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)