Monday, April 25, 2011

THE STEIGER REPORT: Imagine being able to designate where your taxes go

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 4/24/2011

TERRE HAUTE — Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn that permitting individuals to divert $500 of their income taxes ($1,000 for a couple) to a Christian State Tuition Organization was legal.

You read that correctly, tax money going to a Christian State Tuition Organization (individuals can contribute money to such an organization which in turn then supports the tuition of students attending Christian schools). No, this essay is not about “What about Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu State Tuition Organizations?”

Neither is this essay about what appears to be an obvious violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution. That could be the case. The Supremes didn’t address that. Instead, they ruled that the taxpayers who brought the suit did not have standing to do so. They punted the whole question of the establishment clause but probably made it very hard for anyone else to challenge such arrangements as “taxpayers.” Perhaps when Arizona refuses to recognize a Wiccan State Tuition Organization tax credit and a Wiccan brings suit, the Supremes will be forced to address the more obvious problem with the arrangement.

And neither is this essay about the ongoing march of the Roberts court to narrow access of citizens (unless they have property rights) to the courts for constitutional grievances.

This essay is about something completely different. It is about the radical idea of letting we taxpayers designate where our personal tax monies go in our respective state budgets.

Think about it. Empower taxpayers to designate each year the proportional distribution of our taxes to the state budget. Instead of trusting our ridiculous politicians to be statesmen or to balance interests, we could relieve them of that burden (and power). If politicians believe we can navigate complicated things like a retirement investment portfolio, mutual funds, and Medicare Part D (and our tax forms) why not let us designate how much each of our personal dollars goes to education, public safety, road repair, poor relief, and parks and recreation?

If we extend this to the federal level we, the taxpayers, could directly decide how much of our personal taxes go for corn subsidies, sugar subsidies, oil company subsidies, or for research, environmental protection, food and drug safety, education, Medicare and Medicaid.

Admit it, this is a great idea. The more concentrated is the power to make these decisions, the easier it is for special interests to influence (or buy) our money! Some expensive tickets and a ride on fancy corporate jets seem enough to buy the votes of many legislators, but try buying the favors of 100 million taxpayers.

No doubt special interests would run all kinds of campaigns to woo we controllers of the purse strings, but they would have to do it in the open, and while it may appear sleazy for our legislators to be seen in the company of lobbyists, the same would not be true for we individual taxpayers, since it is OUR money, not theirs.

Few dispute the upside of large group decision-making (some call it the market). There are probably about 100 million taxpayers; who are we to say they are wrong if they decided to defund corporate welfare but fund earned benefits like Social Security and Medicare?

Screw the polls. Politicians read them self-servingly anyway, and they seem to read elections even worse. Look at the overreach of the Democrats following 2008 and now we are seeing the overreach of the Republicans in 2010. Give us, the voters and taxpayers, the power to fund or defund, not indirectly through rigged elections but directly through control of our personal taxes. Talk about local control!

The fact is that not nearly as many people vote as could, but I bet if people could designate how their tax monies were to be spent, we’d see virtually 100 percent participation in that.

Both conservatives and liberals rally to the call of “power to the people.” The politicians in charge may change, but are we satisfied with the results? If we could designate how our individual tax monies are spent, we would have no one but ourselves to blame. To a large extent, the politicians would be irrelevant (and wouldn’t that be a good thing?) and instead, our neighbors become much more relevant. (All the more reason to get to know them!)

I imagine the day when I can decide: more money for lower tuition at our colleges and universities or more money for another weapons system that the Pentagon doesn’t want?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Societal acceptance of same-sex marriage will take time

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 7/8/2006

The debate over same-sex marriage is again burning brightly but I suspect with little duration. Just one of a range of issues designed mostly as fodder for the mid-term elections this fall, none of which are pressing issues, especially in war time when our elected officials should be focused on that, nevertheless are put front and center because of their importance to a key political base. Hence, an orgy of political pornography is before us.

The debate over same sex marriage does, however, raise interesting questions and is an opportunity to reflect upon our values, traditions, and beliefs.

Consider this: Is marriage a private or public matter? Matters of the heart are usually considered the most private of matters. But love as the basis for marriage is extremely modern and the institution of marriage is much, much older. Indeed, arranged marriages are still, and have been, the most common worldwide for most of human history. That is because marriage was (and arguably still is) about more than just the happiness of the couple involved.

What is the state’s interest in who marries who? Notice I wrote the “state’s interest”? Religious groups have interests in who marries who. I believe it was Paul, in II Corinthians, who wrote, “be not yoked with unbelievers” referring to who should be marrying who. (Notice the use of a yoke to refer to marriage.)

Does the state have an interest in who marries who? What does the state do in relation to marriage? Marriage is a contract. The ceremony that so many follow today has its roots in antiquity where a public declaration in front of one’s community was the initiation of the contract and others in the community effectively enforced it. Today, the state backs up the contract. Marriage is far easier to get into than to get out of. Myself, I think marriage should be harder to enter into (and the divorce rate would fall as a result). The state’s interest in who marries who can be seen at times of dissolution — divorce and death. The state’s interest is not in the quality of the marriage or how people treat one another, mostly the state is interested in the orderly transmission of property. So, in that sense, what difference does it make if the property holders are of the same-sex or not?

Of course, the state is also interested in regulating sexual behavior. Yup, that most private area of our life, sex, the state has an interest in regulating. Of course, in today’s modern American society, there are relatively few trials for sodomy, adultery is not a crime but can be costly when it is the basis for the dissolution of a state recognized marriage. The state frowns on sex between anyone but married folks and then sets conditions under which one can be married. Recently we saw an attempt in the Indiana legislature to define “unauthorized parentage.” It didn’t get far, but the impetus to equate the state’s interests with moral/religious interests may be increasing.

In the not too distant past, some states forbade the marriage of blacks and whites (that didn’t stop kids from being born but effectively did stop the transmission of property from white fathers to their mixed race children).

Before DNA testing, children born out of wedlock had a tenuous, if any, claim to the property of their fathers. Again, the regulation of one man — one wife, assured the generational transfer of property only to the legally recognized children of the couple, even if father was a prolific progenitor.

Mainstream Judeo-Christian religions are not likely to embrace same-sex marriages any time soon. No one follows the rules of both the New and Old Testament fully. Strike that, perhaps the Amish are our best examples, but most of us gave up on the plain and simple life long ago. Divorce is prohibited in the New Testament, but even the Catholic Church has found a way around that with annulments.

But prejudice against homosexuality is long and deeply seated in the Judeo-Christian world. It is encoded in religious text and it will take a long time, a generation or so, before same-sex marriages are accepted in mainstream Christianity.

So similar to the situation with Catholics; divorced Catholics must settle for a non-Catholic or civil ceremony. The state could recognize same-sex marriages while mainstream religions do not. Doing so, would, however, demonstrate a further loss of political power for organized religion in our secular democracy.

Violent Islamic reaction reveals deeper conflicts

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 2/19/2006

The violent responses of Muslims around the world to the publication of cartoon Muhammads by a Danish newspaper appear to bring into high relief the different worldviews of the Islamic East and the Christian West.

Consider the following religious text: “Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

This is not the sacred text from which outraged Muslims base their righteous indignation on. This is one of Judeo-Christendom’s Ten Commandments. With such a clear and unmistakable statement, one might think we would understand. Yet last week, Rolling Stone magazine put Kanye West on its front cover dressed as Jesus Christ.

The Koran is not nearly as clear in its prohibitions against images of Allah or Muhammad. Chapter 42, verse 11 of the Koran does say “Allah is the originator of the heavens and the earth [there is] nothing like a likeness of Him.” It would seem this would be more open to interpretation than the commandment.

