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Archive for March, 2010

Have you been paying attention to what is going on in Texas’s Board of Education the past couple of weeks? If not, you might want to perk your ears up and take notice. Texas has managed to do it again—provide more evidence of why they should secede, that is.

In a 10-to-5 vote split by party lines, the Texas State Board of Education approved some right-leaning alterations for social studies textbooks. After a public comment period, the board will vote on final recommendations in May.

These changes have the potential to affect about 80 percent of the country’s students because Texas purchases so many textbooks that other states end up buying the same ones. But enough with the small talk. Let me share with you some of the changes they have endorsed:

– A greater emphasis on “the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s.” This means not only increased favorable mentions of [Phyllis] Schlafly, the founder of the antifeminist Eagle Forum, but also more discussion of the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, the National Rifle Association, and Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America.

– A reduced scope for Latino history and culture. A proposal to expand such material in recognition of Texas’s rapidly growing Hispanic population was defeated in last week’s meetings—provoking one board member, Mary Helen Berlanga, to storm out in protest. “They can just pretend this is a white America and Hispanics don’t exist,” she said of her conservative colleagues on the board. “They are rewriting history, not only of Texas but of the United States and the world.”

– Changes in specific terminology. Terms that the board’s conservative majority felt were ideologically loaded are being retired. Hence, “imperialism” as a characterization of America’s modern rise to world power is giving way to “expansionism,” and “capitalism” is being dropped in economic material in favor of the more positive expression “free market.” (The new recommendations stress the need for favorable depictions of America’s economic superiority across the board.)

– A more positive portrayal of Cold War anticommunism. Disgraced anticommunist crusader Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator censured by the Senate for his aggressive targeting of individual citizens and their civil liberties on the basis of their purported ties to the Communist Party, comes in for partial rehabilitation. The board recommends that textbooks refer to documents published since McCarthy’s death and the fall of the Soviet bloc that appear to show expansive Soviet designs to undermine the U.S. government.

– Language that qualifies the legacy of 1960s liberalism. Great Society programs such as Title IX—which provides for equal gender access to educational resources—and affirmative action, intended to remedy historic workplace discrimination against African-Americans, are said to have created adverse “unintended consequences” in the curriculum’s preferred language.

– Thomas Jefferson no longer included among writers influencing the nation’s intellectual origins. Jefferson, a deist who helped pioneer the legal theory of the separation of church and state, is not a model founder in the board’s judgment. Among the intellectual forerunners to be highlighted in Jefferson’s place: medieval Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, Puritan theologian John Calvin, and conservative British law scholar William Blackstone. Heavy emphasis is also to be placed on the founding fathers having been guided by strict Christian beliefs.

– Excision of recent third-party presidential candidates Ralph Nader (from the left) and Ross Perot (from the centrist Reform Party). Meanwhile, the recommendations include an entry listing Confederate General Stonewall Jackson as a role model for effective leadership, and a statement from Confederate President Jefferson Davis accompanying a speech by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.

– A recommendation to include country and western music among the nation’s important cultural movements. The popular black genre of hip-hop is being dropped from the same list. (Full article here)

Uhh… wow? What are these “unintended consequences” of Title IX? Why would hip-hop (one of the best-selling genres today) be excluded from the list? And what the hell did Thomas Jefferson ever NOT do to deserve being downplayed or excluded? The man wrote the Declaration of Independence for crying out loud.

It has been a widespread belief among conservatives that news outlets (and, evidently, education) are far too liberal. They complain about the “MSM” (mainstream media) and then flock to Fox News, with their joke of a “Fair and Balanced” slogan. I agree with Farhad Manjoo that the country has become so split down ideological lines that it is not even that we disagree on the opinions—we now don’t even get the same facts. He writes:

In the last few years, pollsters and political researchers have begun to document a fundamental shift in the way Americans are thinking about the news. No longer are we merely holding opinions different from one another; we’re also holding different facts. Increasingly, our arguments aren’t over what we should be doing—in the Iraq War, in the war on terrorism, on global warming, or about any number of controversial subjects—but, instead, over what is happening. Political scientists have characterized our epoch as one of heightened polarization; now, as I’ll document, the creeping partisanship has began to distort our very perceptions about what is “real” and what isn’t. Indeed, you can go so far as to say we’re now fighting over competing versions of reality. And it is more convenient than ever before for some of us to live in a world built of our own facts. (Full article here)

And though Manjoo was discussing the news, the stakes are raised even higher when the medium giving differing facts is a student’s trusted textbook. The Texas Board of Education does not deny that it is attempting to “balance” history to give greater favor to conservatism. What is your reaction to this? Do you think textbooks are too liberal? Do you think it’s fair to insert Phyllis Schlafly in favor of Ted Kennedy, one of the most prominent and influential lawmakers of his era?  Do you think the government should be dictating requirements to private textbook companies—and if not, then who should dictate the requirements? What should a history book’s approach to slavery be? Please feel free to share whatever opinion you may hold!

