Thursday, September 30, 2010

No more books? -- Sept. 30, 2010 column


My memories of high school do not include textbooks. I remember rambling more than I remember cracking a book.

I wandered into journalism at the school newspaper, met T.S. Eliot in the library and schemed petty rebellion listening to folk music. Fueled by black coffee and Bob Dylan, my friends and I drove aimlessly into adventures that always ended too soon. We had curfews.

Textbooks were remote, boring and infinitely forgettable.

This year, though, students at Clearwater (Fla.) High School, my alma mater, actually may remember their textbooks. For the first time, all of Clearwater High’s 2,100 students received Kindle electronic readers personalized with their individual textbooks. Amazon has said the high school is the country’s first to issue devices to all students.

“I feel like a pioneer walking into a new era,” Clearwater principal Keith Mastorides told the St. Petersburg Times.

The students and faculty in Clearwater are hardly the only pioneers stepping into a new era. Nearly each day brings a milestone in the evolution of how we read.

Today you can read newspapers, books or magazines instantly. Your customized news feed from sources you pick comes directly to you. Still, it’s hard to beat the serendipity of finding articles you didn’t know you wanted to read while turning print pages.

So far, the publishing industry accommodates both the print and the digital enthusiast, but newspapers and magazines are struggling. Some experts predict the demise of the print book in five short years. That sounds extreme, but Amazon reported this summer that for every 100 hardbacks, it sells 143 digital books for Kindles.

Providing electronic readers and digital books is technologically savvy and saves school districts money. But should the school library go the way of bound books?

Cushing Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts, is getting rid of its library books and spending half a million dollars on a replacement for its library. Officials haven’t decided whether to call the new place a “learning center” or something else, the Boston Globe reported.

“In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $40,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine,” David Abel wrote in the Globe.

The University of Texas at San Antonio’s Applied Engineering and Technology Library brags that it’s the first university library to go totally book-free. Other scientific libraries have been moving toward a book-free state, but at the UT-San Antonio library, there’s not one bound volume. All 425,000 books and 18,000 scholarly journal articles are accessible only by computer.

The Web site Inside Higher Ed called the Texas library “a symbol of the inevitability of electronic as the prevailing medium” in academia.

For now, most students can explore library stacks with their shelves of endless possibility.

But change is upon us. The venerable New Yorker, first published in 1925, just launched an iPad version to augment its print and other digital offerings.

In a reassuring note to readers in the Oct. 4 issue, the editors said print remains the magazine’s most popular form “by miles,” and yet they sniped gratuitously at another print tradition: “Unlike a Sunday newspaper, say, the print magazine is still a beautiful, portable, storable, slide-it-into-your-bag-able technology.”

Beauty is in the eye of the holder. Sunday newspapers are big, fat and unwieldy when they have lots of advertising. Ads, as the editors of The New Yorker well know, are a good thing.

The magazine’s editors also wrote: “We’re at once delighted and a little bewildered about this latest digital development and our place in it: delighted because of the quality of what the tablet provides and the speed with which the magazine can be distributed, but bewildered, too, because we’d be liars if we say we knew precisely where the technology will lead.”

Amen. Delighted and bewildered we all are, and none of us knows where the technology will lead.

In Clearwater, a 10th grader told a local TV station it felt like Christmas morning when she got her Kindle. Other students say the devices are a weight off their shoulders. They’re only 8” by 5” and weigh 10 ounces. Students can take notes and look up words in a built-in dictionary. The device has a wireless connection.

“It’s still a book,” said principal Mastorides. “But it’s a book-plus!”

We’ll find out if the students remember just the Kindles or also the subject matter they contain. I, for one, hope the devices also encourage youthful ramblings, real or virtual. Many of high school’s lessons don’t come from books.

The book-plus – or whatever you call the latest technology – offers students of all ages ease and freedom. Happy wandering.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Obama hits reset button -- Sept. 23, 2010 column


Not content to say that Barack Obama is a bad president, Republican commentators and politicians declare him the worst in history.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., jumped to that conclusion back in June; Obama had been in office fewer than 17 months. Ben Quayle, a congressional candidate in Arizona and son of former Vice President Dan Quayle, made the claim unequivocally last month in a video. Partisan provocateurs charge early and often that Obama is the worst.

It’s hardly new for critics to cast a president with whom they disagree to the bottom of the presidential barrel, but the vitriol against Obama arrived particularly early. George W. Bush was well into his second term before Rolling Stone ran a cover story in April 2006 saying historians wondered if Bush would be remembered as the worst president in all of American history.

