If Polls Ruled: Should public opinion decide policy?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series If Polls Ruled
President Obama greets congressional pages at State of the Union

President Barack Obama greets House and Senate Pages as he departs the House Chamber after delivering the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon released for public use.)

Would our system of government work better if public opinion ruled? Republicans and Democrats can’t agree, but a majority of Americans agree on a number of key policy proposals. Should public opinion set policy?

One way to look at this is to examine public support of the proposals Obama outlined in his State of the Union (SOTU) address. Gallup analysts have done just that for 10 key proposals. This week, we’ll examine two each day.

Today, we look at proposals related to economic policy.

Do Americans want to raise the minimum wage? In his SOTU address, Obama urged Congress to raise it. Gallup last asked about this issue in November 2013. Then, three quarters of Americans (76%) were in favor. A January 2014 Pew poll found similar levels of support.

Do Americans want to strengthen labor unions? Right-to-work laws weaken unions. Obama said that we need laws to strengthen unions. Gallup reports that a majority of Americans (53%) approve rather than disapprove of unions. Since 1936, Americans have been more pro-union than anti-union. But, Gallup polls also show that an even larger majority of Americans (71%) favor right-to-work laws.

The full impact of right-to-work laws is yet to be determined. Michigan is now a right-to-work state. Union membership fell sharply in 2014, reports the Detroit News. The drop is attributed to the law.

Do you support raising the minimum wage?
Would you like to see laws that strengthen labor unions?
Should polls rule?

Share your thoughts …

Share this column on Facebook or by email. You’re also free to print it out and share it that way.

Ebola: Does hysteria make sense?

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Ebola
10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group

WANT TO WORRY? CLICK ON THE TOP CHART to see it expand and learn the “10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group,” the most recent version compiled by the CDC. CLICK ON THE LOWER CHART to see it expand and learn the “10 Leading Causes of INJURY Death by Age Group” from the CDC.

There was a time when hysteria made sense and fleeing for the hills was a prudent survival strategy, notes sociologist Claude Fischer. When yellow fever and cholera were prevalent and the mechanisms of transmission (and hence prevention or treatment) were unknown, leaving town was the best way to avoid illness. Of course, this meant that the burden of a disease fell disproportionately on the poor and the immobile.

Is Ebola another time for hysteria?

Drawing upon history, Fisher argues “that, while alarm and drastic emergency actions are needed in a few West African countries, the U.S. has the expertise and the resources to contain this kind of infectious disease.”

He notes that during the same three-week period in which Thomas Duncan was diagnosed and died, thousands of Americans died from other contagious conditions. Some of these conditions are medically contagious; others are socially contagious:

10 Leading Causes of Injury Death by Age Group“…during an average three-week period in the United States: 35 people die from tuberculosis; 3,200 from influenza and pneumonia–500 of those people under 65 years of age; 1,100 from suicide by gun; 650 from homicide by gun; 1,000 by alcoholic cirrhosis; and 1,900 by motor vehicle accident. These deaths are not only vastly more numerous, they are much more contagious, either in a medical sense or in a sociological sense. Where are screaming headlines for those risks?”

The threat of Ebola has captured our attention. But the diseases and conditions that occur slowly and in some ways acceptably elude our concerns. Fischer questions whether we have the will “to contain the much greater killers like alcoholism, firearm use, and motor vehicles.”

Is hysteria warranted when it comes to Ebola?

Should we be focusing on other killers of Americans?

What are the best DIY tips for making the best DIY videos?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Do It Yourself Videos

Dawn Wells potato peeling videoA Note from Dr. Wayne Baker: This week, welcome back columnist Terry Gallagher.

Yesterday morning, I was talking with a friend about how easy it is to find useful how-to videos on the web. She mentioned a favorite, showing the perfect way to peel boiled potatoes for salad. It took me a few seconds to find this fun one, featuring (surprise!) Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island.

What if I wanted to make my own how-to video? Well, first, I’d search for advice showing me how. And as you might expect, I’d be in luck; there are dozens of YouTube videos out there, plus listicles offering tips on how to make better videos.

I’m intrigued by the 10 tips (and dozens of sub-tips) provided by Videomaker, the website created by Matt York who has been teaching people how to make better independent films since the days of Super-8! One of Matt’s online editors, Jennifer O’Rourke, wrote this list of DIY tips, including: use a script and avoid rambling, make it as short as possible, remember to use closeups on important steps in a process and even consider making money on your productions.

