Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns

Concentrated solutions

Posted on December 11, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Gun violence shatters lives among its victims, and leaves society at large shaking its head and wringing its hands.

Criminal-justice experts and analysts, however, recognize and understand a key concept and condition that rarely makes the news but is essential to making progress: the law of crime concentration.

Half of the gun deaths in the U.S. in 2015 occurred in just 127 cities. Moreover, gun violence is further concentrated in neighborhood areas within those cities that comprise only about 1,200 census tracts, which cover roughly 1,600 square miles. To properly frame the reference of the minuscule nature of those numbers, our country has 73,057 census tracts and 3.8 million square miles.

Though those neighborhoods contain only 1.5 percent of the U.S. population, 26 percent of the nation’s gun homicides happened within their local confines.

Now you see why gun-crime statistics by state are utterly deceiving. Any averaging that lumps large numbers of counties with zero gun deaths together with a very few urban counties with very high gun homicides produces an idiotic and useless result. Outliers that are way out of scale always skew averages into meaninglessness.

Gun-crime “solutions” based on state averages are therefore doomed to fail; they seek to solve illusory problems.

Consider Missouri and Arkansas, for instance. The per-adult gun ownership rate in Arkansas is twice that of Missouri, but the firearm murder rate in Missouri is 50 percent higher than Arkansas. Both states rank high in gun death rates, the problem isn’t statewide in either, as FBI murder data demonstrate.

In 2016, Arkansas had 216 murders, for a rate of 7.2 per 100,000 population. But only 25 of those murders occurred in nonmetropolitan areas. For those 55 counties, the murder rate was half the cities’ rate.

In Missouri, the contrast is even starker: The metro homicide rate was three times the non-metro rate. Of Missouri’s 537 murders, 474 occurred in its eight metropolitan areas. Of Missouri’s total gun homicides, one-third can be traced to neighborhoods in either St. Louis or Kansas City.

That’s not a Show Me State irregularity; it’s a national reality.

Moving up the map, 31 of Iowa’s 99 counties belong to metropolitan areas. In all of the 68 nonmetro counties, there were only 8 murders in 2016. The murder rate in St. Louis (population 319,924) is 50 times more than in nonmetro Iowa (population 681,181).

Trying to approach those two population sets with a one-size-fits-all crime prevention strategy is absurdity beyond description. What our concentrated crime problem is crying out for is a common-sense strategy that treats communities according to their situations, and applies crime-prevention resources and practices accordingly.

Some city neighborhoods need police presence, loitering policies, curfews and other measures ratcheted up radically until improvement is seen. Many, many other small towns and neighborhoods across the nation don’t need anything at all—certainly no new gun laws.

In reviewing urban areas where concentrations of gun crime are most rampant and produce the most deaths, some insightful political observations arise.

The top five cities with the highest gun death rates are New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore and Oakland. The top five cities with the highest non-fatal gun crime rates feature some overlap: St. Louis, Memphis, Oakland, Detroit and Pittsburgh.

If we expand each list to the top 20 cities, and cross-reference them, 14 cities appear on both the gun death and non-fatal shooting lists. Of those 14 cities that were in both top 20 gun crime categories, Hillary Clinton carried every single one in the 2016 election, with landslides (more than 60 percent) in nine of the 14.

In some of the deadliest gun crime cities, such as St. Louis, New Orleans and Baltimore, Trump fared worst of all, getting only 15.9, 14.7 and 10.7 percent of the vote respectively.

How silly it would be for Democrats to limit their campaign strategy for 2020 in the metro areas where their candidate won hands-down. A strategist suggesting more ad spending in Baltimore would be a laughingstock. To change things, obviously the party must address the many suburbs, small cities and rural counties where Clinton lost.

How silly it is, likewise, to propose and devise gun crime solutions for the vast majority of people and places in the U.S. where there is no gun violence problem.

To effect change and improvement, we must address those small, narrowly defined areas where gun crime is off the charts.

Politicians can sound noble and statesmanlike standing up and calling on Congress for a national assault weapon ban. Meanwhile, nightly handgun shootings take a deadly toll on constituents trapped in select census tract neighborhoods—so easily identifiable, so statistically predictable, so conveniently forgettable.

Back in 1914, opposing troops in World War I along no-man’s land called a Christmas truce and put down their weapons to celebrate the holiday. Maybe mayors in major cities ought to coordinate a plea for a gun crime truce this Christmas.

No shootings, for just one day.

It might fail miserably. No harm in trying, though. The longest journey always starts with a single step.

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Declining hate

Posted on December 3, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Maybe we should start calling November “Shabby Journalism Month.” That’s when the FBI typically releases its annual Hate Crime Statistics report, and the resulting headlines this politically combustible year have been predictably inflammatory.

“Hate in America on the rise” blared an editorial headline in the Washington Post, which proceeded to label the latest 4.6 percent increase in the number of reported hate-crime incidents as telling “a sobering story.”

A columnist at the Orlando Sentinel called the report’s results “jarring”—singling out Florida’s “33 percent” increase in incidents as creating risk to Floridians that was “rising exponentially.”

