Monday, December 13, 2010

When schools are profit centers, wreckage will be the norm

(Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 12/12/10)

A recent poll of Indiana parents revealed that 80 percent are satisfied with their local schools. To listen to Gov. Daniels or Education Sup. Bennett talk about Indiana public schools, those parents must be mistaken, duped, or school teachers. This is a problem for radical education reformers. While parents might believe there are some problems with the “education system,” the vast majority are satisfied with their local schools. Those that are not, approximate the percentage of students and families underserved by our public schools. Herein lies the need to paint Indiana schools in as bad a light as possible.

Why? An easy answer is that the “take no prisoners” approach is about Gov. Daniels’ presidential aspirations and Sup. Bennett’s gubernatorial aspirations. While I think those factor somewhat into it, I think the reasons lie more in conservative ideology.

Don’t be fooled. While Gov. Daniels hasn’t pursued a socially conservative political agenda, avoiding those hot button issues has permitted him to pursue an otherwise very conservative agenda. He has cut spending, capped property taxes, privatized great swaths of government, with both positive and negative outcomes. Keep in mind that conservative ideology is about smaller government and lower taxes. The inevitable outcome of such an approach is a reduction in “public goods.” For Gov. Daniels significantly reducing the size of government requires altering the state’s relationship to education, both K-12 and higher education. States have been getting out of the higher ed business for years. Tuition rises as state support declines. If current trends continue, public universities will probably be put up for sale or lease to education management companies (think the toll road in Northern Indiana). If conservative ideology continues to prevail, the same will be true of K-12 schools.

It’s easy to see the coordinated and persistent propaganda campaign against public education beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan and his message of government is the problem, not the solution. The aim of that campaign is to undermine public support for public education.

And conservatives are impatient. NCLB and Indiana’s PL 221, brought us more school ratings. The performance standards are ultimately unreasonable eventually leading all schools to fail and/or it will lead to “cheating” and the cheating scandals will help fuel the undermining of the public’s support for public education. Yet, despite many years of annual reporting in the papers, this effort to undermine public education has not translated to great reductions in individual’s support for their local schools and transfers “out” of failing schools have not happened the way the radical conservative reformers hoped. So, in response, Indiana will assign a single letter grade to each school.

We do not give a student one letter grade for their entire academic performance. Rather they receive a grade for each subject or skill. As has been reported in these pages, sometimes schools are struggling, “failing,” in a particular area. Why not issue a more detailed report card, actually providing better information from which parents could judge their school’s performance. “Better” information does not serve the underlying goal.

The conservative vision for public schools, if not ending them, is public finance of private schools. It will start with vouchers, and then the funding for vouchers will shrink, either absolutely or relatively, private schools will charge tuition beyond the value of the vouchers and the inevitable inequities in a private school market for education will help to ensure the reproduction of current social inequalities. This is the model for public universities and what has transpired over the last 30 years. The current public school system doesn’t eliminate social inequality, it reproduces current social inequalities, but with some notable progress that is less likely under a mostly for private school system. Social inequality relative to a public good is a moral problem, but not for a private good. By decoupling education from government, the moral imperative to address social inequalities in education, which is where so much of the problems lie, is eliminated. Conservatives don’t see social inequality as a problem, it is just the inevitable outcome of the market. In fact, it is a necessity.

When schools are profit centers, there will be mom and pop versions, franchise versions, Wal Mart versions, “exclusive country club versions,” and out of business versions. Just as we see one company buyout another one and strip it of its assets, leaving wreckage in its wake, that will be a regular occurrence in a future where education is a private, rather than, public good.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Are teachers not part of the learning equation?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 12/5/10

TERRE HAUTE — “A teacher’s influence on student achievement scores is 20 times greater than any other variable — including class size and student poverty.”

This is a quote taken from Gov. Mitch Daniels’ “Legislative Priorities” ( It didn’t read to me as something he or even one of his staffers wrote. So, I donned my sleuthing persona, and quickly found the quote repeated in many sources, the Houston Chronicle, some foundations, eventually though I traced the quote to Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, an education policy advocacy group.

The Education Trust is a fairly mainstream group. They are funded by such groups as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, and others. I suspect Kati Haycock would smile at some of Indiana’s proposed education reforms and frown at others.

Haycock is not a statistician. Among other things, she edits an in-house journal. She, I think, is making a rhetorical claim, based upon the research of William L. Sanders, who is a skilled statistician/econometrician from Tennessee, who created the Tennessee Valued Added Assessment System (TVAAS). This is an assessment and accountability system ushered into Tennessee under Gov. Lamar Alexander in the mid-1980s. In fact, the model underlying the assessment system is known as the “Sanders Model.”

Many of the claims being made by Gov. Daniels and Education Superintendent Bennett stem, I think, from Sanders’ claims. And he makes some pretty remarkable, albeit controversial, claims. Among them is that class size, heterogeneity of the classroom, social class and other commonly found influences in other research are not important. It is as though once students enter the classroom only the influence of the teacher matters. What I find interesting is that there is a lot of sophisticated research using data from Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama and Kentucky.

Tennessee may have the best data, but I can only find research using TVAAS data by Sanders. Essentially, the creator of the system is the only one who has evaluated the system. (Perhaps the databases I use, which located Sanders’ articles, just don’t find articles published by others using TVAAS data.) Maybe Tennessee won’t grant access to any other researchers? Sanders’ claims cannot be tested by other scholars if the data is not made available.

The value-added model of assessment makes sense for students. To use the same model to assess teachers raises some questions. Any occupation can be divided into quintiles based on productivity, job satisfaction or height. No matter how well the bottom quintile (20 percent) does, they are still low-performing relative to the top. And if you eliminate the bottom quintile and redistribute, there will still be a lowest quintile.

What we need to do, if we are going to adopt value-added assessment to evaluate teachers, is to establish a minimum acceptable absolute performance, not a relative one.

There are other troubling findings in this literature. There is no observable teacher characteristic that consistently correlates with student outcomes. It doesn’t matter the quality of the school a teacher attended, it doesn’t matter how well they scored on any teacher licensure exam, their own SATs, how experienced they are, whether they have a master’s degree, nothing. The idea that good teachers are born, not made, is the inevitable conclusion.

They burn out quickly, however. Research consistently shows that except for the first 10 to 15 years, a teacher’s experience is generally negatively related to student achievement, especially in math.

Superintendent Bennett uses sports metaphors all the time. The research on teacher experience and student achievement suggests this one: Teachers are like NFL quarterbacks. They improve through the first few years, hit a plateau, and then decline. Time to draft a new one.

All of Tennessee’s students take the ACT. In 2010, not one of the areas ACT covers shows Tennessee’s students exceeding national averages in readiness for college. Fewer students in Indiana take the ACT, but Indiana’s students exceed the national averages in readiness for college in each category.

There is not a lot of research on home-schooled students. What research I found shows that home-schooled students do better on standardized achievement tests than formally schooled students. Who home schools? Married couple families with one or two children, highly educated, single-earner families in the mid-$70,000s, and either Mom or Dad stay home to exclusively teach their kids. Interestingly, those parents who happen to also be certified teachers don’t do as well as the students of non-certified teachers. So maybe teachers are not the most important factor; perhaps it is parents’ emphasis on education, small class size, and highly tailored curricula.

Note: Steiger is married to a public school teacher.

Are teachers not part of learning equation?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 12/5/10

Monday, November 29, 2010

Education reforms can't ignore family influences

(Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 11/28/2010)

The newspapers are full of coverage on education reform. In last Sunday’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman went so far as to say the Department of Education was the “epicenter of national security.” His op-ed paints a dour picture of the US education system. He endorses the Obama Administration efforts to transform the US education system thereby indirectly endorsing the current efforts in Indiana. Friedmann points favorably to the educational systems in Denmark and Finland (Finland especially has a wonderful educational system). However, pointing to such “socialistic” countries isn’t much of a selling point.

Gov. Daniels’ penned an article in the November 7th Indianapolis Star. He wrote: “If there is one fact that every expert and all the data confirm, it is that the single most important predictor of a child’s academic success is the quality of the teachers he or she encounters.”

I’ll forgive Gov. Daniels for favoring politics over the known science on academic performance. The best predictor of a child’s academic performance is their parents. It is that inconvenient fact that “No Child Left Behind” treats as an excuse instead of explanation and thus ignores parental contribution (or subtraction) to a child’s academic performance.

Research on family type (a different measure than socio-economic status) shows consistent effects on child academic performance (and not just in the US). Children from larger families tend to underperform relative to children from smaller families. Children from single headed families are the most likely to underperform and that type of family is increasing across every category of socio-economic status in the US.

Friedmann’s article was 12 paragraphs long. He waited until the last one to mention parents. Other than the use of proxies, such as parent’s income and education, I couldn’t find any research on the “qualities” of parents that contribute to their children’s academic success. There is research on how parent’s educational goals for their children affect their children’s educational goals. Unfortunately nothing that connects any parent quality to test scores, other than the proxies of socio-economic status and family type. Talk to teachers, however, and one gets enough anecdotal evidence to suggest the need for more systematic research on the subject.

