Tuesday, November 28

Can Anyone Save Neighborhood Journalism?

Today's Wall Street Journal has a good editorial about what the writer calls "neighborhood journalism." My loyal followers know I am a newspaper and journalism junkie, so that is partly why I found this editorial interesting. Read the online version here.

Saturday, November 18

Interesting New Jack Ruby Revelations

Friday, November 10

Reckoning with Society and Sutherland Springs

I waited a few days since the massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas to post any thoughts on what happened, because immediate thoughts tend not to be measured, and tend to be overly emotional. There was already enough of that happening before we knew the total number of the dead, so waiting was good.
In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, a common response from people was to offer "thoughts and prayers" and other heartfelt words in reaction to a heartless attack. For the first time, I started to notice people openly mocking "thoughts and prayers" and some were even using foul language to attack politicians who said such things. Many of the online assaults attacked and mocked religion, which was especially poignant given that the massacre took place inside a church and on a Sunday.
After Sunday, there are a lot of questions that continue to be worth asking each time a tragedy like this occurs, and Sunday brought those questions back to the forefront. They probably are not the questions you think need to be asked.
The cynic will ask "what will the thoughts and prayers do?" Well, there are many facets to that answer. We pray for the souls lost, especially to such senselessness. We pray for the families who lost a loved one. We pray for the injured. We pray for a community to stay strong and comfort each other. We pray for more heroes like the two men who confronted the gunman and then followed him to his end. We might even say a prayer thankful that this was not worse than it was, those injured could have been among the casualties after all. And had the killer not been challenged by the aforementioned two men, no one knows what his plan consisted of next.
Our society is ailing. We were ailing before this, we will ail for some time to come. How do we move forward? Are we always going to worry now that no place is safe, that no place is sacred?
Those people who know me know that almost every situation that I discuss always leads me to ask one of three questions: What are the root causes? What would Transformational Change look like? Where does this end? I am not often interested in small solutions.
A brief primer on these questions for perspective:

Root Causes - If we want to inquire as to why so many teen girls get pregnant, we start discussing the availability and affordability of contraceptive options. That is what I consider to be treating the symptoms. I suggest we look deeper. I want to know why teens are engaging in destructive behavior with life-altering consequences. Are too many families breaking apart, leaving single parents to raise children and circumstances lead them to engage in behavior better left to adults? Are parents that are raising children in these times too overmatched with technology and supervision issues? Is pop culture so out of control that teens think real life actually looks like what they see on so-called reality tv or on the Facebook or Twitter accounts of so-called stars?
Transformational Change - This is massive change; not change for the timid. This is the opposite of tinkering around the edges. Tinkering would be like using a teaspoon to scoop water off the deck of the Titanic (or the oft-used phrase of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic). Transformation would be like a school system offering that for each year a high school student graduates early, the school system will direct the money from those "earned" years into paying that many years of college or vocational school. So, graduate in 11 years, get a free year of higher education; graduate in 10 years, get two years of free higher education. I told you it was not for the timid. 
Think about the level of change that happens here. Think about the parental involvement that occurs when parents realize they are helping their children earn toward college/vocational credit. Think about the reduced class sizes once you get the kids that need to move on to the next level, out of the classroom, and allow teachers to focus on those who remain so that the instruction gets more personal, more focused. You see the point, and this post is not about education, so I will move on for now.
Where Does it End (also known as the slippery slope) - We like to help people that have served our country or community in great ways. We like to give these people tax breaks. For instance, perhaps a cap on or an elimination of property taxes for people who have done X, Y, or Z. Well, not long after one group gains this perk, others chime in and want caps or eliminations too. Are we saying that the group that got the cap or elimination is so much better than this other worthy group that we cannot even consider this other group for the same? So we go along. Well then, here comes the third group a while later... before we know it, no one is paying the tax and there is no revenue generation to fund programs. In Texas, for instance, our property taxes fund public education, so if everyone gets an exemption on property taxes, who or what is paying for education then? Public education is not getting cheaper, so it will need funding, there is no doubt about that. The need for education reform can be discussed another time, so I will again move on for now.

