begins. See, many media elites think of themselves as being enlightened and somewhat liberal. They are accustomed to those silly Right Wingers bashing them, but have never expected substantive criticism from people with whom they agree. (And part of the reaction may also be the result of over-inflated senses of importance.)

But all we are asking the media to do is its job. All we expect from them is fairness and accuracy. Our desire is not for a liberal equivalent of Fox, but solid and serious journalism. We do not expect every journalist to be a policy expert in matters on which they cover. We do, however, expect them to consult with the people who are experts and provide some sort of depth to their coverage. In short, we expect the media to be something more than what they are today. We want them to speak truth to power and to fulfill the role that our Founding Father’s envisioned for a free press.

(originally posted March 2007)

Rape As a Strict Liability Crime (archives)

(note- I am going to bring some of my old blog posts, from my two previous blogs, back to life. It’s sort of like a greatest hits. Plus, I am shuttering my old blogs due to some of their more incendiary posts.)

There is a class of crimes that are strict liability, meaning that mens rea is not a required element of the crime. Intent does not matter, it is merely a question of whether the defendant committed the act in question or not. Historically, strict liability has been limited to public welfare crimes, such as statutory rape.

Extending strict liability to all categories of rape would seem like a natural progression. The history of the criminal law’s treatment of rape is far from exemplary. It had been dictated for several decades by a patriarchical legal system and society. Even now, there are states (LA and MS) that require a high level of resistance by the victim in order to meet the criteria for rape. The remnants of our culture’s deference to the boys will be boys ethos continues to debilitate women.

However, a strict liability scheme would go some way to remedy the current problem. By eliminating the intent requirement, especially for forcible rape, the victim (represented by the state) would no longer have to prove that the act was non-consensual. It would leave open an affirmative defense of consensuality, and the burden could be set to beyond a reasonable doubt. Also gone would be the hair splitting many courts have engaged in as to what constitutes force (for the many it is still actual physical force in the moments preceding the act).

One of the pitfalls of such a scheme would be the circumstance where one or more parties is/are intoxicated. Imposing strict liability here might raise the defendant’s burden unreasonably high. However, one might argue that under the current regime the burden on the victim/state is too high. It is a thorny issue that perhaps needs to be dealt with outside of the purview of traditional rape statutes.

The other argument against strict liability is that it unfairly burdens sexual initiators, who are disproportionately male. Yet given the scary realities of rape in our society and the realization that no matter which way the system is crafted some party will bear a higher burden, this seems to be a workable solution. The defendant’s case will still rest in the hands of a jury of his peers, who will determine if his actions were reasonable. But by switching to a strict liability regime, it is the defendant who will have to show that his behavior was unassailable, rather than the victim.

Defendant’s would no longer be able to rely on tactics such as casting the victim as a whore who was asking for what she got. Gone would be inquiries into the victim’s sexual past. The focus would be placed squarely on the shoulders of the the person who initiated the sexual contact, more often than not. And please let us realize that the vindictive woman scorned is merely a strawman for a society unwilling to recognize some of its members’ inhuman behavior.

(originally posted February 2004)

Let Them Eat Dirt

The poverty numbers out today are not only discouraging, but they highlight the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots in our society. Sure, it is hardly surprising that in a time of deep recession that poverty would increase. But we should be cautious not to write this off as a mere side effect of the Great Recession.

The problem we face is not merely poverty itself, but the yawning gap in income inequality. And while some of the policies we might enact to reduce poverty are short term in nature, the real effort must be focused on reducing income inequality. Programs such as unemployment insurance and food assistance are stop gap measures that do very little to ensure that a person, or family, remains above poverty. (In fact, such assistance programs do not even get a person or family up to the poverty level.)

What we really need are programs and policies that will reduce the enormous, and unsustainable, gap between the super rich and the poor. Adequate funding for primary and secondary education, scholarships and reduced tuition for public colleges and universities, public housing, and other social safety net programs must be strengthened. These types of programs help to promote upward mobility and poverty reduction over the long run.

