Simple Math

This has been an unusually rotten week in Washington. The impeachment trial, doomed from the start, whimpered to a close. The President childishly refused to shake the offered hand of the Speaker of the House, who behaved just as childishly afterwards by ripping up her copy of his State of the Union address. That speech, a factually challenged ninety-minute ramble, had an all-world low point: awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, a radio personality–one should refrain from calling him a journalist–whose only talent lies in pushing people’s buttons.

Wait a minute: I can think of somebody else with that talent.

Things were no better outside of Washington: Democrats can’t count ballots in Iowa, and the Department of Justice has come to Mississippi to investigate prison conditions. (That may sound like good news, but I suspect the fix is already in: the DOJ, currently run by the GOP, will find a way to exonerate the state’s Republican leadership, which will continue to underfund correctional facilities because “nothing’s wrong.”)

But back to the counting issue: many of the week’s problems lie with simple math. Democratic leaders apparently can’t count to 67, which is the number of senators required to impeach a president. Or pass a treaty. Or override a veto. Or expel a senator.

It won’t do any good, but I’d like to propose the use of even more simple math. Let’s require a 2/3 majority for any legislative body or committee to hold hearings. I’m not against hearings as part of a legitimate fact-finding process. However, they’ve become a large part of the reason that the machinery of government is stuck. They allow for political grandstanding–and, because most votes fall along party lines, not much else. Instead, let committees spend more time doing the things they’re supposed to do without hiding behind the delays caused by interminable hearings. The two parties might even rediscover how to play nicely with each other for the good of the people.

The last time the Congress managed to pass a budget was 2016. The government has been funded on a series of continuing resolutions since then.

Can’t we do better than that?

Posted in National Politics | 7 Comments

Appropriation Sensation

The first three lines of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” rank among the most memorable lines of free verse in the language:

I celebrate myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

The poem’s success ultimately hinges on whether or not the reader accepts Whitman’s invitation to empathy. Otherwise, speaking from perspectives that range from runaway slaves to opera stars would provoke confusion if not outrage. It works. “Song of Myself” is the first American poem.

Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, which has been on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks, offers a curious test of such empathy. The novel chronicles the horrible dangers faced on our nation’s southwest border by people fleeing their own nations. It offers a compelling narrative and a moving voice that begs for social justice. Julia Alvarez and Stephen King openly enjoyed the book. Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club.

But there’s a problem.

Cummins is not Latina.

In the days since Winfrey selected the book for her club, dozens of Latino authors have requested that she retract the endorsement. They believe their story–the real life narrative of people who sacrifice everything to come to America–belongs to Latinos. Cummins has appropriated it and it makes them angry. Threats made against Cummins and the bookstores where she planned to read have resulted in the cancellation of her book tour.

The broad question here involves appropriation–or empathy, if you prefer. Should identity be a prerequisite for “acceptable” narratives? It seems that it shouldn’t. After all, the most popular musical in the last 50 years features an incredibly diverse cast playing the parts of white folks.

When a story is large enough, does it belong to everybody?

Posted in Books, Ethics | 12 Comments

Addendum to the Prison Discussion

Two common responses to the problems Mississippi faces with its prison system have been to provide a massive infusion of funding, which is an unlikely move given the state’s reluctance to increase taxes, and freeing nonviolent offenders.

A recent letter to the editor printed in the Commercial Dispatch raises legitimate concerns regarding the latter solution. In it, Kerry Blalock claims that an elderly relative was conned out of a quarter million dollars and that four of the five people convicted for the crime are already out of prison. All five are drug addicts. Blalock’s relative will never be made right by those who stole from him.

Two issues immediately arise: shy of restitution, what punishment should be exacted from nonviolent criminals? Second, because state-provided mental health services and addiction treatment are as underfunded as the prison system, I think it’s fair to anticipate that the recidivism rate for those convicted of drug-related, nonviolent crimes would be high. How can the state protect those with property from those who would steal it to fuel their addictions?