Now, back to the tragedy that took place this past Sunday.
Immediately after the news broke, opportunist politicians and many Leftist Hollyweird-types (like they don't have their own problems right now, problems that continue to get exposed daily) started chiming in with their usual calls for gun control and worse, more government "action," in whatever shape or form they can get it right now. Needless to say, Hollyweird does not have the answers. Just because Leo fictionally died in the freezing cold waters when Rose dispatched him from weighing down her floating wooden door, he thinks he is an expert on so-called global warming. It is not so for him, and not so for most of his fellow script readers.
To think another gun law would have stopped Sunday's massacre is to leave logic behind. It is also worth noting that certain gun laws or gun usage laws, would not have kept a determined Devin Kelley at home on Sunday, and in fact might have prevented the two men who confronted and stopped him from owning, driving with, or using the gun that was used to end the mayhem.
I will go a step further, to make a point. Imagine that we made all guns illegal. Imagine we made all baseball bats illegal. Imagine we made cars illegal (remember just last week in NYC eight people were killed by a terrorist with a car). Imagine we made axes, chainsaws, and knives illegal. Imagine we made metal or lead pipes illegal.
Utopia, right?
We have to reach deeper.
What are we doing about the mentally ill? We may (and I emphasize "may") keep the mentally ill from mass killing, simply by making everything illegal. Well, at that point the mentally ill are still mentally ill and they still need help. So what now? If the person goes out in the world without any weapons and instead chokes a person to death, well, we can hope choking a person to death is illegal...
The absurdity of all of this is to point out that laws have limits. We should make murder illegal! We should make theft illegal! We should make drug use illegal! To show we are serious about illegal drug use, we should fund a "war on drugs" and really go after the users and the sellers and the growers. Maybe we could even grow government in the process.
We have to reach deeper.
I will offer up one such example: Imagine this Sunday church killer. Imagine when he was dishonorably discharged from the military that a local group was contacted and made aware of him. Maybe this was a church, maybe this was a non-profit. Maybe this was somebody to have a casual conversation (or a series of conversations) with this disturbed soul and see if he would talk. People trained properly can identify buzzwords and traits, they know what to look for. At that point, these people know who to notify for further help and monitoring.
Now, this is an isolated incident. We know that Devin Kelley was a severely challenging case, beyond the help of any one single person. There is a case to be made that the type of "after-care" I am suggesting has its limits, but it also has the potential of recognizing those who really need more care than we realize, before they do the unthinkable.
Hollywood "actress" Sarah Silverman tweeted after Sunday's incident that we learn lessons from airplane crashes, and air travel gets increasingly safer as a result. That was a surprisingly coherent and reasonable assessment. Silverman then rode the train right into the ditch in a flaming ball of glory when she lamented that supposedly nothing happens following one mass shooting after another.
What I would suggest to Silverman and the other elites is that we learn even more pragmatic lessons of prevention. Instead of trying to prevent mass killings by demanding more gun laws, let us work toward helping the people who might fit the profile of the most likely of attackers. I would suggest we find solutions that do not cause further harm to people or further reduce freedom for people who did not do anything wrong. I would suggest that if Silverman put the kind of time into developing community-based solutions and involvement that she puts into advocating more gun controls laws, we might actually see the reduction in these tragedies that we all seek.
Mine is not strictly a freedom and liberty and minimal government argument. From that perspective though, there are a lot of tax breaks and loopholes in the tax code for a lot of things that I think could be and should be eliminated. I am more in favor of incentives and tax breaks for the creation of groups and organizations that seek to do right in our country. These are not always religious organizations or even churches, and they do not need to be. What works, is what works. If the religious approach works, then we should encourage it where it works. I have written in the past about a religious approach to drug addiction, alcoholism, and homelessness (here and here). The approach was unorthodox, but its positive results and number of changed lives is staggering. That approach may not work for everyone everywhere. But neighborhood healers can do work at the most minute levels of our society that no piece of federal legislation will ever accomplish.
Instead of showing up after a tragedy and demanding liberty-limiting change, let us try a little prevention which also will not limit our freedom and alienate our communities; done correctly we can strengthen both.
We have to reach deeper.
This is not a time to further empower those with some authority over us. Think of this as a time to find the solutions from within our communities, within our neighborhoods, within our families and most importantly, within ourselves.
So, which of my three questions is at work here? All of them.
We have to reach deeper. When we do this, we can address what ails us in a way that is worthy of America.

Sunday, October 29

Education Issues Are a Mess, And Dialogue Cannot Be Had

I saw the tweet below by Ben Pile and I was intrigued. Then I read the tweet he was responding to, by Teach First, and I was even more intrigued. So I followed up.

Teach First is based in the U.K. Teach First put this explanation on their website:
We recently held a social mobility summit, where we invited a range of external speakers with differing views to debate issues around education. As part of this event we asked two of our speakers to write independent blogs for our website with opposing views. This was in order to continue the conversation in the areas the conference explored. 
One of the pieces submitted, by Toby Young, we disagreed with. We wanted to give the opposing view, so we published Toby’s piece alongside a rebuttal from Sonia Blandford, who has recently written on similar subjects. The aim was to drive debate. But we shouldn’t have published his blog, even with the rebuttal: it was against what we believe is true and against our values and vision. We apologise. Although we don’t want to provide a platform for those views we also don’t want to cover over our mistake, so this note also serves as a record.
So there you have it. Yes, I agree with Ben Pile's initial tweet. I will not be so bold as to say "every problem we have in education can be seen right there," but it is tempting.

