Sunday, February 28, 2010

Welcome Back, Big Mac

"Grace under pressure" is a well-worn phrase, and I do not use it lightly. But those are the three words that come to mind when I recall Henry Aaron's pursuit of Babe Ruth's career homerun record.

In 1973, as Aaron approached the record, Newsweek ran a cover story on the racial insults he endured. As a 13-year-old white boy in a small northern town who had never interacted with African Americans, it was jarring to read of the torrent of abuse streaming into Hammerin' Hank's mailbox. To this day, I remember that one of letters began simply with the words "Dear Nigger" - as if Henry Aaron were not even a person, but just an embodiment of a perceived threat to white supremacy.

Aaron passed the Babe in April 1974 and added forty more homeruns before retiring. Today, at 76, he remains one of the game's greatest ambassadors.

This week, Aaron made news by affirming Mark McGwire's admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs as a player. In 1998, McGwire's pursuit of Roger Maris's single-season homerun record, with Sammy Sosa right behind, had thrilled the nation - and provided balm in baseball Gilead after the painful players' strike resulted in cancellation of the World Series in 1994.

McGwire retired under a steriods cloud in 2001 and fumbled his way awkwardly through a congressional hearing in 2005. This season, however, he's back in baseball, as the St. Louis Cardinal's hitting coach, hired by his former manager, Tony LaRussa.

In endorsing McGwire's conscience-clearing statement, Aaron used the language of forgiveness.

"[T]his is the most forgiving country in the world. If you come through and tell the truth, then you're going to be forgiven."

So Big Mac is back - and as Hammerin' Hank says, that's a good thing. More players should follow McGwire's lead and come clean about their own use of banned substances.

Number one on the in-need-of-confession list is of course the man who passed Aaron for the most career homeruns and McGwire for the most in a single season. Barry Bonds still faces charges of lying to a federal grand jury, after testifying in 2003 he never knowingly used steroids.

Aaron did not mention Bonds in his statement. Instead, he answered with humility and humor when reporters suggested that many people still refer to him as as the homerun king.

"Regardless of what happened, I'm not going to hit another home run. Not in this world. I may do it somewhere else. I don't think I can hit anybody deep. I think my deep is over with. The only thing I can hit is a golf ball — all over the place."

That's so true about golf. Indeed, Sam Snead told Ted Williams that it's harder than baseball, because you have to play your foul balls. But this is an apples and oranges comparison, because a golf ball doesn't come at you at nearly 100 mph, as a MLB fastball does.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

California Governance: Zombieland?

Intel chairman Paul Otellini appeared on the Charlie Rose talk show tonight and warned that America is in a state of "suspended animation." The state-level poster child for our stasis, he said, is California.

A generation ago, it was still the Golden State. Today, California faces the real prospect of default in its long-running financial crisis.

This crisis has partially been caused by an overbuilt corrections system, and that system is in turn made worse by the financial crisis. As the crisis becomes quagmire, more and more rehabilitation programs are eliminated to save a few dollars immediately, regardless of the long-term consequences. One example, among many, is the abolution of the Arts in Corrections program.

Over the years, professional artists donated millions of volunteer hours to help inmates use the arts to rebuild their sense of self in struggling with addiction, violence, and other major issues. The state has eliminated the program, however, rather than pay for the 25 volunteer coordinator positions that make the program possible in the sprawling 33-prison system.

To call this state of things "suspended animation" might be too charitable. "Zombie-like" would probably be more accurate. And sadly, this is no Hollywood horror movie; this is the real deal.

Monday, February 22, 2010

DWI: A Pervasive Problem

DWI is a pervasive problem in Minnesota and around the country.

One in eight Minnesotans of driving age has been convicted at least once for drunken driving. According to data from the state patrol, there are about 35,000 arrests for DWI every year in Minnesota. This in a state with a total population of only 5 million.

A recurring theme for the media is to report on the arrest of drivers whose previous DWIs number in the teens. For example, on Christmas Eve last year, a man named Paul Garray lost control of his car on Highway 61/Interstate 494 in Newport. The state patrol arrested him after a breath test showed a blood alcohol content of twice the legal limit of 0.08.

The Star Trib dutifully reported that although Garray had as many as 19 previous DWIs on his record, the Newport city prosecutor could bring only bring only gross misdemeanor charges. Under Minnesota law, it takes four convictions in a ten-year period to make DWI punishable as a felony carrying a prison sentence of up to three years. Garray could not be charged with a felony because only two of his previous convictions had been in the last ten years.

Understandably, many people were not satisfied with this outcome. Mothers Against Drunk Driving called for more mandatory sentences that include the required use of ignition interlock devices. These devices force offenders to blow into them periodically, and the vehicle does not operate if the alcohol level is unacceptable.

County attorneys also weighed in. James Backstrom of Dakota County said there should be a lifetime limit, allowing DWI to be charged as a felony when the limit is reached regardless of how many occurred in the previous ten years. Doug Johnson of Washington County said there should be serious jail time even for first offenses.

Many of the rest of us have concerns about DWI laws, too. To the average citizen, the legal system’s inability to intervene effectively against chronic offenders is mystifying. Why is the problem so seemingly intractable?

Steve Simon, a University of Minnesota professor who directs the state’s drunken-driving task force, provides some context. For one thing, he points out, people who rack up multiple DWIs are usually chemically dependent. They also often have many other problems in addition to alcoholism.

