Archive for January, 2014

Red State Values – Counterproductive or Just Self-Defeating?

According to a just-published study in the American Journal of Sociology, the reason why divorce rates are higher in religiously conservative “red” states than in more liberal “blue” states is precisely because of those religious values.  That’s right, ultra-religious protestant values undermine the stability of marriage, contrary to what all those ultra-religious types profess about the sanctity of marriage.

Why?  The answer lies in the fact that such belief systems pressure young people to avoid sexual encounters before marriage; to avoid “artificial” or “anti-life” birth control measures, often endorsing only abstinence-only birth control; and usually to have large families.  The result is early marriage under higher economic stress by young people who often do not know who or what they are, and this is reflected in a long-standing and continuing divorce rate higher than that in states where the culture is less religiously dominated.

Not only that, but because the religious cultures permeate all aspects of the regions in which they are predominant, even non-believers in those areas are influenced through various effects, such as local and state laws, educational curricula, and social interactions.  In addition, also according to the study, “If you live in a marriage market where everybody marries young, you postpone marriage at your own risk. The best catches… are going to go first.”

The problem these religious types face is that what they believe about sex and young people, and how they should behave, is totally at odds with human behavior, and at a time when the age gap between physical/sexual maturity and economic/social maturity is the largest ever in human history, the only way the vast majority of young people can deal with that gap over time is either early marriage or sex without marriage, and when effective contraception is against religious values, the results are usually early marriage, with more than the normal rate of “premature” first births.  That puts a high percentage of such early marriages at risk from the beginning,

Having spent the last twenty years in exactly one of those cultures, I have seen exactly that scenario play out time and time again, and it continues to amuse me, if ironically [since I’m long since past any real amazement], that people here deny the fact that the divorce rate is higher and that their beliefs are the principal reason for the family instability that they so decry.

But then, as I’ve often observed, true believers often pay no attention to reality, especially where religion is concerned.


Back in the Theocracy

First, a question.  When does the Constitutional requirement for separation of church and state mean essentially nothing?

One answer:  When you live in a state where virtually all members of the state legislature are members of a single faith.  Or, as in my case, when one lives in the semi-sovereign theocracy of Deseret, more formally known as the state of Utah.

What reminded me of this, more forcefully than usual, was an official pronouncement the other day by the LDS Church.  The core of the declaration reads as follows:

“The Church is opposed to any legislation that will weaken Utah’s alcohol laws and regulations, including (1) privatization of the alcoholic beverage control system; (2) increases in alcohol license quotas; (3) permitting sales of heavy beer, wine and distilled spirits in grocery and convenience stores or allowing direct distribution of these products outside the state control system; and (4) any other proposals that would promote increased sales or consumption of alcoholic products in Utah.

“The Church also strongly supports maintaining the important distinctions between restaurants and bars. This includes retaining the current provisions that require the separation in restaurants of alcoholic beverage storage and dispensing functions from dining areas and patrons, the requirement of “intent to dine,” the 70%/30% food to alcohol ratio requirements for restaurants, and different hours of operations for restaurants and bars.”

This statement was issued exactly one week before the state legislature began its short annual session, and has actually generated a certain amount of controversy, even among members of the LDS faith.  Very few people disagree with the idea that the state, or any state, should have some regulations governing the sale of alcoholic beverages, but the degree of regulation varies greatly from state to state.  At one time in Utah, it was almost impossible to have a drink without a meal [and often not even then] unless one belonged to a “private club.”   So many establishments created “clubs” that any adult could join.  That requirement was eliminated a number of years ago, but a number of other seemingly senseless requirements remain on the books, including a population-based formula that makes it exceedingly difficult for restaurants to obtain liquor licenses and close to impossible for more than a comparative handful of bars/taverns to exist [to my knowledge there are only two in my home town, in an area of more than 50,000 people], a system that some claim begets hidden favoritism in awarding such licenses.  There is also the “Zion curtain” requirement – that the space in which drinks are prepared must be shielded from the view of all diners. There’s also a requirement that a diner must show intent to purchase food before obtaining a drink, and that a server may not provide a second drink until the first is entirely consumed. In addition, the importation of any alcohol from anywhere outside the state is prohibited, and all alcoholic products [with the exception of beers with less than 3.2% alcohol, which can be sold at grocery and convenience stores, and wines sold at local vineyards/wineries] must be purchased through the state liquor control stores or system.

