Category Archives: Politics

Quick draw artists

Yes, I’m back after a six-week hiatus. Sometimes life gets in the way.

My town has gotten a lot of attention lately because of a fatal shooting involving a 73-year-old reserve sheriff’s deputy and a sketchy ex-con. My newspaper has had a lot to do with that attention, having ferreted out the incident’s most startling details. I’ve had nothing to do with that and am not inclined to involve myself in the discussion except to say the people working on this story for our paper know what they are doing.

More generally, the story fits into what seems to me a larger pattern of guns becoming an early option for settling disputes. Whether its two drunk guys in a bar or members of Congress seeking a solution in the Middle East, it seems Americans are increasingly trigger happy. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s always been this way and the thing that’s really changed is the ubiquity of digital media. Either way, it seems like a lot of people are being shot unnecessarily.

Some of this is political. In many cases, politics is the science and art of scaring people witless. Scared people do things they wouldn’t do otherwise, like overestimate the threat posed by others, or underestimate their own reactions under stress. Some of this is fed by people and organizations with a financial stake in keeping the public on edge. The worst thing that can happen to an advocacy group is for its particular crisis to be solved. So they have to keep the donors and the volunteers stirred up. My rule, and it doesn’t apply only to this subject, is to always take into account who is selling a book or a CD or has an election coming up.

Our fairly recent obsession with the Second Amendment is revealing. No right, including the only to keep and bear arms, is completely inviolate. Freedom of religion does not extend to human sacrifice or polygamy. Freedom of the press does not include libel. And the Second Amendment did not prevent Congress and even local governments from regulating firearms. For many years, Tulsa police confiscated guns from people they simply did not like the looks of. We accept and even advocate for infringement of the right to vote, of equal protection, from search and seizure and fair speech, but draw the line at any restriction on our right to own and use guns.

I am not against guns. I don’t understand why some people own the kinds of guns they do, or as many, but that’s their business. I just don’t want them to use one on me.

And that’s the problem. It’s not the number of guns we Americans own, it’s our attitude about them. Maybe we don’t see guns — and bombs — as a first resort, but we tend to keep them very high on the list.

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History repeats itself

We had a considerable to-do in our state this week. The Common Education Committee in the House of Representatives reported out a bill to cut off state funding of Advanced Placement U.S. History classes, and was shocked by the angry public reaction when word got out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had something to do with that. Part of my job is keeping an eye on the Oklahoma House. So I wrote a story about this bill and the committee discussion.

The claim against AP U.S. History — or rather, to the outline published by College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program — was that it is overly concerned with some of the less attractive aspects of America’s past. The author of the bill, Rep. Dan Fisher, said he wasn’t against against covering the bad stuff, but in his opinion AP was way off kilter. His two supporting witnesses were a county assessor and a former teacher from somewhere in the Northeast.

Fisher considers himself something of an expert on U.S. history. He likes to dress up like an eighteenth century parson and lecture on how the American Revolution was really a kind of holy war led by men of God. His main sources are two books written in the 1860s; anything much more recent than that, he says, is tainted by “revisionism.”

As far as I know, Fisher has never tried to include this particular view in the state’s history curriculum.

In the course of discussion on the bill, it was suggested that AP courses are a lot like Common Core in that they could be interpreted as a way of imposing national standards or curricula on the states. One representative said she had asked the state attorney general if Advanced Placement violated state law.

After the blue books hit the fan, Fisher and the others who supported the bill said they never intended to hurt AP, that they had been misunderstood, that they had not understood the implications of the bill. This last, that they didn’t quite understand what they were getting into, may be true. I’m certain they were completely surprised by the uproar, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that at least some of them had not thought beyond the risk of being labeled unAmerican.

What they got was national ridicule, from cable news to The Onion, and probably more surprising to them, a deluge of phone calls and emails from angry constituents. (A co-worker asked why Oklahomans didn’t get that angry about some of the anti-LGBT churned out by our Legislature. That’s easy, I said. No one’s kids get college credit for being gay.)

Fisher says he hasn’t given up on the bill, but will rework it before it gets a floor vote. Many observers think it’s as dead as George Washington’s cat, but in Oklahoma you never know.

And anyway, none of this is new. About fifteen years ago, I covered a story involving the state textbook committee, a heretofore obscure board that, as its name implies, approves public school textbooks. But a few Young Earth creationists had managed to get themselves appointed to the committee, and they were trying to nix the new science books for not including their particular point of view.

A similar furor erupted, lasted for a while, and subsided.

I personally don’t know how or if AP history is corrupting our youth. It’s an optional course, so if parents don’t like it they can keep their kids out of it. People I know who teach AP history say it really hasn’t changed in years, and I can believe it. I used to cover higher education, and one of the things I learned is that eduspeak is constantly inventing new ways to say the same things, only more obscurely.

Among the fears posed by the Great AP Menace is that students are not being taught the “foundational documents” of American history. My sense is that this is a little like asking why long division is not taught in calculus class. Advanced Placement, as the name implies, are advanced courses; they are, in fact, college level courses.

Foundational instruction begins much earlier. I’m not an educator, but I’d guess kids should have a pretty good idea what the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are by middle school. Probably, they’ve been exposed to such things as the Mayflower Compact and Washington’s Farewell to the Troops. One would certainly hope so.