The point here is that it is not religion that makes the difference in worldviews. It is how people use religion to justify actions and legitimize earthbound practices. And there are both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists.

Before we paint Islamic people as crazy or evil, which we are so apt to do when we don’t understand others’ actions, we in the U.S. should keep in mind that we respond with ferocity to blasphemy ourselves. Look at the heat generated by the TV show “The Book of Daniel.” Recall the outrage when an artist produced “Piss Christ.” “The Last Temptation of Christ” wasn’t screened in Terre Haute.

No, I don’t think anyone threatened death to the blasphemers or burned an embassy, but boycotts and letter-writing campaigns were organized. In the West, our outrage at blasphemy is usually expressed through angry speech, not violence. There are exceptions. Bombing abortion clinics and assassinating abortion providers are violent overreactions and most of us condemn such actions regardless of religion, including and especially our government.

The different responses, angry letters of protest to NBC or the NEA in the West on one hand, or riots and fatwahs in the Islamic East on the other, are not because of religious differences. The differences have to do with the separation of church and state and then the protection of freedom of speech from government repression. These institutional arrangements then create (and protect) spaces for expressive freedom.

The societies in the Islamic East are governed, in general, by authoritarian regimes. Dissent in those countries is dangerous. There is little separation of church and state. Hence, politics is religious and religion is politics. Even in the United States, there is no free speech in religion; religion is about doctrine and obedience, even here in the expression-heavy U.S.

Think of the threats by some Catholic bishops to deny some Catholic politicians the sacraments. But when political speech is not free, political speech becomes “religious.” This is the problem in the Islamic East. It is not just a lack of free speech, it is also a lack of sufficient separation between church and state.

People riot over cartoons when their lives are such that they cannot freely express themselves about the things that really make a difference in their lives. Repressive rulers who mix religion and politics know this. What makes peoples’ lives harsh is the repression and lack of freedom that only benefit despotic leaders and royal families. It is simply harder to criticize leaders of the state who are either religious leaders or anointed by religious leaders.

Those countries where the rioting and violence have occurred in response to the Danish cartoons are not countries where people regularly exercise their right to protest. That the government doesn’t crack down on the lawlessness just shows how the leaders use such trivial matters as a distraction from what really ails the masses in the Islamic East.

When people can’t take to the streets to protest the policies of the religiously sanctioned leaders, that frustration expresses itself by overreacting to blasphemous cartoons. The real insult is the poverty and inequality that characterizes the societies in the Islamic East. The despots know the simmering anger of their subjects. The despots need to channel that anger toward blasphemous cartoons and away from themselves.

Much info still in the closet on sexual activity

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 7/28/2007


Seven rhymes with heaven.

Many consider seven a lucky number.

Seven is the average number of females U.S. males between the ages of 20 and 59 have had sex with, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Seven and four, the average number of males U.S. females between the ages of 20 and 59 have had sex with, were about all that the media reported last month when this report was released. I thought I’d share my own take on these numbers.

First off, obtaining information like this is very difficult. The report discussed a new methodology that the scientists at the CDC felt improved the chances of accurate and truthful recall (truthful you wonder? Would men possibly exaggerate such things? Would women perhaps not want to report everything?) Indeed, these are difficulties in such research. And we are talking about sexual intercourse, no mistake about that given how the questions were worded.

Good news for the traditionalists, the double standard regarding sex appears to be alive and well. The wage gap may be narrowing, the education gap may be running in opposite directions these days, even the time spent on housework may be narrowing, but men still have an almost 100-percent advantage in terms of the number of sex partners. Or do they?

The CDC data breaks the data down by age cohorts. This data was collected in 1999-2002. So, the age cohorts consist of those born between 1941-1950, 1951-1960, 1961-1970, and 1970-1980. The biggest gap is among the oldest cohort, those born between 1941-1950. Those men actually were a bit above average, just a tenth of a percent, but the women of the same age were down an entire sex partner. So, something is going on, though the double standard appears alive and well, it, too could be narrowing. Women could be achieving equality in this most sensitive of arenas as well.

To me, it looks like the trend is up for both sexes in terms of the lifetime number of sex partners. Men born between 1951 and 1960 already have the exact same average as men born between 1941 and 1950. The 40-somethings (at the time the data was collected) still have 10 years to add to their score. Thirty-somethings, (born between 1961-1970) average almost one additional sex partner than the 40 and 50-somethings, with 20 years left. The youngest guys, are at just over five sex partners with 30 years left. So, by the time the 20-somethings reach their fifties, the average number of sex partners is likely to be higher.

Women, though, are catching up. The overall average for women was 3.7 sex partners. The 20-something cohort is already there, with 30 years to go. Women in their 30s have exceeded the overall average by a full sex partner. Indeed, the youngest cohort of men have reached 79 percent of the male average while the young women are already 100 percent of the female average. The 30-something cohort of men have exceeded the overall male average by 12 percent but the same cohort of women have exceeded the overall female average by 24 percent.

The report shows that 30.4 percent of the 50-something men reported having 15 or more female sex partners. Only 6.9 percent of the same-aged females did. And 30.4 percent of the 30-something men already report having had 15 or more female sex partners, with 11.3 percent of the same-aged females reporting 15 or more male sex partners. The proportion of 50-something men compared to 50-something women who have had 15 or more sex partners is 4.4 times larger. However, comparing 30-somethings, men’s advantage drops to just 2.7.

Women are becoming more like men — not a good thing for the traditionalists among us. And 16.9 percent of the 50-something men had sex for the first time before they were 15 compared to 6.4 percent of 50-something women. Among the youngest cohort, the 20-somethings, 21.6 percent of men had their first sexual experience before 15 compared to 18.7 percent of women.

What does it all mean? There is too much we don’t know. We don’t know the circumstances under which people are switching partners. We don’t know how many of the sex partners were wanted or not. We don’t know how much alcohol and drugs were involved with each sex partner. Until then, half of us can feel “below average” or “morally superior.”

Tax discussion challenges traditional positions

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 8/11/2007

TERRE HAUTE — Have the poles of the U.S. political spectrum reversed? I wonder because of recent statements from conservatives/Republicans criticizing regressive taxes.

This is not an essay on tax policy. It is about conservatives/Republicans making arguments based on what is perhaps the core value of the Democratic Party: fairness (Republicans are more about equality, but we’ll save exploring that for another essay).

In tax issues, conservatives/Republicans tend to favor flat taxes or user fees while liberals/Democrats prefer progressive taxes, that is, the amount paid is based upon one’s ability to pay. For most of U.S. history taxes have been flat or in the form of fees. In other words, taxes have tended to be regressive, where people with less income pay a larger proportion of their income in taxes compared to higher income groups. Among the most regressive of taxes are sales taxes and fees.

Roosevelt ushered in the progressive income tax, in which the rate of taxes paid increased as one’s income increased. This system has been detested by conservatives/Republicans for as long as it has been in existence. Beginning in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, our taxes have become steadily more regressive.

So, if that is the historic pole of our conservative-liberal debate about taxes, why then did Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole object to the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) for these reasons: “While I strongly support reauthorizing SCHIP, a massive — and highly regressive — tax increase on an already unstable product is a terribly irresponsible way to fund this important program.”

In opposing the same bill, Republican Sen. Jim Bunning echoes Dole: “And we all say we oppose regressive taxes. But what are we considering today? A highly regressive tax. In fact, this tax is among the most regressive types of taxes we could consider.”