I will leave you with some words on the matter from conservative Texan Chuck Norris himself:

[O]ur nation’s public schools, and especially our nation’s colleges and universities, are the seedbeds of politically correct and liberal indoctrination, out of sync with our founders’ vision and views. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. … It’s a travesty that we have even come to this point that we have to protect our children from the public-school systems, by policing their policies, testing their textbooks, and combating their biases to education. But such is the sign of our times. My personal warning to educational tyranny and tyrants is this: best not to test or mess with Texas. If you thought we fought hard for the Alamo, wait until you see what we can do for the right to educate our children. You can hide behind your No. 2 pencils, but our branding irons will find your tail sides. (Full article here)

Thanks again, Texas.

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Noxious Remedy

As friends and family of the late actor Corey Haim gather at his funeral today, questions are swirling about his not-so-secret addiction to prescription drugs. Haim is the latest in a line of well-known (Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith) and not so well-known people to have their lives cut short from abusing controlled substances. (The toxicology reports aren’t back yet on Haim, but anyone who ever watched A&E’s “The Two Coreys” knows that he admitted he was a chronic prescription drug abuser.)

Some of the drugs Haim is believed to have been taking include hydrocodone (Vicodin), diazepam (Valium), haloperidol (an antipsychotic medication), and Soma (a muscle relaxant). His ex-girlfriend has gone on record as saying that in any given day, he would ingest some 40-odd pills. I cannot even imagine what that does to a person’s body and mind.

Corey Haim’s death, while certainly tragic for him and his loved ones, could help highlight a growing epidemic. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says prescription drug deaths now outnumber deaths from heroin and cocaine combined, and the United Nations Narcotics Board recently announced that the same trend exists worldwide.

Reports say that law enforcement officers found an unauthorized prescription under Haim’s name during an ongoing investigation of bogus prescription drug forms ordered from a San Diego supplier. This massive drug ring works by using stolen doctor indentities to order prescription drug pads from vendors. The pads are then sold directly to prescription drug addicts or to people paid to fill the prescription and sell the drugs. The investigation has so far uncovered more than 4,500 unauthorized prescriptions linked to the fraud ring.

So if high-profile people continue to die from abuse of controlled substances, spotlighting the dangers and extent of the issue, why does the problem seem to be getting worse? And who should we focus on to try to reduce the problem—doctors or patients? Because doctors are the first line of defense, and because it’s hard to depend on the person taking the pills to make the right decision, I would go with doctors.

Consider this anecdote:

In [medical officer] Michael Seppala’s rural home state of Oregon, you are now three times more likely to die from prescription opioids as you are to be murdered. Some of the cases he has dealt with would be laughable were the issue not so serious. “It used to be the case that teenagers suffering pain from a sprained ankle or sore shoulder would be prescribed ibuprofen or paracetemol. But these days physicians are increasingly prescribing opioids,” says Mr. Seppala. “We had one case where a 12-year-old boy was caught dealing Vicodin at school. When his local physician asked where he was getting the drugs the boy replied, ‘Here, in your practice.’ The young guy was able to go in repeatedly and gain opioids to sell to his friends in the schoolyard, no questions asked.” (Full story here)

The only time I remember taking any strong pain medication was when I got my wisdom teeth removed, but from what I hear from people I know, getting your doctor to prescribe you pain pills is simply all too easy. And antidepressants like Prozac, Lexapro, and Zoloft, and anxiety medications like Valium, are as easy to get as telling someone you feel down. These medications have serious effects on the body and mind, and some doctors are passing them out like candy.

So the question becomes: how do we regulate these controlled substances even more than we already do? Or… do we even bother using precious law enforcement and judicial resources to track down and prosecute violators? Much like the argument against prosecuting for marijuana offenders, is illegal use of controlled substances something that Americans might be willing to simply shrug their shoulders at and allow to happen? After all, if used correctly, these medications are legal. (Kind of like McDonalds—if eaten in moderation, it shouldn’t kill you?) The drugs are also extremely helpful and necessary in many cases.

I’m interested to know what people’s experiences are with how easy it is to get these medications and how easy it is to get hooked on them. Do you think law enforcement should crack down on illegal prescription drug rings and on doctors who hand out needless prescriptions too easily? As always, I love anyone who comments. Hope you are having a good week!

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With same-sex couples lining up in the District of Columbia this morning for their first chance to obtain marriage licenses, I thought this was an opportune time for this blog…. (“DC Couples line up as DC marriage law takes effect”)

The United States in the 21st century is struggling to define marriage legally. We all have a definition in our heads of what marriage is, but it’s probably as unique to each person as each union is. Marriage as an institution has been around for centuries, possibly a millennia, but its role in society has changed over time. So, with a legal mindset and without even getting into an argument about same-sex marriage, I have to ask:

What exactly is the legal purpose of marriage in today’s society?