What do you think? Who is likely to perform better on standardized tests? Children who are or not read to at home? Children whose parents monitor their children’s homework and academics or not? How about the simple act of asking kids what did they learn today and not accept “nuthin” as an answer? Kids who eat breakfast in the morning or those who could eat at school, but whose parents can’t get them to school on time? Kids of parents who meet with and work with teachers when a child is struggling or those who refuse to meet with school officials, even when school officials are willing to meet outside the normal school hours? This list could go on and on, but I think the point is made.
Our leaders’ answer to this social problem is merit pay for teachers and school choice. To date, the largest experiment with merit pay for teachers is Tennessee, the results released this year, indicate merit pay (bonuses were significant averaging $9600 to $11,300) had little to no impact on children’s academic performance and what positive effects were found, diminished over time.

Just as Americans (and American children) are getting fatter and as a result diabetes is on the rise, do we conclude then that there is a problem with US doctors?

Those who are interested should find Hanushek and Rivkin’s article in the May issue of the American Economic Review. In short, they lay out very well the problems of tying value added measures of student performance to teacher pay, and examine the relationship between teacher quality and academic outcomes. And contrary to Andrea Neal’s claim in Thursday’s newspaper, Hanushek and Rivkin examine observed differences in teacher quality (GPA, their own tests scores, etc) and find no difference on student outcomes. This is not to say there are no bad teachers. According to Hanushek and Rivkin, just replacing 6-10 percent of the worst teachers and replacing them with average ones (in terms of student outcomes), would make a significant impact on our education system.
Reformers commonly say the US has a good education system for 1950. Arguably, the US had better family situations and fewer distractions for academic performance then than we do today. The education problem can’t be solved by ignoring the contributions, good and bad, of parents and families.

Note: Steiger is married to a public school teacher.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Merit pay may not bring positive results

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 21 November 2010

TERRE HAUTE — Gov. Daniels gets what he wants. He wanted to change the time in Indiana; no one talks about repeal. He wanted to lease Indiana roads for badly needed cash and he did it. He has set more land aside for conservation than probably any Indiana governor and no one criticized him. When he came into office six years ago, he faced a budget shortfall and fixed it without a tax increase (although he did suggest one, remember?). He pushed for a constitutional amendment on property tax caps and got it. And now, perhaps his final accomplishment before he sets his sights on a presidential run, is to fix Indiana schools.

His plan is simple. Use money to motivate teachers to do a better job and tie student academic performance to teacher pay and continued employment. What could be simpler?

I have seen “merit” pay up and close. I am not sure it changes anyone’s behavior. Why? Among many reasons, the amount of money is key. Gov. Daniels isn’t looking to add money to education, quite the opposite. That is why he pursues unproven educational reforms but doesn’t make full-day kindergarten, a proven means to improve student academic performance, a priority.

Pay for performance works when individuals can alter behavior that directly influences the measured outcomes. For example, sales professionals make more phone calls, contact more people, and result in more sales and more commissions. What behaviors do teachers need to do more of, or change, to increase student academic performance? Are there evidence-based practices that point the direction?

Learning theory is pretty straightforward: time on task impacts learning. So, maybe teachers will assign more homework. If the students don’t do the work (and parents complain about the amount), then student performance doesn’t improve and teachers won’t get paid for their performance.

Teachers are professionals, like lawyers, doctors, nurses, clergy, and accountants. Professional norms control their behavior. And like other professional groups, talent and skill differ across individuals. The “best” lawyers, however, are not necessarily the highest paid. Why would a highly paid lawyer accept a much lower paid position as a judge? Indeed, a judge is a civil servant while most lawyers are in private practice; they do it, in part, because of the honor.

Everyone cannot have the “best” doctor, lawyer, nurse, priest or accountant. Through training and professional norms, a minimum performance standard is established. No, such systems are not perfect and people in such professions can change, they can “burn out.” Are there bad doctors, nurses, lawyers, priests and accountants? Yes and there are “bad” teachers and there has to be a way to deal with those low performers.

When I directed the Sociology Research Lab, I compensated callers two different ways. One paid them for performance, the other was to pay by the hour. When callers were compensated based solely on performance, I found I had a lot of “cheating.” Callers would pretend to call and just answer the questions themselves. It was easy to spot these and remove those interviews from the data set. Others, who were paid by the hour, didn’t cheat. Some were phenomenal. They completed interviews at two to three times the rate of others. I established a reasonable quota of completed interviews per hour. Those who couldn’t make that quota usually quit. A few I had to let go because they were “too expensive.”

I used the first system to train and to gauge the work ethics and habits of callers. The “good” ones were invited to move to an hourly pay system. This system worked because I could establish and easily measure outcomes and establish standards.

How many points on standardized tests should be adequate to keep a new teacher employed? If those benchmarks are not reasonable or if they are vague or unstated, those who are subject to them will not have confidence in them, “cheating” will occur, and cynicism will grow.

I applaud Gov. Daniels for trying to fix education. I suggest he change the teacher retirement system so that burned-out teachers don’t feel handcuffed to a system that only rewards extremely long service. Push for full-day kindergarten. And quit bashing teachers or the most idealistic will instead choose sales, instead of teaching. Continued bashing of teachers will stigmatize the profession and eventually those who make the best teachers will turn away.

Editor’s note: Steiger is married to a public school teacher.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Simplistic Slogans Don't Solve Complex Problems

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, Halloween 2010

TERRE HAUTE — All indications point to another power shift Tuesday, with Republicans, with intense and enthusiastic Tea Party support, gaining power in all sectors of government. Whether they gain control of Congress or the Indiana House of Representatives remains to be seen.

The Tea Party stands for smaller government and cutting taxes. There isn’t much to their specifics, but some candidates trying to ride the movement’s intense emotions have put out some specific plans. But it is the button-down Cato Institute which has, from what I can find, provided the most specific plan to cut government spending, downsize government, and, hence, cut taxes.

Of course, many angry Tea Partiers no doubt distrust the scholarly Cato Institute. It is, after all, a policy think tank. One of those organizations full of pointy-headed intellectual types who rely more on dispassionate analysis and data than over-the-top rhetoric and promises that cannot be fulfilled — as one candidate for Congress promises (“I will repeal Obamacare”).

The Tea Party and, from what I can tell, every Republican candidate, promises to cut taxes and reduce spending. Let’s examine the Cato Institute’s “downsizing the federal government” plan ( To be fair, CI’s overall plan is not finished. It has not addressed defense spending, homeland security, justice, veterans affairs and a couple of others.

Americans want immediate gratification, not plans that fix things down the road. Let’s not look at promises and impacts down the road. Let’s examine the immediate effects, beginning with the Department of Agriculture. According to CI, Agriculture spends $142 billion a year and employs 96,000. CI suggests cutting Agriculture by $108 billion, or 76 percent. CI details the programmatic cuts and discusses the good this will do later (“lower food prices for everyone”). CI doesn’t talk about what a 76-percent cut to spending would do to employment at Agriculture. Here, I’ll just use a proportionate cut: 73,014 added to the ranks of the unemployed.

The Department of Commerce spends $17 billion a year and employs 53,000 workers. CI proposes a 12-percent cut; adding 6,235 more people to the unemployment lines.

The Department of Energy will spend $38 billion in 2010 and employs 16,000 workers and oversees 100,000 contract workers in 21 national labs and other facilities across the nation. CI proposes cutting it by 29 percent translating, using 116,000 as the base, to 33,578 more unemployed.

The Department of Education will spend $107 billion this year and employs 4,100.  I’m surprised its total elimination was not called for as so many among the Tea Party do. Nevertheless, it survives with a 78-percent cut, but 2,988 workers don’t. 

The Department of Health and Human Services will spend $869 billion this year and employs 65,000. Cut it by just 9 percent and only 6,058 lose their jobs.

Housing and Urban Development will spend $63 billion this year and employs 9,500. Cut it all, says CI, a 100-percent cut and 9,500 more to the ranks of those who don’t pay taxes.

This year, $91 billion is the Department of Transportation’s budget. And 58,000 folks are on its payroll. I’m not sure why it gets to survive, but a 93-percent spending cut will leave only 5, 825 workers with a job there.

In summary, CI proposes cutting $429 billion — an overall cut of a third.  To be fair, they don’t discuss the loss of employment in a recession with weak job growth that would result from these cuts. They don’t discuss the loss of employment at all in the plan. Those are my estimates. A $429 billion dollar cut as CI outlines, I estimate, would add 177,548 more people to the unemployed or, at current rates, a 0.1-point increase in the unemployment rate.

Keep in mind, this is not the full plan, CI stills needs to detail cuts to Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Interior, Labor, State, Treasury and Veterans Affairs. The total spending these departments account for is $1.2 trillion. Assuming a 33-percent reduction holds throughout the rest of the cutting, that is an additional $396 billion in cuts in spending and an estimated 163,890 increase in the ranks of the unemployed. Assuming no tax cuts, these outlined and estimated cuts would reduce the current budget deficit by 63 percent.

Conventional wisdom holds that raising taxes in a weak economy will further weaken it. What will cutting $825 billion in spending and laying off 341,438 people do to a weak economy? Simplistic slogans do not turn complex realities into simple ones.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What we know, and what we "think" we know?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 10 October 2010

Are Jeopardy contestants more likely to be atheists? In the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s recent survey on U.S. Religious Knowledge (September 28, 2010 -- atheists score the highest. They score the highest on “religious” knowledge but also, religion’s role in public life, and nonreligious knowledge (9 questions spanning politics, science, history and literature).