In a statement given on Tax Day, 2007, Sen. Robert Bennett includes this strong statement about the regressive payroll tax (Social Security): “The payroll tax penalizes the working poor. It is an effective tax rate of 15 percent on the waitress who works at minimum wage because seven-and-a-half percent she has to pay and seven-and-a-half percent her employer pays that otherwise she would get in her paycheck. That is a very high regressive tax.”

It’s not just loquacious Republican senators concerned about regressive taxes either, the conservative blog Blue Crab Boulevard posts about the reauthorization of SCHIP: “Well, the House has just passed — pretty much along party lines — a bill that imposes regressive taxes on the poor and slashes money for the elderly to provide health care to the middle class.” Included in that blog is a link to more blogs on regressive taxes.

Even conservative/Republicans in our home state of Indiana are playing the regressive tax card in calling for the end of property taxes. From STOP Indiana (Stop Taxing Our Property): “Demand an immediate repeal or suspension of recent increases and a replacement of this regressive tax with a more equitable tax.”

Have the political poles reversed? If not, what might explain these conservatives/Republicans embracing one of the most liberal/Democratic values to make their arguments? Could it be that because SCHIP increased taxes on cigarettes that tobacco state senators Dole (North Carolina) and Bunning (Kentucky) object?

Tobacco is the “unstable product” Dole refers to. And Blue Crab Boulevard doesn’t like that federal money is diverted away from reimbursing HMOs in favor of directly reimbursing physicians to expand children’s health care coverage. Tobacco and HMOs are two unpopular entities to defend in public.

And Bob Bennett just doesn’t like taxes. In the next line following what I quoted above, he said: “While the payroll tax penalizes the working poor, the income tax discourages the productive rich. The more you produce, the more the government comes in and says, “We will take that away from you.’” In one line, he assails both regressive and progressive tax structures.

Bennett’s solution is to get rid of Social Security and adopt a flat tax. Maybe he doesn’t really get the regressive tax thing. Social Security ends up being a very good deal for lower-wage workers. And STOP Indiana and all those others who assail property taxes as regressive, well, that is highly debatable. Especially so when you consider that the poor own relatively little property to be taxed anyway.

Hmm, maybe the political poles aren’t reversing after all. Perhaps conservative/Republicans are just twisting since being voted out of power last November.

Many situations today have people wondering what can be done to help our political system

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 9/29/2007

TERRE HAUTE — With approval of the President and Congress at nearly historic lows, no doubt some wonder about our democracy. Indeed, desultory conclusions that democracy stinks but is better than any other system is hardly something likely to sustain our democratic way of life. And when you have political parties actually launching strategies to suppress votes, there is no doubt that ordinary, everyday people need to take steps to safeguard our precious democracy. In an age of big money politics, what can individuals do to strengthen our political institutions? Here are 10 simple steps they can do.

10 simple things you can do to improve politics

This is third 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 politics.

1. Get to know your neighbors. (Politics is coarse enough; at least knowing your neighbors makes the most local stuff more civil.) Public opinion polls show that Americans are fed up with the bickering and seeming inability to get anything done in Washington and our state capitals. Part of that phenomenon is due to the many, many wedge issues that have been used by our leaders to get elected. By getting to know people, you find that they don’t fit into neat categories. Yeah, your next door neighbor may be a Republican, but she might also be pro-choice, pro-environment, as well as pro-gun. Most people are NOT the activists of the parties who themselves line up so perfectly with their parties.

2. Get involved in the civic life of your community; school, church and local service groups are easy entry points. While these groups are not overtly political, they help in getting to know cross-sections of your community and make discussion easier and less nasty. Moreover, civic groups solve many community problems WITHOUT having to resort to the government. Making the government the solution to all community and social problems is little different than those states, totalitarian regimes come to mind, that in fact do solve, or claim sole responsibility to solve, all problems. Besides, having other institutional frameworks reduces the gathering power of our central, federal government.

3. Pick (at least) one local, state and national issue to follow and understand. Even if not involved, follow it in the newspapers, on the broadcast news, on the Internet. Only by being informed about issues can you really judge the positions and actions of our politicians. Also, if we don’t follow something, then we are left to judge, at the end of the political cycle, by who has the best ads, not necessarily who has or would be one to reflect our points of view on the issues we think important. To do that, you need to follow your issue and be informed about it.

4. Know who the following are: the mayor of your town (if you have one), city manager (if you have one), your city or county representative (councilman), your state representatives (with bicameral legislatures, you have a rep and a senator), your congressman, both of your senators, your governor, the president and vice president of the U.S., the speaker of the House, and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Know who they are; they are among the most powerful people in our society and in your local world. There is no way to spin findings that Americans are more likely to know who celebrities are than the people who wield power over them on a daily basis. It is a measure of disengagement that threatens democracy as much, if not more, than all the money washing over politics today.

5. Vote in every election no matter what. Think about it. More people get upset at suggested changes to a schoolhouse indoctrination ritual, the Pledge of Allegiance, than get upset that eligible Americans don’t vote. There are reasonable explanations. Those who don’t vote tend not to have much at stake, meaning they are not property owners, maybe not parents, don’t have high-paying jobs. But that doesn’t explain everyone. Others give feeble explanations like “the system is corrupt, I don’t participate” or “the politicians are all the same, so what difference does it make?” Well, if you begin to follow just that one issue, then you’ll have the basis to make a difference. These excuses are more the excuses of people who don’t care to participate because they are disengaged. The more people who vote, the more the politicians have to actually pay attention to us.

6. Don’t be an ignorant voter. Pick one race that matters and make an informed choice about that one race if you do nothing else. For some of us, following politics is second nature. For many others, it is not. Don’ t base your choice on the media advertising that your candidate provides, but based on your own digging and decision making. Know why you are voting for who you vote for.

7. In the next year, attend one of the following: 1) a city council meeting; 2) a school board meeting; 3) a public forum with your state rep; 4) a public forum with your congressional representative. Few of us ever get to actually see our elected officials at work. Go watch them in their public roles. That will do more than any campaign ad, by either side, to give you a sense of both your candidates. but also what goes on in the process of democracy. Whether it inspires or sickens you, at least you know.

8. Articulate your interests, that is, on anything you take a stand on or support (issues-wise), be able to state why you hold to that position in terms of your own interests. If you oppose an increase in the minimum wage, be able to explain why doing so is contrary to your interests. In other words, how will it threaten you? Same if you are for something, how will it benefit you? In many cases, you won’t be able to find a reason, and you should begin then to separate out the issues that directly affect you and those where your interest lies in affecting others, but not necessarily yourself.

9. Be able to articulate the interests of the other side in a way the other side would not object to. Coupled with item 8, these two make for more civil politics. Being able to articulate the other side’s viewpoints doesn’t mean you have to accept them, but it shows taking the other side’s views seriously.

10. Know your values. Many issues are highly emotional, like abortion, stem cell research and capital punishment, to name a few. The highly emotional portion of our response to these types of issues has to do with a feeling of threat to values we hold dear. Responding to the values and not the fear should make for greater understanding as well as finding additional grounds to address these issues.

Could U.S. policies be promoting world poverty

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 6/15/2007

What do you get when you combine the following: a government funded study on the effectiveness of U.S. abstinence programs in stopping teenagers from having sex, a World Bank report on the importance of sex education in combating worldwide poverty, a Rand Corp. report dispelling common myths and criticisms about international family planning programs, and current U.S. policies regarding international family planning?

My conclusion is that U.S. policy promotes world poverty.

Fact 1: In April, a federal government-funded study on the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education was released. This was a longitudinal study of 2,000 teenagers over a five-year period. A longitudinal design is the only design that is going to deliver the data to adequately assess cause and effect of a program like this.