So it’s not just a matter of an incomprehensible justice system. Drunk driving laws are, rather, a reflection of a complicated social reality in contemporary America. We cling to our freedom too tightly − and in the continuing carnage on the roads, this carries real and often deadly consequences..

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Pastor's Joke

Lent is normally not known for levity. Nor, admittedly, is this blog.

The day after Ash Wednesday is therefore a rather unlikely date for me to slip a joke into my musings about the crying need for criminal justice reform. But there's a pastor joke I've been meaning to tell, and today I realized that now is the opportune time.

First, let me sketch my bona fides:
  • I'm a preacher's kid who's now married to one. So I really do love pastors. :)
  • At worship last night, I accepted the imposition of ashes, and am committed to observing Lent as a season of reflection and repentance.
  • As a source for confronting the man in the mirror, last night I retrieved Kierkegaard's For Self-Examination from my father's bookshelf, and it sits next to me now as I type.

Still, even in a serious time of spiritual preparation, humor is a healing balm. And so, without further ado, I present a joke I heard from Pastor Duane Paetznick, who in turn heard it from his father-in-law, also a longtime pastor.

Q: Why do pastors get paid?

A: They get paid to be good.

Q: What about parishioners, then?

A: They are good for nothing.

[Herein ensues laughter, if the joke was told right.]

The point is that pastors, though called by God for a specific ministry, are ordinary people just like the rest of us. Ordinary people, equipping other ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Smart on Crime?

Soft on crime / tough on crime.

Talk about a false dichotomy!

How about smart on crime, as Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller asked the Republican-led task force I staffed back in 1999.

The Pew Center on the State is prepared to help reconcile the antinomies. Follow this link to learn how.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

N.T. Wright on Plato

Eighty years ago, in Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead famously remarked that the development of philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.

N.T. Wright, in Surprised by Hope, goes even farther. Without equivocation, he asserts that "Plato remains the most influential thinker in the history of the Western world." (p. 88)

Wright is no star-struck Platonic cheerleader, however, like Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind. Quite the contrary: Wright seeks to show how the deprecation of the world of space, time, and matter in Plato's thought gets in the way of the Christian gospel.

In other words - and to mix metaphors a bit - Plato's cave can be a stumbling block to experiencing Christ's empty tomb.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Sacred and the Profane in a Super Bowl Ad

Super Bowl commercials have long been a leading American cultural indicator. Understandbly, they aim for the mainstream. If you’re shelling out millions per minute, you’d better be pretty sure you’re connecting with a wide swath of consumers.

Many of the commercials are wonderfully comic and inventive. For Super Bowl 44, for example, I couldn’t help but smile at the parody of the long-running television series Lost, which my wife Diane has followed into more labyrinths than Theseus could ever have imagined. Bud Lite offers itself as the elixir that can somehow get the people trapped there for five years off the island. Low-calorie suds as deus ex machina.

Sometimes, however, when you’re aiming at the lowest common denominator, taste goes out the window. A misguided attempt at humor can become downright offensive to certain sensibilities. Such was the case tonight, for me, with an over-the-top, open-coffin pitch for corn chips.

Doritos has been a durable junk food brand for as long as I can remember. But what kind of nihilistic culture shows someone faking his own death so he can max out on cheesy comestibles filling up his coffin?

In the commercial, a man reclines in Epicurean comfort in a coffin stocked with Doritos, listening to his own funeral. The sheer weight of the excess of chips tips the coffin over, revealing him to the assembled mourners. The reports of his death were greatly exaggerated, as Mark Twain quipped years ago.

In a culture in which there was a mainstream belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, such a scene would be not just ludicrous, but practically unthinkable.

What would I have aired instead? For me, it would be an ad from HarperCollins for N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Operation Homecoming

Over one milllion Americans have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. And that figure was as of 2007, when the National Endowment for the Arts released the documentary film Operation Homecoming, which describes NEA's efforts to encourage veterans to write about their war experiences.

Thousands have come home in body bags. Thousands more suffer greviously from PTSD and often terrible physical injuries. No one gets out unscathed.

The film is interspered with quotations from famous writers. Hemingway, for example, urged that no one deny that war, no matter how necessary, isn't a crime. The double negative, and the qualifying phrase, do not take away from the fundamental equation: war = crime, on a massive scale.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Reading Girard, Groundhog Day 2010

From Rene Girard's Violence and the Sacred:

"[T]he judicial process is more concerned with the general security of the community than with any abstract notion of justice."

This may be true. But who defines what serves the general security of the community?

Or, put another way, why was the prison at Guantanamo Bay set up, and why is it still open?

Monday, February 1, 2010

A Blue Ribbon Silver Lining?

It takes time to turn the Titanic around. And when a country has 2.3 million people in jail or prison, that's a Titanic-size problem.

Last March, Senator Jim Webb introduced a bill to create a national blue-ribbon commission to examine possible sentencing reforms. Ten months later, it has passed the Senate Judiciary committee on voice vote.

Doug Berman, the dean of criminal justice blogging, sees a possible silver lining in the chnaged power dynamics in the Senate following the special election in Massachusetts. It may be that, with health care no longer so front and center, other priorities may get the attention they have long deserved. If so, criminal justice reform should certainly be at or near the top of that list.