You have a favorite wine from Sonoma or Napa?  Or anywhere outside of Utah?  If it’s not carried by the state stores, you’re out of luck.  No reputable vineyard or liquor outlet will knowingly ship alcohol to private citizens in Utah, Not only that, but several years ago, the state sent “observers” to watch Nevada liquor stores near the border, and those observers relayed the license plate numbers of Utah cars purchasing liquor… and those cars were stopped inside Utah, and their purchases confiscated.

Since I’m not a drinker and am, in fact, highly allergic to alcohol, all this doesn’t directly affect me, but my wife would like to occasionally sip certain wines, and it even takes me extra steps to send wine to my brother in Colorado – because the vineyard’s computers flag and question every order billed to a Utah address.

As a result of what many people feel are excessively stringent and unnecessarily burdensome regulations, there’s been a groundswell of popular pressure for additional reform of the state liquor laws. The result?  A proclamation by the LDS Church, which contends that it merely wants to keep alcoholism low in the state. Except that the regulations most people want changed won’t affect alcoholism.  Hard-core alcoholics aren’t going to order wines from out of state or order overpriced wines or cocktails at restaurants.  But certain name restauranteurs have decided to stay out of Utah… and there’s only one Trader Joes in the entire state.

Even more important than all that, though, is the fact that a church is openly dictating what the state laws should be on alcohol… and marriage… and sexuality – based directly on religious beliefs — and the state legislature doesn’t even have second thoughts about following those pronouncements.

Failure to Learn

The Special Counsel for the Education Group of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund recently decried what she termed the “education to prison” pipeline. The point she made was that black students, even at early primary school levels, are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than are their white peers and that fifty percent of arrest referrals from schools involve black or Latino students. According to the attorney, such suspensions result in so much time lost from learning and disaffection with school that a much higher percentage drop out of school and/or end up serving time in prison, yet ninety-five percent of the infractions that result in suspension or expulsion from school involve non-violent offenses such as disruption of class or abusive talking back to a teacher.

The proposed solution? Focusing on “instructional discipline” and referring the problem students to guidance counselors rather than the police.

First off, instructional discipline doesn’t work if the student won’t do it, nor can guidance counselors help if the students won’t listen – and those are the very behavior patterns that cause students to get suspended in the first place. It’s not that the students are initially bad; it’s that the culture from which they come hasn’t provided them with the behavior patterns necessary for scholastic success. What makes matters worse is that these students desperately need discipline in their lives, but because of their background, they won’t get it outside of school and “modern” requirements for teachers make it almost impossible for classroom teachers to supply that.

A relative of mine was teaching in a city school several years ago when a second grader told her that he wasn’t going to do an in-class assignment… and that if she insisted, he’d yell and claim that she beat him. She said he needed to do it. He repeated the threat. She insisted. He screamed. She called the principal, who said that she could either recommend suspension… and face possible legal threats, or not insist on the boy doing the work. She quit and found a job in a suburban district where she taught successfully for years.

Abusive talk and disruptive behavior in a classroom are not “minor” problems. They threaten the learning of all the non-disruptive students, and if a teacher is required to spend the time necessary with the disruptive student, then the other students suffer. There is only so much time available in a class period or school day, and putting any additional burden on the classroom teacher simply penalizes the other students.

There are very successful charter schools in some of the toughest inner-city neighborhoods in the United States. And yes, they have dedicated teachers, but a great number of regular public school teachers are also dedicated. What the successful charter schools all have in common is that there is a commitment to a disciplined approach to learning and that disruptive behavior is simply not allowed. In most, but not all, cases, this also requires a commitment on the part of the parent/parents. Regular public schools don’t have those options, not with the feeling that every student, no matter how disruptive, has the “right” to an education.