The findings? Abstinence-only programs are no better or worse than ones that provide information about contraception and “safe-sex” practices in terms of stopping teens from having sex. Condom use was the same in those who received abstinence-only education as those who received information about contraception. What this tells me is that kids do lots of talking and our media saturate the airwaves with information about condoms. That, however, cannot be said for the developing world.

Fact 2: A 2005 World Bank Report titled “Education and Development” focuses on the importance of educating women as an effective anti-poverty measure. And controlling fertility is a cornerstone to achieving that. According to the report: “Women with formal education are much more likely to use reliable family planning methods, delay marriage and childbearing, and have fewer and healthier babies than women with no formal education. It is estimated that one year of female schooling reduces fertility by 10 percent. The effect is particularly pronounced for secondary schooling.” Part of that education includes family planning education.

Fact 3: According to a Rand Corp. Policy Brief, reducing fertility contributes to economic development. As the proportion of dependent children in the population shrinks, the proportion of working age adults increases, which boosts productivity and investment savings. There is even a name for the phenomenon, the “demographic boost.” You don’t have to believe Rand. Despite the ethical and moral concerns, China and India have taken drastic means to reduce fertility in their countries. It has worked and they are rapidly developing (in case you haven’t noticed).

Fact 4. It costs very little to fund effective family planning programs. Domestically, the federal government spends less than $200 million on its abstinence-only programs. Family planning programs are a drop in the bucket compared to the costs of battling AIDS, for example. Nevertheless, U.S. policy since 1973 forbids U.S. money to be used for abortions. Republican administrations since Reagan have imposed a global gag rule on non-government organizations that provide family planning. They cannot even mention abortion to their clients, much less provide one.

In 1998, Congress prohibited use of U.S. monies for any organization that uses coercive methods, incentives, targets or quotas in their family planning practices. If the U.S. were a foreign country, would we qualify since we have incentives for kids called tax deductions and tax credits? Since 2002, one-third of all monies aimed at HIV/AIDS prevention must emphasize abstinence-until-marriage programs. This is contrary to the health professionals who advocate the “abstain,” be faithful, use a condom approach.

As we can see by our approach to our teens, the abstain-until-marriage programs are no more effective than conventional approaches, so what are we really doing?

Fact 5. Condoms are effective in reducing fertility and lowering the risk of contracting HIV. Currently, the U.S. has so many restrictions on the use of international monies that there is a shortage of contraceptives for distribution in developing countries. In 2006, a bill was introduced in Congress, the “Ensuring Access to Contraceptives Act.” It was reintroduced this year and awaits committee action.

Therefore, if family planning and contraception are effective in reducing fertility (married people need it, too, abstaining even after marriage isn’t realistic, even in our goofy political climate), and the U.S. is restricting funding for these programs which in turn are cornerstones in reducing world poverty, then U.S. policy promotes world poverty.

I’m not suggesting an intentional policy here to promote world poverty. This is an unanticipated outcome of our domestic political squabbling. Abstinence-only family planning and a refusal to fund abortions are rooted in specific moral and ethical universes. What moral/ethical universe finds even the unintentional promotion of poverty acceptable?

MVC needs to change format of women’s tournament

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 3/16/2006

Open Letter to Doug Elgin, Commissioner Missouri Valley Conference:

Congratulations on having four teams selected to the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. Several years ago you set out to make the conference more competitive by encouraging Valley teams to play harder non-conference schedules and that strategy has paid off with four teams selected for this year’s “Big Dance.” A fifth team, Missouri State, many argue should have been invited as well. Never mind the naysayers like CBS curmudgeon Billy Packer who was downright insulting of the Valley. His bosses are the ones who decided to telecast the Valley Championship game, suggesting that Billy’s time maybe has passed.

Now that you have accomplished putting the Missouri Valley back on the men’s basketball map, it is time to turn your attention to the women’s basketball situation. Last year, arguably the best team in the Valley was overlooked for the NCAA because they lost in the conference tournament, eventually won by 8th seed Illinois State, who entered the NCAA tournament a dismal, let’s see if I recall, 15th seed. Doesn’t say much for the conference when that is the only representative.

Missouri State went on to win the WNIT. That win, the second in a row by a Valley team, is an excellent testament to their quality and a good argument that Missouri State should have been given an at-large bid last year. But, an upstart Illinois State team, playing on its home court, won four straight to win the tournament. That was a great story for Illinois State but a bad one for the conference as a whole.

The same thing happened again this year. Indiana State, by far the class of the league, had to face Missouri State on their home court, with their incredible fans. Missouri State has lost at home only 12 times in nearly 400 games. What a surprise, Missouri State won. Hurray for them. Boo for the league because the lone Valley representative is awarded a lowly 13th seed, and Indiana State is overlooked.

When a conference tournament is rigged so heavily in favor of the “host” team, no one outside the conference is going to much respect the quality of the Valley teams. I didn’t do the research, but I bet you know: How many tournament hosts have won the title? Eight times, more than twice as often as any other team, Missouri State has been the host (Indiana State has never hosted the tournament) and has won seven titles. A cynic might quip, “The key to winning the Valley is to host the tournament.”

Yeah, I’m sour grapes because my Lady Sycamores aren’t the tournament champions. A number 1 seed, which they earned, is supposed to be an advantage. But I’d say a number 1 seed doesn’t outweigh the advantage of sleeping in one’s own bed, having friendly fans, hometown press, and being familiar with the lay of the land.

Indeed, Missouri State looked fresher in their fourth game than Indiana State did in its third. Being assured that your fans sit behind the visitors’ bench is a hell of an advantage and it had nothing to do with the outcomes of the games during the regular season … thus undoing what seeding is supposed to mean. The tournaments are supposed to wear you out; but they are also supposed to be played on neutral sites.

Missouri State played two other tournament teams, both at home, losing to Oklahoma and beating Tulsa. Indiana State played four NCAA tournament teams, beating two of them (one of them Missouri State at home), the other over Pepperdine played on a neutral court. Which is more impressive? Winning on one’s own court or on a neutral court?

It is time for you to spend some energy improving the Valley’s reputation in Women’s NCAA Division I Basketball. The SEC sent six teams to the women’s NCAA tournament. They moved their conference tournament to a neutral site 20 years ago. Your first step in raising the stature of Women’s Valley Basketball is by unrigging the tournament in favor of the host team; find a neutral site to play the semis and final game.

Otherwise, forget getting two bids when our tournament lacks legitimacy as it does now.

Don’t lose sight of purpose TV programming really serves

Previously published in Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 1/16/2006

Few things raise more of a ruckus than a disruption in television. Recently the Valley has struggled because one local cable company couldn’t negotiate the rights to carry an ABC affiliate resulting in missed football playoff games. A local station manager decided to exercise his discretion to not show a bad television series, “The Book of Daniel,” prompting a protest of e-mails, postings, and letters to the editor.

Television is a ubiquitous part of our daily culture. Common sense holds there to be strong media effects on the wider culture. Usually those effects are “bad.” We blame the media, especially television, for all kinds of things: increases in premarital sex, abortion, violence, obesity, “liberalism,” ADHD, the list could go on.

Rarer is to suggest positive things in our culture aided or caused by television. I don’t know if it still true, but the “Keep America Beautiful” ads, especially the one with the American Indian crying at the end of the commercial, was the most successful ad campaign of all, and unquestionably changed American’s views on and habits related to littering.

Despite conventional wisdom that television affects our behavior, the careful, precise measurement of those hypothesized effects are harder to establish. It is important to keep in mind when “thinking” about television that television exists for no other reason than to sell us things. The informational and entertainment values of television pale in comparison to its raison d’être, to sell stuff, which means to influence our behavior.

