2003: David Barham, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Little Rock
Award for Editorial Writing, tied

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Collared: One strike and that’s it

June 13, 2002

Because of the great harm done by some priests. .. the church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the church’s leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter. The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God. - Pope John Paul II SOME 300 Catholic bishops are meeting this week in Dallas to discuss the recent - well, the recently publicized - allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests. What some of us can’t understand is why there is any need for so solemn and extended a debate among the revered bishops about what to do. Looks like an open-and-shut case to us:

Pedophiles should be in prison, not in the pulpit. Any questions?

Abusive priests - like abusive parents or abusive teachers - are nothing new. But the sheer number of complaints that have been newspaperized in the last 12 months has given the American public a collective pause about the priesthood. Boston. Baltimore. St. Paul. New Orleans. This week, another bishop resigned in Kentucky amid a cloud of similar accusations. One story after another after another after another. The dirty tide grew so powerful that even the Pope had to call a meeting about it in April. To a layman innocent of gnostic interpretations and clinton clauses, what he said there didn’t seem to leave any room for debate.

The American bishops seemed to see it that way, too: Priests (in name) who molest children should be kicked out of the church when they’re outed. But the men of God are less clear on what should happen to those who committed such crimes in the past.

If a priest, they ask, committed this crime 10 years ago, should that propel him from the ministry?

Our considered theological conclusion in response to that question is: Hell, yes.

Priests should be held to the highest standard because they’re like teachers and police officers - no, we take that back. Priests are more like parents. Priests are supposed to be protectors, instructors, guides - fathers. They’re supposed to be people whom children can trust, utterly. They have God on their side. They carry all the symbols of authority that the young and impressionable are taught to respect and follow.

Is a one-strike policy - no matter when that strike occurred - a harsh punishment? Of course it is. And should be. Priests should be held to a higher standard than other miscreants because they have a higher calling. Priests vow before God that they will be spiritual guides, that they will be examples for others (especially the children of the church), and do the right thing even when no one is looking. No one mortal, that is.

Priests are human, certainly, but a different kind of human: They are to be men who walk this earth concerned not with making themselves rich, not with obtaining political power, not with conducting war, building businesses, erecting bridges or making scientific breakthroughs. They are called to an even higher purpose: to save souls.

Not scar them.

The implication to be found in certain Vatican newspapers - that American culture is to blame for this predicament - is unworthy of the church. Is there more nudity on American TV than in, say, Europe? Is there more prostitution in American big cities than in, say, Hong Kong? Is there more drug use in Miami than in, say, Bogota? You might as well blame the American press for devoting so much space to this story, though no more than some of the Vatican journals do.

Here’s one proposal being kicked around: Priests caught abusing children after the new policy is in place would be defrocked. So far, so good. It just doesn’t go far enough. By this wobbly standard, a priest who molested a child in the past could remain in the priesthood if he (a) underwent psychological treatment, (b) had been declared no longer a pedophile by the grace of science, and (c) had the backing of a church committee which interviewed, among others, the victim.

This won’t do. Psychological standards have proven all too elastic. (Ask the parent of a child who’s been abused - or worse - by a pedophile out on parole.) Besides, most psychologists will tell you that pedophiles don’t change easily, if at all.

Yet the church now seems prepared to embrace yesterday’s psychology rather than adhere to its own ever relevant doctrine and discipline. Just as earlier, by paying hush money and weighing the legal odds, the church aped the worst of the corporate culture rather than the best of its own. Rather than revere and uphold its own mysteries, the church went to lawyers for the latest secular cures for what ailed it; now it’s turning to shrinks. It is time for the church to return to that old-time religion, to be renewed, and to renew others by its example. Instead, the bishops will hold a solemn convocation in Dallas to debate pros and cons. Why not just keep the faith?

THE BISHOPS seem to be debating about what is best for its priests, or for the church’s image. But someone else is involved here. Jesus loves the little children, goes the simple old song, all the children of the world. What about them?