The problem in the non-charter public schools is that essentially the only tool left to a classroom teacher to deal with highly disruptive students is to remove them. This solves the immediate problem, but not the underlying one, yet well-meaning people like the special counsel mentioned above don’t seem willing to accept that the basic problem doesn’t lie with the schools, but with the culture in which those students grow up, and in which they still spend most of their time. And until that problem is addressed, one way or another, there will continue to be problem students who get into more and more difficulties until they work their way from indifferent or non-learning school behavior to underemployment or prison… and all too many “reformers” will continue to blame the teachers or insist that those teachers undertake tasks that are impossible in most cases in the conditions under which they work.  Just like the problem students, too many “reformers” have exhibited a failure to learn.

Westeros Revisited

As most readers of this blog know, I’m not exactly enchanted with George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice saga, although I have said repeatedly that he is a good writer. I just don’t like what he’s writing in that saga, but, based on something I heard in New York City, I may, just may, have to rethink at least part of my comments about this massive work.

One evening two weeks ago, at dinner with our son and his wife, our son made the observation, almost out of the blue, that “everyone on Wall Street reads Martin’s Game of Thrones. They’re obsessed with it.” He’s not a Wall Streeter, but he is the U.S. manager of a fashion outlet that caters to very upscale men, and a significant percentage of his clientele comes from the financial district. Then he mentioned that the same group really liked the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street. Both Game of Thrones and The Wolf of Wall Street share several attributes, most of all the fact that they’re about characters with few, if any, real redeeming characteristics who are out for wealth and power without any concern whatsoever about how they get it.

Then I considered another literary brouhaha between two writers, one of whom insists that writers who write works where the readers can identify with the characters are not writing “literature” and another who feels that the quality of writing is what counts in determining literary worth [with which I’m inclined to agree], with the subtext that almost all writing that gets published has an audience that identifies with a particular work… or author.

Combining our son’s observations with the reports of the literary kerfuffle, I couldn’t help but wonder if George is actually writing satirically about today in the guise of fantasy, if Westeros is really the western hemisphere in disguise, so to speak, where all those with power have few in any redeeming qualities, and where all those who succeed essentially have none… and all those finance types really love both Game of Thronesand The Wolf of Wall Street because they do in fact identify with the characters.

Could it just be that George R.R. Martin is actually this century’s Jonathon Swift… and I’ve missed it entirely? Even if that’s not what George had in mind, it’s what he’s effectively portrayed, and that segment of his audience certainly confirms that effectiveness.

Service and Profit

As noted earlier on the website news section, I was in New York City last week for a signing at Singularity & Co. The night before we left to return home, an email from the airline revealed that we had been placed on an earlier flight, necessitating our rising far, far, earlier than we had anticipated. There was no explanation, but when I reviewed the airline’s schedules, the carrier had shifted the times of the two flights we had been on by roughly fifteen minutes each, so that a forty-five minute layover had become fifteen. I understand adjusting schedules, but what I found interesting – and irritating – is that I’ve been flying a fair number of miles on book business for the past twenty years, and this has happened at least four times in the last two years. I don’t recall a single instance in the eighteen years before, and I’ve actually traveled a bit less in the last two years. I’ve also noticed that connecting times tend to be either around forty minutes or over two hours, unless I’ve been flying very heavily traveled routes. I’ve talked this over with other travelers, and most of them have noticed a similar trend. Either way, I’m either worried and rushed or wasting time in connecting airports.

Now I realize that the so-called deregulated airline industry is still heavily regulated and that there are only limited number of landing and take-off slots at major airports. That means every schedule change affects an airline’s entire schedule. I also know that commercial aircraft are not getting faster, or slower, but posted flight times are now longer than ever, simply because of greater and greater ground delays. Because the airlines don’t want most of their flights listed as “late,” they just factor in delay time as well. This means that on some flights I take semi-regularly I can arrive as much as a half hour early or ten to twenty minutes late. Then there are the fees for baggage – although I do fly enough that so far I don’t have to pay those – and the dropping of food service in cattle class, and even fees for telephone [as opposed to internet] ticketing. And with the excess baggage charges, every square inch – and more – is filled on most flights.