Some of us think we are pretty savvy. When the commercials come on, we switch over to another program. I like to head to C-SPAN and then back to “my story” in a few minutes. Ha! I have evaded the slickly produced message aimed at emptying my wallet. Of course, the show I am watching is nothing but an advertisement for clothing, cars, gadgets, décor, hair styles and more. I recall reading some years ago about how the sale of grandfather clocks went up when the TV Huxtables had one in their living room.

We can deceive ourselves into believing that we can flip the switch when the commercials come on, but the entire production is an advertisement. With everything on DVDs now, the shows themselves are advertisements for their own “treasuries.”

When we tune in to television, we are making the television industry money. The more who watch, the more ad rates rise. According to Nielsen, the average American watches more than 4.5 hours of TV daily, an all-time high. And the amount of time watching TV has continued to rise, never once in 56 years sliding back.

Crime dramas are quite common right now. Studies show people who watch more television and crime dramas in particular are more likely to overestimate the amount of crime in society. What is the result of a healthy fear of crime? Walling oneself up in their home; instead of attending a play downtown (too dangerous), people stay home and watch TV! I wonder how many dramatized murders there are on TV in a 24-hour period?

Despite the many watchdog groups, more and more of our time is taken up with watching sex and violence on TV. And the amount of televised violence and sex is up, up, up. Yet, violent crime, teen pregnancies, and abortions are down, down, down (in real life). The television industry and the watchdogs share, it seems, a symbiotic relationship.

Bad shows protested by the watchdogs generate “buzz” that leads to larger audiences and thus higher payoffs for the industry. At the same time, those shows provide fund-raising opportunities for the watchdogs. The activist groups, especially the ones stressing decency and morality, continue their campaigns despite little evidence that they have any lasting effect. Nevertheless, I’ll bet their coffers continue to swell.

Friends of mine about 10 years ago had their TV stolen in a burglary. Unlike most of us who would have run right out and bought another one, they didn’t. They felt withdrawal symptoms, but after a couple of days, discovered something. First, they actually talked to each other through the evening. They discovered that they had plenty of time for homework and doing chores around the house. They found ample time to do things they actually enjoyed more than watching the “junk” on TV.

Pick your favorite five TV shows, outside of news/weather. Watch ONLY those shows for the next two weeks. Turn off the noisy appliance in between. Send letters to the editor about your experience.

Covering the field — from consensus to conflict

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 4/22/2007

Ever wonder about the nature of society? Sociologists do, which means I do. In 750 words I’ll try to summarize better than 100 years of scholarship and provide an example to boot!

Defending the north end zone is the “consensus” model. Society forms around consensus on norms (expected behaviors) and values (standards to judge good and bad). Defending the south end zone is the “conflict” model. Society is forged out of the struggle of groups pursuing their interests; social power and authority are important aspects to understanding society.

I’m exaggerating the differences here, but in reality, they are much closer than I’m making them out to be. In short, the consensus model emphasizes “common” values and the conflict model emphasizes “whose” values. The consensus model emphasizes universal interests and the conflict model emphasizes specific interests.

The growing controversy over use of several million dollars of refinanced debt owed by the Vigo County School Corp. to purchase synthetic turf for Vigo County’s three high school football fields seems almost a scripted event to highlight these two models of society. Turf proponents emphasize the broadest possible values (consensus model) in arguing for the turf. Who could be against community pride, education, competitiveness, economic development, safety, and efficiency?

Turf opponents emphasize interests (conflict model). They look at the situation not in terms of whether something fits broad, common values, but in terms of who benefits and at whose expense. They frame the controversy in terms of one group benefiting at the expense of other groups, such as taxpayers versus taxspenders, athletes versus academics, and football versus other sports.

The consensus model adds its own “value” of order, that society should be orderly and harmonious and that dissension and conflict are “bad.” Furthermore, that which leads to disorder and disharmony is harmful. Similarly, the conflict model adds its own “value” of fairness. Despite accepting a view of society as basically “unfair” much of the conflict model’s subsequent analysis is about “fairness,” equity, or equality between competing interest groups.

Proponents of turf (consensus model) organize shows of support for the expenditure, enlisting as many people as possible to show broad support for the values they claim the expenditure reflects. Opponents of turf (conflict model), in a less orchestrated manner, point out the unfairness of the expenditure or demand further explanation/justification for the favoring of one interest group over others.

In turn the proponents criticize the opponents for being insulting, disrespectful, and for pitting groups against one another. To which the opponents respond with more examples of the narrow interests being served by the proponents and more examples of how the proponents would benefit at significant costs to the other groups. Eventually both sides are talking past one another.

Competing scientific models are judged in terms of how well they explain the data and their ability to predict future events. So, the proponents of turf will broaden the meaning of the expenditure. It will become an argument less about football but youth, athletics, education and community. They might argue that without organized sports, that the community would be worse off, that kids would be less supervised, and more likely to get into trouble. After all, a common response to idle youth is sports programs, whether summer tennis lessons or midnight basketball.

Opponents won’t deny these assertions. Instead they will provide more examples of the groups who are passed over. They will not debate the larger, grander notions of whether sports are good or bad; instead they will keep the focus on the expenditure for turf (maybe sports in general) and what that means to other groups. They might point out groups who cannot, other than indirectly, if at all, benefit from the turf.

For example, those unable for physical reasons to play football are not benefited; this would include those medically unable to play and girls. They may argue that if the taxpayers are going to provide such lavish support for the one group, that they must, for fairness sake, provide similar benefits to the excluded. As this drama unfolds, we’ll see which model predicts future events the best.

My students, at this point, often ask me, “… which one is correct, the consensus or conflict model of society?” The conflict model developed, in part, from criticism of the consensus model. Today, most sociologists agree, the conflict model can explain what the consensus model does and more. That, however, still doesn’t make one “right” and the other “wrong.”

Parents can make a major impact on children’s education

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 9/15/2007

This is second 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 education.

Pick up any newspaper, check any news Web site, listen to any presidential candidate today and the subject of education comes up. Indeed, since the publication of “A Nation at Risk” by the Reagan Administration, there has been much attention, and some reforms, to education. But far less attention is given the role, and arguably, the more important role, that parents and adults who engage with kids outside the formal classroom and formal activities like scouting, sports, church, and others, play in educating our children. The ongoing debate today is about education policy. What can parents and individuals do to improve education in America? Here are 10 simple steps individuals, especially parents, can do.

1. Expand active learning beyond the classroom; make the world everything about learning. Young kids are pretty much natural learners. They are curious and eager to learn and experience their environments. Formal schooling and our hectic lives today manage to drum that natural curiosity and natural active learning out and we replace it with passive learning, which is boring and not easy to reverse. So, when you’re with your kids, whether your own, or others, turn activities into learning experiences. Let kids explore stores (with you in tow), stop and let them be fascinated by what has become common to you. Just this morning, I was driving out on a country road that was being repaved. The young Amish kids who were lined up on the side of the road were fascinated by the machinery. How many of your 10-year-olds would be captivated by such a sight? Why not?

2. Read to your kids; have them read to you. Reading is the primary academic skill. Without it, there is virtually no chance for academic success. Begin reading to your kids immediately. Not only will reading to them demonstrate that you value the skill, but later, they can read to you. Often this activity diminishes greatly once formal schooling begins, but there is no reason more complex books can’t be read, too. On long car trips, have kids read a long novel out loud for everyone’s enjoyment.

3. Make at least half of your purchases for birthdays, Christmas, all the ritual gift giving times, “educational” toys. This is easier for younger kids and will set a tone for the future. Educational toys are not boring. For young kids, flexible toys that let them use their imagination like clay, paints, and building blocks, are terrific. Later on, Legos, books, and puzzles develop problem solving skills which are the main thing that needs to be taught. Our schools are great at teaching facts, but not as good at teaching problem-solving skills. In junior high, buy your kid a computer program to learn a foreign language.