The bishops would be wise to announce a one-strike policy, and not waver from it. These men of the church should also vote to report each allegation to secular authorities for review. If they have any doubts about that, they might note what a priest named John Paul has just said: Child abuse is rightly considered a crime by society. And society is about to make reporting these abuses a law, anyway. The church should be taking the lead - not trailing behind bearing a briefcase full of up-to-date reservations and escape clauses. Not when victims must live with the shame and horror of their abuse for the rest of their lives, instead of fond memories of visits to the zoo or favorite Christmases.

Besides the young victims, there are others who have suffered harm: the Catholic laity and the vast majority of priests who are good stewards. They all have been unjustly tarred by this sweeping brush. The bishops can lift this shame from all by taking an uncompromising stand against this crime - this sin.

Although the word of the Pope carries no small weight among Christians, Catholic or otherwise, at Dallas the bishops would do well to note the words of someone of even higher rank: Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

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Brotherly hate: How to lose a war - and our souls

June 20, 2002

HATE CAN be useful when giving a war. All sides use it. Not excluding ours. Gentle Reader may remember 1991, when Bush I had to enrage an entire nation against his erstwhile ally - Saddam Hussein - before going to battle. It wasn’t hard, given the target.

But then you have useless hate , callow hate , hate directed against an entire culture or people, hate for hate’s sake - stupid, destructive, even suicidal hate. Like poison gas, hate can drift back into our own ranks, sickening, confusing and dividing us. Look at what happened to Americans of Japanese descent during the Second World War. Unfortunately, that kind of hatred bubbled over again last week, and at a place where some of us might not have expected it:

Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives - and his last one was a 9-year-old girl. And I will tell you, Allah is not Jehovah either. Jehovah’s not going to turn you into a terrorist that’ll try to bomb people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people. - The Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, in St. Louis last week.

Sweet Jesus.

While we appreciate people who call ‘em like they see ‘em, and while we know the PC Police have increased patrols after September 11 th, we have to wonder whatever good the good Reverend hoped to accomplish by that kind of ugliness. Just change the name of the religion and the prophet, alter a phrase or two, and his statement could have come straight out of one of the more hate-crazed Arab dailies on the subject of Jews or Christians. Are we now going to overcome our enemies by imitating them? God forbid. There are some obvious flaws in the Rev’s logic — God or Allah or Jehovah, they are but different names for the Unnamable, and He scarcely directs terrorists to do His bidding. All that sounds more like the work of a fallen angel, the Old Boy in red socks. But the Reverend Vines didn’t seem out to make a theological case, however poor, but just to insult and inflame.

What other purpose could there be for such comments? To educate? To convert? To persuade? To reason? Surely not to love. No, a simple insult it was. Nothing more. And therefore, unworthy of a man of the cloth. Or any man.

We’ve read belittling remarks like this before, words meant only to humiliate or to stir up hatred against whole peoples, whole religions, whole races. Oftentimes, we’ve seen them in the Arab media. You know, the benevolent Saddam Hussein keeps the Great Satan at bay. .. Israelis plotted the 9-11 attacks to frame the Arabs. .. Another young boy goes to Paradise after blowing himself up near Tel Aviv. .. . Americans have just shrugged, been outraged, or even laughed off such drivel. But we wonder what the reaction will be when the Reverend Vines’ comments make it to Jordan, to Syria or to Saudi Arabia, where there is already so much hate , if of an opposite-but-equal brand. We doubt many will yawn at this insult. More likely it’ll be one more excuse to take to the streets, shouting slogans, hating Americans.

This much is certain: It’s a tactical error to insult a fifth of the world’s population. That’s why the commander-in-chief has been at pains to emphasize that this is a war against terror, against evil-doers, not a matter of Us versus Them. The prospect of a U.S. vs. Entire Islamic World fight is exactly what the September 11th terrorists were hoping for. Those who would turn this conflict into a religious war, a crusade, a jihad, are doing just what the enemy wants.

American leaders were smart enough, after a verbal slip or two, to find a synonym for Crusade to describe this war on terror. Why would freelancers like the Reverend Vines want to sabotage all that diplomacy? We can’t think of any reason except the brief, putrid satisfaction of hate.