Other foaming-mouth news outlets chimed in with similar sentiments, and the predominant refrain was to lay blame at President Donald Trump’s feet.

But a single statistic hardly tells the whole story; in fact, when isolated in such a manner, the 4.6 percent increase in hate-crime incidents mostly tells a lie. Let’s dig a little deeper into the wealth of statistical information the FBI collects on the subject.

Regarding the “exponentially” rising risk in Florida, the only thing in the Sunshine State that’s ballooning by an exponent is sensationalism where journalism should reign. Last year 110 hate crimes were reported there, which was an increase of 27 hate crimes over 2015 in a state with a population of 21 million.

Proclaiming a statewide 33 percent increase sounds alarmingly exponential. Reporting the factual whole number reveals it to be minutely fractional. Using the FBI’s normal crime rate calculation—offense per 100,000 population—the 2016 hate-crime rate in Florida was 0.52, up from 2015’s 0.39 rate. If you want exponential, you need to look at Florida’s regular crime rate, which was 62,000 times higher than its hate crime rate in 2016.

There’s a fine journalistic line between misleading and misinformation, and the Post and many others have lamentably leaped across it in the wake of the FBI report.

Last year’s 4.6 increase translated to 271 more hate-crime incidents in 2016 (6,121) than 2015 (5,850), but the number of violent hate crimes actually dropped—from 913 to 906.

“Hate-crime murders down by half” could have been a headline, but wasn’t. Nine people died as victims of hate-crime homicides last year, a 50 percent reduction from 2015. (For perspective, 66 Americans were killed by lightning strikes in the past two years. But let’s not digress.)

Several commentators sought to credit the hate crimes “increase” to a spike in white nationalism.

Conveniently, the FBI does an excellent job of categorizing hate-crime offenders, and one of the most basic categories is by race. Of the 5,770 known hate crime offenders in 2016, 46.3 percent were white. But in 2015, that figure was 48.6 percent.

That’s right. The percentage of hate-crime offenders who were white dropped in 2016.

In fact, that number has been falling steadily for years. Fifteen years ago, white offenders were 70 percent of the total. Ten years ago the percentage was 58.6. That’s a strong trend going in the right direction, but it does little to grind the race-baiting axe.

The real headline for this year’s report, however, ought to be the astonishing drop in overall hate-crime incidents in 21st century America.

In 2001, the FBI reported 9,730 hate-crime incidents involving 11,451 offenses. That means 2016’s total number of incidents and offenses is nearly 40 percent lower than 15 years ago–even though the U.S. population has grown by almost 40 million people.

That was news to me, and ought to qualify as newsworthy for any journalist writing about the issue. Instead, the 4.6 percent increase over last year gets headlines, while the 40 percent decrease since 2001 gets ignored.

If nothing else, this year’s hate-crime report ought to be used as a contrast with the much, much, much more serious problem of non-hate violent crime. Because while there were nine fewer hate-crime murders in 2016, there were 1,367 more regular murders. There were also 4,469 more rapes and 38,950 more aggravated assaults than in 2015.

If that’s not “sobering” or “jarring” news, it should be.

Compare that to the decrease in hate-crime aggravated assaults last year, which dropped from 882 to 873 (and which was reported nowhere).

It’s true that there were slightly more (by a couple of hundred) hate-crime incidents of intimidation and vandalism last year than in 2015. Even with that “rise,” the FBI reported nearly 1,500 fewer incidents of intimidation and over 1,100 fewer incidents of vandalism in 2016 than in 2001—and that’s with 3,267 more law enforcement agencies participating in reporting hate crimes than back in 2001.

Unfortunately, it furthers few special-interest agendas to even whisper about a decline in hate crime, much less talk out loud about it.

Plus, with so many pundits still vengefully smarting from the egg on their face over last year’s election, hoping the facts will ever lead on a hyper-political issue like hate crime is simply hoping too much.

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Annotated Proclamation

Posted on November 17, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , |

The uniquely American observance of Thanksgiving was first proclaimed as a national holiday in 1789 by the first president elected under the new Constitution.

While the holiday itself has now been long canonized in both custom and law, George Washington’s formal proclamation is a relic of infrequent review in modern times. As we prepare to gather family and friends round our tables and turkeys next Thursday, here’s a look back at Washington’s enduring words, with annotations.

New York, 3 October 1789

By the President of the United States of America. A Proclamation.

New York was the nation’s capital at the time. The first Congress had just completed its first session at Federal Hall there, where Washington had been inaugurated five months earlier.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—

A member of the Anglican Church, Washington (who was generally private about his religious beliefs) attended public services regularly while president.

[A]nd whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

The congressional joint committee was introduced in the House of Representatives on Sept. 25 by Elias Boudinot of New Jersey. Though not a household name among founding fathers today, Boudinot was well-known and respected among colonial statesmen. Washington would later appoint him as director of the U.S. Mint.

Congress didn’t bless Boudinot’s resolution with resounding unity. Some legislators voiced opposition to federal overreach by a national proclamation that more appropriately fell to state authority.

The resolution carried, and the influential patriot Roger Sherman of Connecticut—the only man to sign the Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution—was appointed to the committee to approach the president.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be …

The date Washington named happened to be the last Thursday in November, but he didn’t specify it as such. Abraham Lincoln did that in 1863.