Unfortunately, we live in a society and political climate where such investments are viewed as budget busters, despite their long term benefits. An entire political movement is fueled by the idea that someone, somewhere is getting something for nothing. And propelled by the rhetoric of personal responsibility, such that the poor are solely at fault for their plight. Never mind our legacy of discrimination, never mind an economic landscape tilted in favor of those who already have so much, never mind a political system bought and paid for by corporate cash. The true reason you’re poor or homeless or hungry is because you have some inherent character flaw, some type of malignant laziness.

And so we fail not only to address poverty in the short term, but we ignore or even exacerbate income inequality. The same people who refuse to adequately fund poverty reduction are the same who want to renew an enormous tax cut to the wealthiest Americans. And while they try to paper over the true motivation with economic arguments, the reality is that there is scant evidence that the Bush tax cuts created jobs. Yet there is loads of evidence that shows pumping those same dollars into poverty reduction efforts will increase aggregate demand now, and reduce poverty (thus ensuring economic growth) in the future. There is simply no sound policy argument to be made for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

But the real rank hypocrisy on fiscal policy is that these same people who wish to continue a tax cut for the rich are the same ones who crowed about the impact on the deficit of extending unemployment benefits. So, increasing the deficit hundreds of billions of dollars so Paris Hilton can get a tax cut is good, ponying up $34 billion to help those without a job is going to break the bank?

The old saying, attributed to Marie Antoinette, about eating cake showed how out of touch an aristocrat was with the peasants. The GOP and the Tea Party have turned that into something even more despicable- let them (the poor, jobless and hungry) eat dirt.

Political Psychology

In the post below, I make reference to the difficulty of sustaining an agenda of change over the course of multiple elections. Though that point makes intuitive sense to some readers, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate more. In doing so, I will make the argument that a change agenda is difficult to sustain in itself, but further that change, as a positive agenda, is far more difficult to maintain, than its opposite, which is a negative, fear based agenda (not its logical opposite- a status quo agenda).

At certain moments in history, people yearn for change in the political arena. Often this drive for political change is correlated with societal change, as evidenced by the Civil Rights movement and other large social movements. Here, however, social change precedes and leads political change. In other instances, the change sought is more of a political nature. People have what may be an abstract or specific notion that the country is headed in the wrong direction. The most obvious, and I think helpful, example would be the elections of 2006 and 2008.

The country was mired in two costly foreign wars, the economy had started to slide some by 2006, only to see it crater by 2008. The public mood was one of disenchantment, bordering on malaise. The GOP controlled all the levers of government and had done their best to wear out the public’s post 9-11 goodwill. (The probable tipping point seems to have been the Schiavo affair.) When people are feeling economic insecurity, it becomes easy to make the case for change.

The Democrats retook Congress in the 2006 midterms by calling for change. They capitalized on the public’s desire to lead the country in a different direction. Of course, Congress alone cannot make significant change when the White House is controlled by the other party. Though the Democrats were not successful in their change efforts in 2007, the ground had been set for a Democratic presidential nominee to run under the banner of change. Clearly this was made all the more possible by the cratering of the economy and the Bush administration’s fumbling through the early days of the economic crisis and the public’s general Bush fatigue.

In the fall of 2008, Democrats increased their 2006 gains in Congress and elected a President. These successes were all premised on the mantra of change. They promised changes in government (clean up corruption), changes in policy (draw down troops in Iraq; health care reform) and changes in political climate (post-partisanship). These messages drew broad support from an electorate deeply concerned about the country’s direction. Not only did it move regular voters to support the Democratic change agenda, but it brought in millions of new voters.

Some thought we had witnessed a new movement, some sort of seismic shift in our politics. (Of course, we’d been there before with Reagan’s morning in America, Clinton’s New Democrats, etc.) What those people did not foresee, or learn from political history, was the difficulty of maintaining an agenda based on positive change. Unlike social movements, such as Civil Rights, which are focused on one particular set of agenda items (sometimes so narrow as to be one item), a political change agenda is too broad and diffuse.