Think of the reaction of our Muslim allies in the Middle East and Asia to the Rev’s comments. In Turkey, for example. Or in Egypt or Pakistan, whose governments have pledged to help in the war against terror, at least formally. Why add to their already beleaguered leaders’ problems by insulting Islam?

It won’t be any easier to prosecute this war, and the war ahead with Iraq, without allies nearby. And bases. More rhetoric like this from the good reverend, et al., will only increase the pressure to shut down those American bases, or maybe to bomb a few more American embassies. As if the Reverend Vines’ invective weren’t bad enough, what’s also sure to be reported in the Arab press is that the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention didn’t condemn the Rev’s strange views. And by their silence, all those at the Baptist convention seemed to give consent. What were those delegates thinking, or were they?

We haven’t even mentioned our fellow Americans who share the Islamic faith — our neighbors, our colleagues, fellow Americans. Many of them stand on guard this very hour, rifle in hand, or at their battle stations. We remember them among the nurses and interns treating the injured on September 11th. And if our fellow Americans are insulted, we are all offended. Or should be.

But beyond all that, certainly beyond the tactical error of slighting our allies, and even beyond the moral offense of insulting our countrymen, a more important question arises: Where was the brotherly love at the Southern Baptist Convention?


If we remember our Bible School lessons, and we do, didn’t this Jesus of Nazareth preach love and peace, even and especially toward those despised by the world? Whatever name your God goes by, it has been said that God is Love.

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UnSATisfied:Essays reveal more, trust us

July 3, 2002

TO THE HORROR of high school students everywhere, there comes word from the SAT industry that essays will become a part of that national college entrance exam and ordeal.

Let us explain this for our high school readers: Essays are written sentences, linked together in paragraphs, that reflect a thought or tell a story - and, by the way, grammar counts. When taking an essay exam, there are no little bubbles to blacken, there are no multiple choice questions, there are no true/false guesses. You have to (we can feel you shudder) explain an idea using the English language. Like, write or something.

No matter how many young subscribers we may lose saying this, we tend to look with favor on the change in the college entrance exams, sterile and unavailing things as they may currently be. Writing reveals understanding, or the lack thereof, in a way no multiple choice exam can. Logic. Transition. Confidence. Imagination. Humor. All these things are difficult to measure when answers are T/F or (a), (b), (c), or (d). (Ever notice it’s almost never (e)?) Any pocket calculator can add and subtract, but it can’t think, no matter what fans of AI (artificial intelligence) believe. Essays are the best way to measure what separates us from the computers. After educators in California noted their interest in putting essay questions on the SATs, the SAT’s rival - the ACT - began looking into it. It’s a done deal for the SAT, starting in 2005. Will the ACT follow? THERE ARE hurdles ahead. Because computers cannot yet grade essays (yippee!), officials are wondering what the cost will be of lining up another kind of judge - they’re called humans - to grade the essay questions. But can they be fair to students who express a view different from their own? How many graders would read each essay? How subjective might the process become? How long would the essays be? What happens when the grader, like some teachers, turns out to be less literate than the student? And can the manufacturers of the tests survive the piercing pother from unhappy high schoolers everywhere? Problems await, which means the lawsuits will proliferate.

Where find Americans still capable of judging the written word? They’ve grown steadily rarer over the years. The telephone replaced the posted letter long ago, and with the letter went writing, at least for most Americans. And writing hasn’t made a comeback, no matter the instant message you just answered. Email may be closing in on the phone as the first choice of communication among the young crowd, but it’s telegraphic, halfway telepathic. E-mailing hardly qualifies as prose. That’s not writing, as Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac’s stuff, it’s typing. And soon even the primitive lingo of e-mails may be displaced by voice messaging.