Of course, many of the people creating and sharing these videos don’t seem to be interested in profiting from them.

Their real motives might be related to one of the ten core American values that Wayne Baker has written about here and in his book, United America: self-reliance. These videos clearly encourage us to be more self-reliant, to fix our own appliances and our own meals.

But self-reliance isn’t an absolute value, Baker says. “Our strength as a nation comes from the balance of individualism and community.”

Don’t the best of these home-made videos seem like the kind of advice you’d get from a clever and helpful neighbor over the back fence? Aren’t many of the people who create these videos just like that neighbor, making their own generous contribution to building a stronger community, all over the world?



The Videomaker column I recommended (above) goes over general tips for anyone planning to make a DIY video. This next 8-minute video digs into the range of equipment you might want to consider if you’re wanting to do some serious DIY videomaking.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: You can read more than 100 of Terry Gallagher’s past columns by clicking on this link. And Please, we always invite you to comment (below) or to share this column on Facebook (use the blue-“f” icons).


Star-Spangled Music Week: What did 1914 writers think about 2014?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Star-Spangled Music Week
Scientific American 1914 issue with Woodrow Winson quote on the cover

WHAT DID 2014 LOOK LIKE A CENTURY AGO? To many American journalists, the future looked rosy! “The door of opportunity swings wide before us,” Wilson wrote in this 1914 issue of Scientific American. As we see on this cover, journalists 100 years ago also took pride in America’s patriotic symbols.

This weekend marks the 200th anniversary of the writing of our national anthem. One-hundred years ago was the Star-Spangled Banner’s centennial.

What did Americans think then about the bicentennial in 2014?

This month, celebrations of the bicentennial abound. We’ve discussed the Smithsonian Institution’s “Raise a Glass to History” event this evening, the “Proudly We Hail” half-time show at the University of Michigan football stadium tomorrow, and the giant panda cub Bao Bao, winner of the Smithsonian’s Summer Showdown of American symbols. Yesterday, the 13th anniversary of 9/11, we paused to remember the victims of the tragedy, and the threat posed today by the jihadist group ISIS.

ISIS and 9/11 were beyond thought and imagination in 1914, even though World War I already was raging among the European powers. The world in 2014—as imagined in 1914—was a much more peaceful place, according to a 1914 editorial in the Baltimore Sun that was just reprinted. In fact, “the most signal advance which the world will make in the next century will be moral and intellectual in character….” Science and sociology would enhance human health and eradicate poverty. And so on.

The Baltimore Sun editorial was right in line with what other major American publications were predicting that year. President Wilson wrote a letter to Scientific American magazine about the nation’s future role in the world. “It will be a signal service to our country to arouse it to a knowledge of the great possibilities that are open to it in the markets of the world. The door of opportunity swings wide before us,” Wilson wrote. “Through that door we may, if we will, enter into rich fields of endeavor and success.” The Scientific American editors were so impressed that they quoted the first line of Wilson’s letter on the magazine’s cover.

Most predictions about the future prove wrong, but the Baltimore Sun writer 100 years ago got one right—and it’s about the Star-Spangled Banner:

“Let our hope and prayer be that a hundred years from now, whatever other changes time may have wrought, the people of 2014 may still see the same banner waving over them that waves over us, and still symbolizing the principles of justice, brotherhood and equality of opportunity.”

How will you mark the bicentennial of our national anthem?

Does it make you feel good to hear the national anthem—or see the flag flying?

Note: In case you’ve been wondering about the outcome of the Raise a Glass to History competition, the winner is Gunpowder Cream—a concoction made of pure maple syrup, aged rum, English Breakfast tea, lemon juice, whipped cream, and cinnamon.

Star-Spangled Music Week: Do alcohol and patriotism mix?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Star-Spangled Music Week
Raise a Glass to History Smithsonian

PATRIOTIC COCKTAILS? Click on these images from the Smithsonian Channel to visit the “Raise a Glass” website.

This weekend marks an historic event in American history: It’s the 200th anniversary of the birth of our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. (You’ll can read more about this historic milestone in Stephanie Fenton’s Holiday column.)

Shall we raise a glass to history?

You can do so at the Smithsonian Institution’s “Raise a Glass to History” celebration on September 12th in Washington, D.C., held at the National Museum of American History. The event features the nation’s top mixologists making cocktails “inspired by our spirited past” like Fort McHenry Flip, Colonial Ties, Of Thread and Theory, This Conflagration Nation, and Pickersgill Cocktail.