I know that a common response is that, back in the day, the purpose of marriage was to have a relationship in which people could procreate. The purpose of life in general was to populate the earth, to extend the human race. But that is most certainly not the point of marriage today, is it? You do not have to bear children to be granted a marriage license. You do not have to promise to do so. People who are infertile or sterile can still stand at the altar. People who are 75 years old and essentially incapable of producing offspring are still allowed to take their vows. So, that answer is out.

So then perhaps the purpose of marriage is for the good of the children that are borne. But this argument doesn’t hold water either because people are allowed to have children without being married. They are allowed to produce offspring, be civil to one another (and even friendly and maybe even romantic!), split the responsibilities, and churn out perfectly healthy and normal kids even if they are divorced or were never married. (Perfectly healthy and normal is all relative, of course. Married people can produce children just as messed up as children whose parents aren’t married.) And people are allowed to marry and still completely destroy their families. It is not a requirement that you have a good family to be recognized as married.

So then is getting married about love and committment? Not necessarily. People can get married for any reason that they want to. They do not have to provide proof of their devotion to anyone, at least not legally. Some churches require counseling or mentoring before a minister will perform a marriage, but nobody has to get married through a church to be recognized by the government. You can walk into city hall, or you can have your uncle or your barber or your third grade teacher get ordained online and perform the service. I think love and committment ought to be the purpose of marriage, but it obviously is not a requirement. People marry for money, fame, security, citizen status, and other reasons every day.

So then is the purpose of marriage to get legal benefits? That seems to be the only thing all marriages have in common, from what I can tell. All the legal perks that come with being recognized as married to someone are certainly a positive reason to marry.

Legal marriage comes with about 400 state benefits and around 1,000 federal benefits. To give you some idea, a legally recognized marriage comes with rights to: joint parenting; joint insurance policies for home, auto, and health; such benefits as annuities, pension plans, and Social Security; domestic violence protection orders; judicial protections and immunities; bereavement or sick leave to care for a partner or child; status of next-of-kin for hospital visits and medical decisions if partner is not able to decide; and decisionmaking power with respect to a deceased partner’s wishes about burial or cremation.

These and the hundreds of other benefits are nothing to sneeze at. This country has made a huge financial and emotional investment in marriage and clearly encourages its citizens to take that legal step. But why?

I know I have not yet asked the question, but I suppose I can’t write this without bringing it up. If we can’t decide on what the legal purpose of marriage is in today’s society (or if the only thing all marriages have in common is that they receive legal benefits), then why in the hell are we forbidding same-sex couples to marry? Name one reason given that same-sex couples should not get married that can’t also apply to many opposite-sex couples. I can’t think of any. Maybe you can.

What I ultimately don’t understand is that, with all the hate and horror and tragedy in the world, what is so wrong with a legally-recognized declaration of love? (Again, that it is for love is an optimistic view, but probably the most common reason.) Who cares that it isn’t the traditional bride and groom on top of the wedding cake? Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee aren’t exactly what I think of as the perfect parents in the perfect relationship, but nobody denied them their right to sign that marriage license (and later divorce papers). And if it’s about the sanctity of marriage… well, straight people tainted that long ago, and I don’t see anyone up in arms about that.

I think a lot of people I’ve talked to are not opposed to giving same-sex couples the same rights as other couples; they just are not comfortable with calling it marriage. To many, marriage is a holy sacrament and a strictly religious word meant for unions blessed by the church. Well, if that’s the case, then the government has a problem because it has not defined marriage that way at all. And if this is truly a primary complaint, then perhaps what we think of as legal marriage should be called civil union—for everybody, not just same-sex couples—and “marriage” can be reserved for ceremonies blessed by the church. Other countries do this. Their governments could not care less if you get “married” in a church; but if you want to be recognized by them, you have to go do something different either instead of or in addition to. Then again, I guess that is basically what a marriage license is in this country.

So when it comes down to it, is the big fuss really all about vocabulary? Are we just hung up on the semantics?

Also, I know a lot of people say the reason they got or want to get married is for love. But you can be in love without getting married. So I guess one thing I’m asking is: if we didn’t have this thing called marriage, what would be different? The more I think about it, the more I can come up with a counter to every argument for the purpose of marriage. I do hope to get married someday, but I don’t fully understand why. I guess on some level, I feel like marriage is an outdated custom that has lost its shine.

One last thing. It may be helpful to consider this, from Wikipedia: For most of Western history, marriage was a private contract between two families. For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows—even without witnesses—the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married. State supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. The concept of a Marriage License was introduced in the 1920s, when 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, mulattos, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Mongolians, Malays, or Filipinos without a state approved license. Thus the institution of marriage was fundamentally changed. The private contract was exchanged for a public contract and the State entered as a new third party in the marriage contract.

Please let me know your thoughts on the original question (what is the legal purpose of marriage in today’s society?), and anything else you think is relevant!

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