Lincoln’s calendar convention held until November 1939, which featured five Thursdays. Hoping to spur economic activity, Franklin Roosevelt declared Thanksgiving would be moved up from the last to the fourth Thursday to expand Christmas shopping.

Tampering with tradition proved wildly unpopular; many states simply ignored his declaration. In response to the “Franksgiving” fiasco, Congress codified the fourth Thursday designation in legislation in 1941.

That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—

The Revolutionary War formally concluded on Sept. 3, 1783.

[F]or the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—

The U.S. Constitution had been ratified a year earlier, but operations under the new government didn’t begin until March 4, 1789, when the First Congress convened.

[F]or the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

Just a week before, the amendment guaranteeing the blessing of religious liberty had been approved by Congress as part of what would become the Bill of Rights.

[A]nd also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions–to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—

Notice Washington’s nod to John Adams’ famous quote (“a nation of laws, not of men”).

[T]o protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Be thankful next week.

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Courage and capability

Posted on November 10, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , |

How much courage do you have? It’s hard to say.

Many people who display courage in the most dangerous situations later say they were terrified.

That’s exactly what Stephen Willeford said after he armed himself and rushed to confront the shooter at a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church last Sunday.

He credited God with leading him to do “what needed to be done.” None of us can really know in advance how we would react in such an unimaginable scenario.

But courage alone wouldn’t have helped Willeford had he not also brought along his own AR-15.

It’s more than fair to say that whatever the shooter had planned for his heinous murder spree, he didn’t expect to run into someone else with an assault rifle. Unlike the shooter, Willeford wore no body armor. He wasn’t even wearing shoes, so hasty had been his rush to help.

As one survivor dramatically recounted, she was lying on the floor as the gunman was walking back down the aisle shooting people to make sure they were dead. Farida Brown said he shot the woman next to her, and she was praying in preparation for her own death when she heard another shot—from a different man in the church doorway.

A former NRA instructor, Willeford was an excellent marksman. Two of his rounds found their target around the shooter’s bullet-proof vest.

Nobody knows how many more of the wounded the shooter would have killed. All we know is that Stephen Willeford changed his course of action—for good.

The fact that a good guy with a gun (an assault rifle, to boot) stopped a bad guy with a gun is like uranium-grade kryptonite to gun-control zealots.

Their rabid gnashing of teeth has led some to publicly criticize requests for prayers for the victims.

Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Having a one-track mind (guns), the only solution they can see is the Pollyanna pipe-dream scenario of a firearm ban that all bad guys obey.

Dismissing the folly of zealous and misguided fanatics is not a plan, however. And it’s not good enough at a time like this.

The first lesson here for reasonable people of all political persuasions is that before we add more new gun laws, let’s enforce the ones we have.

Texas law and others already prevent a person guilty of domestic violence from purchasing a gun. Alas, a bureaucratic blunder put that law asunder.

Good law. Bad enforcement.

The logic from that isn’t to tinker with the law, but rather to remedy the enforcement glitch. The worst thing, legislatively, would be to overreact with a foolishly restrictive gun law that would have disarmed Willeford!

The anti-gun radicals aren’t 100 percent wrong. We do need new laws, just not new gun laws.

This crime ought to serve as a decisive clarion call that our criminal justice system draw a hard line between violent and nonviolent lawbreakers, and institute a Violent Crime Registry. A past history of violence is a huge indicator of future risk of more violence.

There are millions of criminals who might steal, pick pockets, deal drugs, burglarize an empty home or vandalize a car in the wee hours. But they would never raise a gun against innocent, defenseless people just for the fun of killing them. They couldn’t even turn a gun on a bunch of puppies at a pet groomer. The very thought is sickening.

Violent criminals are different.

Someone who batters his wife and fractures an infant’s skull (as the church shooter reportedly did) warrants inclusion on a Violent Crime Registry, where merchants, citizens and law enforcement could all keep track of him—and all his ilk.

It would serve as a broader fail-safe when someone slips through the cracks for a narrowly defined law like the domestic-violence prohibition.

Arkansas law requires notification if a nonviolent sex offender locates in your neighborhood. But a violent thug with multiple convictions can move in right next door and you’d never know.

Ohio is considering a bill that would make it the seventh state with a Violent Crime Registry. Called “Sierah’s Law,” the bill is named after a college student who was abducted and murdered while riding her bike by a 57-year-old man who had previously gone to prison for—hard to believe—abducting a female cyclist.

Arkansas needs to become state No. 8.

If we want to lead even more boldly on the issue of firearm violence, we should become the first state to establish a Gun Crime Registry. We’ve got good cause. Arkansas ranks disproportionately high (top-10 range) in gun violence and the rate of firearm aggravated assaults.

With so many gun criminals, Natural State citizens deserve to know where they all live and what they all look like.

Advancing technology makes registries easier to implement and access than ever before. They arm society with knowledge that can hamstring convicted violent criminals seeking to operate anonymously in new locales.

The best gun-control strategy is keeping guns out of the hands of violent criminals. That’d be easier if everyone knows who they are.