History is not like math. There are few constants; two-plus-two does not always equal four. History is messy and changeable, open to interpretation and susceptible to all sorts of external influences. The teaching of history is further complicated by dual and often competing purposes: a common narrative to unite an increasingly diverse nation, and a warts-and-all explanation of how we arrived where we are.

It’s kind of fun, too. People have argued about history since the Greeks came back from Troy, so why stop now?

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Cruel and unusual punishment

On Sunday, two of my Tulsa World colleagues published a detailed and grisly account of the state of Oklahoma’s crude execution of murderer Clayton Lockett, a stone killer convicted (and by all accounts rightfully so) of shooting a young woman and then burying her alive. There seems to be no doubt of his guilt.

Lockett and another murderer, Charles Warner, were to be executed by lethal injection at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary on April 29. Because the state could no longer get the drugs it had formerly used in executions, it was trying a new combination of uncertain effectiveness.

For reasons explained in the stories linked above, Lockett’s execution turned into a blood-soaked “cluster,” as one of those responsible for carrying it out put it. When Lockett finally died, almost an hour after the execution began, it was from a heart attack.

Predictability, the response to this has been, “So what?” His crime having been particularly cold-blooded, Lockett could hardly have been a less sympathetic figure. Many objected to descriptions of the execution as “botched.” Lockett was supposed to die and he did, and if it turned out to take a little longer and be a lot more painful than expected, so much the better.

The obvious answer to that is the U.S. Constitution forbids “cruel and unusual punishment,” and that what happened in Oklahoma’s execution chamber on April 29 seems to fall into that category.

But there is more to it than that. This is not about Clayton Lockett. It’s about us. It’s about doing things right. It’s about respect for the law and behaving like a civil society and not a lynch mob. The Eighth Amendment is there for a reason.

People who believe the death penalty should remain an option — and I’m one of them — ought to be outraged by what happened to Clayton Lockett, not because of Clayton Lockett, but because it reeks of incompetence and gives impetus to those who believe execution itself is cruel and unusual punishment.

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David Boren: The student body and the body politic

Twenty years ago on Monday, U.S. Sen. David Boren because President David Boren. Not President of the United States David Boren, as it once appeared he might someday be, but President of the University of Oklahoma David Boren.

Twenty years ago, Boren saw what Congress was going to become — what it was already becoming — and wanted no part of it. The keenest political mind this state has ever produced, elected to a third term just four years earlier with 83 percent of the vote, decided it was time to move on.

The national polarization and the rightward shift in Oklahoma politics that Boren’s inner Geiger counter detected two decades ago nears toxic levels. Politically, the differences between Boren and the man who succeeded him, Jim Inhofe, grow wider with each passing year.

Parenthetically, it is interesting to note the career trajectories of Boren and Inhofe. They entered the Oklahoma Legislature the same year, in 1966, and Boren defeated Inhofe in the 1974 gubernatorial race. The way Inhofe tells it, Boren was supposed to beat up embattled incumbent David Hall in the Democratic primary, leaving the way open for Inhofe to win the general election. Inhofe didn’t count on the 33-year-old Boren winning the whole thing.

Politically, Boren remained in the ascendency until 1994. Inhofe, by then First District congressman, defeated Boren-like Democrat Dave McCurdy in a bare-knuckled fight that effectively ended Democratic dominance of Oklahoma politics.

This shift did not occur only in Oklahoma or only from one party to another. In Kansas, Republicans such as Nancy Kassebaum and Robert Dole gave way to Sam Brownback, Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran. In Texas, conservative Democrats such as John Tower and Lloyd Bentsen — one of Boren’s mentors — have been replaced by the likes of John Cornyn and Ted Cruz. One can theorize but only that about the causes and effects of such a startling evolution.

Boren became a university president because he believed it was his best chance to have a lasting impact on his state. His proteges are just now beginning to move into positions of state leadership. One, a Republican, is speaker of the House of Representatives. Several are in the Legislature. Thousands of others are scattered through the state, through all walks of life.

Twenty years from now, we will know better whether David Boren did indeed leave the legacy he so much desires.

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A few random things I don’t understand

I UNDERSTAND the national debt is a problem. I know this because I’ve been hearing about it since I was a boy in the 1960s. Same with the budget deficit. Taxes and spending are something we need to keep an eye on at all times.

Here’s what I don’t understand. The big pickle we found ourselves in around 2008, and that we’ve never quite gotten out of since, was not caused by the national debt or the federal deficit. It was caused by private sector debt — specifically, an overextended mortgage market ginned up by brokers and bankers more concerned with their bonuses and quarterly statements than making good loans. Some of them tried half-heartedly to blame it on federal fair housing laws but the truth is no one forced anyone to make a loan they didn’t want to make.

So:

(A) Why aren’t we, and why isn’t Congress, at least as concerned about addressing the conditions that actually caused the great recession as we are the national debt?

(B) Given how much the American economy depends on housing, cars and consumer goods for expansion; how much that economic activity is dependent on credit; and how badly many Americans were burned by credit during the great recession, why is it a surprise the recovery has been so slow?

I UNDERSTAND that whenever any government decides to do something, it winds up costing at least twice as much as it ought to. Or at least it seems that way.

What I don’t understand is that some of the same people who say government can’t create jobs howl the loudest when there is talk of closing a federal installation, especially a military base, or cancelling a defense contract because of the impact it will have on the local economy. Same with transportation. Just seems inconsistent to me.

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