Asking “knowledge” questions is hard to do in a survey like this. Pew did it by asking respondents to think of the questions like a game show. I’ve asked questions about people’s knowledge about public policies and the criminal justice system. The results are usually disappointing (people don’t know much) and my sense is that people don’t like answering them.

The newsworthiness of these findings focuses on the irony that atheists would know more about religion than the religious. (They don’t know more about Christianity than white evangelicals and Mormons, but more than other groups.) As a sociologist, I’m not surprised by the results. Atheists could be considered to be one of the lowest status groups in society. Very few Americans will admit to much doubt about the existence of God or a higher spirit (31 percent in this survey admitted to some uncertainty but only six percent expressed a disbelief in God). Generally, lower status groups know more about the ways of higher status groups than higher status groups know about the ways of lower status groups. Christians scored, on average, lower than did Jews, Mormons (there are important theological distinctions) and atheists on questions about the Bible and Christianity, world religions, and the role of religion in public life. In a society dominated by Christianity, minority religious views have to be defended and defending one’s position sharpens one’s knowledge about both sides. Christians, despite some conservative hyperbole, don’t really have to defend their religious views the way minority religious adherents do.

Other than a sophisticated game of trivia, I’m not sure what knowing or not knowing the answers to these questions really means. Frankly, I think many of the questions are pretty arcane and irrelevant to why people engage in religious behavior. Is it more important for Christian salvation to know who Jesus is or where he was born? If Catholics don’t know what “transubstantiation” is, does that mean they are headed to hell? If a believer doesn’t know that the “golden rule” is not one of the 10 Commandments, does St. Peter cite these results and bar those who are so mistaken from the pearly gates? I think this kind of knowledge is important to scholars and intellectuals (and to wannabe Jeopardy contestants) but not that important to folks who are looking for answers to questions like “what happens to me after I die” or “why am I here?”

If we spend more time talking and thinking about what is important to us, that is, “learning,” then the Pew survey provides insights into these results. The Pew survey asked respondents how often they spoke to family and friends about science, history, politics or other current events, and religion. One reason why so many (72 percent) knew the Democrats control the House of Representatives is because 51 percent indicated talking with friends and family about politics and current events (does that include what happened last night on “Dancing with the Stars,” “American Idol,” and Jacob Lacey’s dropped interception that would have won the game for the Colts?). Forty-four percent indicated frequent discussions about religion (40 percent attend religious services once or more per week and 37 percent indicate reading scripture at least once a week outside of religious services). Hence, 46 percent knew who Martin Luther was. Only 35 percent frequently discuss history and just 25 percent frequently discuss science. Fifty-two percent expressed belief in evolution and 40 percent indicated that “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” about the same number who indicated a fundamentalist belief in the Bible (35 percent).

The point is that we “know” about things that are important to us because we talk about and do those things. I wish Pew had included a pop culture component.

Time for Final Jeopardy. The category is Pew Forum Religious Study. The answer is 68 percent. If you answered “What proportion of the Pew sample indicated being dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country right now” you are correct. Too bad Pew didn’t break down satisfaction with the way things are going by knowledge.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Assessing the core of 'Hoosier Values'

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, April 15, 2006

Two letters to the Tribune-Star last week were about “Hoosier values.” Both were satirical. It is rare to see anyone outside the clergy and some social scientists discuss “values” in anything like a meaningful manner today because such discussions are almost an automatic hot button issue. It shouldn’t be, but since the late 1970s and early 1980s “values” have been used to divide people along political lines. Doing so has made civil discussion of “values” that much more difficult.

Most people, unless they have really given careful thought to it, aren’t consciously aware of their values. We confuse beliefs with values all the time. Values refer to standards that people use as a reference point to help them evaluate behavior, things and ideas. Let’s take an easy example: freedom. Many people value freedom to the point they will die for it. Indeed, it is hard to find a person who doesn’t value freedom. Yet, people may differ on how best, as a society, to assure that we are free, so some see government as an inherent threat to our freedom and believe in limited government.

Others might view threats to freedom as coming from predatory individuals and thus believe government should actively defend our freedoms. Both beliefs stem from the same value.

Most people don’t adhere to just a single value. They have values. And nothing says that values must fit perfectly together. So, most Americans value freedom but hold different beliefs about how best to create and maintain it. Most Americans also value security. These two values can be seen rubbing against each other in our discussions about trying to balance freedom and security in the face of terrorism.

The current debate about immigration reflects a different emphasis on specific values. Many of those who oppose anything that could be considered amnesty do so not because of xenophobia or racism (as many detractors suggest), but because they value obedience to authority. The idea that lawbreakers, illegal aliens, could be rewarded with citizenship is just beyond their comprehension. Others valuing “compassion” are less concerned about rewarding lawbreakers and more about improving the lives of these desperate people.

I never heard of Florida or Virginia values when I lived there. Last week’s letter writers mocked the idea of “Hoosier values,” but as an observer for almost 20 years, if there even is a distinct set of values that could be called Hoosier, I’d have to include among them stability, particularism (I’ll explain in a bit), and humility and modesty.

Hoosiers value stability. This is why they resist change, even change that can be shown to be beneficial to them. I think most everyone prefers stability, very few really value change for change sake, but the Hoosier value of stability I think goes beyond just the common preference. I’m not sure I could explain here the high value Hoosiers place on stability, but suffice it to say that it leads to almost a knee-jerk suspicion of change. It is almost as though to change is to dishonor those in the past.

Particularism refers to treating people as unique individuals. It is the ideal of the small town where “everyone knows your name.” One is not treated as an anonymous customer or number. More traditional and rural cultures are rooted in particularism whereas more modern and urban cultures are more universalistic, treating people the same and more anonymously. Having a brother at the bank is an advantage in a particularistic culture but it matters little in a universalistic one. I think this is why things like zoning and high-stakes educational testing and standards are viewed so suspiciously here. I think it also is why there is uneasiness with things big in Indiana, from government to business. The value of particularism may be why the very idea of “Hoosier values” seems appealing to so many.

Lastly, humility and modesty are, however, often hard to distinguish from a lack of ambition and low expectations. For too many Hoosiers, it seems difficult to reconcile the values of humility and modesty with a willingness to demand better, whether of themselves or of their elected officials.

Someone wanting to flaunt their “Hoosier values” would be a multi-generation Hoosier following in a relative’s footsteps, be a quick study of people’s names and hometowns, and would be humble and modest emphasizing that all they needed to learn they learned in church, at grandma’s knee and playing ball.

Smoking ordinance debate breaks down on social class lines

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, May 27, 2006.

Will smokers lose another battle in the “smoking wars?” We are witnessing a skirmish in Vigo County over the proposed indoor smoking ban. More, however, is going on than just a public health issue. This is just a tip of a much larger iceberg of ongoing conflict: the conflict between the working and lower social classes and the broad middle and upper middle classes.

Social class is something we loathe to speak of in the United States. Nevertheless, we know social class profoundly shapes our lives and society. Most people hold simplistic, if not crude, understandings of social class, usually narrowly equating it with how much money people make.

There is, however, much more to social class than just that.

How one earns their money is important. Earning money, even a lot of it, by carrying out the orders of others under close supervision and facing many job hazards, describes working class. Earning money supervising others, problem solving, and internalizing the company’s goals as their own, describes middle class. A “professional,” who sacrificed many years at school and served long “apprenticeships” describes the upper middle class. Having others work for you and make your money for you describes the upper class. This “class map” is still pretty crude, but it will suffice for now.

Look how the sides of the smoking ban wage war. Those in favor of the smoking ban don’t argue using terms like “rights” or justice or moral language. They argue with experts and the language of science. They will bring studies forward to evidence their point. “It’s not that we don’t like smoking, it’s just unhealthy.” To which, those who oppose the ban respond, “well, you don’t have to go to that smoky restaurant, go find one with fewer smokers or with a nonsmoking policy.”

In turn, the proponents will point out that workers are exposed to secondhand smoke, they don’t have a choice, and shouldn’t, as a matter of their work conditions, be faced with this hazardous environment. They will probably have a study that shows more missed work days for workers exposed to secondhand smoke than those who are not. (Their concern for the working class is suspect. Where was the middle class when a 1980s federal tax change went strong after tips and permitted a lower than minimum wage for many working class jobs?)

It takes resources, financial, skill with numbers, and familiarity and comfort with the language of science, to make the arguments that the pro-smoking-ban side does. Look who the spokesmen are: doctors, some lawyers, and other professional groups. To fight the war at this level is very expensive, especially for lower and working class groups. Tobacco companies could help, but they are so discredited than any information connected to them, would be suspect immediately, even if it had scientific merit. As is often the case, the working and lower classes are left to argue their interests in the name of simple justice and “rights.”

Using the seemingly value-free language of science to make their arguments, the middle class effectively hides the real motive, which is to ban smoking in their presence, a habit once enjoyed across the social classes in the United States, but is now much less common in the “respectable” middle and upper middle classes. The middle class does not pose it as a class issue, they make it a health issue, a common strategy when the middle class attempts to assert its class interests.