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Half a millennium

Posted on October 27, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

There are an estimated 900 million protestants among the world’s 2.3 billion Christians, and each owes his or her doctrinal heritage to events that began on All Hallows’ Eve 500 years ago.

Popularly, Oct. 31 is widely celebrated in America as the holiday of costumes and candy. But religiously, it is Reformation Day, commemorating the date in 1517 on which an Augustinian monk and theology professor named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Half a millennium is a mighty long time. The United States won’t celebrate its 500th birthday until July 2276. Who knows to what spectacular degree fireworks displays will have advanced by then?

It’s a more than a little mind-boggling to think that our nation will have to survive 65 more presidential elections to get to that major historical milestone. Will our famous landmarks survive another 260 years as well as Old Castle Church?

Consecrated in 1503, and also known as All Saints Church, the cathedral doubled as a fortress. It was burned to its foundations in 1760 during the Seven Years’ War following a bombardment. The blaze consumed all the church’s priceless artwork.

Castle Church with its 289-foot steeple was not only rebuilt but also has been repeatedly remodeled over the centuries, and now stands as majestically as ever. Its 2,200-pound set of bronze doors, on which are inscribed Luther’s 95 Theses, were installed in 1858 (the 375th anniversary of Luther’s birth). Most tourists visiting Wittenberg wind up being photographed in front of the massive entry.

It takes a lot of imagination to think back to 1517. Shakespeare wouldn’t be born for nearly another 50 years, and Sir John Harrington’s revolutionary flushing lavatory, through use of cistern, wouldn’t be invented for about another 80.

A city of 50,000 was considered huge–London’s population was about 70,000–and most towns were very small. There were no municipal sewage or drainage systems. Juxtaposed against such primitive living conditions were advanced scholarly intellects in men like Luther.

Besides his monastery training, Luther was an insatiable learner, earning three bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and a doctorate in theology before the age of 30. In addition to his native German, he was proficient in Latin, Hebrew and Greek. A prolific author, his works in English translation comprise 55 volumes.

He was also a productive hymnodist—”A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is perhaps the most well-known Luther composition—and, more importantly, an early proponent of singing in worship services. Previously, parishioners might have intoned a Latin lyric, but they would have only repeated sounds, not understood words. Luther’s encouragement of and support for common-language hymns and their spirited rendition in church were fanning winds that helped spread the reformation wildfire.

His preaching was prodigious at a time when most church services did not include a scripture lesson: he delivered an estimated 4,000 sermons, some 2,300 of which are preserved.

The 95 Theses were titled “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” A person-on-the-street survey would likely find the majority struggling with the definition of at least two and maybe three of those words. (“Indulgences” as referenced here refer specifically to a Catholic religious practice at the time that Luther considered to be easily corrupted and biblically errant.)

Hardly anyone on this continent could read it in its original Latin. Neither could common Christians in 1517. But since the Gutenberg printing press was in widespread use by then, Luther’s theses were translated into German and copies distributed publicly by January 1518.

That gave wings to Luther’s main precepts: justification by grace through faith, rather than by works, and a belief in the Bible as the sole source of spiritual authority.

After altering the course of history by launching and defining the reform movement, Luther went on to translate the Bible, essentially establishing a unified German language from among the multitudinous dialects of that age. His New Testament translation appeared in 1522, followed by a whole translated Bible published in 1534, which made holy scripture directly available and accessible to the common German people.

Legend surrounds Luther’s timing; some say his choice of Halloween to post his 95 Theses was to gain publicity among the people. But the fact that they were written in Latin would seem to undermine that notion.

It’s irrelevant anyway. Five centuries ago, one man’s courage and conviction–gained through diligent study and worship–galvanized a movement that changed forever the face of religion in the world.

A better mousetrap

Life in the country involves critters, and as the nights grow colder and the crops are harvested, field mice often aspire to become house mice.

Historically, setting traditional spring-loaded mousetraps has been a challenge. If you happen to be an “all-thumbs” type, the exercise can frequently result in painful smashed fingers.

Thanks to still-thriving American ingenuity, however, folks truly do build better mousetraps nowadays.

The model I use to repel autumnal rodent invasions is made by a longtime trap manufacturer (Victor) and its bait-trough design not only protects my fingers, but also has a handle to make disposal touch-free.

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Scary money

Posted on October 19, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Today is Friday the 13th, which is a date of some numerological and superstitious notoriety.

This year has featured two Friday the 13ths (the other was in January), and while any calendar year includes at least one, no year can ever have more than three. The last solo year was 2016, and the next will be 2021.

Any year that begins on a Sunday will have a repeat of this year’s January-October Friday the 13ths; the next occurrence will be in 2023.

When it occurs in October it’s doubly frightful—All Hallow’s Eve date is 13 backwards.

Why the number 13 is considered ominous and unlucky is a mystery. At least part of the explanation lies in its legendary association with misfortune as related in The Last Supper and Norse mythology.

As the natural number following 12, it also constitutes a contrast and break with the completeness numerologists ascribe to a dozen: there are 12 calendar months, 12 Zodiac signs, 12 Herculean labors, 12 Olympian gods, 12 Israeli tribes, 12 Christian apostles, 12 clock hours and (as will be sung before long) 12 days of Christmas.