Today’s urge for the quick judgment and rhetorical overkill is puzzling. Obama won’t be on a ballot for more than two years, and signs indicate that he may not be the albatross to Democrats in November that Republicans hope.

Americans are angry and grim, but they are sharply split about the job the president is doing. Fifty percent of Americans disapprove of how Obama is handling his job, but 49 percent approve of his performance, according to an AP-Gfk poll earlier this month. Other polls show a similar split.

Congressional Republicans are even less popular than Democrats in Congress, with 68 percent of respondents disapproving of Republicans’ job performance and 60 percent of Democrats.

Perhaps more telling is the deep divide among those who say they’ll vote strategically in November. Twenty-six percent say they’ll use their vote to show opposition to Obama – but 26 percent also say they’ll vote to show their support of the president. Interestingly, 48 percent said Obama would not be a factor for them in November at all, according to the AP-Gfk poll.

Presidents don’t get “do overs” of their decisions, but Obama is hitting the reset button on his presidency.

The rap against Obama has been that he failed to focus tightly enough on jobs and the economy. A month ago, House Republican leader John Boehner suggested the president fire his economic team to show he got the public’s unhappiness. Three key players of Obama’s economic team are departing; apparently voluntarily. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel also appears headed for the door. This gives Obama an opportunity before the midterm elections to retool his economic policies and his message.

Some Democratic candidates are keeping the president at arm’s length, but the White House will deploy the more popular Obama – first lady Michelle Obama’s approval ratings exceed her husband’s by 20 points – in six states next month. She is expected to raise some $20 million in campaign cash.

And, health-care reform is again in play. A majority of Americans say they want to repeal Obama’s signature program, and Republicans have pledged to do just that if they regain control of Congress. Several provisions that just went into effect, however, may change people’s attitudes.

Sixty-one percent of likely voters favored repeal of the new law, according to the latest Rasmussen poll, which was taken before new benefits under the Affordable Care Act rolled out Thursday. Most of the law’s provisions go into full effect in 2014, the law’s six-month anniversary brought several provisions aimed at improving care for families.

New rules allow young adults under 26 to stay on their parents’ health-insurance plans or require health insurance plans to offer free preventive care, including mammograms and colonoscopies.

Insurance companies are now prohibited from discriminating against children with preexisting conditions. Companies no longer can drop coverage if someone gets sick or unintentionally makes a mistake on his or her insurance application. New policies will not contain lifetime limits on key benefits. Consumers also will be able to appeal insurance decisions to an independent group.

The White House launched a major public relations campaign to let people know about the new rules. A new health reform Web page at features an interactive U.S. map with stories from each of the 50 states about how real people benefit. Obama talked up the new provisions at an event in Virginia that included remarks by grateful patients flown in from around the country.

Obama said he faults himself “for not being able to make the case more clearly to the country.”

Republican National Chairman Michael Steele framed the Republican response: “The president’s plan was unpopular when it passed in March and today the wholesale takeover of the American health system is undeniably radioactive.”

The debate is on: The people will decide what’s radioactive and what kind of president Barack Obama is.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Angry voters rewrite campaign story -- Sept. 16, 2010


Thank you, wacky voters of Delaware and New York. Without you, we’d still be hip-deep in predictions of a Democratic disaster at the polls in November.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not endorsing the inexperienced, Tea Party-backed candidates who won Tuesday’s primaries in the First State and the Empire State. Nor did the results there end rampant speculation that Democrats are in big trouble with midterm elections.

But I am glad the 2010 campaign storyline has changed, finally. Angry voters in Delaware and New York, building on Tea Party strength earlier in the primary season, made it happen.

For months, we’ve heard and read countless permutations on the whither-Congress theme. Stories about Democrats’ potential loss of the House and perhaps the Senate became the political equivalent of the bedbug epidemic. The news media went gaga about the possibilities, running out every imaginable scenario. Merely reading about either topic made some people itch.

While November may still prove disastrous for Democrats, the final primary contests raised Democratic hopes and managed to accomplish something not even the president could. President Obama invoked a dreary future under a Republican House Speaker, John Boehner, but the storyline wouldn’t budge.

It took ordinary Americans voting in primaries to change the narrative of the fall campaign.

Nothing whips heads around faster in political and media circles than the unexpected. When candidates endorsed by the Tea Party activists trounced establishment Republicans in the Delaware and New York primaries, the national narrative pivoted instantly.