Ultimately, no country is finished growing or developing. As long as people occupy a land and there is a civilization, people will grow and things will change in some way or another. I am reminded of a great quote from an episode of West Wing of all places, "We're meant to keep doing better. We're meant to keep discussing and debating and we're meant to read books by great historical scholars and then talk about them." Exactly right. Yes, he was talking about the United States, but the comment can apply to any free peoples.

This Teach First example was a grand opportunity for a great debate, a genuine dialogue. Instead, they opted for cowardice and censorship.


Toby Young has posted a response about the situation that is well worth reading.

Monday, October 16

James Baker on Civility

Bill King, the former Mayor of Kemah, Texas, and well regarded public policy expert shared this speech earlier today on his blog and through his email list. The speech is by for Secretary of State and of the Treasury, James (Jim) Baker. On a personal level, I disagree with Secretary Baker on plenty of things, and I have no use for his mention of so-called "global climate change" but the content of this speech for Christians and civilians is really quite good. I hope you will read this and think about it. Read it twice. And let me know what you think....civilly of course.

The Need for Civility in an Uncivil World

The following is a speech that Secretary Baker recently gave to a group at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.  I pass it along to you without commentary other than a hearty “Amen.”

I have been asked to speak tonight about the need for civility in an uncivil world.
It is a complicated question, one that robustly challenges Christians because it puts us directly in the crosshairs of a critical theological question: How do we reconcile our Christian desire to confront what we consider wrongdoing in the world with Our Lord’s endorsement of tolerance toward others?
Further, it is a complicated question at a time when many of our values are being challenged by today’s culture.  Basic Judeo-Christian values that were generally accepted during the first two hundred years in America are now being questioned.  How do we deal with this situation?
As I consider my response, I want to make it clear that I’m no theologian and this question is probably above my paygrade!  But I am a former public servant, an attorney, a father, a grandfather and a great grandfather who is now in my 88th year. And I suspect that the some of the same things that have become apparent to me are also apparent to many of you here tonight.
The world, it seems is going through a tectonic transformation — one that brings tremendous opportunities. And with them, great risks.
In many ways, the future looks brighter than ever.  Technology and science are marching at the fastest paces connect us with one another around the world. Mankind will be heading to Mars by 2030. And long before then, most of us will have self-driving cars.  Our health is better than ever before. Globally, we are living twice as long today as we did less than century ago. And the average life expectancy continues to rise.
Wealth, meanwhile, is spreading around the globe as more and more countries adopt America’s successful paradigms of democratic governance and free-market economics. Last year, the World Bank announced that a smaller percentage of the world’s population lived below the extreme poverty line than at any other time in recorded history.
And if you can pull your attention away from the constant deluge of negative news, you might be surprised to learn that we are living in one of the most peaceful times during the past century. The annual global death rate due to war is down from an average of 22 deaths per 100,000 people during the Cold War years to 1.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2014, the latest year with complete numbers.
Yes, there are risks in the world today. Global climate change, nuclear proliferation and radical Islamic terrorism are three, to name just a few. And violence and economic disparity remain difficult challenges around the world.  On balance, however, more people may be living in relative peace, better health and greater prosperity than during any other time in world history.
At the same time, sadly, our own country is going through a period of great civil unrest, perhaps the most toxic I have experienced in my life. The tenor of our national discourse is tinged with an aggressive anger and a virulent rhetoric that threatens our society. We seem to prefer arguing over statues and other symbols of the past rather than building projects for our future.
When you open the newspapers or watch television, it’s sometimes hard not to cringe at the bankruptcy of our public debate. We hear shrill cries for the removal of the Jefferson Monument because that Founding Father owned slaves. We are scolded that “safe places” are needed on college campuses to protect our students from discussions they don’t agree with.
America’s national ideal of e pluribus unum-“out of many, one”-threatens to become a hollow slogan as jaded Americans constantly are confronted by tidal waves of animus from their televisions and smartphones.
The practice of identity politics increasingly divided us along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual identity. Countless demagogues stand ready to exploit those differences. When a sports reporter of Asian heritage is removed from his assignment because his name — Robert Lee — resembles the name of Robert E. Lee,  it shows the insanity of the principal of “political correctness.”
The one thing that has united us in the past has been love of country, patriotism and respect for our flag and our national anthem. Now, it seems, some believe it is ok to disrespect those symbols in order to call attention to grievances they hold.  Obviously, they have a constitutional right to do that. But doing so risks unraveling what in the past has unified us.