4. Talk to your kids; not at them, but with them. I’ve observed some parents talk more with their dogs and cats than they do with their young kids. Engage them in conversation, the earlier the better. Language skills are the most crucial skill we need in the U.S. Who would you rather your kids learn to communicate from? Skilled communicators like yourself or from their peers, with poor grammar and limited vocabularies?

5. Turn car trips into field trips, don’t plug in a tape for the kids to watch. A zooming car is super stimulation, but the kids need to be taught to observe. The old games of car bingo or car scavenger hunts are more brain-active than brain-passive activities such as listening to music or watching DVDs. The DVDs are often more for the convenience of the adults along, turning over their roles as teachers to entertainment technology. Point things out as you drive along. Most of us now live in suburbs and kids don’t ride bikes as much, so keeping them active in the car observing is a good way for them to learn their surroundings. And while I have no evidence for it, I’ll bet it makes better drivers of them, too.

6. Make kids do it themselves. Whether it be ordering from a menu, asking for something at a store, even if it is faster and easier to do it yourself, make your kids do it themselves. This begins teaching them independence as well as communicating to them that they have a voice and worth. Having others, whether they be waitstaff, teachers, clerks, whomever, listen to kids, communicates to kids that they are a person of worth. And the kids will feel a real sense of accomplishment when they do it themselves, which is what self-esteem should be based upon.

7. Be a partner, not an adversary, with kids’ teachers, coaches, etc. This means at the outset trusting that the teacher, coach, adult leader, knows what they are doing, and work from there. Whatever you think of the institution of education, the individuals in those institutions are not perfect replicas of it. Ask what you can do at home to help support what is going on in the classroom. You’ll find that it is a two way street; you can get support in the classroom for things you are trying to accomplish at home, too.

8. Telling kids is one thing; modeling the behavior is another (and more impressing). If you don’t want your kid to yell, don’t yell yourself. Young kids don’t have sophisticated moral reasoning, so the line “do what I say, not what I do” makes little sense to children. They are pretty black-and-white about things. That means, if you really value education, then you need to show it with your behavior. Be active in your kids’ formal education, go to open houses, show up for stuff at school. It also means if you want your kid to read, you need to read yourself. It doesn’t have to be heavy intellectual stuff, it can be trash novels or tabloids. What is important is the act of reading. Once they value reading, they’ll find the material they enjoy, which is virtually limitless and cheap to obtain. At the same time, if you want honest kids, don’t lie, especially in situations like when your kids answer the phone and the caller asks for you and you tell them to tell the person you are not home. What message is that sending?

9. Eat (at least) one meal a day together. During this meal, ask kids about their days and make them speak about it, but the same goes for you, too. Kids will emulate you. If in response to “How was your day, dear?” your answer is “Same old same old,” your kids will learn to do same. One the other hand, if you tell about your day, no matter how routine, something about it, they will do the same. Ask what they learned at school during dinner and don’t accept “nothing” as an acceptable answer

10. Let kids suffer the consequences of their actions. This is probably the hardest one for parents because we have developed the idea that good parents are ones whose kids are happy. But sometimes learning is about “suffering the consequences” of one’s actions. If your kid fails to do their homework, don’t defend her to their teachers. If he gets in trouble for behavior at school, by reflexively defending him, taking an attitude that “no one treats my kid that way,” kids learn they are above all rules, all laws. Sometimes the best lessons are about survival, adaptation, persistence and perseverance.

For years Americans have been concerned about the breaking down of social institutions

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 9/1/2007

To combat that degradation, try some common sense methods as a path to improvement.
By Thomas L. Steiger

TERRE HAUTE — To be an American is to worry that our social institutions are breaking down. Read newspapers from 100 years ago and you’ll find worry about the family, concern about the economy, and politics is always in a shambles. As a sociologist, I am frequently asked, what are the solutions to our broken social institutions? What policies should we follow? Institutions are not just about legislated behavior. Far more important is the behavior that occurs, over and over and over, just because it is “common sense.” In that vein, I offer this series of essays on improving our social institutions. These are not policy recommendations and these behaviors cannot be legislated. But by doing them, just as the drip, drip, drip of enough water drops on rock wears away the rock, it is similar with individual behaviors, they shape the institution.

Every other week for the next 10 weeks, I’ll focus on one institution and offer 10 simple things individuals can do to improve it. 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 I begin with marriage and the family.

10 simple things you can do to improve marriage and family

Americans today worry about marriage and the family. Many worry that the institution is breaking down, and with it, our society as well. While politicians and social critics discuss policies to strengthen and preserve the family, what can individuals do to strengthen the institution of marriage and the family? Here are 10 simple steps individuals can do.

1. Get married (but not too young). It should be obvious that if people want a strong institution of marriage that people must get married. If divorce is a threat to the institution of marriage, then wait to get married. People who get married in their teens are more likely to end up in a divorce than people who wait. There is not a magic age, but research shows that the probability of divorce of a first marriage after age 25 is half that of those who marry for the first time under 18. Romantic notions that love will overcome all obstacles are just that, romantic notions. Also, those who grow up in an intact family are less likely to get a divorce themselves after they marry. Statistics indicate that the divorce rate in 2006 is the lowest since 1970 in large part because people are delaying getting married until they are older.

2. Have children. The family’s major function in contemporary society is to tie adult responsibility to children, not population resupply. If you don’t have children, then your family can’t be responsible for any. Make them yourselves, outsource the birth, or adopt one, however you do it, become responsible for children. If it is just impossible to be a parent through birth or adoption, then become an “other” parent, a stand-in, co-parent with the children of friends or relatives.

3. Eat together. Eating is more than just nourishment for the body. It is a social ritual of great importance that our fast food culture has corroded. Eating together as a family is among the most common rituals individual families engage in. And rituals are important to the making of meaning, the creation of lasting bonds. Ideally, eating together should be at home, where the length of the ritual can be extended into the preparation and cleanup, thus creating more opportunities for establishing meaningful bonds among family members through repeated rituals.

4. Develop family traditions. While eating together is an important family ritual, traditions also make social life meaningful. Traditions help us find meaning; they provide comfort, participating in them creates a sense of belonging and acceptance in the social groups in which they occur. Family traditions help to distinguish family life from other social settings. Begin with traditions around major holidays and birthdays and maybe make up one or two specific to your family. Start early and don’t waiver from them; insist on them.

5. Take pictures. Family pictures help to prompt memories of family life. Home movies used to be a popular thing to do. I don’t know if they are as much today, but one tradition, especially when kids are young, should be to show these pictures and videos. With older kids, encourage them to take pictures and make picture histories of family outings. Scrapbooking is popular today; building in this activity with picture taking and family traditions can create emotionally charged artifacts that will create priceless family treasures. Should a family member die, for instance, a grandparent, having many pictures in different settings can help instill “memories” in later generations, which helps to charge just the idea of family with strong emotions.

6. Have family reunions. Families today are generally horizontally smaller (meaning fewer siblings) but due to longer life spans, vertically bigger (multi-generations). Americans are highly mobile and families become geographically separated. Organize family reunions every five years or so. Don’t wait for funerals and weddings to get reacquainted. Families are an important source of social capital, but need tending.

7. Instill the idea of obligation to family by requiring everyone to contribute to household chores. If it can be accomplished, everyone in the family should work together so everyone can see each other’s contribution. Having clean clothes isn’t enough; family members tend to take that for granted, but seeing Dad doing laundry, while Mom vacuums, and older brother cleans a toilet, while sister dusts, can make for a more appreciative family. Cross-training is a good idea too, otherwise everyone else’s job looks easier than one’s own.

