We were always looking for true north; with our heads in the clouds, just a little off course ...


This is Siva Vaidhyanathan reporting in again from lovely Charlottesville, Virginia.

Who would have thought that between the Vick brothers, Michael would be in bigger legal trouble than Marcus by now? Michael was the one who was supposed to have discipline and character. Hmmmm. (And yes, if either Vick had played for Oklahoma or Texas A&M I would have taken a jab at that program, but out of respect for my new Hokie neighbors I will refrain).

The flood of sports scandals this summer should not shake anyone's faith in the games in question. All we have learned (or re-learned) is that greed, vanity, and arrogance still apply to the humans who play and govern our sporting institutions. The NBA referee gambling scandal certainly speaks to nothing beyond the weaknesses of one man. Maybe the NBA was not vigilant enough when it got word of his habits and connections. But hey, the FBI has been no better at policing its own. The Michael Vick case shows only that too many Americans like to kill dogs and one of them happens to be rich, famous, and successful. And let's be frank about Barry Bonds: Juiced or not, he has amazing eyes and a stunning set of skills that have allowed him to do one of the hardest things we pay people to do: hit a small white ball with a stick of ash. Bonds is one of the five or six greatest hitters to ever play the game, and I consider myself lucky to have seen him hit three homers in my presence.

We always tend to lurch for some greater sociological explanation for the anomalies that capture our imagination. Reporters and editors habitually make the mistake of clenching on to the unusual or extraordinary, riding the story until it collapses, and then sending someone out to chat with "experts" to make some larger sense of the event. They forget that the very factor that justified their initial attention -- that some event almost never happens -- undermines any attempt to blow it up into a sociological trend or phenomenon.

School shootings are the best example I can think of. They almost never happen. American schools have never been safer. In fact, there has never been a safer or less violent time to be a child in America. Instead of asking what we have done right as a culture and maximizing the good stuff, we use the extremely rare event to guide our deliberations and policies. So we spend many dollars, hours, and column inches wringing our hands about irrelevant things like video game violence. And we seriously entertain stupid proposals like arming university students so they might deploy some sort of action-movie slow-motion heroism to try to neutralize a once-in-a-century unpredictable threat.

What we should be doing is paying attention to the common and omnipresent threats to our health and welfare. You know what really hurts young people in America? Drugs, alcohol, vehicles, and relatives. Oh, and poverty. The poorer a child is, the more likely that drugs, alcohol, vehicles, and relatives can do serious damage to them. If poverty kills or maims millions of American children and video games kill and maim exactly zero, why do we see more stories about video games than poverty? If children tend to get hurt at home and almost never get hurt at school, why are we so obsessed with school violence and pay so little attention to home and family violence?

I don't have an answer to this dilemma. I understand the lure of the spectacular. And I get it that editors and reporters need to follow the spectacular with a flood of analysis stories and "what does this say about ..." stories. I used to write these stories for a living, and now my phone rings every time some big event calls for "experts" to comment. I just wish we could balance it all and we had some mechanism or incentive to keep things in perspective.

Speaking of perspective, I am pretty pleased about the extent of post-Katrina coverage we have seen in our nation's networks, newspapers, and magazines. But I wonder why we never hear any of the major presidential candidates put the Gulf Coast front-and-center in their stock speeches or in their instant debate answers? Even John Edwards has let the criminal treatment of Southern poor people get mixed in with the larger (but less acute) problems of economic stratification.

Do I contradict myself? Was not Katrina a once-per-century event? Yes, in a way. The problem is not just that the levees of Louisiana are once again unable to hold back a storm surge. That is a big problem. The more significant problem along the Gulf Coast is that too many people remain effectively exiled from their homes, that New Orleans remains stunted and depopulated, and that the event itself revealed to too many Americans who were too busy that this country does not take care of its less fortunate until it's too late. Katrina revealed and amplified the misery and hopelessness that imprisons millions of Americans.

So the question for us is not, as New York Times reporter John Schwartz so effectively outlined in his continuing series, just a question of New Orleans' continued vulnerability. That's essential, but incomplete.

The real questions in Katrina's wake are about our nation's obligations and general domestic security. Katrina demonstrated that we are not the nation we pretend to be. It also showed us how craven, shallow, and incompetent conservative ideologues must be in order to fulfill their dreams of undermining governance. And it showed how charitable and effective Americans can be when called to give, work, and sacrifice for the greater good.

After Katrina, the Democratic Party should have declared that its 2008 convention would be in New Orleans. It should have done with New Orleans and Katrina what the Republicans did with New York and 9-11 (or, perhaps more to the point, the way Republicans used their 1980 convention in Detroit to highlight the industrial erosion of the Carter years -- only to cause further erosion and move to Dallas in 1984 to declare that the country was doing SO much better). Democrats should have forced Americans to look south once again and witness the problems. It should have demanded action and pursued solutions. It should have called for a coordinated national effort to rebuild the coast, repopulate New Orleans, and invest in the region. Done right, the Deep South could have started electing Democrats again. But more important, all Americans would have seen the need for good, wise, and high-minded governance. Win or lose in the short term, we must never forget.

Every August and September for the next few decades, we will undergo eight to 10 weeks of reflection. From the anniversary of Katrina through September 11, we will engage in constant analysis of whether we are safe and good. Let's push our media institutions, pundits, and politicians to make these reflections more effective and honest.

