Sunday, September 27, 2009

Biased Writing

I thought I would write about our next essay, Matt Lynch's The Homeless Lack a Political Voice, But Not American Ideals, but I'm still annoyed with our previous essay by Joseph Perkins. If Mr. Perkins was writing in my ENGL 1101 class, I would chop up his paper, return it with no grade, and demand that he fix his preposterous claims and provide legitimate support for them. His prose is clean, but his ideas are mangled and shoddy. To my mind, the ideas are much more important than the prose, and Mr. Perkins' ideas fail.

Note first that Mr. Perkins is challenging the idea that much of contemporary homelessness is caused by government economic policy: "I decided to investigate for myself whether economic policies were to blame for the growing legions of street people who seemed to have invaded America's cities" (585). So what does he do to investigate? He spends one night in a train station in one American city: "So I spent a night at New York's Grand Central Station, which was a favorite gathering place for many of the city's homeless" (585). This is serious? Hardly.

To see how ridiculous Perkins' investigation is imagine that one of the students in our ENGL 1101 class—Ms. Stanton, say—wants to learn if the divorce rate among college students is affecting their studies. So she investigates the students in our ENGL 1101 class (we're down to 5 who attend regularly), and she finds out that no one in our class is divorced: 4 have never been married and 1 is happily married (I'm making this up, I don't know what she would find out about divorce in our class, but it doesn't really matter for my point). She then writes her paper and states with a voice of authority that divorce rates among American college students have no impact on their studies.

Really? Can Ms. Stanton look at the 5 college students in our class and make any kind of reliable generalization about all college students in the United States? Of course not, but that's what Perkins does. He looks at one group of homeless people in one place on one night, and then he draws conclusions about all homeless people in the country. This is ridiculous, and it's insulting that Mr. Perkins seems to think that we're gullible enough to accept his argument. Only those people who already accept his conclusions will accept Perkins' investigation as legitimate. However, even if you agree with Perkins, you should still have the integrity and honesty to say to him, "Look, Perkins, I, too, think homelessness is a personal problem, but your evidence lacks any credibility or authority. If you're going to join the conversation, then say something worth listening to."

And what about Perkins' investigation techniques? Did he interview the people in Grand Central in a systematic way? Did he follow up their case histories? I don't think so. As far as I can tell, all he did was look at them and almost reflexively categorize them as either crazies or addicts. He claims that he saw "dozens upon dozens of pitiable men and women who were suffering from some dysfunction or another. Some were afflicted with mental problems. Others were drug or alcohol abusers" (585). I'm not sure, but I don't think that being a newspaper columnist qualifies a person to so quickly and reliably diagnose the problems of dozens and dozens of people milling about in a train station. Rather, it seems more likely that Perkins was simply relying on his own stereotypes about people: "Oh, yeah, there's a crazy bag lady, and there's a pill freak. I can't see the pills, but he fits the type." Really?

And even if Perkins can reliably categorize all these people on sight, how does he know that they are homeless to begin with? Maybe they are just waiting for a train. And even if they are homeless, how does he know that mental illness or drug abuse caused their homelessness? Being mentally ill or addicted does not inevitably lead to homelessness. I know lots, "dozens upon dozens," of people who are mentally ill or addicted or both and who still live in homes. Why aren't they homeless?

Even the conclusions that Perkins draws from his pitifully puny investigation are suspect. For instance, he insists that homelessness results from individual failure, not from the failure of government economic policies: "Clearly their homelessness owned not to economic dislocation, but simply to self-destruction" (585). Really? Mental illness is self-destruction? People choose mental illness? Do people even choose addiction? I don't think so. Perkins observations don't "clearly" show anything about homelessness, which is a much more complicated issue than Perkins insists. Homelessness is not "simply" or "clearly" the result of willful and deliberate self-destruction, at least not based on the data that Perkins presents.

Finally, Perkins' logic is faulty even with the authoritative and valid data that he uses in this essay. He references a 1992 report from the U. S. Conference of Mayors that says "28 percent of the homeless population in the cites were mentally ill and 41 percent substance abusers" (586). So what's his conclusion? "This means that at least seven of ten street people have either a mental or chemical problem" (586). Perkins simply adds 28% and 41% and comes up with "at least seven of ten" (even though it's only 69%). Really? Couldn't even a high school student figure out that some of those mentally ill homeless people are also substance abusers, that they are the same people? Indeed, I'm willing to bet that most of the mentally ill are also substance abusers and vice versa; thus, the total is likely to be far less than 70%. With just a little research, I could find out accurate numbers, and so could Perkins. He was just too lazy and hoping we wouldn't notice his sleight of hand. This is sloppy writing, and it undermines his argument.