8. Extend your family. Family members don’t have to be blood related or legally related. They can be chosen. Embrace close friends as family. Children can even refer to these chosen family members as aunt and uncle, cousins, etc. If possible, extend your family to those who either don’t have or are geographically separated from their families. This is a great way to know your neighbors. The results are more adults who feel some responsibility for more children, which is the major function of family.

9. No violence in the family. This includes spanking as well. In practice, spanking usually results from a frustrated parent, not one in full control of themselves at the time. If family is to be a safe haven, then it must be violence-free. The presence of violence in the family also leads to marital and family disruption.

10. Be parents, not friends, to your kids. Parents must guide children through a difficult maze today. In many ways, parenting “back in the day” was easier than today. Today’s culture emphasizes some things that are bad for children: instant gratification, short attention spans, superficiality over depth, extreme stimulation over calmness and serenity. Parents must recognize that emphasizing the short-term happiness of children can lead to impaired adults. To have functional, mature adults means sometimes having to put up with bouts of unhappy children in order to raise children who grow up to be very productive adults who in turn support their parents on Social Security.

Bald eagle an inspiring sight, even on a dirty river

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 7/30/2006

Last year I bought a kayak. Call it my third mid-life crisis. Since May, I’ve paddled about 150 miles. Last week I paddled my hundredth mile on the Wabash River. Despite warnings from many, I haven’t grown an extra arm or lost my hair and my kayak hasn’t melted.

Last week while paddling from Clinton to Tecumseh, I saw two bald eagles. These were the first I’ve seen on the Wabash this year. I’ve seen other bald eagles; in the last month I paddled the White River and Sugar Creek and saw several bald eagles there, but in over 100 miles of paddling on the Wabash, I hadn’t seen any, until last week.

I’ll admit it. I get more excited about birds than most people do. Take a trip down the Wabash today and I can practically guarantee multiple sightings of great blue herons, spotted sandpipers, kingfishers, several different kinds of swallows, jays, red-winged blackbirds and many, many others. Few will get excited at sighting the first spotted sandpiper, never mind the umpteenth, but everyone feels exhilarated at sighting a bald eagle. Even the most dispassionate teenager couldn’t suppress an “awesome” at the sight of a wild bald eagle.

I caught sight of the eagle as it flew overhead and followed it to a perch in a sycamore tree about a quarter mile down river. I searched the trees with my binoculars but couldn’t find it. I paddled closer hoping to get a better view but the eagle flew out the back side of the tree and winged further down river and around the bend. I continued down river and as I floated just under the tree that the eagle flew into, lo and behold, there was another one sitting there. It cooperated and let me ogle it for a few minutes with my binoculars, until my strange yellow kayak made it nervous and it took wing and headed off down river.

I had two more sightings. A few minutes later an eagle flew up river searching the water for a meal. I wondered if it might pick up the struggling carp I saw up river. It would be a large fish for the eagle to fly with, but I’ve seen eagles catch and fly off with fish that must have outweighed the bird itself. Thirty minutes later another sighting; an eagle veered off the river and flew over a stretch of bottom land.

It will come as no great revelation to anyone that the Wabash isn’t the healthiest body of water. I don’t know what is in the water but I know what isn’t. There aren’t enough turtles sunning themselves on the many logs in the water and too few fish on the shoals. But nature is an amazing thing. The Wabash doesn’t need so much to be cleaned up as much as it needs to be treated right. Stop trashing it and in a short time the Wabash will begin to recover.

The 10 miles of river between Clinton and Tecumseh is beautiful and interesting. Brouillets Creek and Otter Creek both empty into the Wabash in that 10-mile stretch. Just downriver of Brouillets Creek are two islands. These seem to be attractive to primitive campers. The possibilities are obvious for outdoor recreation along the Wabash despite a century of mistreatment.

As easy to see the possibilities along the Wabash, unfortunately it is just as easy to see ongoing mistreatment. There are dumpsites along the Wabash, many drainage pipes, draining both agricultural fields and runoff from streets and nearby towns. After a strong rain, the Wabash suds up from the phosphate runoff. But unlike your washing machine, these suds don’t clean anything. Especially troubling is to see someone enjoying the environs of the river (camping) but dumping their trash into the river instead of properly disposing of it.

Recently, there has been some talk about developing the Wabash River along Terre Haute’s waterfront. Wetlands restoration would do much to help the Wabash recover. So would fixing municipal sewage systems that permit storm water and human waste to combine and wash into the Wabash.

I have a suggestion about any discussion involving riverfront development. The guiding principle of riverfront development should be: do nothing that will reduce the Wabash’s attractiveness to bald eagles and do everything that will increase it. What is good for the eagles is also good for us.

Torture in any form is not the American way

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 12/22/2007

TERRE HAUTE — Today the news is: U.S. military uncovers al-Qaida-in-Iraq torture chamber and mass graves. Reading the story prompted the usual emotional response: outrage at al-Qaida, sympathy for the victims and their families, and a sense of we are better than they.

However, given the revelations about U.S. use of torture and our highest officials unwilling to even discuss whether “waterboarding” is torture, how different is it really? We admit to waterboarding one bad guy while our enemy tortures more? They have mass graves? How many have died in U.S. secret detention centers? I have no evidence, but given we already have engaged in the previously unthinkable, then thinking it, asking about it is neither out of the question nor out of bounds.

Where is the outrage? Would there be outrage if today’s headline instead read, “mass graves and torture chamber discovered linked to U.S. military/intelligence operations”?

Today there is also news about congressional hearings on possible lawlessness of U.S. contractors in Iraq toward our own people, not even the enemy! Blackwater is one thing, they killed “them,” but raping one of “us” and then covering it up? Thank goodness her congressman is a Republican, otherwise there undoubtedly would be a cry of anti-American, anti-war Democrats just making stuff up.

The revelation of U.S. personnel torturing Zubaydah, regardless of who he is or what he might know, sickens me. If, as has been suggested, that members of the Senate and Congress knew about these practices and let it go on without sharing with the American people what was happening, for me, regardless of party stripe, is an offense, a revelation of character, that disqualifies any of them from my vote.

I hope that Richard Lugar, my senator, for whom I have voted three times, did not know. I hope that Evan Bayh, my senator for whom I have voted twice, did not know. I hope that Brad Ellsworth, whom I voted for, did not know. If there is evidence they did, and did nothing but shut up about it, they have lost my vote. Although I understand that an elected official privy to such sensitive information could not, with honor, whistleblow, they could do the patriotic thing and resign from the committee, which would bring attention to something amiss.

Most U.S. citizens are ignorant of what is going on the U.S. and the world. More people know that Brittany Spears’ 16 year old sister is pregnant than who Gen. Petraeus is. But, during elections, more people get a bit informed about what is going on and elect people to be in the know, to act better than the general populace. We elect people to defend the Constitution, not succumb to the winds of uninformed public opinion.

In a dictatorship, you can absolve the people of responsibility for the policies of the dictator. But in a democracy, public opinion, informed or not, is a force. We, individual citizens, share in the responsibility of what our government does in our name. If government officials break our laws and we ignore it, then we share in it.

Oh, I know some are thinking, “just another liberal, idealist wimp.” I am far from it. I am a realist, something that there are far too few of, I am afraid.