Symbolic of our national anger is the partisan animosity between Republicans and Democrats that has brought Washington to a standstill. We can’t seem to get anything done because our government isn’t working for us.
These divisions are real. In our national politics, and particularly in Washington maintaining lines of civil and constructive communication seems increasingly more difficult.
There are, of course, several reasons for our hyper-partisan political environment:
First, there is a redistricting process that pushes congressional districts to the fringes of the political spectrum. As result, the reasonable center is being squeezed out of our politics. The art of compromise is now missing from our polity.
Second, there is the simple fact that we live in a fairly evenly divided red-state, blue-state country, with the two sides seeing the world through vastly different prisms. The problems confronting a Democrat on Chicago’s South Side are different than the ones facing a Texas Panhandle Republican.
Third, our rapidly developing social media lowers our national debate into an angry brawl. Through social media, people throw the wildest allegations against the wall to see which ones stick. Further, the spreading of fake news via social media undermines real news, and creates a jaundiced society that doesn’t know who or what to believe.
And fourth and finally, the press no longer objectively reports facts but rather acts as an advocate and player in our political debate. If you watch FOX, you think you’re watching the house organ of the Republican Party. And if you watch MSNBC, you know you’re watching the house organ of the Democratic Party.
So what can we do to revive the type of bipartisanship that is necessary for our  government to accomplish anything for the American people?
In Washington, it will take leadership in both parties!  Republicans and Democrats will have to, once again, work together and compromise if they want to get things done.  But all Americans must also shoulder some of the responsibility. Each of us needs to look inside our own heart.
The harshness of our political debate has been matched  It is becoming uglier and more crass.  The norms dictating decent behavior are eroding; and it seems that we’ve lost sight of the basic regard we owe our fellow men and women.  Rather than blame others for our myriad of problems, we should recognize that in a democracy, no one side gets to make all of the rules.
Our country has survived and thrived for so long, in large part, because we have learned how to work together on important issues. Compromise in a democracy is essential.  Our Founding Fathers differed on many issues, but they worked out compromises to define our core principles that still hold today.
As followers of Jesus Christ, when thinking about our role in society today, it’s important to ask ourselves, “What Would Jesus Do?” How did Jesus respond to the chaos of the day and the lifestyles that were antithetical to his morals?  He looked at people with hope, whoever they were. And all were invited to follow him — the good Jew AND the hated Samaritan.  He says in the book of John, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Jesus didn’t focus on the political upheaval of the day, but on each individual’s heart. He calls us to love God with all of our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan makes it clear that our neighbor is not just someone we agree with. Our neighbor is everyone with whom we have contact. He teaches us NOT to judge others, but to examine our own hearts and repent of our wrongdoing.
Jesus challenges us to love our enemies, to do good for them, and to forgive those who have wronged us. He cautions that if we aren’t willing to forgive others, God can’t forgive us.
In politics, compromise is essential. But being a practicing Christian requires us to be respectful of our neighbor even when compromise is not possible.  Working hard for our political beliefs and values is very important, but it is more important to never lose sight of walking in the light of Jesus.
Thankfully, we have been given the Good News that Jesus will never leave us or forsake us, and we have also been given prayer as the way to live. We are continually told to pray in both the Old and the New Testaments.  In II Chronicles it says, “If my people who are called by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
We have work to do in the civic arena, but we also have much work to do in our hearts if our land is to be healed.  When we look at our world in the context of our faith, we could despair if we didn’t know about God’s grace and mercy. The bottom line for us Christians, however, is that we are called to show grace and mercy–even to our philosophical opponents–just as we ourselves are shown mercy.
And so, when someone makes a point, listen to it, regardless of how incorrect it may seem to you. Don’t discount people just because you don’t agree with what they say. Or the way they look. Or where they live.  Listening is an important part of learning about one another.  And in this country, we need to do more of that, and do less of the screeching that too many people today think passes as discourse.
During the six weeks since Hurricane Harvey hammered the area, Houston has demonstrated many of the attributes I’ve been talking about. In the midst of the biggest crisis our community has ever experienced, we stopped being Democrat or Republican . . . rich or poor  . . . black, white, or brown . . .  Christian, Muslim, or Jew.
Instead, we’ve all been Houstonians — first, and foremost. With the single focus of restoring and healing our community, we’ve prayed for one another, we’ve helped one another and we’ve looked out for one another.  This dynamic and broad-gauged response by Houstonians has been simply remarkable. And it is precisely what we need nationally.
Yes, we have many differences among us here in Houston — just as we do in Texas and across the nation.  But in the end, we are all Americans living in the very finest country in the world — the country everyone wants to come to, and no one wants to leave.  Realizing and respecting that phenomenon is what unifies us when times get tough.
It SHOULD unify us ALL the time.