Whatever the reason, triskaidekaphobia—fear of the number 13—has had significant financial implications in America.

Even huge infrastructure projects reflect intelligent people’s phobic avoidance the number. The majority of high-rise buildings in the U.S. skip the 13th floor, according to the Stress Management and Phobia Institute. Many hotels and hospitals shy away from offering a Room 13. Airports routinely omit a Gate 13.

Matched with Friday, the resulting unlucky date often thwarts travel, deals, contractual closings and other activities for millions of people. The price tag for all the foreboding of Friday the 13th? The Phobia Institute estimates as much as $800 million to $900 million will be lost today because people won’t fly or do business as they normally do.

On the flip side of triskaidekaphobia, however, is a steadily growing Halloween mania among American consumers. Spookiness is more fun than scary these days, and the crystal ball foretells record-breaking numbers for this year’s Halloween holiday celebrations and rituals.

For starters, more Americans than ever—179 million—plan to celebrate this year, according to the annual research study sponsored by the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Total Halloween spending will be a record high $9.1 billion, which is 8.3 percent higher than last year and almost double what it was a short decade ago. The largest percentage of that, more than $3.4 billion, will go to costumes, which nowadays are worn by adults and children alike.

The NRF prognosticators pick superhero costumes to be the favorite this year, but I dispute that. My dark-horse prediction is there may be as many Donald Trumps as Batmans among Halloween partygoers and neighborhood trick-or-treaters.

The remainder of boo bucks will be spent on decorations and confections. From simple wreaths to elaborate oversized displays, some $2.7 billion will be spent on pumpkins, cauldrons, skeletons, ghosts, tombstones and other paraphernalia pertaining to all things eerie that might go bump in the night. The candy tab for supplying trick-or-treaters averages only about $25 per household, but multiplied out across the vast, disguised horde of kids on the prowl for sweets, that adds up to another $2.7 billion of so in spending.

Fortunately, there are still some wonderful freebies you can enjoy as part of Halloween.

Audiobook versions of classic horror tales such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are available at no charge since those works are in the public domain. You can download them and listen on your smartphone using earbuds or a Bluetooth connection in your car.

Every year about this time, I start listening to the LibriVox recording of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

On free audiobooks, a critical quality factor is the reader’s skill and talent. This version was recorded in 2006 by “Chip in Tampa, Fla.,” and his voice, cadence and dialect couldn’t have been hand-picked any better.

It sounds as if Irving himself is relating the story around a cozy fireside.

Chip’s tone has a mesmerizing quality when describing Tarrytown and the nearby countryside; a playful timbre when depicting Ichabod’s infatuation with Katrina Van Tassel (and her wealth) and Brom Bones’ jealousies; and a haunting somberness when recounting Ichabod’s climactic encounter with the headless horseman.

In the moments just prior, while riding home in the autumn darkness, everywhere Ichabod turns he sees and hears terrifying things. Suddenly his horse stops and he is jolted to acute attention.

“Just at this moment a plashy tramp by the side of the bridge caught the sensitive ear of Ichabod,” Chip purrs as he enunciates each of Irving’s splendid adjectives.

“In the dark shadow of the grove, on the margin of the brook, he beheld something … huge … misshapen … and towering.” Chip’s pauses simulate heartbeats skipping.

“It stirred not, but seemed gathered up by the gloom, like some gigantic monster ready to spring upon the traveller.”

The next moments, using only words and no surround sound or special effects, recall the power of sheer language to invoke immense suspense. Listen for yourself. I can’t recommend a better Halloween treat.

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Better late than never

Posted on October 2, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

It was heartwarming—but also bittersweet—to read in the news last week that Kirby School District had successfully demonstrated its qualifications for a waiver from the state education requirement that any school with an enrollment of less than 350 be consolidated.

It took a full school generation for the Arkansas Legislature to finally stifle the stupidity contained within Act 60 of 2003, which effectively elevated student head count above every other education quality measure.

During that 12-year period, small schools with above-average test scores and graduation rates, and below-average costs-per-pupil, were shamefully closed and merged into larger (and sometimes poorer-performing) districts. Some of the lost high schools have familiar names linked forever with the cause of preserving quality rural education: Paron, Weiner, Delight.

The wheels of progress can grind even more slowly than those of justice. To its collective credit, however, when the Arkansas 90th General Assembly acted in 2015 on the proposed legislation to allow waivers for high-performing schools with fewer than 350 students, the results reflected a concordant return to common sense: It was approved unanimously by votes of 91-0 in the House and 33-0 in the Senate.

A dozen years had not only demonstrated the false promises and fallacious pretensions behind Act 60, but also revealed the ridiculous folly of closing schools where students were not only often setting the curve for academics and college readiness, but also operating more economically than megadistricts with miserable proficiency percentiles.

Kirby’s high school earned a School of Innovation designation in 2016, and its average ACT score is 16 percent higher than the state composite mark. Along with Kirby, the Strong-Huttig school district also was granted a waiver. Both schools possess an all-important indicator of quality education, which is powerful community support and parental involvement.