In a similar vein – although it won’t seem so at first reading – almost every institution I do business with is pushing me to “go paperless,” supposedly for environmental reasons. Why would I want to do that? For all too many of them, I have expenditures that are business-related, and the IRS isn’t about to trust my word about writing expenses. They want receipts and bills, on real paper. If I go “paperless,” then I’m the one who has to spend ink, time, and money printing out what I need, and the “environment” still suffers.

Likewise, more and more businesses are adopting automated telephone answering systems, where there are no real people unless you can punch-button your way to them. And all too many of those systems lack an option for services or items not on the menu. I know… I’ve tried.

All these items make one thing very clear. None of these changes are really for the benefit of the traveler or customer. They’re designed to add revenues, maximize profits, or to reduce costs, regardless of the inconvenience or added time or cost to travelers or customers.

The thing is – as customers we’re still paying as much, if not more, as ever, and we’re getting less… and no one seems to say much, even as corporate profits soar.


At present, it appears likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will have to make decisions affecting state law on same-sex marriage and whether companies and institutions providing health care insurance have the right not to cover contraception methods that go against the religion of the providers.  The State of Utah has filed an appeal against a federal court decision allowing same sex marriage, and a number of companies and organizations have suits pending on the abortion/contraception issue,

At the heart of these issues is the supposed question of whether the federal government can “impose” its will on these states and organization against the deeply held religious and moral beliefs of their constituents and various individual employers.  The problem is that those who have brought those lawsuits are the ones who wish to impose their values on others, not the other way around.

In the same-sex marriage issue, allowing same-sex marriages does not require any religion or individual to perform such marriages. Nor does the existence of same-sex unions limit or damage any rights of other individuals.  As the lower courts have held, failing to allow same-sex marriage does damage and limit the rights of same-sex couples. 

The same principle holds true for the health insurance/contraception/abortion issue. The founders of Hobby Lobby, as well as other employers, have insisted that being required to provide health insurance which covers certain procedures violates their beliefs and thus their rights.  Except, again, no one is insisting that they, or anyone covered by these policies, must undergo or use such services.  What the organizations are insisting is that their beliefs be imposed on all their employees. In effect, they want the Supreme Court to mandate that their personal beliefs limit the freedom of choice open to their employees.  We don’t allow religious beliefs to exempt employers from health and safety standards, nor from minimum wage requirements.  Why should religious beliefs be allowed to trump laws on healthcare?  And why should some employers be allowed to provide fewer benefits based on their personal religious beliefs, which restriction effectively imposes the practices of their beliefs on their employees… or requires employees to pay extra to have the same rights as employees of “less religion dominated” employers?

And for that matter, why should employers with certain specific religious doctrines be granted such exemptions when others are not?  Rigid adherence to Christian Science doctrine would prohibit any doctor-based health insurance, while adherence to the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses would prohibit coverage for use of blood or blood products?  Scientologists oppose pharmaceutical products used for psychiatric purposes. So far, at least, employers with those beliefs have not filed lawsuits, but if the Supreme Court finds for Hobby Lobby and others, health insurance could soon be shredded with exemptions.

In short, while we as a people oppose government restricting our freedoms when the exercises of those freedoms do not hurt others, and sometimes when they do – as in the case of gun control measures – why should we then allow organizations and individuals to restrict those freedoms based on the religious beliefs of the provider? 

“Mainstream” Arrogant Ignorance

In the “By the Books” column of The New York Times last Sunday, in response to the question “And how would you describe the kinds of books you steer clear of?” the apparently noted author Russell Banks replied: “Anything described by the author or publisher as fantasy, which to me says, “Don’t worry, Reader, Death will be absent here.” In his brief introduction to Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon says he takes serious writing to be that in which Death is present. I agree.”

Here we go again. Once more, an entire genre is being wrongly stereotyped by someone who has no idea of either its content or its variety. Death not present in fantasy? If George R.R. Martin read this, he should be laughing his head off. Not only is death present at every character’s elbow, but forget about virtue triumphing. At least so far, there doesn’t seem to be a character who’s survived that comes anywhere close to being even vaguely admirable. And Martin’s certainly not the only fantasy author in whose works death is a very close and brooding presence.