It would be believable if the middle classes really were all about public health, but they do not support a rational health-care system that provides universal coverage, nor do they support vigorous government enforcement of workplace safety, and most middle class people are not supporters of unions, which have done more to improve the health and safety of the lower and working classes than our “generous” welfare state.

Culturally, social classes create boundaries. Among the more obvious boundaries are the where and what we live in, our recreational diversions, and the cars we drive. Once, clothes marked members of the different social classes, but with cheap, quality clothing, that is not as evident as it once was.

Smoking has become a class marker. And while the middle class doesn’t want to ban tobacco, they do want to ban the working class from smoking in their presence.

For the record, I don’t smoke and support the smoking ban. That doesn’t change the sociology of the smoking wars.

Is there sound justification for income inequality?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, January 27, 2007

Income inequality is growing in the United States. So what. Does income inequality, per se, translate into anything the larger society should be concerned about?

Examining societies cross-culturally, there is a relationship between the degree of income inequality within the society and the stability of the society. Once inequality gets to a certain point, the society shows more instability. The distribution of income in the U.S. looks more like that found in developing countries than in other industrial democracies.

Income inequality in the United States has been increasing since the 1980s. Are we seeing increasing signs of political and social instability? What I see is more evidence of beliefs and political trends that will support increasing income inequality in our society.

A special report by the “Tax Foundation” on American attitudes on tax and wealth released in April 2006 asked a cross-section of 2,017 adults the following question: “Do you personally favor or oppose completely eliminating the estate tax — that is, the tax on property left by people who die?”

Sixty-eight percent of respondents favored elimination. The authors are surprised given that only about 1 percent of taxpayers are ever hit with this tax. Had that fact been provided in the question, the responses might have been different. Nevertheless, the report suggests that taxes on wealth (property and large sums of money) are viewed as more unfair than taxes on income or sales tax.

Could this signal a change in beliefs about income inequality as well as who should pay for the government services and infrastructure in our society? Sixty-three percent of respondents indicated that the 42.5 million taxpayers who file a return but pay no tax is unfair, that everyone should pay something. Whether the respondents thought those 42.5 million were rich or poor, we don’t know because, again, the survey didn’t provide facts for people.

Work of the kind that required one’s own sweat and labor once was a moral aspect of material success. Those who worked hard were viewed as deserving of whatever they got. But it is pretty clear now, with things like lotteries, stock markets, and the windfall of inheritance, that beliefs have pretty much changed. The Tax Foundation report, I thought, had an interesting insight. Taxes should only be on things that people directly influence like work or sales taxes on what you buy. Those things that are not the result of one’s direct behavior, like rising residential property values, the stock market, or an inheritance, shouldn’t be taxed as much or at all. In short, tax effort not windfall.

In my classes I find growing acceptance on the part of students of a sociological theory of inequality and “stratification” (structured inequality) that doesn’t carry the day when one balances the evidence for it against other theories of inequality and stratification. Nevertheless, this theory “sounds right” because it fits (and apparently is fitting better and better) with an ideology that is more accepting of (growing) income inequality.

In short, the “functional” theory of stratification holds that people who are more highly paid deserve it because they hold the most important positions in society. Talent is rare and in order to motivate the talented to take on the training and added responsibility the important positions require, it is necessary to reward them more than others.

But there is more. Those at the top are also morally superior to others because they recognize their importance to the society and act not out of self-interest but in the wider interests of the society. Those in the middle and below act out of self-interest. Of course, this says nothing about the holders of municipal bonds, large stock accounts, owners of institutional investing firms, or those who inherit vast fortunes like Sam Walton’s children.

If this is sounding good to you, yes, it is a great justification for the higher pay and perks of those at the top. “For the good of society, CEOs must be paid more.” If so, they should get together and fund a think tank of sociologists to study and refine this theory of inequality and stratification.

The problem is that the growing income inequality is also due in part to the growing amount of “income” that comes from investments. It is hard to argue that one’s investments are made with the greater good in mind and not one’s self-interest. These difficult arguments are why we need that think tank. I’d call it the Union of Radical Defenders of Political and Economic Stratification, or U-R-DoPES.

Religion is the only institutional counter to market values

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, Oct 13, 2007

TERRE HAUTE — By many measures, the United States of America is the most religious of industrialized countries.

At the same time, our culture appears, in many ways, to be quite the opposite, or at least not in keeping with a religious people. Recent scholarship suggests that while fewer people may be connected with a church, spirituality is increasing.

A good reason, sociologically, to keep religion vibrant is to counter the market values inherent in a capitalist society. So much of what we complain about in our society, the crudity, the sexuality, many of the problems with the media, all have to do with selling.

The only institutional counter on those market values is religion. The basic thrust of all religions is selflessness and concern for others. The basic thrust of the market is to satisfy “me.” Here are 10 simple steps individuals can take to improve formal religion.

10 simple things you can do to improve religion

This is fourth in a series of five essays about simple things individuals can do to improve our social institutions. A social institution is a framework for solving societal problems. All societies must solve the same problems, but they do it differently. They must tie adult responsibility to children (marriage and family), socialize children into productive roles (education), solve the problem of order and leadership (politics), justify societal practices as “good” (religion), and produce and distribute needed goods and services (economy). My suggestions are not about changing our institutions as much as making the current ones, as currently defined, work a little better. Today’s focus is on religion.

1. Take part regularly in a faith — community. Faith communities today, influenced in many ways by our market values, now come in so many variants that virtually anyone, even an avowed atheist, can find a faith community to participate in. When you buy anything, you are reproducing the market; hence, to reproduce religion, you have to participate.

2. Support a faith community with your money. Contrary to the most cynical and the most devout, the money comes from people, not a supernatural being. Churches need cash to survive, to do the work that reflects those nonmarket values.

3. Support a faith community with your time and talents. Market logic follows that we don’t do anything unless we are paid/rewarded for it. So, volunteering your time and talent to a faith community is itself a counter to the market-driven values that corrode our civil society. As well, our time and talent also build the community of people who share and strengthen your struggle to live against the consumer culture.

4. Make religion about values and understand what values are: Values are standards by which we judge “things” as good or bad. We value freedom, so we don’t like to be told what to do. So, in the vein of values, find values in your faith community to embrace and do so. Whether it be honesty, charity, concern for the poor, whatever.

5. For believers, sharing faith is expected and easy, for those who are uncomfortable with that, then share your values with others and don’t be afraid to credit your faith community as a source for those values. In our individualistic society, we too often credit good deeds to just good individuals, failing to recognize the social fabric which makes that “good” possible. If someone asks us what kind of car we like, we don’t hesitate to tell them. Why not share your brand of value community with others, too?

6. Take children to a faith community. Young children share quite easily. In school they learn to justify inequality. Research shows the more schooling they have, the more inequality they are willing to accept, even to promote it. That says something about the experience of schooling in our society. Religion is about values and beliefs. Use the youth activities in your faith community to “inoculate” children from those values that promote inequality and divisiveness. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll destroy individual lives, but not necessarily society. Values that support ruthless attitudes like “produce or die,” dehumanize people and undermine any sense of a “caring” or compassionate society.

7. Participate in one of the ministries/missions/charities of your faith community. Some ministries/missions/charities are about evangelizing which many people are uncomfortable with. But others are about helping others, whether it be kids who don’t have great home lives with homework, Habitat for Humanity, shut-ins, the list is endless and usually reflects the needs of your local community, In any case give of your self in a charitable way that is sponsored or facilitated by your faith community. And yes, you can just go directly to Habitat for Humanity and volunteer, or many such “secular” groups who also give their time and talent to such worthy causes, but a faith community is the most comprehensive, the broadest umbrella of values that support “charity”. Volunteering for the after school program at your church will encourage others to volunteer, though perhaps not for the after school program, but perhaps for the soup kitchen.

8. Participate in the rituals in your faith community. Worship practices are rituals. So are carry-in suppers. Rituals are about meaning. By participating in the faith community rituals, you make meaning around the faith community values. And participating in the rituals strengthens the community which in turn strengthen the non-market values.

9. Be selfless and serve others. We have survived so far as a species because we have learned to organize ourselves. Our survival is based on our human interdependence. A radical individualistic ideology tears at that interdependence. This ideology finds its home in an unrestrained free market where “let the market decide” is the mantra. Religion, with its claim on moral virtue, is a key counter to preserving the very idea of a shared culture, mutual obligation, or even enforceable standards of right and wrong. Of course, too much of this swings back the other way, to totalitarianism, like the kind the Taliban represent. Balance is key and we swing hard toward individualism so we need brakes. Be an individual but carve out space to be selfless and serve others. Faith communities are wonderful for helping us do that.

10. Live your life with value integrity. What does that mean? I’ll admit, I tried to keep these steps simple, but this one definitely needs explanation. By integrity I mean an unreduced or unbroken completeness or totality. The desire for this can be seen when people speak of their “true self” or “true nature.” The fact is, however, that a “true self” is a fiction. We have many selves related to the many different roles we play in life. And our behavior, research tells us, is explained by the situations we find ourselves in more so than by some kind of moral righteousness. Good people do bad things if put in the situation that calls forth bad responses. However, since we have self identity, we can decide on certain aspects of our self that we want to be part of our “true self.” Those things are going to be related to the values we find represented and supported in our faith communities.