Posted in Politics | 9 Comments

F–cking Winning

Donald Trump guaranteed himself the presidency by winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016. Democrats will certainly double and treble their efforts in those states next year, but may be hampered by a crucial twenty-first century conundrum: how to we weigh environmental interests and economic ones?

This morning’s edition of The Daily examined fracking–yes, the missing letters in the title of this post are “r” and “a”–and the impact it will have on the 2020 election. Fracking is a controversial method of extracting fossil fuels because of potential environmental consequences. It also offers jobs with union wages and benefits in a number of rust belt states like Pennsylvania. If Democrats select a candidate who promises an end to fracking, they may very well be wrapping that crucial state in a red ribbon for Donald Trump. Pennsylvania’s current Lieutenant Governor, John Fetterman (D), believes that Hillary Clinton’s pledge to end coal mining cost her the rust belt, and urges progressives not to make the same mistake twice.

Environmentalists argue that a greener economy will improve the lives of all Americans over time, and that pitting environmental interests against economic self interest is a false dichotomy. Explain that to the families in western Pennsylvania–or the farmers in Mississippi–who fear that tighter environmental laws will regulate them out of a way of life and into bankruptcy.

Posted in Ethics, National Politics | 14 Comments

Staying Engaged

The first day of Pres. Trump’s impeachment trial drew approximately 11 million viewers, which is slightly less than a third the number of viewers of an NFL playoff game the night before. Neither contest featured a scintilla of drama. No impartial viewer believes that the impeachment will deviate from a party line vote, just as nobody with any sense believed the Packers would win unless they slipped ipecac syrup in the 49ers’ PowerAde.

Yet the impeachment process drones on. How ironic that the president who promised to drain the swamp is now being buoyed by it! The only swamps he will drain are the real-life estuaries that developers want to turn into condos. (Through executive order, Pres. Trump has rolled back environmental regulations that protect waterways.)

The only people I’ve seen who can muster up real interest in the impeachment–other than the senators themselves–are ideologues on the left and the right. Voters don’t care because they’ve already formed opinions on the matter; they’ve weighed likely outcomes; they peer on with less interest than they would have in a schoolyard brawl.

Which brings us to the conundrum: how can we encourage voters to stay engaged? Years of free internet access to the news have spoiled us. We don’t want to shell out $10 a month for subscriptions to traditional news sources–sources that certainly had their flaws, but which hired journalists who theoretically knew the importance of keeping the news objective. Instead, we turn to social media and to news sites that give us what we want to hear. Free news comes at a terrible cost: we lose the ability to think critically when we insulate ourselves from uncomfortable truths.

Of course, the media is not the only institution that deserves blame for the lack of engagement on civic issues. Legislators who fail to toe the party line know the needs of their constituents will be ignored by party leadership down the road. So they toe the line. The concomitant gridlock in Washington encourages presidents to rule via executive order. Fingers get pointed. Words spill on the floor and in newsprint. Not much gets done.

Posted in Ethics, National Politics | 9 Comments

Crime and Punishment

For years, psychologists have discouraged parents from using corporal punishment to discipline children. The risks, according to the American Psychological Association, range from increased aggression and antisocial behavior to lifelong mental health issues. Ideally, the APA suggests, parents should punish not out of anger but with the goal of correcting unwanted behavior and encouraging the behavior parents prefer.

With that in mind, the corrections system in Mississippi needs a complete overhaul. If we truly wish for convicts to improve themselves, we cannot send them to prisons where their mere presence is a form of corporal punishment. The inmates of Mississippi’s animal shelters live in better conditions than some human inmates of the MDOC. Look at the pictures from Parchman. Judge for yourself.

People duly convicted of crimes must be punished by the state. In the big picture, though, turning convicts into productive citizens is the best possible outcome of a prison sentence.