Suddenly, the story is that September’s Tea Party triumph sets the table for a deep Republican disappointment in November. While the House still is within GOP reach, Republicans may find it more difficult to wrest control of the Senate because the seat formerly held by Vice President Joe Biden will more likely stay Democratic.

The emergence of Christine O’Donnell adds fascinating new elements to what-if calculations.

Thirty thousand people in Delaware voted for O’Donnell, a perennial candidate with a hazy work and educational background. She beat Rep. Mike Castle 53 percent to 47 percent.

Castle had been so favored, however, that he hadn’t even prepared a concession speech; a speech reportedly had to be written on the fly Election Night. And no wonder: Castle has had a lifetime of public service. He has won a dozen statewide elections, including two as governor and nine as Delaware’s only U.S. House member.

O’Donnell, for her part, had the endorsement of Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. The Tea Party Express group ran TV ads on her behalf.

Said O’Donnell: “The commonsense men and women of Delaware are tired of the same-old coming out of Washington. They don’t want more of the same. Well, we are not more of the same.”

She’s right about that. Although she hews the Tea Party line on lower taxes and smaller government, her social views raise eyebrows. On, the headline for a news video read: “WATCH: Christine O’Donnell’s Masturbation Stance.” It linked to a 1996 documentary in which an earnest O’Donnell explains why as a Christian she’s against masturbation.

In the New York gubernatorial primary, a real-estate mogul in his first campaign for public office beat former Rep. Rick Lazio. Carl Paladino, like O’Donnell, also had Tea Party backing and has strong conservative social views. He opposes gay marriage and is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. He has said he’ll use eminent domain law to keep property in lower Manhattan free of an Islamic Center.

Republican leaders are concerned about how such social issues will play this fall with voters.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the New York Times that as he has traveled, “I’ve talked to a lot of folks who are basically independents who say: I’m fine with the Republicans as long as we’re talking about fiscal responsibility. Where I got off the reservation is when you talk about social issues.”

As November nears, you can expect Democrats to sharpen the focus on social issues. The surprising final primaries of 2010 remind us that the parties, the politicians and the country’s direction all depend on ordinary citizens who vote.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Struggling to define religious tolerance -- Sept. 9, 2010 column


A man in a small Virginia town once told me about life in his closely-knit community.

People here live and let live, he said. They don’t care what their neighbors do on Saturday night or where they go Sunday morning – as long as it’s church. And, he explained, that doesn’t mean just Baptist or Methodist; any church is fine.

I nearly spit out my iced tea, but the man spoke without irony, proud of what he saw as tolerance among like-minded people. It evidently never occurred to him that some in town might be non-believers or non-Christians.

That was years ago, when many Americans rarely imagined living next door to someone whose religious views were unlike theirs. In 2010, though, the news is filled with international outrage over an obscure preacher’s plans to burn Korans in Florida and flaring tempers over a planned Islamic community center in lower Manhattan. A Muslim cab driver was stabbed apparently because of his faith; protesters taunted a dark-skinned man they mistakenly thought was Muslim.

As we struggle to define religious tolerance for our time, we ask ourselves how a nation founded on religious liberty ever reached such a sorry state of affairs. Aren’t we better than this?

Before we beat ourselves up about the actions of a few, though, it’s worth remembering that people have been fighting for religious tolerance since we set foot in the “new” world. The history of America is rife with shameful incidents in which our neighbors were mistreated because they came from somewhere else -- and their faith was different.

And yet, because intolerance doesn’t sit well, Americans have tended to ignore the signs. Even religious historians have been reluctant to lay unpleasant cards on the table.

“American religious history…often reads like a Garrison Keillor story where religion is nice, its practitioners are upstanding, and the nation is above average.” John Corrigan and Lynn S. Neal write in their new book, “Religious Intolerance in America.”

Americans bask in the country’s romantic “founding myth” that begins with Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution for a land of liberty, includes a First Amendment that protects all views and culminates in the 21st century with the most diverse nation on Earth. The reality is quite different, write Corrigan and Neal.

Corrigan, who heads the religion department at Florida State University, and Neal, who teaches religion at Wake Forest University, have compiled a documentary history of religious intolerance starting with the Colonial era, when Pilgrims hanged Quakers, and Protestants attacked Catholics. Despite the uplifting words of Jefferson and the Bill of Rights -- “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” -- the federal government in the 19th century attempted to wipe out Native Americans’ religion and several states declared war on Mormons.

In 1838, Missouri Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs signed an “Extermination Order” against Mormons that stated in part, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary.” Even more astonishing, the law languished on the state’s books until 1976, when it was rescinded by then-Gov., now Sen., Christopher “Kit” Bond.

