Saturday, September 29, 2007

Edwards on Black Males

John Edwards predicts that young black males will soon become extinct because they'll all be in jail or dead. He notes, in regard to the plight of the young black man, that we cannot build enough jails to satisfy the way we're carrying out justice currently. He continues,

...Pretty soon we’re not going to have a young African-American male population in America. They’re all going to be in prison or dead. One of the two.

Are they doomed as Edwards says? Orlando Patterson, professor of Sociology at Harvard University, said in a NYT editorial piece,

The circumstances that far too many African-Americans face — the lack of paternal support and discipline; the requirement that single mothers work regardless of the effect on their children’s care; the hypocritical refusal of conservative politicians to put their money where their mouths are on family values; the recourse by male youths to gangs as parental substitutes; the ghetto-fabulous culture of the streets; the lack of skills among black men for the jobs and pay they want; the hypersegregation of blacks into impoverished inner-city neighborhoods — all interact perversely with the prison system that simply makes hardened criminals of nonviolent drug offenders and spits out angry men who are unemployable, unreformable and unmarriageable, closing the vicious circle.

Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other leaders of the Jena demonstration who view events there, and the racial horror of our prisons, as solely the result of white racism are living not just in the past but in a state of denial.

What will it take to turn around this cycle of depravity?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

When police are the problem

In Harvey, IL, a south suburb of Chicago, there were 12 murders in 2005. How many did the police there solve?


Such a low level of case clearance is almost unbelievable. The ineptitude on display implied either a lack of caring or actual cooperation with criminal enterprises.

With the continued lack of police enforcement, an overseeing task force had to step in to clean up the mess. On January 22 of this year, the records of the Harvey Police Department were raided for examination by this task force. Lo and behold, cases began to be solved. It became even more clear that the Harvey police had not done their job.

Today, two more alleged criminals were indicted as a result of this task force's work. If proven guilty, that's two more dangerous folks off the streets of Harvey.

In a town with criminal activity that needs to be cleaned up, it is downright sad that law-abiding citizens were left for a few years with a police department that didn't have their best interests in mind. How often is this the case around the country? I was raised to respect the police, but so many of the things we see push us in the opposite direction. It is little wonder that many residents begin to suspect the police may not always be fair.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Wow, what can I say?
It's hard to believe, but it seems I am now a dad.

This morning at 11:19 our daughter entered the world...

It is with great honor, joy, and pride that I am writing to you to announce that our baby girl is here!

Elynor Aline was born today, September 13. She weighs 11 lb. 3 oz. and measured 20 in. long. Both mother and daughter are doing very well.

Truly we take a moment to thank God for the incredible blessing and gift that she is. Thanks for keeping us in your thoughts and prayers!

Stay tuned at WCW's for all the updates...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The difficulty of urban education

As most any observer notices, there is a struggle when educating poor urban youth. You are dealing with children from homes that may not provide the support they need to succeed. Is it even possible to make that difference up in school? Earlier this year, the New York Times looked at some of the difficulties schools face.

Then, last week, the Chicago Tribune ran a tremendous series providing a firsthand look at a classroom where these issues play out. I thought this was a wonderful piece, filled with good insights; and most importantly reminding us all what a (justifiably) difficult time cities have providing their children with great education.

Definitely read it, and tell me. What do you think? Can success in situations like this be had? What resources would it take?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Chicago Architectural Gems

One of the things I enjoy most about Chicago is that it is a beautiful city. A lot of this is due to the high concentration of good architecture found here. We often find ourselves extolling the value (and beauty) of such buildings as the Wrigley Building, the John Hancock, the Lake Point Tower, or the Smurfit-Stone Building.

These and others are all great examples of good architecture, that which brings beauty to the city. But what we often forget in looking at these great buildings already here is that every year new great pieces of architecture are going up. And especially here, in a city known for its great architecture, the bar is set high for buildings trying to make an architectural mark. This means many efforts fall short of critical praise. Regardless, many buildings do succeed at catching our eye.

That is why I enjoyed this list in the Chicago Magazine of ten "innovative new buildings illustrat[ing] Chicago’s enduring power to attract great design." My favorite may be the new Gary Comer Youth Center on the South Side:

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Honey is one of the most intriguing foods out there. While being sweeter than sugar, it has antimicrobial properties that lend itself to medical use and an almost unlimited shelf life. Certain antioxidants and vitamins are found in honey in concentrations similar to those in some fruits and vegetables. It is the healthiest sweetener available.

But if you are planning on eating it, or fruit for that matter, you should probably do so now because they might not be around for long...