The telephone reduced the spoken word to "uhs" and "whatevers," replacing "I said" with "I go," and e-mail completed the process by replacing language with a kind of pidgin shorthand. (Who cares how u spell stuff on e-mail? Speed iz whut counts.) Telephones made communication lazy; e-mail has made it atrocious. Yes, more essays! For posterity’s sake, more essays! Educators can counter the evil of smiley faces created with colons and parentheses by assigning good, old-fashioned, eraser-smudged, thought-provoking compositions. Where will the judges come from? Draft retired English teachers, the kind who never showed the slightest interest in administration, the sort whose title included the honorific Old, as in Old Mrs. Smithers. Her vanishing breed is needed more than ever.

Yes to capitalization. Yes to punctuation. Aye to alliteration. Poe would never write: "bird at doorway. only says nevermore. LOL." Today’s younger generation may not appreciate writing because it’s never had to undertake it - like the couch potato who pooh-poohs the golf he sees on television, never having had to take back a seven iron with water on the left. Shakespeare? Wasn’t he one of the Ninja Turtles? Samuel Clemens? Didn’t he pitch for the Yankees in ‘78? Emily Dickinson? Isn’t she one of the night vee-jays on MTV? JUST THINK of the classroom fallout once essay questions start popping up on the SATs. If teachers really do teach the test, and they have reason to, they’ll soon be handing out loose leaf paper and No. 2 pencils like Ritalin pills and condoms. Teachers will find themselves being forced to do what many of them went into the business to do: Teach. Enlighten. Broaden horizons. Push students with the absorption and dedication we may now see only in certain high school coaches. And the results may extend far beyond the SATs. To write well is to think well, and feel more deeply. This could be the start of something great.

"If there’s a writing test that helps kids get into college, then schools are going to spend more time writing, which can’t be a bad thing," says Professor Eva Baker of UCLA. "The change could be profound if it had the impact that we hope it would have on the high school." We are encouraged by her prediction, mainly because it doesn’t use impact as a verb.

We give the idea a B-plus. Not an Aplus because we can just see the job of grading these papers handed over to the kind of educantists who write those unintelligible Ed.D. theses. They all sound like Alan Greenspan on a foggy day. But if we could just find educated people to grade these essays - not the kind of "educators" who just censored the great writers on New York’s Regents Exam — well, writing could be back in business.

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Hispanics? Sí: Because the enterprising come here

October 18, 2002

THE SPINNERS tried to make good news from our poll. We didn’t see it in the same rose-colored way.

A survey the Democrat-Gazette paid for and published this week showed that 46.8 percent of Arkansas residents think the Hispanic influx in the state has been a good thing.

That’s mighty white of us.

Hispanic leaders praised the numbers. Said they’re making progress, etc. etc.

But we’re more worried about the 35.6 percent who said Hispanics are a problem, and we’re worried about those who didn’t know or wouldn’t answer. When those who say Arkansas newcomers are doing the state good don’t get even 50 percent in a poll, we have to worry.

What’s the problem? Is it that them Hispanics are taking away jobs from good old Arkies who’ve been here forever? Or at least since the Indians were pushed out?

No, that can’t be it. These immigrant workers have been flowing toward the increase in jobs and some of those jobs are not the kind others want.

Maybe Hispanics are putting too much pressure on schools and other public services. .. .

But who would complain about that if the immigrants were from, say, Mississippi, Louisiana, or Germany? Is a booming economy - one that attracts workers, and their wives and children - a bad thing? We can’t imagine many would prefer the alternative.

Those of us who have been here a while - as the song says, "Red and Yellow, Black and White" — might pause and consider the defining characteristic of any American immigrant: They’re immigrated. They’ve freely chosen to be here. Because their hopes and dreams and ambitions match ours. That’s why they left their land and came to America. In a way, they were American even before they left - in their minds, hearts and hopes.

The lazy, unimaginative, self-satisfied aren’t about to leave the comforts, or even non-comforts, of home.

Englishmen didn’t brave the dangerous sea to move here because they were lackadaisical. Italians didn’t leave their families to move here because they were dullards with no dreams. Chinese and Japanese folk didn’t uproot their families and move to a strange land with strange customs because they were unindustrious.

And dreamers who move here from Mexico or Honduras don’t strike out on their own because they are unambitious or don’t want to work. On the contrary, they’re looking for work. They may not know the phrase "American Dream," but they’ve dreamed it. Just like so many of our pioneering forefathers.

