November 20, 2006

Protecting Our Most Vulnerable

In the twelve months since last Thanksgiving, I've added one very small (but growing every day) thing to be thankful about. For almost ten months now, I've been the proud dad of a beautiful baby girl. So far, my wife and I have been extremely lucky -- our daughter is a great and easy kid and she has been healthy and happy thus far. It is this that I am most thankful for this year.

But even as lucky as we have been, raising a child is difficult work. For those of you who are parents, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. For those who are not parents, the difficulty and incredible sense of responsibility of child rearing cannot be fully understood until you are staring down at a tiny, helpless human being and you know that it is now your job to turn her into an independent person. The process is filled with joy, but it requires patience, sacrifice, and careful attention to the details through which babies send us signals about their health, hunger, and happiness.

This week, my thankfulness stretches even deeper as I realize I live in the city with the highest infant mortality rate among the sixty largest American cities. In Memphis, 14 of 1,000 infants die before they reach their first birthday. That's more than double the national average. More human beings die in Memphis as infants than from homicides. In some of the poorest areas of Memphis, the rate is four times the national average. Even though these children live in the most medically-sophisticated country in the world, a child born in these areas has about the same chance of reaching its first birthday as the average child born in several third world countries.

While infant mortality is often viewed as a medical statistic, it is more properly understood as a symptom of deeper social failures. The U.S. has more neonatologists and neonatal intensive care beds per capita than Australia, Canada, and Great Britain, but has a higher infant mortality rate than these countries. The problem is not that we lack the doctors or facilities. Infant mortality risks begin well before a pregnant mother reaches a hospital. They begin the moment a woman becomes pregnant and the U.S. -- Memphis, in particular -- has done a poor job of delivering information and services to the pregnant women whose children are most at risk.

The characteristics most highly correlated with an increased risk of infant mortality are poverty, lack of education, lack of access to health care, and a mother's use of alcohol, tobacco or other drugs while pregnant. Many mothers do not see a doctor during the entire term of their pregnancy until they enter the hospital for labor. They neglect a visit to the doctor because they do not have health insurance or they dont know that regular visits during pregnancy are important or they cannot get time off from their employer or a thousand other reasons. Even if our health care system removes these barriers in theory, many women are still paralyzed by them in reality. This lack of early and regular prenatal care puts infants at a disadvantage even before they enter the world.

As a society, we should be alarmed that in a country where we are capable of achieving medical miracles, so many of our fellow citizens do not have access to the information or health care needed to give their children the best opportunity to survive. Even in the best of circumstances, raising a healthy child is a difficult task. To avoid making it even more difficult, we must do better at getting information to pregnant women that will allow them to have safer pregnancies and births, and we must remove barriers these women feel toward seeing physicians early and often during their pregnancies and during a child's earliest months. We will not reach every pregnant woman and we'll never eliminate the tragedy of infant mortality, but we must do better at protecting our most vulnerable.

November 13, 2006

Jon Stewart is Saving America

Last week as I watched election returns come in and prepared myself for the analysis, re-analysis, reverse analysis, and overanalysis of the evening’s results, I found myself drawn to one channel more than the others – Comedy Central?

I found that I cared more about what Jon Stewart had to say about the election than any of the talking heads on CNN or Fox News.

And I am not alone on this. In its 10 years on the air, The Daily Show has gone from an anonymous program to a bona fide cultural phenomenon. Much of that transformation is a direct result of the sharp wit and political commentary Jon Stewart brought when he took over the show in 1999. Today, 1.5 million viewers watch The Daily Show each night and even though the show touts itself as a “fake news” program, an increasing number of Americans – especially young ones – are getting real news from it.