All schools that receive waivers from Act 60’s consolidation requirement must demonstrate that they are not in fiscal, academic or facilities distress and that they have no violations of accreditation standards.

Many people, small school patrons, rural education advocates and other volunteer organizations worked long and hard to right the wrongs perpetrated by Act 60. The unanimous approval of waiver legislation was essentially a standing ovation to their efforts, and good schools that would otherwise be shutting their doors are instead still successfully serving rural communities and children.

Universal acclaim

Hillary Clinton’s new book has caused commotion around a number of subjects, but at least one unifying excerpt surfaced in the news recently.

In her memoir, Clinton quoted a couplet from John Greenleaf Whittier:

For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”

Whittier was one of America’s renowned “fireside poets,” which also included the venerable voices of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., James Russell Lowell, William Cullen Bryant and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

These 19th century writers were the first class of Americans whose poetry proved more popular than British authors, and their influence was enhanced by their long lives and highly visible careers.

Clinton’s selection is from “Maud Muller,” a poem published in 1856 about a chance encounter of two people from different worlds (a barefoot rustic maiden and a polished judge passing by who asks her for a drink from a spring) who each imagine life married to the other. That moment of imagination is fleeting, and both go on to predictable lives: The judge weds a wealthy woman; Maud marries an unlearned farmer.

The snippet in Clinton’s book is a mere tease. I’m adding a few more verses here to serve up a better sampling of Whittier’s sumptuous mastery of word, rhyme and meter.

After the judge sips from Maud’s tin cup, the pair share small talk of haying and weather and flowers and trees. As they parted unspoken dreams arose in both, yet the world drew each back into their respective station, and life goes on.

But the lawyers smiled that afternoon,
When he hummed in court an old love-tune;
And the young girl mused beside the well,
Till the rain on the unraked clover fell.

In older age, both occasionally still fondly recall their happenstance meeting; Whittier addresses the lamentations in the lines just before the phrase Clinton used:

Alas for maiden, alas for Judge,
For rich repiner and household drudge!
God pity them both! and pity us all,
Who vainly the dreams of youth recall;

But in closing, the devout Whittier favors fervent faith over futile melancholy.

Ah, well! for us all some sweet hope lies
Deeply buried from human eyes;
And, in the hereafter, angels may
Roll the stone from its grave away!

Alert reader revision

Last week I credited Bing Crosby with singing Irving Berlin’s song “Abraham” in the movie Holiday Inn.

That was half-right.

However, as an astute reader noted (from memory, no less!), the lyric I singled out was actually sung by Mamie, played by Louise Beavers, with her children on her knee.

Kudos and thanks to Stephen Caldwell for helping set the record straight on a beautiful scene from a great film classic.

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Monumental miss

Posted on August 25, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

I’ve never met anyone who supports repealing the 13th Amendment, and reinstituting slavery. I’ve never heard of anyone proposing such a thing, regardless of how radically right the “alt-” reaches.

That peculiar institution perished forever on American soil in 1865, thank God. Involuntary servitude of that sort isn’t part of anyone’s daily life, and hasn’t been now for more than 150 years.

It is, however, part of U.S. history.

And in all the ruckus surrounding monuments lately, we’ve missed a tremendous opportunity for some truly teachable moments.

At an intellectual level, historical knowledge among average Americans runs on the low side. There’s no H in STEM, which helps explain why national benchmark scores for proficiency in history among American eighth-graders is around 18 percent.

Stories and examples of people, young and old, being befuddled about correctly connecting dates and events and wars and presidents and so forth are as amusing as they are commonplace.

YouTube videos of random Americans on the street being unable to answer the most basic questions of U.S. history garner views in the tens of millions for their humor.

Interviewer: “Who won the Civil War?”

Young woman: “We did!”

Every Fourth of July average passersby caught on camera can’t name a founding father, pin down the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, or even identify the country from which we gained our independence.

A populace that has trouble placing our founding conflict in the right century is most assuredly easily misled about the finer points of complex politics and economic pressures leading up to secession.

Instead of tearing statues down, we should be holding them up for discussion, and challenging everyone with an interest about the value of historical education—and the risks and costs of historical ignorance.

History books are typically large and thick for a reason. Skimming the surface on major historical matters generally results in mis-education, and the ensuing peril isn’t the erasure of history but the propagandizing of it. That’s what’s most on display in this ongoing uproar over Civil War statuary.

See what you can score on a few “Trivial Pursuit-type” questions:

1.Who wrote “In this enlightened age, there are few, I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral and political evil in any country.”

(A) William Seward (B) Robert E. Lee (C) Abraham Lincoln (D) Henry Clay

2.Which Civil War general owned more slaves?

(A) William Tecumseh Sherman (B) Robert E. Lee (C) Ulysses S. Grant

3.Name the U.S. state whose Black Code of 1853 prohibited any black persons from outside of the state from staying in the state for more than 10 days, subjecting blacks who violated that rule to arrest, detention, a $50 fine, or deportation?

(A) Kentucky (B) Illinois (C) Missouri (D) West Virginia

The words condemning slavery as evil were written in a letter to his wife in 1856 by Robert E. Lee.