If a reader notices that a writer is cheating with his evidence, then the reader is much less likely to believe the writer. You lose faith, and once you lose faith, you just don't want to listen to the person any more. I don't want to listen to Joseph Perkins. I don't trust him anymore. How about you, scholars? What can you do to insure that you maintain the confidence of your readers in your own writing?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Homelessness & Gunslingers

Like drug abuse, homelessness is one of those issues that draws clear divides in America. Probably one-third of America believes that homelessness, like drug abuse, is a person's own fault and that society has no responsibility to help people who make poor choices. About an equal one-third believe that homelessness, like drug abuse, is usually the result of some kind of social injustice and that society has a responsibility to help these unfortunate people. The remaining third just wish the problem would go away and won't think about it until forced to by a political referendum in Washington or a panhandler on the street corner. Or a teacher in an English class. :-) Joseph Perkins does think about the issue in his essay Homeless: Expose the Myths, and he falls quite clearly on the conservative, individualistic side.

Mr. Perkins clearly believes that homelessness is the individual's own fault. In paragraph 4, Perkins says of the homeless people he observed one night in New York's Grand Central Station:

Some were afflicted with mental problems. Others were drug or alcohol abusers. Clearly their homelessness owed not to economic dislocation, but simply to self-destruction.

For Mr. Perkins, and others like him, homelessness is the result of willful self-destruction on the part of the individual. Though he doesn't say so explicitly in this essay, the conclusion of this attitude is that if people choose to self-destruct, then society should let them. This is similar to the attitude of those who think the best response to a suicidally depressed person is to forget counseling and medication and instead give them a gun and aim it for them. This is an understandable attitude for school boys to take on the play ground, but is it any way to run a country? I don't think so—at least, not a country that I want to live in.

Mr. Perkins is appealing to a common and deep American myth: the rugged individual, the gunslinger who needs no one and who makes it by his own grit, muscle, and ingenuity. It's an appealing vision that we see in the movies all the time, from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone.

But there is another vision of how to behave in society, one captured by a figure as big as Clint Eastwood: Jesus. There is no image of Jesus in Scripture that supports the abandonment of the suicidally depressed, certainly no image of Jesus giving the depressed person a gun to finish the job with. Instead, Jesus repeatedly says that he came to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless, and he repeatedly calls us to do the same (see Luke 4:18-19, Matthew 19:16-30, Matthew 25:31-46).

Mr. Perkins doesn't like this image of Jesus; rather, he likes the Jesus who cleanses the Temple (John 2:13-22), the Jesus who kicks ass and takes no prisoners. He likes the Clint Eastwood Jesus, the conservative, gunslinger Jesus. He doesn't like the sissy Jesus who wants to take care of the homeless, the hungry, the sick, and the incarcerated. He also overlooks the obvious: only one story about Jesus kicking ass like a gunslinger and many stories about Jesus healing the sick and feeding the hungry, or that Jesus only attacked the wealthy and powerful, never the poor and weak.

I, for one, just can't reconcile Mr. Perkins' bias against the homeless with the model of human behavior represented by the life of Jesus. Jesus said quite clearly to take care of "the least of these." The homeless are definitely the least of these, so let's take care of them. The question is how. I'll tackle that in another post.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Drugs and Education

I think that in their comments to the last blog post, Corey and Tyler brought us to the conclusion reached by Linda Kunze in the final essay we are reading about drugs. Toward the end of Drug Use: The Continuing Epidemic, Kunze talks about how the country might respond to the abuse of drugs, "Although there are no easy answers to this age-old problem, early education seems to be the only truly effective weapon the nation has" (366). I think she is right.

Clearly the abuse of drugs is a problem for society. Drug abuse has killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed the lives and families of millions more, and cost society billions in lost productivity and property. I don't think anyone disagrees with or can ignore these facts. I also don't think that anyone will deny that society has the responsibility to address the damage caused by drug abuse. The problem is figuring out what response is best.

Figuring out this problem is made all the more difficult because of our emotional involvement with the situation. As we can already see even in the small population of our class, almost all of us have been touched either directly or indirectly by drug abuse. Very few of us are truly indifferent to and objective about drug abuse; rather, we are passionate and engaged. This makes it harder to think rationally and to engage in considerate thoughtful dialog with those who oppose our passions. I remember when a few of my sister's more unsavory drug associates showed up at her funeral. My family and I were horrified and outraged. After all, these were the very people we blamed for her death. I can easily understand Justin's willingness to shoot on-sight anyone associated with illicit drug use, but as that a good path for society to follow? In my sane moments, I think not.

To my mind, the way we are handling drug abuse is similar to how we've tried to handle mental illness, a problem that society has addressed in different ways. In ancient times, mentally ill people were charged with demon possession and either cast out from the group or executed. In the Middle Ages, society became a bit more compassionate and reasonable and just put the mentally ill in prisons. In the 20th Century, we finally began to treat mental illness as a medical condition, not as criminal behavior. Likewise, I don't think we should treat drug abuse as criminal behavior. I am convinced that we can achieve a far better society if we decriminalize all drug use and manage the production and distribution of drugs through the government rather than through the Black Market, or even legal markets. This does not mean that I am in favor of or that I condone drug abuse, no more than I am in favor of or condone mental illness. I just think there are better ways to treat these problems than by shooting people or putting them in prison.