Eric chimes in from Italy:

Dear Siva:

I see here that the Yankees, despite their $169 million payroll and despite their recent spate of games played way over their head are five games behind the Sox in second place in their division and also in second place for the AL wild card. I also see that the Mets, despite having sustained more injuries to more key players than most teams ever have, and a much lower payroll than the Yankees, and while not playing their best ball even given all that, are not only five games in first place, but also, God forbid, ahead of any other teams that might qualify for the wild card.

OK, back to the chianti. Hope all is going well for you.

Siva responds: Two things: First, it's a lot easier to be in first place in the NL East than in the AL East. Second, the only day it matters to be in first place is the last day of the season. I would think a Mets fan would understand that all too well.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Nicholas Pisano
Hometown: Albuquerque, NM

Hello Eric,

Old Navy guy here. Over the last week or so the comments regarding Huckabee and creationism has generated a lot of correspondence. Along these same lines a question was posed to the candidates in the Democratic debate last night to wit: "My question is to understand each candidates' view of a personal God. Do they believe that, through the power of prayer, disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the Minnesota bridge collapse could have been prevented or lessened?"

I have to say that the Democratic responses were disappointing -- in stark contrast to Huckabee's response -- and they were disappointing for the same reasons that they can't seem to articulate coherently or bring practical results to their opposition to the Iraq war: they (and many liberals) have through their recent pandering to the more aggressive so-called religious factions in the country have, by feeling compelled to tell us about their devoutness to their religion, implicitly accept the notion that not only must one subscribe to supernatural (and some would say superstitious) belief as a precondition to office but to also accept the proposition that the expression of religious beliefs are an acceptable part of political discourse.

From a cynical position such pandering seems to be a smart political move -- perhaps. But for anyone who cares about democratic institutions and individual liberty such pronouncements, which are having an effect in our everyday lives now -- from the recent cases on abortion and reproductive rights to our approach to the Middle East and Muslims to our public policy on public lands, public health and to the threat posed by global warming -- are a dangerous compromise.

Compare the Democratic candidates' responses to the statement by John F. Kennedy when concerns were raised by his Catholicism: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote...."

If we could only wish that was now the case. In fact, one should find it troubling that in the 40 odd years since that statement that we as nation have gone backwards rather than forward in our public discourse. No mainstream scholar or politician would be found challenging the most common sense and accepted assertion of a separation of church and state in 1960.

The reason why these questions arise now and will continue to arise is because there is a concerted movement in this country to enshrine into law a religious belief -- a Theocracy by default through incremental steps in changing the political and legal discourse and by law if possible. The foot soldiers of this movement are out there and they do not hide their agenda. It is a threat to democracy as clear and present as the actions of Osama bin Laden. It must be resisted wherever it arises, not by aggressive action since these our own citizens, but by patience, understanding and the firm and confident knowledge of our political traditions and values -- but in any event resisted.

This resistance will take courage. Apparently our leading Democratic candidates for president no longer believe as did Thomas Jefferson when he said, "It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others...It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independence of opinion, by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God and himself."

To express your religious beliefs in the realm of politics is not only dangerous but just plain rude -- displaying a clear lack of manners and class. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison were Enlightenment deists with very hostile ideas concerning most of the beliefs held by most conservative Christians and others today. Yet, despite the fact that they would fail to pass a religious conservative's litmus test, we have come to realize that they were men of character and integrity who served this nation admirably. They were the true strict constructionists.

Huckabee was right in the sense that we can only hope was his meaning -- as long as he maintains a separation between his public role and his personal beliefs then it really is no one's business. We hope to elect a president, not a prelate. A man or woman of integrity will not appeal to tribal or religious prejudices. It is a lesson that we need to relearn.

Name: Thomas Heiden
Hometown: Stratford, CT


There actually is a long and traceable tradition of the pursuit of human freedom in the "West." From William of Occam and the original challenges to ecclesiastical authority and on to Wat Tyler and John Ball, John Lilburne and Gerard Winstanley, and our "founders and framers", one sees a lengthy and detailed exploration of power, if you will.

I got a very good sense of this from "A History of Political Theory" by George Sabine.

The excesses of Marx and Lenin, of Hitler and Mussolini, were "unnecessary" in the sense that our own Bill of Rights had already shown that mere Benthamism -- a utilitarian "greatest good for the greatest number" -- would only produce a tyranny of the majority, however well-intentioned.

The Enlightenment does represent a legitimate intellectual tradition, albeit not the only worthy one in human history.

Siva responds: Of course. That's why I -- as I wrote yesterday -- am a proponent of Enlightenment thinking. I just don't think there is such a thing as "the West" and I certainly deny that Europe has a monopoly on Enlightenment thinking. I favor good things regardless of terroir.

Name: Gene Tuck
Hometown: Fresno CA

Ciao, Dr. A --

"Eveything's up-to-date in Kansas City...They've gone about as far as they can go...!"

Well, everything may have been up-to-date in Kansas City circa 1910 (I know it wasn't in "Oklahoma!", my home state by then...) but things are definitely not OK in 'ole Kaintuck of 2007 per this video. Enjoy!

Name: Steve Paradis
Hometown: North of Detroit


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