Contrary to popular belief, Lee owned no slaves. He was executor of his father-in-law’s estate, which included a slave plantation. Reports of Lee “freeing his slaves” are false; the slaves Lee freed belonged to his father-in-law, in accordance with the dying man’s wishes.

Sherman never owned slaves, having never lived in a state where slavery was legal. The only general among the three that apparently owned a slave was Grant, and the only evidence of that is a manumission document for a single slave Grant signed in 1859.

Like Lee, Grant managed his father-in-law’s farm on which a number of slaves worked.

Racist and discriminatory black codes were prevalent in antebellum northern states in what is now the midwest region. The language above is from Illinois, but other states such as Indiana and Michigan had similar discriminatory laws designed to impede racial immigration.

Indeed, in 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville observed racial prejudice in America to be “stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant,” he wrote, “as in those states where servitude has never been known.”

He pondered the paradox, and offered a provocative proposition: “[W]hy have the Americans abolished slavery in the North …, why do they maintain it in the South, and why do they aggravate its hardships?” he asked.

“The answer is easily given. It is not for the good of the Negroes, but for that of the whites, that measures are taken to abolish slavery in the United States.”

It’s unclear how many of the chanting protesters have ever bothered to read Chapter 18 of Democracy in America, but a safe wager is the number would be minuscule. Tocqueville is only one voice on the matter; the vast chronicled record is full of brilliant thinkers.

The historical racial relationship in America isn’t tidy, and neither were the Civil War’s causes or consequences; simplistically portraying either as such will produce no progress.

The undeniable truth is that broader, deeper knowledge dispersed among any participants in this overcharged argument would bring greater empathy to all. It’s never too late to learn.

A toppled monument educates no one. Ignorance threatens us all.

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Eclipse Fever

Posted on August 18, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

Monday will mark a milestone of celestial proportions. The swirling orbits of the sun and moon will align to produce the first total eclipse to span the entire U.S. in nearly a century, and the first to touch any portion of the country in nearly 40 years.

The last total eclipse to slide from sea to shining sea across America was in 1918, and Camden was right on the centerline path.

While none of Arkansas this time will be in the “path of totality”—that roughly 70-mile-wide shadow that will sweep over the land turning daylight into nighttime—the Natural State will get a full dose of a major partial eclipse.

In the northeast part of the state, residents are only a short drive (two to three hours or so) away from being able to see what has been repeatedly described as simply an indescribable vision.

In 1925, a total eclipse clipped the northeast U.S., and the New York Times front-page coverage was awash with superlatives about the sight.

“A Brilliant Show … Thrills Millions” the huge headline proclaimed, adding “City Halts to Gaze.” “Corona Divinely Beautiful,” one subhead read, and another reported that the watching multitude was “Awed by Jewel of Light Hanging from Luminous Ring.”

That “diamond ring” effect is visible in the totality zone, and it’s part of the “Baily’s beads” phenomenon. Those are little bright spots of light formed just prior to and just after totality in which the sun’s light is peeking around the rough edges of the moon’s surface.

Right before (and right after) the total eclipse occurs, the beads of light blink out until there is only one left, and the resulting image then resembles a ring with a single light-splashed diamond.

Most people have seen photos of total eclipses of the sun, and if you haven’t, any Internet search will return loads of them.

But the event promises to be one for which a photograph can simply not do justice. All previous witnesses attest: You have to see it to truly appreciate it. So “totality trips” are being planned with eager abandon.

Nationwide, more than 12 million people live within the path of totality, and while estimates vary about how many Americans will be driving to an “umbra site” for viewing, all predictions are in the millions.

The magnitude of the dip in workday productivity and the spike in non-rush-hour traffic jams will thus likely be momentous—as will the accompanying economic rarity of “eclipse tourism.”

From where the moon’s shadow will make landfall in Oregon to where it launches seaward again in South Carolina, towns and cities small and large will be cashing in on the cosmic spectacle. All along the totality path, hotels have been booked for months (sometimes years) and local populations are expecting to multiply, sometimes by tens of thousands.

Unassuming Casper, Wyo. (population 55,000) will be a prime watch spot, and if you happen to find an available hotel room, expect to pay well over $1,000. Some Airbnb properties are going for $5,000.

Hopkinsville, Ky., is a quiet town of 32,000, but because it will feature one of the longest eclipse durations in the nation, officials anticipate crowds totaling as many as 200,000 for Sunday and Monday. The city has been planning for eclipse traffic for five years, and the boost to the local economy might be as much as $30 million.

Nashville, Tenn., is one of the largest cities in the totality zone, and planners there are expecting a $20 million shot in the arm from overnight visitors arriving for the eclipse.

By all accounts, investing some time and money on Monday to witness the total eclipse will produce a priceless return. “It’s an experience that does not seem of this life or this world,” one astronomy author observed.

In addition to spectacular visuals—the “shadow bands” that radiate on light-colored surfaces can never be photographed, only seen by the naked eye—it’s a total-body encounter.

Because all the sun’s rays are blocked, the temperature can drop precipitously and noticeably, fooling plants and animals that night is at hand.