These new Americans have a better life here, working on farms and washing cars. They hope, too, that their children will get a better education in America, and they want their children’s future to be bright. So the Hispanic immigrant will gut chickens for slaughter at midnight because he can make more money here than he can across the Rio Grande. And, yes, he’ll wash dishes and mop restaurant floors and do all kinds of jobs others will not.

These migrants aren’t the only folks moving around, either. These days, your daughter may live on the west coast, and your son on the east coast - of Australia. Travel is easier these days, and uprooting and replanting is a way of life, all over the globe.

But still, like always, it is the ambitious who do it.

Those who are content - no matter how poor their circumstances - stay on the same hill they were raised on. Whether that hill is in France, Mexico, or Drew County.

Many immigrants, thankfully, have chosen to call Arkansas home. We had one of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the nation during the 1990s, with a 337 percent increase. That’s a more than three-fold increase in a group known for its appetite for work, religiously fealty, and its dream of a better life.

We should be proud.

We’re definitely better off.

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Libertarians are coming! Hide the women and liquor!

October 21, 2002

OH, THE humanity. We’re told that there are actual Libertarians behind this proposal to remove sales taxes from food and medicine. What’s next? Aliens from Neptune making an endorsement, too?

APPLES, which stands for something or another besides regressive taxes, is the group behind the effort to keep the tax on the books in Arkansas. Its argument: Government needs the money.

And, apparently, this as well: Libertarians are on the other side. (Look! I saw one peeking from behind a pine tree!)

We’ll admit that the Libertarian Party isn’t exactly mainstream. Some ideas Libertarians float are indeed strange, not to mention unworkable. But then again, those ideas have a snowball’s chance in South Mississippi to ever make it into law, anyway.

Libertarians can be something to see, and hear - when you can find one. There aren’t many lurking about these days. But America needs ‘em, few as they are, bless their anti-government hearts. They pull starboard even when Republicans are moving port. If the Greens and the Communists and the militant environmentalists are lobbying bombs at the two major political parties from the extreme left, Libertarians are on the opposite side of the fight - lobbying bombs from the extreme right.

Most of the time.

You see, right and left mean little to Libertarians. The glue that binds them together is a belief that government is best that governs the very, very least. They can make Republicans look like socialists. And sometimes they can make Democrats look like arch conservatives.

Their position on the issues? Sometimes on target, sometimes foolhardy - like every political party.

On legalizing drugs: America can handle it. Big government should have little to say in this matter.

On education: Let the market and local communities run education. Big government should have little to say in this matter.

On gun ownership: Guns protect us from tyranny. Big government should have little to say in this matter.

On foreign policy: The United States should bind together to defend these shores. As for stationing American troops all over the world and playing cop, this big government should have little to say in this matter.

You may like some of their stands, adamantly disagree with others. But you have to hand it to the Libertarians, they are consistent: Big government should have little to say.

When Democrats are anti-choice on education but pro-choice on abortion, and Republicans are pro-government interference on protecting the flag, but anti-government interference when it comes to gun registration, you get a little hungry for consistency.

Other fringe groups want government to get involved in more parts of our lives. So it’s refreshing to hear about Personal Responsibility and Limited Government from at least one quarter. You can rely on the Libertarians to scream hands-off!

Yeah, the Libertarians are off in right field on some issues, left field on others. Legalizing drugs? Stationing American troops on our own shorelines waiting for the inevitable? Come on. Sometimes a little government is useful, like when the country’s been attacked. And may soon be attacked again.

But malcontents have always been a part of American politics.

And every once in a great while the Libertarians - like anybody in the professional antagonist class - are right.

For example, like now. Now, when a bunch of them want to ax the food tax, and take this burden from the least among us. It’s the right thing to do. Libertarians happen to be standing on the humane, and workable, side of this issue. Just because you might not agree with the Libertarians on some of their notions is no reason to take it out on the working poor. On the food tax, the Libertarians - like it or not - are right. Ax the food tax.

Editorials copyright 2002 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Reprinted with permission.

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