It will take years to bring Mississippi’s state prisons in line with federal guidelines. The crisis is so dire that I don’t even know where to begin. If the Mississippi legislature won’t raise taxes to provide for an adequate education or maintain roads and bridges, it seems unlikely they’ll do so for people in prison who are unlikely to vote ever again. Understanding in advance that levels of funding will be low, and that many constituents utterly lack sympathy for inmates, how should we reform prisons in Mississippi? What do we want incarceration to accomplish?

Posted in Politics, Race in Mississippi | 20 Comments

Welcome Back!

Greetings, all! I hope the blog finds you energized and ready for the spring semester. Entertain me. Tell me the most ridiculous piece of advice you got during the break. If you prefer, take a moment to question something that previous generations seem to take for granted. I hope to make use of your anecdotes when the film class covers The Graduate in a couple of weeks, so respond quickly!

Posted in Arts | 23 Comments

The Blog Is Closed for the Semester. . .

. . .but keep reading those newspapers and magazines so you’ll have plenty to say when things get rolling again in January!

Posted in Education | Leave a comment

Second Amendment Compromise

During the latest round of gun violence, my attention pivoted towards practical ways to reduce gun violence in America. The very wording of the Second Amendment lies at the heart of this issue: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. Until the Heller decision in 2008, the Supreme Court viewed gun ownership as a collective right–that is, a right that can be framed by governments to suit specific needs, like promoting the existence of local militias or constabulary forces. It focused on the first clause of the amendment. Heller, however, determined that the Second Amendment guarantees individual rights to gun ownership. It drew attention to the declarative section of the amendment.

My attempt to find a middle path between these two kinds of interpretation involves a marriage between regulation and ownership. I know farmers with wild boar problems who make legitimate use of AR-15s with suppressors. I also know that weapons like these do more damage to human flesh than anything the framers of the Constitution could have imagined. Rather than taking all such weapons from the hands of their owners, it seems reasonable to require education and licensure as a stipulation for purchasing in addition to background checks.

Earning a license to bear a weapon does not infringe ownership any more than requiring a license to drive a car does. For weapons, I can envision a system where some weapons require more training than others. Enforcement would require officials of the state to ask those who handle weapons to show their licenses, just as they do for traffic stops. Legal precedent can be found for this. Although Heller created a precedent for virtually unrestricted gun ownership, it does allow for states to use background checks.

Posted in Politics | 21 Comments

The Whole Truth

Two stories caught my attention over the last week. On Sunday, 60 Minutes ran a Bill Whitaker piece on the dangers of reporting facts in the Philippines since Rodrigo Duterte became president. Maria Ressa, who runs a news site call Rappler, has been harassed by police and by Duterte supporters alike–not for running opinion pieces that disagree with his policies, but for reporting facts about the human costs of Duterte’s war on drugs. Her reporters have been threatened with murder and rape. Duterte has been so irked by Rappler coverage that he has created a ministry that reports only government-approved “news” on social media, decrying everything else as “fake.”

Sound familiar? How sad that we live in a world where any reportage of facts that cut against a preferred narrative results in the rejection of the facts–and the media outlet reporting them–rather than the preferred narrative.

Closer to home, the week before that, the Northwestern Daily, the student newspaper of Northwestern University, apologized for coverage of students who protested the appearance of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had been invited to speak by Northwestern’s College Republicans. A photographer took a picture of a student protester who later tweeted that she didn’t want to have her picture on the site. She found Sessions’ political beliefs and campus speaking engagement genuinely jarring, and accused the newspaper of capitalizing on the “trauma porn” of students who felt like she did. The paper took down the photo and apologized for running it, a decision widely mocked in the world of journalism.

As a recovering journalist, I often thank my lucky stars that my career path eventually led to teaching. I cannot imagine a field more beset by financial worry and political angst than journalism. What’s happening in the Philippines gives us a cautionary tale about autocrats who seek to suppress the freedom of the press. The Daily’s issues illustrate the importance of teaching journalists to report facts even when they’re uncomfortable–even when peers may face discipline for breaking campus regulations regarding protests.

Posted in Education, Politics | 6 Comments