Albert Einstein [maybe] said,

If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.

Now it has become quite clear that bees are going missing across the USA. Mysteriously, the bees are vanishing, presumably dead. With them go the means for much of our crop production.

We wouldn't starve if the mysterious disappearance of bees, dubbed colony collapse disorder, or CCD, decimated hives worldwide. For one thing, wheat, corn, and other grains don't depend on insect pollination.

But in a honeybee-less world, almonds, blueberries, melons, cranberries, peaches, pumpkins, onions, squash, cucumbers, and scores of other fruits and vegetables would become as pricey as sumptuous old wine. Honeybees also pollinate alfalfa used to feed livestock, so meat and milk would get dearer as well. Ditto for farmed catfish, which are fed alfalfa too.

And jars of honey, of course, would become golden heirlooms to pass along to the grandkids.

A crisis with billions of dollars on the line is at hand. As scientists struggle to try to explain this, most of America isn't even aware how close they are to losing some of their favorite foods.

Recently scientists have reported some progress in narrowing down the cause. Let's hope, for our sake, that they are on the right track.

Monday, September 03, 2007

What's in a name?

So truth be told, my mom wanted to name me "Jim." But apparently at least one person in her family didn't like that name, so the brainstorming continued. Finally, the name they all compromised on was "Greg," a name that nobody in the family was particularly crazy about, but everyone was at least "okay" with it--and they couldn't think of any obvious schoolyard taunts to which a "Greg" would be subjected. So it was settled. (Years later my mom told me that she was actually glad I wasn't named "Jim" because kids would have called me "Slim Jim" much like they had called her "Bony Joany.")

Anyway, I got my first psychological lesson in names when I was in the first grade. For some reason, my first grade teacher nicknamed me "Gregger." Due to her position of authority (and my general state of confusion at that stage of my life), I didn't question this nickname and always would answer to that. It became a way of life for me in that teacher's first grade class. However, slowly but surely, my fellow first graders started calling me "Gregger" too. This made me slightly uncomfortable, but still, I wasn't going to say anything. They weren't taunting me. For all I knew, some of them probably thought that was really my name.

Then one day as I was getting on the big yellow bus to go home, one of the girls in my class came up to me and asked, "Do you like to be called Gregger?" Now, even though I was only in the first grade, I do remember thinking something along the lines of, "This girl is pretty and she's smart. She can call me anything she wants." But those weren't the words that came out of my mouth. Instead, I simply said, "No."

Word must have spread fast, because my classmates soon stopped calling me Gregger; and once that year was over, it wasn't until later when I took a Spanish class ("Gregorio") and then some German classes ("Gregor") that teachers gave me nicknames again.

An article last year in Psychology Today, "Hello, My Name is Unique," talks about what parents these days tend to look for in names; and the article also explores to what extent a name has on our self-perception and success. The article opens:

Proper names are poetry in the raw, said the bard W.H. Auden. "Like all poetry, they are untranslatable." Mapping your name onto yourself is a tricky procedure indeed. We exist wholly independently of our names, yet they alone represent us on our birth certificates and gravestones.

Varying viewpoints on names and their importance are given in the article. Here's one of those views:

Children and teens either struggle to stand apart or try desperately to fit in. A singular name eases the former pursuit but thwarts the latter. If parents give a child an offbeat name, speculates Lewis Lipsitt, professor emeritus of psychology at Brown University, "they are probably outliers willing to buck convention, and that [parental trait] will have a greater effect on their child than does the name."

Of course a name matters to some degree, which is why many parents put much thought into it. However, at what point should the government get involved if a name is deemed inappropriate?

According to this article, "Venezuela Seeks to Crack Down on Odd Baby Names,":

Venezuela is considering a bill barring parents from giving their children "names that expose them to ridicule, are extravagant or difficult to pronounce," or "that raise doubts about whether a child is a girl or a boy."

Earlier this month, a couple in China made international news by trying to name their son, "@". The parents said that they liked the name because it's in every email address, and because the phonetic sound "at" can be translated into "love him" in Mandarin. Sounds reasonable to me, but whether or not @ was officially approved as a name is unknown. What is known is that one of the government officials wasn't too thrilled, saying:

The name (@) was an extreme example of people's increasingly adventurous approach to Chinese, as commercialization and the Internet break down conventions.

So how about you? Do you feel your life has been impacted by your name? At what point should the government step in and ban certain names?

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Vick Ethics

As I've been contemplating it, and as the story has remained in the news, now that Michael Vick has pled guilty to the dogfighting charges he faced, I have a few more thoughts.

