Friday, December 23, 2011

All I want for Christmas

``If they would rather die,'' said Scrooge, ``they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”  – “A Christmas Carol”

Dear Santa,

I’m sorry I haven’t written in a very long time. First, I want to thank you for George – that’s what I named the little mechanical dachshund you brought me in 1972, when we lived in that pretty house on South Joslin Court in Denver. We even had a fireplace for you! Remember?

You brought me some really nice gifts over the years, but I especially cherished George because I couldn’t have a real dog. I never got to show you my appreciation because right after that, my cousin Freddie told me there was no Santa Claus. So I never wrote you again.

Of course, I’ve since found out that Freddie was mistaken. “Santa Claus” is just a moniker; you’re really Saint Nikolaos of Myra, and you were born in what is now Turkey in 270 AD. You’re probably the world’s most famous Orthodox Christian  that nobody knows is Orthodox. (You’re in good company, with Telly Savalas, George Stephanopoulos, Nadia Comaneci and Nikola Tesla. But I digress.)

Anyway, “Santa,” they made you a saint because of the wonderful things you did for the poor – like secretly putting gold coins in children’s shoes as the family slept. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been poor back in the third century. 

I suppose that if you weren’t lucky enough to be the king, you were most likely destitute. There was no Social Security, no food stamps, no Medicaid. The children worked hard along with their parents, not for spending money but for sustenance. I bet that your gold coins prevented more than one family from starving.

So you’ve been traveling around the world ever since then, giving gifts to good children (and to bad ones as well!). And you’ve witnessed a lot of progress in the last 1,700 years. With electricity and plumbing and automobiles, most people are a lot more comfortable now than they were when you first started out.

But we still have poor people. And that’s why I’m writing you this letter, after all these years. I’m really lucky – there’s nothing that I need. I have enough clothes and food, and I have a house to live in. So you don’t have to bring me anything. But I’m worried about the people around me.

I don’t know if you read the newspaper or watch the news – I’m not sure how the reception is at the North Pole. But lately, all over the world, complicated political and economic systems are breaking down. People who used to have clothes and food and houses are losing them. People who worked hard all their lives are worried about their futures. People are protesting, and some people are getting hurt.

There was no “middle class” in third-century Turkey, but nowadays the middle class is a big deal. Middle class people aren’t rich, but they have everything they need – and a few things they want. Well, the middle class is disappearing. Here in the United States, the most recent census showed that half of us are “poor or low-income.” 

There’s a big problem, though – a lot of the poor, at least here in America, don’t “seem” poor. The Heritage Foundation says that the poor aren’t REALLY poor, because most of them have TVs and coffee makers. (I was at Goodwill last week and saw a TV for $10 and a coffee maker for $5 … just sayin’). The folks at Freedom Works think that unemployment insurance – which pays a fraction of what workers’ salaries used to be – keeps people from looking for work. The New York Times reported that the average job-seeker today searches nine months before finding work … which seems like a long time for a family to live on (at most) $1,320 a month, when the average mortgage payment is $1,295. Throw in health insurance, a car payment, and stuff like electricity and food, and … well, you can do the math.

This letter is getting really long, and I know you only have another couple of days to prepare for your big flight on Christmas Eve. But I just wanted to make sure you knew this. The people struggling these days don’t live like people did in your day, but if they can’t pay for medical treatment, or the bank is taking their house away, or their local food pantry has run out of supplies, they’re poor. Don’t you think…?

And come to think of it, with some people in the U.S. wanting to get rid of Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid, as well as child labor regulations … well, we might wind up a lot like third century Turkey anyway.

Merry Christmas!

Love, Teresa

Monday, December 12, 2011

Let’s fight to keep the ‘X’ in ‘Xmas’

“The Supreme Court has ruled that they cannot have a nativity scene in Washington, D.C. This wasn't for any religious reasons. They couldn't find three wise men and a virgin.” – Jay Leno

The most amazing thing didn’t happen to me yesterday.

I was at the grocery store, spending my last three paychecks on luxuries like eggs, milk and bread. As the cashier handed me my red-and-green shopping bag (after finding out whether my preference was paper or plastic), she smiled said, “Merry Christmas!” And without stopping to think – without measuring the possible ramifications – I accidentally blurted, “Merry Christmas to you, too!”

The realization of what I’d done hit me like a 20-pound snowball. I’d said the C-word. In public.