The Daily Show’s impact can be seen in several ways. First, Stewart has made the mundane hip – a Daily Show viewer is likely to chuckle at a joke about social security privatization, a sign that the viewer is aware of and understands the unexciting issue being lampooned. Engaging young Americans in politics has always been difficult, but Stewart’s mix of substance and humor seems to be making a dent. But the real reason The Daily Show is so successful with young people is perhaps The Daily Show’s relentlessness in its exposure of hypocrisy and doublespeak in politics. In a field where too many people take themselves too seriously, Stewart does not hesitate to point out the sheer ridiculousness of some of our leaders. Idealistic young people respond to this unmasking as they recognize the shortcomings of their government.

Not everyone thinks this is all that funny. Both the Boston Globe and Washington Post have run op-ed columns in 2006 criticizing Stewart for stoking cynicism, pointing out that increased cynicism may ultimately lead to decreased voter participation. However, these criticisms are blaming the messenger: Jon Stewart and The Daily Show are merely highlighting the flaws in our government and the way the media covers it. If cynicism is being heightened by an increased awareness of flaws in the system, it is the system that is the problem, not the reporting.

While The Daily Show has been receiving critical acclaim for years, it is now starting to receive some scholarly attention as well. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the National Annenberg Election Survey conducted a survey on campaign knowledge with questions on topics such as – get your yawns ready – social security privatization. Among young people, those who watched The Daily Show scored higher than those who watched four or more days of network or cable news.

A clue as to why The Daily Show viewers are so knowledgeable can be found in the results of another study, this one done by Julia Fox at Indiana University. Fox and two IU grad students scrutinized the coverage of the 2004 national political conventions and the first presidential debate on the national newscasts as compared to The Daily Show. The study concluded that the average amount of video and audio substance in the network news was not significantly different than the average amount of substance on The Daily Show. Doing a second-by-second analysis, the IU study found that The Daily Show had more humor than substance, but that the network coverage had more hype, such as references to polls or endorsements, than substance.

The fact that The Daily Show is becoming a legitimate alternative source for news says as much about traditional news sources as it does about The Daily Show. As the IU study concluded, neither of these sources is particularly substantive. But Stewart and The Daily Show are engaging young people in current political issues while exposing the hypocrisy that is responsible for so much dysfunction in Washington, while broadcast news offers no deeper substance and far less humor.

So maybe Jon Stewart isn’t quite saving America. At least he and The Daily Show are doing their part.

November 07, 2006

This Race Matters

One hundred fifty years ago, the South, including Tennessee, seceded from the United States in order to protect its right to maintain slavery.

Forty years ago, individuals seeking to register African Americans to vote in the South were abused, beaten, and killed.

The South’s racial history is well documented and not something to be proud of, to put it generously. Tomorrow, however, for the first time since Reconstruction, Southerners – in this case, Tennesseeans – have the opportunity to send an African American to the United States Senate. Even if it is a long overdue milestone, the potential election of Harold Ford, Jr., would be historic.

Ford is not a typical African American politician, nor is he a typical Democrat. He has run a center right campaign that has angered many on the left, but has brought him to election day in a winnable race. He has outworked and outperformed his opponent throughout the campaign and would be a dynamic leader for all Tennesseans.

Until recently, Harold Ford’s race would have been considered a major obstacle for his campaign to overcome. This campaign, however, has been less about race than one would have expected in the South. The one exception of course is the now infamous ad produced by the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee showing a bare-shouldered white playmate mouthing “Harold, call me,” in an allusion to traditional white Southern fears of interracial intimacy. Thought it would be na├»ve to believe the ad did not intentionally appeal to a racist sentiment, its impact has been largely overstated by a national media keen on making news, particularly news that makes the South look like a bunch of racists. Any Tennessean who would have been swayed to vote against Ford by the ad’s racial allusion would be unlikely to vote for an African American candidate in the first place.

“I’ve never thought about race,” Ford has said. “Don’t believe for one moment just because we’re in the South that we can’t look for what’s in our best interest, and look for the person who will best serve and represent us.” Southerners, Ford seems to be saying, aren’t as backward as you’d like to think.