Simon Majumdar, the Food Network’s “toughest critic,” will host the event. Music is provided by the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. A ticket is $200 because, well, it’s the 200th anniversary. Proceeds cover costs and benefit programming and research.

Francis Scott Key wrote his poem “Defense of Fort McHenry” on September 14, 1814, after witnessing the bombardment of the fort by the British the night before. He was inspired by the Stars and Stripes waving over the fort, indicating an American victory. It was a turning point in the long and brutal War of 1812.

Two hundred years later to the day, September 14, 2014, the University of Michigan features a faculty recital of Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Conducted by Jerry Blackstone, it includes a chorus and soloists, plus narration by musicologist Mark Clague. The event is free and open to the public. It takes place a 4 PM at the Hatcher Library, Room 100.

How do you plan to celebrate the bicentennial of our national anthem?

How well do alcohol and patriotism mix?

Banned Books: Why are books challenged?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Banned Books
CARE TO READ A FAMOUS CASE STUDY OF BOOK BANNING? On Monday, in Part 1 of this series, I recommended Kevin Birmingham's new book about worldwide response to James Joyce's "Ulysses." Click this cover image to visit the book's Amazon page.

CARE TO READ A FAMOUS CASE STUDY OF BOOK BANNING? On Monday, in Part 1 of this series, I recommended Kevin Birmingham’s new book about worldwide response to James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Click this cover image to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Book censorship is a time-honored tradition. Banning books is alive and well in America today. Today, we consider why books are challenged—the reasons cited by those who attempt to ban books in our schools and libraries.

What do you think is the main reason?

This week, as most of America’s schoolchildren are going back to school, we’ve examined new attempts to ban ‘demonic’ books, the No. 1 banned book in the last 10 years, self-censorship by authors in our climate of surveillance, and the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week this month and 451 Degrees, a high-school book club devoted to reading banned books. (By the way, I asked my son about Captain Underpants, the No. 1 banned book in the last decade. Had he read it in elementary school? “Yes,” he said. “It was kinda funny, but pretty stupid.”)

We conclude this week by considering the reasons why books are challenged.

There have been 5,099 challenges to books from 2000–2009, according to the ALA. Here are the main reasons why books are challenged. (Note that some books are challenged for multiple reasons, so the figures below don’t total 5,099.)

  • “Sexually explicit” material (1,577 challenges)
  • “Offensive language” (1,291 challenges)
  • “Unsuited to age group” (989 challenges)
  • “Violence” (619 challenges)
  • “Homosexuality” (361 challenges)

More challenges are made to books in school libraries than any other place, followed by challenges to books used in classrooms and then books available in public libraries. There are relatively few challenges to books used in college or in academic libraries, according to the ALA.

Are you surprised to learn that “sexually explicit” material is the most commonly made charge?

Of these five reasons, which one is the most important to you?

Which of the five is the least important to you?

Banned Books: How about a book club—for banned books?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Banned Books

Banned Books Week Virtual Read-outPeaceful protest in defense of one’s principles is one of the core American values, as I describe in United America. In the political arena, it’s called critical patriotism. How does this same spirit play out in the literary sphere?

How about a book club devoted to reading only banned or challenged books?

A group of students at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago did just that. They call themselves “451 Degrees” in honor of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s book itself has been challenged and banned, which is ironic given that it describes a world where reading is forbidden and books are burned.

Members of 451 Degrees devote themselves to reading books that are challenged, controversial, or banned. The book club and the Lane Tech student body won the Illinois Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Award in 2013 for their protest of The Chicago Public School’s banning of Persepolis, a book by Marjame Satrapi. (Read more about the award here.)

Later this month, the American Library Association (ALA) is hosting its annual Banned Books Week (September 21–27, 2014). If you want to participate, you can. The ALA is inviting readers to make and post videos on the Virtual Read-Out YouTube channel in support of intellectual freedom. You can read from a banned book, or discuss a banned book and what it means to you. Celebrity videos are featured on the Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out. (Want to participate? Here’s the Banned Book Week Virtual Readout page with information for participants and links to earlier videos.)

What do you think of the 451 Degrees book club?
Would you support a similar club in your local school?
Do you plan to participate in this year’s Banned Books Week?

Enjoy this brief video that served as the official Banned Book Week Video Trailer last year …