The blood rushed out of my head and I felt woozy. I stood there, frozen to the spot, waiting for the anti-Christmas police to swoop in and arrest me.

I began regretting that morning’s choice in underwear, expecting to be strip-searched. After all, I’ve been hearing about the “War on Christmas” for years, and GOP Presidential candidate Rick Perry himself has released a TV spot pointing out the irony of gays being able to serve openly in the military when “our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” (It’s on television, so it must be true.)

But nothing happened. Nothing at all. I waited until the elderly gentleman behind me shouted, “What the hell ya waitin’ for? CHRISTMAS?” When nothing happened to him, either, I realized that I was safe after all. But it was a close call. I live in the United States, where it is, apparently, extraordinarily dangerous to be a Christian and to honor Christ’s birth.

As I drove home, passing store after store with “CHRISTMAS DEALS!” signs up, and house after house daring to display colored lights and Nativity scenes, I meditated on how difficult it is to be a believer here. I could live in Egypt, where 26 Coptic Orthodox Christians were slaughtered last month. Or in Nigeria, where 45 ethnic Berom Christians were killed just last week. And since most of the stuff people are buying for Christmas is manufactured in China, I’m thinking it might be better to live there. After all, the only thing Christians have to worry about in China is being “disappeared.” 

Here, on the other hand, it’s really a nightmare. I’m trying to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, but there are barriers up everywhere. For instance, I work at a newspaper (and everyone knows the media are godless). I had to create a Holiday Worship guide, filled with stories about Christmas including one about certain events in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. The publication was held together with glossy advertisements for merchandise, some of them brandishing the word “Holidays” but many of them actually using that C-word. We even have a big sign up in the office: “MERRY CHRISTMAS.” And a “Christmas party” has been planned. (I have to bring a cheese ball.)

On the radio, I hear seasonal music, much of it referring to Christmas either in a religious way (about God and stuff) or in a secular way (Santa, Rudolph, war heroes coming home). On TV, there are plenty of seasonal specials, again referring to Christmas – whether as a religious or a secular event. (My personal favorite? “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The ORIGINAL: You can buy a copy here. I can’t watch that one enough – especially the part where his heart grows three sizes! That is SO awesome.)

And I can’t begin to tell you how inconvenient it will be to celebrate the big day, seeing as like the majority of Americans, I get Dec. 25 as a paid holiday. It hardly seems fair, the effort I have to put into honoring my Savior’s birth. Even writing out the name of the holiday is laborious, so I often refer to it as Xmas. (Some people would tell me I’m trying to take the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” but interestingly, the X comes from the Greek Chi, the first letter of the Greek word for Christ.) (Look it up.)

Meanwhile, while I’m undergoing these trials and tribulations, another 2.6 million of my fellow Americans slipped into poverty since last Christmas – and the number of Americans living below the “official” poverty line (which is low indeed) is more than 46 million people – the highest number on record. I recently wrote a feature story on area food pantries; the sources told me that demand has increased threefold since the Recession began. And here in Madison – where things are better than most places in the country – the social service agencies are running out of stuff. Food, clothing, shelter.

Which brings me to what really confused me about Mr. Perry’s clever TV spot in which he “admits” to being an unashamed Christian. He admits there’s something going wrong in America. But what’s going wrong, he says, is that gays are allowed to serve openly in the military. In my Bible, Christ – whose birth we are preparing to celebrate – makes no mention of gays in the military. He does, however, talk lovingly of the poor.

And I’m wondering … maybe Mr. Perry SHOULD be ashamed.

It’s enough to make the Baby Jesus cry.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Correlation, causation, and the proof in the pudding

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words ... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint." – Hesiod, 8th century BC

In the wake of the “viral” videotape of a Texas family court judge whipping his teenage daughter, there’s been no shortage of discussion of corporal punishment (CP) of children, pro and con.

One problem with the dialogue is that no two people can agree on the meaning of the terminology. Is “spanking” a pop on a toddler’s diapered butt? Or is it administering 20 lashes with a metal-studded leather belt? This is like lumping the bow-and-arrow together with the atom bomb and calling them both “weapons of mass destruction.” If we can’t agree how to define the words, I don’t see how we’re going to get anywhere.