Whether Tennesseans will elect Ford is a tossup,.but he is the better candidate for all Tennesseans regardless of party affiliation. He is by far the more passionate, energetic, and talented politician of the two candidates. In the dealmaking and publicity-seeking that makes a successful Senator, Ford will excel. Through Bill Frist’s ascendancy to Senate majority leader, Tennesseans have learned the local, on the ground benefits to be gained by having a visible and successful Senator. Where Ford’s energy and passion will make him stand out, his opponent will likely blend right in with the other older white males in the Washington.

For the independent, moderate voter, Harold Ford is an ideal candidate. He is a pragmatic politician who seeks consensus and moderation rather than division and ideology. He is unafraid of reaching across party lines to find sensible solutions, unlike his opponent, who is less likely to vote independent of his party.

Strangely, the loudest criticism of Ford often comes from the left. Even if Ford’s policies are more conservative than some Democrats are comfortable with (and I include myself in this group), he could be part of a larger Democratic Senate takeover that would help push the national agenda. Some of the greatest progressive legislation of the twentieth century was passed with a coalition of northern and western liberals and southern moderates. Ford’s election could help create a modern revival of that coalition.

And for those concerned with making history and reaching long overdue milestones, Harold Ford just might do that too.

What Will Our Children Think

In 1967, interracial marriage was prohibited in sixteen states and polls showed that as many as 72% of the American public opposed legalizing interracial marriage. During that year, the Supreme Court ignored that public sentiment in the case Loving v. Virginia, ruling that under our Constitution, “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the state.”

We are only one generation removed from that era, but to a child of the 1980s, raised after the opening of society to women and members of different races, the ban on interracial marriage seems almost medieval. I cannot conceive people being denied marriage licenses based upon the color of their chosen mate’s skin and I think the fact that such a ban is mind-boggling to me represents progress.

I wonder what my children will think a generation from now when I have to explain the presence on tomorrow’s ballot of a constitutional amendment banning marriage of homosexuals.

I’m willing to concede that same sex marriage and interracial marriage do not raise precisely the same set of issues. Yet, the opposition to each is remarkably similar and I suspect that just as the opposition to interracial marriage has disappeared as society has become more accepting, so will the current hostility toward same sex relationships eventually subside.

The trial court that initially convicted the interracial couple of violating Virginia’s interracial marriage ban cloaked its decision in religious references, declaring that “but for the interference with [Gd’s] arrangement, there would be no cause for [interracial] marriages.” The sentiment was that interracial marriage was a sin that could create a “mongrel breed of citizens” and would deny Virginia the ability “to preserve the racial integrity of its citizens.” Yet, this visceral opposition has slowly faded away.

Opposition to same sex marriage is similarly based largely on religion as opponents seek to impose religious norms onto civil relationships. What gay individuals seek, however, is not permission from these religions to participate in relationships – after all, they are well aware of those religions that condemn homosexuality. Instead, gay individuals seek a recognition by the government of the same rights and privileges afforded to others living in loving, committed relationships and a recognition by society that they are just as worthy of marriage as any other person.

The ballot initiative here in Tennessee, like others throughout the country, seeks to prevent these relationships from receiving equal recognition by enshrining a gay marriage ban into the state constitution. The effort is not only duplicative – state statutes already ban gay marriage – but is also an attempt to deny one class of citizens the rights and benefits enjoyed by all other citizens based solely on sexual orientation. That, my friends, is discrimination and a tarnishing of our constitution.

However, just as interracial marriage has slowly become acceptable, so to will same sex marriage it seems. According to multiple polls, significant majorities of 18-29 year-olds favor some sort of recognition of equal rights for gay couples. Going even younger, three quarters of high school seniors favor legal recognition of same sex relationships.

With numbers like these, I suspect that my children – or at least my grandchildren – will look back at this era of constitutional amendments to ban same sex marriage as outdated and closed minded, which is exactly what it is.