When Banks goes on to quote Thomas Pynchon, he’s clearly unaware that Amazon, literary critics, and some bookstores seem to think that Pynchon writes a form of fantasy, and there are over 3 million Google hits that link Pynchon and “fantasy.”

In one respect, I understand. Mainstream writers are just like everyone else. They’re absolutely secure in their delusions. We all have delusions, and we all have gaps in our background knowledge. But I have this old-fashioned idea that, especially if you’re a public figure of some type, you really should think about what you say. How in the hell can a man who thinks he’s never read a fantasy book, because he’s steered away from what he thinks is fantasy, possibly offer an accurate observation on an entire genre? Obviously, Russell Banks has no trouble in parading his ignorance, and the Times book section even highlighted and bolded the quote as the lead into the column.

I have great difficulty with that as well, because that emphasis on the quote either means someone at the Times is either as ignorant as Banks, or they’re taking a snide swipe at fantasy, or trying to provoke a controversy clearly using an ignorant, if talented, author as a foil. Banks deserves any potshots that come his way, including this blog, but the readers of F&SF – and the Times – deserve far better. In this case, the “Grey Lady” of journalism has behaved more like a street slut in outing an unwitting john.


Yesterday I set out on my morning walk with the over-enthusiastic but sweet Aussie-Saluki, and after leaving the path through our property and entering the community footpath – which begins with a large sign prohibiting all wheeled and motorized vehicles – I found myself walking in the wake/tracks of an ATV. It had to have been a small ATV because a full-sized one wouldn’t have made it along the narrow hillside path. Even so, the small ATV had churned and chewed up the packed snow and some of the dirt beneath, leaving a residue of frozen mud, not to mention dislodging and throwing aside some of the small stones that had marked the edges of the path. The ATV driver had traveled almost half a mile of the path, creating mud and mild destruction the entire way. In one place, later on my walk, along an abandoned side road between two developed areas, the ATV driver had attempted to rip down a small stone wall that, years ago, the owner of an adjoining property had presumably built to stop ATVs and others from riding off the side road and through his/her property. That small wall has been vandalized at least a dozen times over the past five years – always by ATV types, given away by the tracks of their vehicles, who apparently don’t believe that private property owners have the right to place any obstacles in their path of destruction.

Here in Utah, this behavior is scarcely limited to the ambit of my morning walks. Some two years ago, a prominent state legislator actually led on his own massive ATV a protest “rally” of scores of ATV owners which ripped through a federal roadless area, creating untold destruction. The local federal officials turned a blind eye, despite state-wide media coverage. In places, hillsides are so badly scarred that they won’t likely recover for centuries. If that destruction occurs on private property, with the consent of the owner, while I abhor it, that’s the owner’s business, but the possession and use of an ATV does not grant the user the right to destructive use of a home-owner association-owned and maintained footpath that explicitly prohibits such use, the destruction of a wall on private property, or the destruction of the environment on federal lands. Yet many of these people get actually irate if anyone challenges where they drive their vehicles, and they seem to regard any land that’s not fenced or posted as fair game – and much, obviously, that is as well.

Here in southwestern Utah, the land is high desert, and the hills are ecologically fragile enough as it is. Any path or track ripped through the soil becomes a channel for erosion and more destruction, either from the gale force winds that are always present or from the infrequent but deadly cloudburst. There are scars and traces from pioneer times almost a century and a half ago that nature has still not reclaimed or revegetated. That doesn’t seem to matter to the ATV types… and they’re multiplying! I’ve seen children no more than eight or ten years old, with their own ATVs, motoring down public streets at frighteningly high rates of speed, doubtless abusing the Utah state law that “allows” use of the streets to reach “ATV areas,” which seems to mean any open land not fenced, posted, and patrolled.

Obviously, I just don’t share the idea of “freedom” espoused by the ATV types, nor do I understand the “joy” of ripping up the soil in a cloud of dust or snow while riding a noisy machine through lands you can barely see.