What would we do without the railroads?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, Feb 5, 2006

I am still a relative newcomer to Terre Haute (we moved here in 1987). I was then and remain impressed with how the good people of Terre Haute persevere with the trains. My first and continuing response to the many trains criss-crossing our fair city has been “overpass,” “viaduct” or “Couldn’t there be a better place for these tracks?” So, I read with satisfaction that Mayor Burke is going to look into moving the tracks outside the city limits.

Then the sociologist kicked in. Wait, wait, wait a minute. The trains in Terre Haute are an important (albeit an irritating, inconvenient nuisance) part of our culture. There could be some negative, unforeseen repercussions as a result of changing such a distinctive part of life in Terre Haute and the culture that we have developed to deal with them.

I’m concerned about widespread unemployment. Before I was a college professor, I worked jobs with supervisors and time clocks. Nothing could get one in trouble faster than being late to work. In Terre Haute, however, we have the perfect excuse for being late: “Railroaded.” It is the only excuse that goes unquestioned. Without the trains, I fear, many people will be fired for being late for reasons not quite as sacred as “railroaded.”

Similarly, how many children waiting for their parents to pick them up from school, practice, dance and music lessons will think their parents forgot about them after waiting 10 minutes to an hour after “railroaded” has faded from our daily discourse? Come on, how many times have we used that excuse when we are late to pick up the kids? No more. We’ll have to come up with something different that provides us an excuse that doesn’t suggest we “forgot” about our kids.

Without the opportunities for conversation that being railroaded gives us, when will we find the opportunity to discuss those heavy subjects with our teenagers? Those impromptu father-daughter discussions forced upon us by the switching train at the Ft. Harrison crossing no doubt have given us some real bonding experiences.

How many young lovers, stuck at a crossing, were forced to actually talk to one another discovering how much (or little) in common they really have? Where will those important opportunities for serious discussion happen without the “fated” railroading?

I read that my employer, ISU, is a partner in this endeavor. ISU, indeed any workplace where trying to figure out how not to do something takes up more energy than figuring out how to do something, may find that moving the “tracks out back” may transform their organizations. Like Columbus crossing the ocean blue, moving the tracks might become the rallying point for tackling other heretofore-impossible obstacles. A “can-do” spirit at ISU and other Terre Haute institutions would be a (hopefully welcome) change.

I fear, too, that without our trains to derail us from time to time, we will all become terribly “anal,” you know, obsessed by time and the clock. The trains introduce a wonderful “unknown” into any trip across town. Will we make the movie in time? Let’s take Fruitridge to Davis and hope no trains block our way. Instead, we will all time our trips from home to the mall down to the second, with only an ill-timed traffic light to throw our obsession for time and punctuality off. Do we really want to become like that? I like leaving places 40 minutes earlier than I should “in case there is a train.”

What about our proficient driving skills honed by the 40 trains a day? I’m convinced that Terre Hauteans are the most skilled Y-turners east of the Pacific. I’ve seen people execute perfect (and not so perfect) Y-turns to get around a switching train. They are such a testimony to fine motor maneuvering. What will happen to those skills if there are no trains to impede our forward motion?

Of course there is one fact that needs to be worked into my growing hysteria. This isn’t going to happen over night. It is not like we will get the plan together and move forward quickly and get those tracks moved. It may have taken Lafayette 30 years to move their tracks, but this is still Terre Haute with its tracks. It took us better than 30 years to get something going at Seventh and Wabash. So, don’t get too concerned about losing the trains — yet.

"Treasure?" Trove

I discovered that the Terre Haute Tribune Star, who publishes my essays, has a bigger archive than I realized. I began this blog in 2008, but I can find archived essays before that, so i am going to post them with the original pubication dates.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

What do we make of reaction to pastor?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star (19 September 2010)

Pastor Terry Jones has become world (in)famous for planning to burn copies of the Qu’ran on September 11 as a memorial to the victims of the al Qaeda terrorist attack on the US. A Google search on “Pastor Terry Jones” returns 1.6+ million results. I checked to the 50th page of results and it was still all the same Pastor Terry Jones. Pretty good for the pastor of a 50 person congregation from a central Florida town best known for a place called the “Swamp.”

Pastor Terry lives in Gainesville, Fl, home of the University of Florida. The famous “Swamp” is the home of college football powerhouse Florida Gators. The “Swamp” and “Gators” returns only 173,000 results. Pastor Terry also beats Florida Governor Charlie Crist (1.4+ million results).

As a sociologist I’m not that interested in the curious doings of Pastor Jones. I’m more interested in everyone else’s reaction to him. Apparently “we” and “they” are very interested in him.

“We” disagreed with his plan. Pastor Terry managed to draw political rivals together (President Obama and Minority Leader John Boehner even agreed on this hot topic); draw rival religions together (Catholics, Jews, Protestants and Muslims agreed that burning Qu’rans on the anniversary of 9/11 was a bad idea); and news rivals Fox News and the “liberal mainstream media” opined in harmony that this was a bad idea.

Even “they” (people in the Middle East) agreed with “we” that Pastor Terry’s plan was a bad one. Could it be that Pastor Terry has actually done something good, unifying such rivals? Maybe that was his goal: world peace through book burning.

Now that Pastor Terry is a celebrity, I predict that he will abandon his Gainesville flock for a cable talk show. People will tune in initially just to be appalled but give him some time and he will develop a following of enough viewers to keep advertisers (antacids might be good) buying ad time.

Americans love a spectacle and Pastor Terry’s “leadership” in a memorial book burning to honor the victims of 9/11 was surely that. Or was it a spectacle because the press made it one? Why does the extremism of an obscure pastor of a fringe church with 50 members warrant such attention? Without that attention and some help from the internet, just a ridiculous “plan” becomes a potential threat to American lives overseas.

Pastor Terry has been painted pretty much as a wing nut. I suspect he is more than he is being painted and used the American press and American reaction to get exactly what he wanted. If he wanted reaction, “we” and “they” gave it to him. Everyone played their part. What do “we” expect him to do now?

Of course, not everyone thought Pastor Terry burning Qu’rans was a bad idea. Conservative websites like Saberpoint, reprinted the content of Pastor Terry’s website which gave 10 reasons to burn the Qu’ran (which was taken off line by his ISP). Saberpoint referred to the Qu’ran as “the nasty little book.” What reaction were they hoping for had Pastor Terry put match to book? Did they hope their extremist Islamic counterparts would attack American troops in return? So, in turn, hallowed leaders like Pastor Terry can point to those extremists as examples of all Muslims, as the standard of Islam? Just as the Islamic extremists would use Pastor Terry as an example of all Americans?

Think about this. If a wing nut pastor can provoke such a response worldwide, imagine if a U.S. Senator introduced a Qu’ran ban bill, banning the Qu’ran from US soil. Yes, it would be unconstitutional, but we pass many laws that are unconstitutional. Regardless, that a Senator would do such a thing would be newsworthy (unlike international coverage of Pastor Terry’s antics).

Andy Warhol predicted in the late 1960s that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” 40+ years later his prediction seems to be coming true. Warhol was famous for painting pictures of commercial products like Campbell’s soup cans. Pastor Terry didn’t even do that. He didn’t actually do anything and failed to follow through on his plan.

What did he do to honor the victims of 9/11? For his unexecuted plan, Pastor Terry generates more Google results than “Mitch Daniels” (231,000 results), “Evan Bayh” (329,000 results) and about the same number as “Peyton Manning.”

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The complex politics of global warming

TERRE HAUTE — Are elected officials just shills for the oil companies? Or are they waffling, poll-driven, self-interested, political opportunists? A bit of both? Anyone think maybe neither? The politics of global warming suggests neither.

On June 9, 2010, Dr. Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication and political psychology at Stanford University, released findings from a National Science Foundation funded survey of Americans on their beliefs and policy preferences surrounding climate change. The release of the findings was coupled with his New York Times op-ed. The op-ed is worth reading if for no other reason than Dr. Krosnick’s insights into how the press treats poll results and for a primer on how media-driven poll questions too often miss the mark of what is really important (

Dr. Krosnick’s survey is of a high-quality and representative sample and his survey is more carefully crafted than most media sponsored polls. The survey shows significant majorities of Americans believe that the earth is gradually warming (74 percent), that human activities contribute to that warming (75 percent), and that large majorities favor government action to address the problem (76 percent). (The reason that a larger percentage believe human activities contribute to warming and favor government action than believe the earth is gradually warming is because those who indicated they did not believe the earth is gradually warming were asked to assume that it was for the other questions. “Assuming the earth is gradually warming …”)

Based on these findings, Dr. Krosnick concludes, “Even as we are told that Americans are about equally divided into red and blue, a huge majority shares a common vision of climate change. This creates a unique opportunity for elected representatives to satisfy a lot of voters.” Dr. Krosnick apparently thinks or hopes that the majority of politicians are waffling, poll-driven, self-interested political opportunists.

I am convinced by the evidence that the earth is warming. I also am convinced by the evidence that industrial processes, especially the generation of power by burning hydro-carbons, wood, and other carbon-rich sources, is contributing to that warming. And while I, too, think that the government must lead in responding to this problem, I am in the minority in what the general outline of those policies should be.