I think Gregg Easterbrook, who has the same type of dog I do, nails much of what my reaction is:

The disgusting thing about dogfighting isn't that animals battle and die -- after all, animals fight to the death in nature, tearing each other's flesh with heartless violence. The disgusting thing about dogfighting is that supposedly intelligent members of Homo sapiens add sadism to the natural equation by starving dogs to make them extra aggressive, filing their incisors to make the fights bloodier, and engaging in other acts unbecoming any man or woman of ethics. What Michael Vick confessed to Monday ought to disgust you, regardless of whether you are a dog lover. Include me. [My dog] -- a Chesapeake retriever, noble state dog of Maryland -- slumbers happily near my feet as I write this.

But the punishment expected to be imposed on Vick -- one to two years in federal prison, and perhaps never playing in the NFL again -- seems out of proportion to his actions and his status as a first-time offender. The situation is confusing because the federal crimes to which Vick pleaded guilty turn as much on gambling and racketeering as dogfighting; gambling and racketeering concern federal prosecutors because of their relationship to organized crime. Racketeering can lead to jail terms even for nonviolent first-time offenders not involved with drug sales, such as Vick. The NFL, for its part, has very strong reasons to detest gambling, and elaborately warns players they will be harshly penalized for associating with gamblers. Yet I can't help feeling there is overkill in the social, media and legal reactions to Vick, and that the overkill originates in hypocrisy about animals.

Thousands of animals are mistreated or killed in the United States every day without the killers so much as being criticized, let alone imprisoned. Ranchers and farmers kill stock animals or horses that are sick or injured. Some ranchers kill stock animals as gently as possible, others callously; in either case, prosecution is nearly unheard of. As Derek Jackson pointed out last week in the Boston Globe, greyhound tracks routinely race dogs to exhaustion and injury, then kill the losers, or simply eliminate less-strong pups: "184,604 greyhound puppies judged to be inferior for racing" were killed, legally, in the past 20 years.

Hunters shoot animals for sport. They do so lawfully, while the manner in which Vick harmed his dogs was unlawful. But from the perspective of the animal, there seems little difference between a hunter with a state game license zipped in his vest pocket shooting a deer as part of something the hunter views as really fun sport, and Vick shooting a dog as part of something Vick views as really fun sport. In both cases, animals suffer for human entertainment. The animal-ethics distinction between Vick's actions and lawful game hunting are murky at best. A first-time offender should go to prison over a murky distinction?

Much more troubling is that the overwhelming majority of Americans who eat meat and poultry -- I'm enthusiastically among them -- are complicit in the systematic cruel treatment of huge numbers of animals. Snickering about this, or saying you're tired of hearing about it, doesn't make it go away. Most animals used for meat experience miserable lives under cruel conditions, including confinement for extended periods in pits of excrement. (Michael Pollan, who enthusiastically consumes meat and fowl, describes the mistreatment in his important new book The Omnivore's Dilemma.) Meat animals don't magically stop living when it's time to become a product; they suffer as they die. One of Vick's dogs was shot, another electrocuted. Gunshots and electrocution are federally approved methods of livestock slaughter, sanctioned by the Department of Agriculture for the killing of cows and pigs. Regulations under the Humane Slaughter Act of 1958 give federal sanction to shooting cows or pigs, or running electrical current through their bodies. Shooting and electrocution are viewed by federal law as humane ways to kill animals that will be consumed. Federal rules also allow slaughterhouses to hit cows in the head with a fast-moving piston that stuns them into semiconsciousness before they are sliced up. Being hit in the head with a powerful piston -- does that sound a bit painful, a bit cruel? It's done to tens of thousands of steers per year, lawfully.

Don't say "eew, gross" about how meat animals are butchered, then return to denouncing Vick. If you're eating a cheeseburger or BLT or steak or pot roast today, there's a good chance you are dining on an animal that was shot or electrocuted. You are complicit. You freely bought the meat, you did not demand Congress strengthen the Humane Slaughter Act. Livestock can be calmed and drugged before being slain. A few slaughterhouses do this, but most don't because it raises costs, and you, the consumer, demand the lowest possible price for your meal. Now about your turkey sub or coq au vin. Federal slaughter regulations apply mainly to large animals, leaving considerable freedom in the killing of fowl. Many poultry slaughterhouses kill chickens by slashing their throats rather than snapping their necks. Snapping the neck kills the bird quickly, ending suffering, but then the heart dies quickly, too. Slashing the throat causes the bird to live in agony for several minutes, heart still beating and pumping blood out of the slash -- and consumers prefer bloodless chicken meat.