I noticed in the news recently that Mexico has decriminalized the use of marijuana, deciding that they have much bigger issues to deal with in their war against the drug cartels. Is this a good first step toward using education rather than bullets to curtail drug abuse? Is it something the US should consider?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Drugs and Personal Values

Gore Vidal's essay Drugs gives us a stark contrast to Morton Kondracke's position that we should not legalize the use of street drugs. Vidal argues that legalization is the only sane choice to make and that because it's the sane approach, he wryly concludes, we aren't likely to take it.

So we have two rather bright fellows arguing from opposite sides: one saying that legalizing drugs is insane and the other saying that it's the only sane thing to do. How do we resolve this conflict of opinions? By careful analysis and then looking to our own souls and values, I think, as with most important social discussions.

From my reading, both Kondracke and Vidal are after the same result: they both want a better society. They both are looking for a way to better handle a situation that damages society. They both agree that drug use can be harmful to significant numbers of people, but that criminalizing and fighting drug use also has harmful social consequences. They differ in which they see as the greater harm. Kondracke believes that legalization will only increase the number of people using drugs and becoming addicted to them, thus increasing the damage to society. Vidal believes that those who want to use drugs and become addicted already use them, and not legalizing drug use perpetuates a corrupt system that benefits only criminals and drug enforcement agencies. Kondracke, then, believes that the best way to manage street drugs is through law enforcement and prosecution. Vidal believes that the best way to manage street drugs is through legalization and removing the profit motive.

Which approach fits best with your values? I think I side with Vidal. Why? First, because I don't think there is much chance of Kondracke's position succeeding, not in a society that I want to live in. We Americans basically like the freedom to do as we please, and we don't like an overly oppressive government. I know of only one example of a country as large as ours eradicating illegal use of drugs: Communist China. When the Communists came to power in China in 1948, China was known world-wide for its opium dens. Being strict moralists, the Communist Chinese didn't like this reputation or situation, so they empowered their police force to shoot on sight anyone suspected of illegal drug use. They slaughtered thousands of people, including many innocents, but within a few years, the opium dens were gone, and the drug trade and use was almost non-existant. So the Communist Chinese traded illegal drug use for an oppressive police state. I think that was a poor trade, and I don't want the United States to make a similar trade.

Instead of shooting people on sight for drug trade and use, we put them in jail. I'm not sure this is much better. Prison is the very best training a pot-head can get for mastering a career in crime. A prison record pretty much precludes a pot smoker from ever getting a legitimate job after prison and teaches them all they need to know about making a living through crime. Prisons are great factories for producing criminals.

And they are expensive. Our prison population is a monstrous drain on our national resources. According to a US Senate report, "The combined expenditures of local governments, state governments, and the federal government for law enforcement and corrections total over $200 billion annually." This is serious money. And what is the major cause of this booming business? The same report says, "Changes in drug policy have had the single greatest impact on criminal justice policy." We are putting more users in jail (4 out of 5 drug convictions are for use, not trafficking).

I simply don't think that putting millions of users in jail is benefiting society as much as we think it is, and I am not willing to authorize the police and military to shoot drug users and traffickers on sight. So for me, the War on Drugs has been a monumental failure, and I favor trying a new approach: decriminalize drugs to remove the profit motive both for the Mafia and the prison industry, educate society about the dangers of indiscriminate and excessive drug use, and treat those who develop a drug problem.

And I don't fear an explosion of new drug users as Kondracke does. Like Vidal, I think that anyone who wants to use street drugs already does. My own experience and, I suspect, the experience of most young people today confirms that if you want drugs then you can easily get them.

Finally, by eliminating the whole War on Drugs effort and mentality, we can expand our approach to managing drugs to include not only street drugs but medical drugs. Our use of medical drugs is out of control. My youngest sister became addicted to OxyContin when she was given the drug by one of our nation's biggest drug pushers: her family doctor. My sister didn't drink alcohol, and she didn't smoke marijuana, but she grew to crave her pain killers. After years of struggling with her addiction, she died of an overdose about a year ago on September 5, 2008. The War on Drugs did not help my sister or the millions like her who are addicted to pain killers, tranquilizers, and sedatives pushed on them by pharmaceutical companies and doctors who are out to make a killing, literally. From my perspective, the War on Drugs has done little to improve society and has in many ways corrupted society and confused society about the real issues. Let's try a different approach, an approach based on personal freedom, personal responsibility, and common sense.

So what say you, scholars? You now have opposing points of view. So who do you favor, Kondracke or Vidal? Which side appeals to your basic values and fits your own experiences? You've heard my values and experience, now share yours.