The Stanford survey showed a clear preference for supply-side (read passive, volunteer) policies in contrast to demand-side (read active, required) policies. Super majorities reject taxes on gasoline (71 percent) and electricity (78 percent) that would raise prices on consumers which in turn would affect their behavior. Eighty-four percent favor tax breaks for companies that produce electricity from renewable sources. Fifty percent or better support tax breaks for producers of cars that get better gas mileage, companies that produce electricity from alternative, renewable sources; and for homes and offices that use less energy. Twenty percent are true libertarians who favor no government action in these areas whatsoever.

Americans believe in convenience, technology (not so much science), and the market. A technology that is cheap, energy efficient, but most important, doesn’t cause “me” to change (or at least not in ways that appear to be inconvenient) is what people will adopt with or without any government action. Producer-side policies, however, don’t yield the results that the demand-side policies do. The market has produced a voracious appetite for energy. When consumers demand 40 MPG cars the producers will produce them. But, either gas has to return to over $4 a gallon or the government has to make 40 MPG the law or tax gas to achieve $4. I think our politicians know that, but those policies, despite their success, would be politically costly.

The elected officials who don’t jump to satisfy the tantalizing super majority of voters who support what seems like a straight-forward policy aren’t necessarily in the hip pocket of the big energy companies, nor are they necessarily poll-driven opportunists. If they followed these poll results, they could give voters what they want and big tax breaks to big business. Woo-hoo, everyone is happy. So, why don’t they do it? Maybe because those policies won’t work.

Maybe our elected officials have a more complex understanding of policy and its interplay with Americans’ behavior than what this or any high-quality survey suggests. Understanding people’s beliefs and values are probably more important than relying on poll results. Indeed, poll results have to be interpreted in light of a deeper understanding of the society in which the respondents live.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

New wetlands offers nature more exposure, protection

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, Indendence Day, 2010

Is Gov. Daniels Indiana’s Teddy Roosevelt?

Last month, Daniels announced a plan to purchase 43,000 acres of bottomland and wetlands forming a continuous corridor beginning about where Route 234 crosses Sugar Creek (Deer’s Mill) to the Wabash River (about five miles north of Montezuma) south to Fairbanks Landing in Sullivan County. This project would form the largest contiguous riparian habitat in Indiana and perhaps in the Eastern U.S.

I’ve paddled nearly all this corridor with the exception of the last three miles of Sugar Creek (below the West Union covered bridge) and the seven miles from Darwin’s Ferry, Ill., to Fairbanks Landing. Those who currently use this proposed corridor for recreational purposes surely are happy with the governor’s decision. And those who don’t, I hope they come to recognize how important it is to set areas like this aside to preserve their natural character.

The fragility of this corridor can easily be seen by tracing the path of the waterways using Google Earth. What looks like a vast wilderness from the water is more often just a very narrow band of trees growing on the bank of the waterway. Agricultural fields, abandoned mining operations, industry, and some settlements lie just beyond the narrow line of trees.

On the Wabash section of the new management area, two electrical generating plants use the Wabash’s water to cool their coal-fired turbines. Abandoned factories and a train trestle near Terre Haute add some interest to a leisurely paddle from Tecumseh.

I read that the Wabash and its tributaries are among Indiana’s most biologically diverse. When I introduce someone to paddling the Wabash or Sugar Creek, typically I am asked what kind of wildlife we will see. I never promise anything other than we will see something. Two weeks ago I paddled Sugar Creek from Deer’s Mill to Cox Ford Bridge, a 15-mile stretch. We saw at least one bald eagle, several red-tailed hawks, many turkey vultures, many kingfishers, spotted sandpipers, swallows, we heard yellow-billed cuckoos, saw a beaver, dragon flies, butterflies (one hitched a ride on my straw hat for a while), turtles, and two other people (until we hit Turkey Run State Park). I don’t think I have ever paddled Sugar Creek when I didn’t see at least one eagle.

Conserving this area should prevent further degradation of both water quality and the surrounding habitat, which is important for the life cycle of migratory waterfowl, among other things. Duck and geese hunters appreciate the importance of that. But game fowl are not the only migratory species that benefit. For instance, I live about 1.5 miles from the Wabash River. In the fall and spring I can hear the hundreds, perhaps a thousand, sandhill cranes that roost in the bottomlands on their migration. I’ve seen the roosting sandhills from my kayak. This new wildlife habitat means those areas are going to be protected.

Some have responded to this plan with sarcastic remarks about “swamps.” This is just proof of how culturally disconnected we have become from natural areas. What we lose in common sense about nature does not alter our biological (and some might argue spiritual) connection to it. The stretch of Sugar Creek from Deer’s Mill to The Narrows in Turkey Run State Park is startlingly beautiful, easily rivaling waterways I’ve seen in the Appalachian, Smokey, Ozarks, and other areas with a reputation for natural beauty. With tall sandstone walls and cliffs, it is hard to believe you are in Indiana. Indeed, there is more than corn in Indiana.

I’ve paddled these waters in every season, even during a snowfall. I think too few people utilize the Wabash River for its recreational possibilities. In some ways, I benefit, because I often paddle and never see anyone else. But I hope that with increased interest in this legacy to Indiana’s natural history, there will be some access development.

Having said that, I hope those charged with the management of this new habitat will adopt sustainable practices as some others states with beautiful and sensitive natural areas are beginning to do. One problem with fragile ecosystems — too many seeking a “back to nature experience” — can eventually ruin that which is so special.

I’ve heard that a paddle trail is to be part of the new Wabashiki Wildlife area. A great way to introduce people to the Wabash would be a loop trail so they could have a quiet, natural encounter with an eagle, a great blue heron, a river otter … who knows?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Nothing offensive in the notion of ‘common good’

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star (13 June 2010)

TERRE HAUTE — Last month the Texas Board of Education rewrote the curriculum standards for K-12 Texas schools. They review these standards every 10 years. The review is not unusual, but the politicization of the standards themselves is just another nail in the coffin of public education in the United States. The politicization of public education is inevitable to some extent, but the extremists who threw out a reference to the “common good” because, according to the Wall Street Journal, “… Don McLeroy, who leads the most conservative bloc on the board, said that ‘responsibility for the common good’ does not belong in the standards because it is a ‘liberal notion’ that edges toward communist philosophy.”

I guess that makes James Madison also a founder of communist philosophy because writing in 1787, in the Federalist Paper No. 10, he writes:

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Madison sounds like he was writing about today’s hyperpartisan environment. It describes the tenor of the politicization of the Texas Board of Education.

The Board also requires students to know about the influences of the Bible on America’s founding. But liberal leaning notions of responsibility for the common good (read communist influences) can be found in the teachings of the Apostle Paul. From I Corinthians 12:7 (NIV): “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” John Adams, one of the founders, wrote in “Thoughts on Government” (1776): “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men; …” Another communist leaning liberal I guess.

Adam Smith is one of the economists and philosophers approved by the Texas Board of Education. He is quoted as having said: “… individual ambition serves the common good.”

The Board also scratched “justice” from a definition of good citizenship. Conservative extremists might not find Catholic social justice to be anything but liberal notions that edge us toward communism. But Pope John Paul II (any good cold warrior understands his role in breaking the back of the Soviets) wrote in “Centesimus Annus” (1991) about the superiority of the free enterprise system compared to “real socialism.” Nevertheless, he wrote:

“Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it, there exists something which is due to man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity. Inseparable from that required ‘something’ is the possibility to survive and, at the same time, to make an active contribution to the common good of humanity.”

I recognize that extremist conservatives may not be persuaded by liberal leaning Catholic ideology, but how about John Calvin? Not only is Calvinism seeing a resurgence, but his writings are gaining favor among extremist conservatives. Calvin is often quoted: “We know all men were created to labor for the common good.”

Politics is inevitable over defining the common good and how to obtain it, but to politicize the term is partisanship at its worst. As so many extremist conservatives like to frame it, it is not the individual vs. the group, rather it is a balance between the two, something that the wisdom in the above quotes surely show.

Extreme conservatism has discovered libertarianism, but I’d like to see Ayn Rand or her followers defend her famous quote: “America’s abundance was not created by public sacrifices to ‘the common good’ but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortune” to the families who have lost a son or daughter in military service defending our country. “Either-or” is the language of extremists, right or left.

Although the phrase “common good” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, an equivalent term does in the Preamble, as in “… promote the general welfare …” “Common good” appears in Section 27 of the Texas Constitution; the Indiana Constitution, too.

By the way, the phrase “common good” does not appear in the Communist Manifesto.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Technology advances continue to change our social lives

Previoiusly published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 5/9/10

Last week I noticed each of my colleagues staring into their computer screens. It struck me how much time we spend doing that. Not everyone is doing the same thing, some are answering e-mails (20 years ago it might be answering telephone messages), some are reading (used to be print journals, books, and newspapers), and some are grading (that too used to be on paper).

Four years ago my university supplied me with a laptop computer. It took me nearly three years to begin using it like one. Now, instead of a briefcase stuffed with books and papers, I carry my laptop home every night. Not only is the laptop changing what is in my briefcase, it is also changing our social life. What follows is not a curmudgeonly rant against change. Change is rarely all good or all bad.