Further, the Humane Slaughter Act exempts kosher and halal slaughter. In both traditions, the cow or lamb must be conscious when killed by having its carotid artery, or esophagus and trachea, slashed. The animal bleeds to death, convulsing in agony, as its heart pumps blood, which is viewed as unclean, out of the slashed openings. The delicious pastrami we consumed at a kosher deli, or the wonderfully good beef we could buy at a halal butcher, comes from an animal that suffered as it died.

Yes, Vick broke the law; yes, he arrogantly lied and refused to apologize when first caught; and yes, his actions before and after the dog killings indicate he is one stupid, stupid man. But Vick's lawbreaking was relatively minor compared to animal mistreatment that happens continuously, within the law, at nearly all levels of the meat production industry, and with which all but vegetarians are complicit. There is some kind of mass neurosis at work in the rush to denounce Vick, wag fingers and say he deserved even worse. Society wants to scapegoat Vick to avoid contemplating its own routine, systematic killing of animals. We couldn't all become vegetarians tomorrow: that is not practical. But American society is not even attempting to make the handling of meat animals less brutal, let alone working to transition away from a food-production order in which huge numbers of animals are systematically mistreated, then killed in ways that inflict terror and pain. We won't lift a finger to change the way animals die for us. But we will demand Michael Vick serve prison time to atone for our sins.

Legal note: Vick might be compelled to repay the Falcons a huge amount of bonus money, and will lose $25 million or more in endorsement income. I have no sympathy for his loss of endorsement income: Vick was hired to bring Nike and other companies he endorsed good publicity, and instead brought them bad. But think about the income loss in the calculation of overpunishment of Vick. One or two years in federal prison, and perhaps state prison time if state charges are filed as well; plus $25 million in lost endorsement income and, oh, $50 million in lost or returned NFL income. That's overkill! Often the indirect financial consequences of legal proceedings are worse than the official ones, in the same way that a speeding ticket might cost you $75 but add $1,000 to your annual insurance bill.

In effect, the federal indictment of Vick is resulting in him being fined around $75 million, which is far too much retribution. The legal hang-up is that since 1984, federal courts have been forbidden to consider monetary loss in private life as counting toward punishment. But a year of banishment from the NFL, a guilty plea with suspended sentence and probation (meaning the sentence is imposed if probation is violated), seems plenty of punishment for a first offense by someone who has not harmed another human being. Prison time and a $75 million fine? What Vick did was indecent, but now excessive punishment is being imposed, and two wrongs do not equal one right. Justice, after all, must be tempered with mercy. That's what you would think if you stood in the dock accused.

Here's what I think. Not only is the punishment Vick is facing an overreaction, but this is an illustration of the typical inconsistency that people have in discussing animal rights. In my mind the reactions to this Vick story are only a part of what is a larger societal discussion of the animal rights movement. And the saga got me thinking about it...

First, let's get a couple definitions out there. Animal rights is a broad term that really encompasses a couple items. Animal welfare is care that is given an animal such that it does not suffer unnecessarily. Animal liberation is a push to give animals equivalent rights to humans. Most animal rights 'activists' likely yearn for animal liberation while taking sometimes extreme measures attempting to push for animal welfare. Yet, animal welfare only focuses on the morality of human action (or inaction), as opposed to making deeper political or philosophical claims about the status of animals.

Truly, the perspective one has on what rights an animal has boils down to theology in my opinion. Is an animal the moral equivalent of a human or are humans in fact a special creation set above the rest of the animal world? This past Sunday in church, the sermon was actually on Genesis 1 and 2, in which God gives man dominion over all the animals. Thus, a Christian could not consider any animal as having equal status with man. That does not mean, however, that our actions to them do not matter. We are called to be stewards, and great care should be given to treat animals well--so that they do not suffer unnecessarily. This does not also mean that we imbue animals with special rights equivalent to what we as humans deserve. Do you believe animals were given to humans to use for work, food, and enjoyment?

With the perspective of your own moral basis, why do you treat animals the way you do? Do you consider the indirect actions your interaction with the products of animals may have? In establishing one's own position on animal rights, moral consistency is important. Do you think eating beef is wrong? How about eating horse? How about eating dog? What's the difference? If one is okay with eating meat from one animal, it seems they should be from another.

Don't be too quick to judge Michael Vick before we have contemplated our own actions. Learn where your food comes from, watch Fast Food Nation, and happily still eat meat, as I do, knowing all the facts. I would call all of us to judge what our own action or inaction says in regard to the issue of animal rights. Are we being morally consistent? What should we be advocates for in this discussion?