But there are two bigger problems: perception vs. reality, and disagreement about what causes what. I mean, everyone knows that kids today are pretty rotten, especially compared to when we were their age. Smoking, drinking, drugs, violence, and sex … today’s teens are worse than EVER! And what could be causing this monstrous behavior? Well, obviously, it’s linked to the drop in popularity of CP at home and in the schools.

But the perception of “kids today” simply isn’t accurate. In fact, in many ways, “today’s kids” are BETTER than we ever were.


Let’s take the example of violence. Mom vs. the World” writes: “Spanking does not cause violence. The proof is in the pudding! Look at the youth of today and then come back and tell me the kids are less violent today than there were 20 years ago. You can’t do it … All you have to do is watch YouTube for a few minutes and see that violence among kids has grown not declined.”

Well, as long as we’re going to use the word “proof,” then maybe we can look at some actual, factual information. According to FBI national arrest statistics, the arrest rate of juveniles for violent crime (murder, robbery, rape, and aggravated assault) has declined each year since 1994, and is lower now than in any year since at least 1980.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, violent crime in schools has declined dramatically during the same time period. The annual rate of serious violent crime in 2007 (40 per 1,000 students) was less than half of the rate in 1994.

Literally hundreds of studies are showing the same results. In her blog, “Mom” says she doesn’t trust the “experts,” but I can’t help but ask the question: Why are so many different experts doing different studies and coming up with the same data? (Especially when many of these studies are conducted by entities that could receive more government funding if they OVERSTATED the problem…? Stick THAT in your blog and type it.)

It’s important to remember that correlation does not always imply causation. I certainly don’t believe we can prove a direct link between the drop in youth crime and parents spanking less. But it’s obviously inaccurate to claim that “teens are more violent today” and then to blame this “fact” on a reported decrease in CP.

In defense of CP (not simply “discipline,” which I think most parents agree is a necessity), “Mom” also says, “Kids need to learn about consequences when they are kids so they can gain a healthy respect for the laws and rules when they become adults.” This is the classic “I spank my kids to keep them out of jail” argument.

But here again, the data’s clear. A childhood background of CP (which may, or may not, be defined as abuse) is ubiquitous in the prison population. Based on a study of more than 2,000 delinquents, Dr. Ralph Welsh developed “The Belt Theory.” "The recidivist male delinquent who has never been exposed to the belt, extension cord or fist at some time in his life is virtually non-existent,” he says.

We can’t say for certain that CP caused these inmates to commit violent, illegal acts. However, it’s obvious that the punishment didn’t PREVENT these acts either.

By the same token, we can look at populations that, statistically, tend to rely heavily on CP – such as African-Americans and people without college degrees. Both populations are over-represented in our penal system. Perhaps CP didn’t cause their behavior, but again, it didn’t seem to PREVENT it. And wasn’t that the point?

Violence isn’t the only example. Drug use? Yes, it’s edged up a bit recently, but it’s still 50 percent lower than it was in 1979 (the year I entered high school). Drinking? Also down, and “much less a problem than it was 20 years ago,” says Dr. Robert Foss, senior research scientist at the Highway Research Safety Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Smoking? After a peak in 1996, it’s been declining.

But surely, more kids are having sex? I mean, look at all that garbage on TV! Well, sorry to disappoint, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen pregnancy is at its lowest rate in two decades and other indicators (age of first sexual activity, STDs, the abortion rate) are showing improvement as well.

Here we go with that pesky correlation-and-causation thing again. Over the past few decades, fewer parents are using CP routinely (or at least, this is what they report). Meanwhile, today’s kids aren’t perfect, but they’re not all going to hell in a handbasket either. So where’s that connection again…?

Of course, we all know things started going sour when they stopped CP in schools. But it seems that most people don’t realize that CP is still legal in the school districts of 19 states, and it’s not rare; last year more than 200,000 students were subjected to CP (disproportionately and repeatedly administered to minority, poor and special education students).

The top 10 states for CP (paddling) in schools: Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Kentucky. And, as Gomer Pyle would say, surprise-surprise: by almost every measure (graduation rates, standardized test scores, violent crime and teen pregnancy, among others), things are worse in these states than in states where CP is illegal.

Golly gee. I’d like to pull a “correlation is causation” out of that hat, but I can’t. Perhaps there’s no link at all. Perhaps there is some unknown factor, like the color of the dirt or the prevalence of moths, in these 10 states, which simply appears to link school CP with negative life outcomes.

I don’t know. But I’d be interested in finding out what’s in the pudding that “Mom” is eating.