Just as television moved Americans out of dining rooms to the “TV room,” computers, too, are changing social life. In just the last few months, I notice that at my home, with three laptop computers, we three typically sit together in the family room with laptops open tapping out a clickity-clack rhythm on the keyboard as we work away the evening. While the three of us share space, we are not really “together” as each of us is engaged in different worlds. With my laptop, my work day now commonly extends until bedtime. Before the laptop, I would descend to the basement, grade papers, and then rejoin the family upstairs. Now I finish the grading and go on to something else. In many ways, I might as well still be in the basement.

There are Internet sites set up for online marriages (I think legally they are called proxy marriages). I’m sure there are circumstances where the bride and groom cannot be physically in the same place and the capability to do this is a godsend. Weddings are being set up with live video streams for those unable to attend. I imagine a receiving line for those physically there and a digital one for those who are not.

I imagine kitschy animated hugs and handshakes, even a virtual dance with the “avatar” bride at the reception.

Facebook already has an “app” where people host a virtual Thanksgiving feast as a fundraiser. We have the capability to join far-flung families to the same digital table with a laptop and Skype connection. I imagine a soldier joining her family for Thanksgiving; mom’s video image at her seat at the table. She could digitally participate in the family’s traditional cranberry juice toast.

Virtual participation in Fourth of July celebrations would be fun. As many families put on their own fireworks shows, family members joining digitally could activate fireworks remotely. With “air cards” laptops could even be taken on boats, and Grandma, who is otherwise confined to a wheelchair, could even experience the point of view of waterskiing again.

We’ve had audio transmitting capability for a long time. It is the computer’s visual capabilities that make it so appealing. We are visual animals. It is why we like to look at pictures of birthday parties and vacations instead of just hearing about them (“a picture is worth a thousand words”).

Social life is founded upon more than two-dimensional visual and auditory interaction however, which is what computer mediated communication is. As we computer-mediate more and more social interaction, we do lose things. Twenty-five years after getting married I still recall the smell of my wife’s perfume (or maybe it was a dryer sheet). Catholic and Episcopal weddings include mass. The incense is part of the experience.

So is touch. A video congratulation is nice, but it is only filler compared to a hearty handshake or a hug. A kiss is not a visual experience. Yet, camera phones have reduced teenage flirting to “sexting.” Reducing desire or a tease to a two-dimensional digital image is a long way from a perfumed note or a cheek caressed.

Interaction is a sensory experience. The basis of social life is interaction among people even when interaction is highly ritualized, like at weddings and holidays. As the two-dimensional, mostly visual, computer-mediated interactions come to underlie more and more of our interaction, it will change the experience of the interaction and thus change our social lives. What would a digital caress feel like?

Just as industrialization changed the taste and nutritional value of fruit and vegetables, information technology is altering the quality of our social lives.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Worldwide, ‘white culture’ seems to have strong hold

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star (April 4, 2010)

TERRE HAUTE — I grew up in a tourist town. Like all tourist towns, the locals had a love-hate relationship with the tourists. My parents didn’t care for the tourists (even though they had once been tourists themselves, Midwesterners, they honeymooned on a Florida beach and ended up staying forever). I, however, found tourists to be fascinating. As a child, I recall meeting people with strange accents in our library. As I grew older and was able to get to the beach resorts, I’d try to meet visitors from faraway places.

When I am the tourist, I care less about that which draws tourists (theme park, beautiful beaches, mountain vistas, ancient temples) than the possibility of meeting interesting people. Unlike most people at a theme park who hate standing in long lines, I don’t mind. It gives me a chance to talk to others who I otherwise would never have a chance to meet. Of course, this is hard because most people are not like me, they are more interested in the upcoming four minutes of thrill ride, than in meeting new people.

After my weeklong academic conference in Bangkok in February, I extended my trip with three days of touring Ankgor Wat, the ancient temple complex outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. This is the largest temple complex in the world (so the local tourism ministry tells us). In three days of touring ancient temples, I took about 1,000 pictures of fascinating testaments to humanity’s ability to construct monuments to its deities and earthbound rulers.

While I appreciate the experience of the ruins, the head-scratching moments (“and they didn’t have cranes”) pales in comparison to the chance to meet interesting people. And in Siem Reap, most of the people didn’t speak English (at least not as their first language) and that means I’m in a target-rich environment to meet people with different experiences and different perspectives than me.

Anyone who has traveled with me knows that I quiz taxi drivers, waiters, first mates on snorkel boats, and just about anyone who I can, about their “story.” How did “you” come to be here now? We hired a guide in Siem Reap and I asked him how he learned English, how he came to be a tour guide, what his future plans were. He graciously answered my questions. I met many people at the conference, several with whom I am having e-mail conversations. They know about my gentle prodding curiosity into their lives. It is an occupational hazard, sociologists are unapologetic about their burning curiosity into the “ways” of people.

I met a “farang” (Western foreigner) couple at one of the temples we were “exploring.” He stood out. Over 6 feet tall, with gleaming white hair, he was speaking Khmer to the children selling postcards and drinks to we hot and flagging temple tourists. He made the children laugh and he was having a good time doing it. His wife, too, spoke a little Khmer. He spoke to our guide and switched to French. I said something and he looked at me, switched to English and said “American?”

His English was tinged with a German accent. I asked him how he came to know Khmer. He told me he knew many languages, that he was conversant in 11 different languages. I guessed right, he was in the foreign service. He told me that he had a facility with language, that he found it easy to pick up new languages. He was retired now, living in France. Both he and his wife were very pleasant. As we talked, I thought, perhaps we could meet them later in Siem Reap for a drink.

And then “it” happened. This remarkably gifted person, who, despite his modesty at learning language, clearly put the effort out to learn 11 different languages and understood the importance of language and of making the effort to respect and engage people of other cultures by learning their language and culture, looked right at our guide, and said to us: “You know, white people and white culture will soon be gone. Your people, the Asians are taking over the world. There will be no more white skin, there will be no more white culture.”

I’m surprised he didn’t Sieg Heil at the end of that. He said this with a most genuine and warm smile on his face. I think he then repeated it in Khmer, just in case the children and our guide didn’t understand.

Born 10 to 15 years earlier, he might have been a Hitler Youth Camp Counselor, but given his aristocratic bearing more likely a high ranking SS officer.

I don’t know if he registered our shock. I wondered something a bit different about him. I told him that I was of German heritage and told him my last name. I know what it means in German and his reaction was what I expected. He mumbled something to the effect that “language changes over time,” broke off our conversation and walked off, with a gracious goodbye.

Three minutes before I thought here is a terrific example of the future in a globalized society. People will have to become culturally competent across many language and cultural boundaries. I was even thinking, could I learn Thai beyond the ability to order food in a restaurant or tell a taxi driver where to take me? Could I learn enough to ask one of my new Thai colleagues their story and understand it in Thai?

This German world citizen is wrong. Neither “white culture” or white people are going to disappear. “It” and “we” might, however, share some shelf space. The economic and military superiority of “white culture” is a recent historical event. The impact of freer trade is evident in the countries we visited. Indeed, the hunger for “white culture” as Herr Rassistische (translate in Google Translator if you wish) would call it, is evident everywhere we went in Thailand and Cambodia. Right down to the desire for Frau Rassistische’s alabaster white skin.

I suspect that the Amer-Asian children and grandchildren left behind by American soldiers fighting in Vietnam have now found new status as the preferred image for Thai and other Asian societies. The cosmetics industry is clearly geared that way. Last week the Thai government appointed someone to examine the claims made by various cosmetics products to lighten skin as fraud and into possible negative health effects of these treatments. Entertainment is heavily influenced by American and European trends.

I went to a Thai nightclub called the German Brewery. It was a Haufbrauhaus Thai style. This wasn’t a place for Germans weary of Tom Yum soup. This was a nightclub catering to Thai tourists, best as I could tell. While the music was not German, the entertainment was definitely more American with Thais adding their lemongrass and chiles. We even sang and danced to “YMCA.”

“White culture” disappearing? To me it looks like, through the airwaves, global travel and the Internet, that far from disappearing, “white culture” (and even the crude notion of white skin) is far from disappearing, it is proliferating. And along with it is that concept of white superiority. Too bad we can’t get beyond such crude rankings.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Extreme hospitality in ‘Land of Smiles’

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 3/21/2010

“Sa wad dee kha!” This is the almost universal greeting one hears in Thailand. It is a very pleasant greeting and the Thai language does not seem to have as many hard sounds in it, like German and Japanese. The result is a pleasing and welcoming sound when added to a “wai,” hands held in prayer-like form with fingertips someplace between one’s nose and forehead with a slight bow, is an obvious welcome, even if one doesn’t understand the language. I returned recently from eight days in Thailand (Bangkok) and Cambodia (Siem Reap).

Thailand, sometimes referred to as the “Land of Smiles”, is appropriately named. The culture is one of extreme hospitality. It is no wonder that so many “farang,” (western foreigners) become enchanted by Thailand. Me, known for being serious, found myself smiling along with so many happy people. It was infectious.

Bangkok is a seemingly modern city with street markets that seem unchanged from hundreds of years ago except that cell phones are for sale within sight of hogs’ heads; one could get their hair dyed green and get a custom tailored silk suit two stalls down next to a table of lemongrass.