Here is my position on torture and I dare, yes, dare anyone to argue against it. Torture should be illegal and the practice of it by U.S. personnel should be harshly punished, meted out in our courts by a jury of one’s peers. The only argument used against this position is apparently the one that justified the waterboarding of Zubaydah, that he had crucial information that if extracted could save lives. This is a variation of the ethical dilemma of if you have the bomber who has just started the timer on a nuclear weapon in a major American city, would you torture to get the information? If one is going to use an end-to-justify-the-means argument, so be it. Torture the suspect. If torture delivers the information that saves the day, then let a jury decide if the torturers should be punished; and if torture gets nothing from the suspect, then let a jury decide if the torturers should be punished.

This is the AMERICAN way and I am directing this at those who chest thump, Bible thump, and flag wave in justifying an “anything goes” mentality in the global war on terrorism.

What is it that we celebrate on Mother's Day?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 5/17/2007

TERRE HAUTE — Officially, today is the 93rd Mother’s Day. Unofficially, this is perhaps the 150th Mother’s Day in America. Based on my 15 minutes of Internet research, celebrations of mothers can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. Both sound to me like fertility rites. Ancient Christians began to celebrate the fourth Sunday in May to honor Mary, Jesus’ Mother.

The origin of Mother’s Day in the United States is credited to Anna Jarvis, who organized a day to raise awareness of poor health conditions in her Appalachian community. She thought mothers would be natural advocates. Fifteen years later, Juliet Ward Howe, a poet and activist, organized a day for mothers to rally for peace (today’s celebration won’t carry any political overtones I’m sure).

Then in 1905, the daughter of Anna Jarvis, began organizing a memorial to her mother’s work. Many of today’s symbols of Mother’s Day originated in the memorial to Anna Jarvis. In 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed a bill to recognize Mother’s Day as a national holiday on the second Sunday in May. I thought it was a “Hallmark Holiday.”

Early on, Mother’s Day was celebrated by going to church. Pretty quickly gift-giving and more secular activities began. Anna Jarvis’ daughter, the founder of our Mother’s Day, didn’t care for the materialistic turn of Mother’s Day and actually sued to try to stop a Mother’s Day festival. Before her death in 1948, she expressed regret at what the holiday had become.

I found some statistics related to Mother’s Day. According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are more than 80 million mothers in the U.S. According to Hallmark, about 96 percent of consumers take part somehow in celebrating Mother’s Day. Cards are popular. So are telephone calls as it is a peak day for long distance service. I know that on more than one occasion over the years I have gotten the recording telling me “all circuits are busy.” Mother’s Day is the busiest day of the year for many restaurants. After Christmas, Mother’s Day is the biggest gift-giving holiday of the year. I didn’t see any statistics for church attendance on Mother’s Day. Perhaps it follows Christmas and Easter.

Now what I am going to write next will seem just downright odd, but give me to the end of the paragraph. What exactly are we celebrating? Are we celebrating fertility like the ancient Greeks and Romans? Or are we celebrating the work of mothering children? I wonder because as an adopted child, I have a “birth mother” and my mother, the one who raised me. All these years, I’ve never given any thought on Mother’s Day to my birth mother. Have I been disrespecting her all these years?

As a kid, other kids used to give me grief about not living with my “real” mother. I thought that was nonsense then and still do. I only know one mother. Yet, what if the telephone rings today and the voice says, “I gave you life nearly 49 years ago.” Should I buy that woman a card and invite her out to dinner?

About now, my mother is probably beginning to shake because she thinks this has actually happened. “No Mom, I’m just writing an essay. Nothing like that happened.”

What about kids who are conceived using donor eggs, dad’s sperm, but implanted in mom’s uterus? One mom or two on Mother’s Day? I know a young woman who gave up her son for adoption, but it is an open adoption and she knows the family and gets regular updates on her “birth son”(?). Does he buy two Mother’s Day cards? I should check more closely the card selections to see if they have cards that differentiate the birthing from the raising portions of motherhood. Maybe they are color-coded.

What about those folks walking around with a donor heart, lung, liver, or kidney from someone other than a sibling? Without another mom, they’d not have life now. Does one send a card to the mother of the donor? How about moms who abandon their kids? Do they still get an invite to Olive Garden today?

I take for granted my entry into this world. As I suspect most do. What I celebrate today is not the giving of life but the sustaining of it, not the biological role of reproduction but the social role of mothering, not the genetic material but the support, the guidance, the love, and never ending parenting.

Thanks, Mom, and happy Mother’s Day.

Obama encounters a strange double standard

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 2/26/2007

Barack Obama is running for president of the United States. His is a remarkable story. He is hard working, idealistic and intelligent. Many pundits say he represents a different kind of Democrat. Obama is also “lucky” in that Jack Ryan’s Republican candidacy for senator from Illinois fell apart because of his wife’s accusations about their marriage. If only Obama’s father didn’t have black skin. Because of that, we get questions about whether Obama “is black enough.”

The ongoing discussion of Obama’s “blackness” is insulting. The premise of this discussion is that a black (enough) candidate is going to automatically receive all the black votes. In other words, he could stand for anything, and black voters will dutifully line up and vote for him. To suggest that Obama would not have to earn the black vote just as a white candidate would is to suggest that African-Americans can’t discern how their interests are furthered by the positions and values of different candidates. They can only see the color of skin.

Let’s turn this question around. Is George “Dubya” Bush white enough? My experience as a “white” person I doubt is much like Dubya’s. Dubya was born rich, had a legacy admit to one of the finest universities in the country, is known to disparage science, battled personal demons and I doubt ever worried about paying the bills. I worked very hard in high school to be admitted to a state university, love science, have no background battling personal demons and still worry about paying the bills. Dubya is privileged and I am not, except if Obama and I were walking down the street from my middle school during times of racial tension. As a white kid, I got away with everything (except sassing the white cops) because the white cops in my all-white town were protecting me and hassling and arresting the “Obamas.”

So, Dubya and I are the same because we aren’t members of a minority race. Woo-hoo. Dubya and every other white politician has to morph themselves into a regular guy to get most of the white vote. So, again I ask, are Bush, Giuliani, Richardson, Vilsack, Clinton, or any of the other announced presidential wannabes white enough?

To be fair, these questions about Obama’s “blackness” are not originating from white opposition to Obama. A few black writers and leaders are raising the question: Is Barack black enough? Put him in a three-year-old Toyota and send him driving in an all white upper-middle-class neighborhood and see how long it takes before he is pulled over by the police. Or let’s put him out front of the Indy airport among similarly dressed white guys and see if it takes him longer to get a cab. Let’s change his name to George Jefferson, and have him apply for a mortgage on a $100,000 home in a predominantly black neighborhood and see if he has any problems getting the loan. In those situations, I’ll bet he is black enough.

The question of Obama’s blackness has nothing to do with skin color. It has to with whether his black family can be traced to American slavery. The historical experience of slavery on American society is profound and remains so today. Many whites would like to just forget about it. But culture is real, as we are learning in Iraq. It isn’t created over night and its effects are not vanquished because of civil rights laws or elections.

Obama’s biography is different. He is of the immigrant experience (well, aren’t we all?) whereas other African-American politicians are more likely to have a biography including resistance to the system that once enslaved them and continues to discriminate against them. The elite and privileged members of society never like an organized resistance.

When you look at Hillary, Vilsack, Giuliani, McCain, Dubya and other white politicians, do you see a leader of white people trying to be president? With Obama, however, some people have to test whether he leads African-American people first. We can see the double standard already being set up. If he is an African-American leader, then he has to convince white folks he can be more. And if he isn’t a leader of African-Americans, then he isn’t “authentic” enough.

Last I checked, Illinois is a multi-racial state. And why doesn’t anyone ask if Bill Richardson is Latino enough?

More "old" essays

I found some more essays I wrote for the Trib-Star before I began posting them here. They follow.....Iwe'll they will actually be above...
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