In the 1850s, anti-Catholic fervor halted construction of the Washington Monument. A furor ensued in 1855 when Pope Pius IX sent a memorial stone for the monument. The small, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” Party seized control of the Washington National Monument Society through an illegal election, and the Know-Nothings reportedly threw the Pope’s stone into the Potomac River.

Corrigan and Neal report that in the 1940s, mobs assaulted Jehovah’s Witnesses. During World War II, part of the goal in rounding up Japanese Americans for interment was to isolate Buddhist priests and Shinto practitioners. Buddhists, eager to assimilate, began calling their temples Buddhist churches.

Things are little better today. Hate crime statistics since the mid-1990s indicate that religion is second only to race as a motivating factor of hate crimes, write Corrigan and Neal. They declare false the Christian Right’s claims that today it’s Christians who are persecuted.

I haven’t been back to the town where church on Sunday was a must. My guess is attitudes have changed there as they have everywhere.

What endures is that we Americans still prize religious freedom and tolerance, however we define it. President Barack Obama was right that burning Islam’s holy book would be “completely contrary to our values.”

Our country may not always live up to our values, but every day that we as individuals stand with and support someone whose religious views differ from ours, we move a step closer to our American ideals.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Obama and that pesky 'vision thing' -- Sept. 2, 2010 column


On joyous Inauguration Day 2009, the last thing anyone imagined was that Barack Obama would have trouble with “the vision thing.”

That, you recall, was the dismissive term President George H. W. Bush used about his trouble formulating and expressing his overarching principles. Obama, the brilliant orator and thinker about race, surely would face no such difficulties. He would know where he wanted to take the country and why, and he’d explain it eloquently. So many people thought.

It’s ironic that after 19 months in office, Obama is having the problem no one expected. While he has accomplished several significant goals -- healthcare and financial reform and ending the war in Iraq – the president suffers from collapsing job approval ratings. His party is on the ropes.

How did Obama, who started so high, fall so far? My theory is that the president’s troubles stem from his failure to articulate a vision for the country and how his policies would get us there. Without a convincing, comprehensive narrative or story line, there’s a void, which both sides exploit. The political right fills the void with scary pictures of big-government ruination while the left paints equally disturbing pictures of an uncaring society.

The truth is probably between the two, but that doesn’t help people caught in the recession’s undertow. People buffeted by economic forces beyond their control need the president to throw them a more substantial lifeline than the idea that he inherited a mess and they should be patient.

The president has said he thought his actions would speak for themselves, but his critics have been more than eager to fill in blanks with erroneous information about who he is (a Muslim) and what he believes in (socialism).

In his speech Tuesday night from the Oval Office, Obama tried to restart the conversation by saying it’s time to turn the page on the war in Iraq and refocus on the economy. So far, so good. But on Thursday he was hosting Middle East peace talks with Israelis and Palestinians in Washington.

To be sure, every president must move between foreign and domestic policy issues, and, yes, the talks had long been scheduled. Still, the timing again raised questions about the president’s focus and his message.

Columnist Michael Gerson, chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote in the Washington Post: “This is a president who has lost control of his public message. It wanders unleashed from park to alley, stopping to sniff every cable news story along the way.”

More positive, if less colorful, spin: This is a president with an agile mind that glides easily from one problem to the next as he quickly responds to pressing events. Much, you see, depends on how the message is framed.

With about 60 days until the elections, virtually every political analyst is predicting a Republican rout, albeit with caveats about lightning strikes. Some are comparing this to the 1994 midterm election, when both houses of Congress went Republican for the first time in 40 years. Not a single Republican seeking re-election to the House or Senate or as governor lost.

This year, Republicans are likely to take back the House and the Senate is in play.

The big issue remains jobs, and Obama is right to declare the economy his central mission. Some economists, though, predict it will take years for the United States to dig out of the recession. That’s time Obama doesn’t have.

Nor does he have many tools available. His “Summer of Recovery” tour fell flat. He has talked up small business tax breaks. Some Democrats want a second economic stimulus package -- by another name, of course – but chances of such legislation are small to nil.

Unfortunately, even the economic experts are flummoxed. Christina Romer, who stepped down as top White House economic adviser, said in her farewell speech this week that this is “not a normal recession” like the one in which her father lost his job in 1981-82, and there are no magic bullets.

With unemployment stuck near 10 percent, “The American people are suffering terribly,” she said, adding, that’s “unacceptable.”

Back to you, Mister President.

(c) 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.