Other than rice, I don’t think there is any bland food in Thailand. Chilis, lime, and tamarind leaves seem to be the most common flavors. Lots of fresh fruit. I’ve never known people who like to eat like the Thais do. Several times our Thai hosts made light of how Thais organize everything around eating. I believe it. Skipping meals in Thailand might be evidence of mental illness.

Even to someone like me who was raised in the south and has lived much of my life in the “Bible Belt,” Thais appear to be a religiously observant people. The dominant religion is Buddhism, and often the most striking building in sight is the “wat,” or Buddhist temple. The “wat” is gleaming white, red, and gold, often the biggest and tallest building in its area. The smell of burning sandalwood is everywhere, in part, because sandalwood sticks are burning at the foot of Buddha or other Hindu deities. The seamless blending of Hinduism and Buddhism in Thailand is obvious everywhere. Every building had an offering for Buddha and a “spirit house.” The spirit house was always outside, often in the front of the building, I believe there is a specified placement for it, and the spirits are to be taken care of, lest they invade the building.

The result of the many religious rituals that Thais appear to practice on a regular, if not daily basis, are people who seem very spiritual. I was struck by how “happiness” figures into so much of the culture of Thailand. I wonder what they think of our Declaration of Independence, with its “pursuit of happiness?” I suspect they would not understand “pursuing happiness.” “Attaining happiness” would be more Thai, I think.

The Thai scholars and the ISU faculty I was part of will be working together on several research projects on environmentally and culturally sustainable local economic development. A short visit to another country, especially as one as different for an American as Thailand, is a bare scratch of the surface. Ongoing collaboration with the Thai scholars and póok mit (building friendship) may lead to some level of what sociologists call “verstehen” which doesn’t translate easily into English, but comes closest to “sympathetic understanding.”

These observations are obvious to anyone who visits Thailand and is paying attention. I hope “mú-dtì” (understanding) comes through developing friendships with the Thai scholars. I am especially interested in trying to understand what seems to be an outward contentment but which surely masks the sadness that does accompany life. Americans live in the future. We are busy, always moving, never satisfied with the present. We put so much pressure on our children at such young ages to achieve in the future that we are robbing them of the beauty and play of childhood. The Thai scholars are hard workers and seem to work all the time, but also seem to make the everyday and mundane, like eating, joyful events to look forward to, not dash through.

My mother used to tell me when I was very young “to stop and smell the roses.” Thais seem to follow the advice. Over the next year, in addition to collaborating on some interesting research projects, I hope to learn how this industrializing people have managed to “stay in the moment.”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What's lacking in today's world is 'kids at play'

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 2/14/2010

This semester I am taking a literature course. It is refreshing to be the student and not the professor. And unlike sitting in on a course in my discipline or a related one, a literature course is well outside my “expertise.” Indeed, I am not doing much better than average, although I might be learning more.

The theme of the course is “hope.” One of our authors located “hope” in family. Our professor asked us to respond to a section from the readings, asking us to write about a family-like activity that fit the author’s idea of family as a “training ground” of skills for a larger community. I wrote about “play.” Five minutes later, we were sharing our responses.

Professors must listen to each student and respond to them. I, however, not being the professor, got to just listen to my classmates give their answers without having to respond. The first handful of students gave very different answers than mine. They wrote about being on a team, or the marching band, in the army, in a church youth group or some other formally organized activity. Eventually a student talked about helping out at a nephew’s first birthday party and another talked about Thanksgiving dinner. These are rituals. No one else played.

Our professor asked us to write about what skill these family-like activities taught us for the larger community. Those who spoke of formally organized activities, like athletic teams, youth groups, and marching bands, spoke of leadership and discipline. I wrote about problem solving, conflict resolution, and leadership.

My response, so different from the other students’, reflects, I think, a significant generational difference. Kids today, especially middle-class kids, grow up in a tightly organized, over-organized really, environment, that begins in pre-school, enlarges to school, carries on after school with lessons, practices, and activities, takes up the weekend with performances, matches and church activities. When do kids ever get to just “play?”

I wrote about playing in my neighborhood. Playing ball with multi-aged boys and girls. We didn’t have adult referees to make calls for us. We often altered the rules (permanent pitchers), manufactured additional players (invisible runners), even had different rules for different players (older kids get two strikes, while younger get five), and calling your fields (changing foul territory to accommodate only two outfielders). We resolved conflicts without adults and (usually) without violence (lots of “do overs” and rules negotiation). Our goal was to “keep playing,” living in the moment, not for a spot in the playoffs. When a mom would call one of us home, we’d adjust the rules, adjust the players, and keep on playing.

We invented games. I recall variations on hide and seek, two-person baseball (we called it “pop fly”), three-person football, wiffle ball golf, and other games that I don’t recall the names of. I was involved in formally organized activities, too. I played Little League baseball in the spring and summer and took piano lessons in the fall and winter. I played more “pop fly,” three-person football, and wiffle ball golf than I pitched and played third base in Little League, however.

Today adults try to teach conflict resolution to kids in schools. I learned conflict resolution playing in the neighborhood. I learned about fairness, not from an umpire, but from making it so all the kids, little kids and big, could play together. Young adults today think leadership is a position and not a quality.

Last Christmas, I spent a lot of time playing with my 5-year-old grand niece. She engaged in play this way: she wanted me to tell her to do something and she would do it. Frankly, this wasn’t much fun (for me) because she got to play with the Playdoh. I negotiated with her to alter the rules a bit; we alternated the roles. She enjoyed telling me what to make and eventually some of the older kids joined in with all of us rotating roles of being the baker or the customer.

Rather than leadership and discipline, I think the over-organized world our kids face today teach “followership” and routine. Through play kids learn “personal responsibility” because they have to problem solve and they use their imaginations to break the routine. It is not a question of either/or, but a matter of balance. I think kids’ lives today are over organized. It is beginning to snow. Maybe all the activities will be cancelled tomorrow and kids can play in the snow.

What's lacking in today's world is 'kids at play'

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 2/14/2010

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Religious oppression, repression doomed to failure

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 1/31/10

When the headlines read “China jails three for religious activity,” Americans generally don’t buy the reasons that the three threaten “public peace and harmony.” When the headlines read “Indonesians deny establishment of Christian church” because non-Christians invoke a law requiring “community approval,” we recognize the infringement on religious freedom and repression involved. When Algeria passes a law that sets prison terms for proselytizing by any religion other than Islam, we recognize it for what it is, religious repression and persecution.

What do we make of laws barring the wearing of crosses? Or bans on nun’s habits claiming that it is repressive to women? Or a country voting to make it unconstitutional to build steeples on Christian churches? The proponents of the ban argue that because the Bible offers instruction on the relationships among people, prescribes the relations between man and God and man and woman, that Christianity is more than just a way to life after death, but a way of life in the here and now. The steeple is a symbol of the growth of this dangerous movement, so eliminate the steeple as a symbol of Christianity’s place in town.

I think most Americans would recognize the above as violations of what we understand as freedom of religion and when criminal penalties are attached to violation of these laws, it is political repression. And that the examples given above are of countries that are, at best, democratically challenged or repressing Christianity, make it that much easier to recognize as “bad.” After all, the countries listed as repressing and persecuting people because of their religion on Human Rights Watch’s Web site are countries that we don’t need much convincing are bad actors: Tajikistan, Eritrea, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, to name those on just one of 42 pages.

Despite this long list of violators of values that Americans hold dear, we optimistic Americans believe that eventually these other nations will realize there is great value in religious freedom, that there is nothing to fear, that nations work well with religious tolerance, even if feathers occasionally get ruffled.

Furthermore, it is not just America, but the “west” that achieves what so many other countries seem unable: diverse religious populations that live in relative harmony with a state that protects the rights of all people regardless of religion.

Yet France is dabbling in religious repression, the banning of the burqa in public, claiming that by passing laws against women wearing this religiously and culturally related garb is really striking a blow for women’s rights and freedom. How silly. You will be fined or put in jail for following your customs in order to free you? That puts an entirely new twist on “live free or die.”

In a country known for its remarkable tolerance and commitment to pluralism, 57.5 percent of Swedes voted for a constitutional ban on minarets on mosques.

Hearing that someone has been convicted and may be put to death in Pakistan because they violated Pakistani blasphemy laws, we shake our heads and probably think “how medieval.” Yet at the beginning of this year, Ireland’s new blasphemy laws went into effect. Medieval? The U.N. is discussing such measures as well.

When has repression ever worked? In the short run, it can shore up a teetering, corrupt state apparatus. Does it work in the long run? Early Christians were repressed but they found ways around it. They developed secret symbols and laid low, but they were not extinguished. The Soviets tried to repress all religion. Russia is far from a religiousless society today. And once the weight of oppression was lifted, the bloody Balkan civil wars erupted.

How often does the history of repression end with the repressed and oppressed eventually overthrowing their oppressors? You can ban minarets and ban the wearing of burqas in public, you can ban and imprison people who hold prayer meetings in their homes. You can even try to exterminate the members of the religion. Despite the ultimate failures and eventual self-destruction that occurs, Nazi Germany, South Africa, the Soviet Union, to name some easy examples, these actions reflect fear of and a lack of confidence in freedom, especially religious freedom.

Religious freedom, both freedom of and from, not repression, is the best (not easiest) public policy.
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