Though it is undeniably true that Obama and the Democrats ran on some specific change items, voters will tend to over-interpret such broad calls for change. Voters/supporters often make a couple mistakes. First, they come to believe that a particular politician subscribes to their notion of change, regardless of the lack of evidence for such a belief. Also, they tend to underestimate the length of time it takes a large bureaucratic organization, like the US government, to actually change. These two mistakes lead to inevitable disappointment.

This disappointment often leads to a loss of momentum for the change agenda, but it is not a fait accompli. There are steps that leaders can take to minimize the disappointment. Most importantly, political leaders need to keep their supporters informed and engaged. This requires direct communication with their people, and not relying on the media to carry their message. If people are kept “in the loop” about the actions politicians are taking to enact/pursue the positive change, they are more likely to show patience when that change is slower than they might have anticipated and preferred. Beyond keeping their supporters, and the public, informed leaders must be clear about what it is they are doing. In other words, explain their agenda to the public through a variety of ways. This also entails correcting false information about their agenda before it becomes so widespread as to be the accepted reality.

Accomplishing those tasks alone are difficult enough, as voters are busy and often not tuned in to the smaller bore issues facing government. These tasks do not occur in isolation, but rather in an environment where opponents are engaging in their own political rhetoric and activism. Thus, change leaders must not only promote their vision, but counter what is often a disinformation campaign against them.

A much easier political strategy, and one employed largely by the Republican Party over the past five decades, is a negative, fear based agenda. (I am leaving out their opposition to the New Deal and also avoiding the Cold War, which had as many Democratic adherents.) Motivating voters with fear and anger is a far simpler row to hoe for a number of reasons.

Fear and anger are somewhat base emotions. They require no explanation nor any sort of positive aspiration. Hope and change do rely somewhat on emotions, but need to be based upon some tangible policy ends. Anger and fear require no such grounding. And so, Republicans have used a variety of bogeymen to scare voters to their side for over a generation.

Starting with the 1960’s and the Dixiecrats changing of allegiances, the GOP has pursued a policy of demonizing others for electoral gain. It began with talk of state’s rights, a not so clandestine appeal to racist voters upset with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. Since then there’s been a succession of villains used to raise the level of fear and anger- war protesters, women/feminists, gays and lesbians, the poor, environmentalists, and now Muslims.

There is always some other available to demonize. To frighten voters into believing they are somehow under attack from people who are not like them. It plays into people’s inherent fears and prejudices. And these tactics require little to actual evidence of threat. It’s more of an existential threat to some voters’ notion of America as a white, Christian, straight, male enclave.

Not only is this strategy successful in its appeals, but it is almost impossible to combat. Fear and anger are nearly immune to logic and reason. So, it doesn’t matter how many times it is shown that Obama was born in Hawaii, there are still a high percentage of Republicans who believe he is a secret Kenyan Muslim. It doesn’t matter that all the science shows convincingly that global temperatures are rising and melting the polar ice caps, many (most?) Republicans believe it’s a myth.

All that is needed to sustain the momentum of a negative agenda is a new villain. And so that is why gays and lesbians have recently been replaced with Muslims, as public attitudes towards gays has shifted. So long as you stay ahead of the curve of public opinion with regards to your preferred bogeyman you cannot go wrong. There is no need to keep your base informed, just scared. No need to offer up a policy agenda, just talk about how the other party’s agenda will lead to socialism. And no need to defend the status quo, just talk about fictitious death panels.

Fear and anger, unlike hope and change, require no heavy intellectual lifting. They require no real thinking on the part of voters, which is especially helpful given how little they actually pay attention to politics and government. The Tea Party provides the perfect example of my point. Most of them believe things that are provably untrue; they have no actual agenda other than opposing Obama and the Democrats; most of them know very little about our government or its founding documents. Yet, they are the most energized group of voters heading into the November midterms.

We have survived at least 50 years of this type of politics, but we have not prospered as a country in many ways. Our lack of prosperity is the product of many factors, but one of those is its politics. And it is unclear how much longer we can survive, as a nation, as a society, when we are fed a diet of fear and anger.