Seeing starlight at midday will be weird enough, but the glow from the sun’s revealed outer atmosphere is said to be odd and surreal. We normally never see solar plasma; little wonder everyone who gets a glimpse of it in the corona during an eclipse is awestruck.

There’s a siren-song aspect to eclipses, however. Their beauty belies a menacing peril: Looking at a partial eclipse with the naked eye can cause immediate, irreparable damage to your sight, and in some cases blindness. Eye safety is a must if you intend to catch the eclipse fever. Solar-film protective glasses are available lots of places; some experts prefer welding goggles.

Ironically, it is perfectly safe to remove eye protection during the brief period of total eclipse. It’s recommended, in fact; otherwise you won’t get the full extraordinary visual effect.

If it’s cloudy or you can’t make it on Monday, don’t fret. Another total eclipse will appear in 2024–and it will feature a totality path right through Arkansas.

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Speaking of federalism

Posted on August 5, 2017. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , , |

Aug. 1 was the designated day when the rubber starts meeting the road for 700 or so new laws in Arkansas. It marked the passage of the 90-day citizen referendum period following the end of the legislative session, after which laws without specific effective-date clauses go into effect.

One law that didn’t get passed (or even proposed) was to declare Tuesday Arkansas Federalism Day. That is, after all, the merit-worthy governmental system which lends the credence and authority to our state motto’s core principle.

Each of the United States is still free and independent in many ways, despite continual congressional encroachment, to enact legislation governing the broadest spectrum of everyday activities. The resulting blessings and curses, silliness and seriousness, praises and protests, and all other emanations in response to the assorted acts of the 91st Legislature in actuality serve to strike a celebratory chord.

Federalism not only lives, but thrives, and thank goodness it does.

It celebrates diversity at its most fundamental core. From the very start, which is to say from the earliest colonial times, the people of the various states were different. The states themselves were different, too—topography and climate helped create diverse dictates, mandates and habits regarding lifestyles, language and legacies.

All those state differences, refined through the decades, is what makes and keeps America interesting.

Texas has had 75 mph speed limits for years. We’re just now getting ours.

High school students in other states may or may not have to take personal-finance classes. It’s the law in Arkansas now.

Not every state lets suckers (mis)use their debit cards to play the lottery. It became officially accepted legal tender here on Tuesday. Some states don’t even have a lottery. And among those that do, they manage and regulate them differently.

Being united but different states makes for wonderful travel experiences, and one of the prime indicators of locality is the way we talk. Dialect is often a dead giveaway precisely because words, pronunciations and speech are so regionally rooted.

A couple of Ph.Ds studied the matter as part of a linguistic survey project at Harvard, and then visually mapped the informative and amusing results.

What do you call insects that glow at night? the researchers asked. Here in the Natural State, and across the whole South and most of the Midwest, they’re lightning bugs, of course. Get west of the plains of Kansas, however, and folks all call them fireflies.

Is a privately hosted sale of household items properly termed a garage sale, a rummage sale, a yard sale or a tag sale? It depends. Arkansas looks pretty split on the map; more along the eastern Mississippi River border favors the “yard” prefix, while the Northwest Arkansas area prefers “garage.”

There’s a solid Southern color block on the map for the answer to how a group of people is rightly addressed: We all say “y’all.” But up north and out west, it’s “you guys,” hands down.

When you’re thirsty for a carbonated beverage, where you live colors your drink request. Californians and New Englanders will ask for a soda. Northerners want a pop.

In Dixie we’ve turned a brand generic. Give us a coke.

Water fountain or drinking fountain? The latter in the South and East, the former beyond the Rockies.

A freight hauler is a: (1) semi/semitruck; (2) tractor-trailer or (3) eighteen-wheeler. Most of the nation falls into camp 1. There’s a camp 2 patch up in the northeast, and most of Louisiana and Mississippi and part of Arkansas belong to camp 3.

Do you lace up sneakers or tennis shoes? If you said sneakers, you ain’t from around here, or anywhere even near here.

Caramel is a pretty simple word, but the number of syllables pronounced is completely dependent on geography. The syrupy, three-syllable vocalization is limited to the lingering vowels of the Deep South.

Another drawling divide: the second “a” sound in “pajamas.” North of the Mason-Dixon they all incorrectly rhyme it with “jam.” Everybody knows it’s an “ah” sound, like “father.”

And hard as it is to believe, most Americans verbally mangle the obvious sounding out proscribed by the spelling of the word “lawyer.”

If you thought the “loy-er” pronunciation was limited to New Yorkers and their neighbors, think again. We who say “law-yer” belong to the rapidly shrinking minority.

The map depicting what miniature crustaceans are called looks like a colored layer cake: red across the southern bottom for crawfish, green in the middle for crawdad, and blue all along the Canadian border states for crayfish.

I decided to test the validity of an interactive graphic quiz published by the New York Timesfeaturing 25 questions from the original Harvard Dialect Survey (which had more than 100).

The online exam claimed it would produce my personal dialect map from my answers.

I dutifully replied to each query, and after the final submission, the map popped up as promised.

It’s unnerving to seem so easily predictable that a mindless tabulation tool can peg you.

But there it was. The dot for the city named most similar to me was sitting smack-dab in the Arkansas center.

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