Thursday, February 24, 2005

Away from the Blog

I'll be on hiatus for a few days. Look for a new post on Monday, Feb. 28.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Few

Last Thursday my History 151 class had its second midterm examination. The night before the exam I held online office hours between 10 p.m. and midnight. That is to say, I let it be known that students could contact me between those hours for help, via AOL Instant Messenger in preparing for the exam.

I thought myself very cutting edge to have such a thing as online office hours. Wrong, as usual.

At 1o p.m. I was bombarded by dozens of AIM message requests, all flooding my screen at once. I couldn't reply to one because the appearance of the next blocked me. The whole experiment threatened to be a disaster and I didn't have the foggiest idea how to fix it. Luckily a student--not me, mind you--a student, had the know-how and presence of mind to create a chat room. With the student's assistance, I learned how to steer the other students into the chat rooom, and off we went.

Even this arrangement seemed proved unworkable, though, because I now had between 25 and 30 students in the chatroom, all asking me questions. Fortunately it dawned on me to ask the students to answer each others' questions. I would monitor the traffic, I said, and intervene only if people were stumped or if a wrong bit of information went unchallenged.

This worked astonishingly well. My students, who hitherto had struck me as maddeningly passive, suddenly bloomed before my eyes. Someone would pose a question; another would respond--usually several. Frivolous questions got laughed out of court. Serious ones sometimes received a level of attention that went beyond anything likely to be on the exam and reflected an actual interest in the material for its own sake. Fascinated, I stayed online until 2 a.m. My major contribution was to upload a transcript of the conversation to the course web site from time to time, so that latecomers could look at previous exchanges.

All in all, I was amazed to see how actively engaged my supposedly "passive" students had become. Then it occurred to me to compare the list of people in the chatrooms with those who were actually participating. Although at one point 50 students were in the chatroom, only a fraction of these asked questions, and fewer responded. The success of the chatroom review depended entirely on the engagement of a few students.

It occurred to me that it is ever thus. In just about every aspect of life--churches, intramural sports, business, education, you name it--it's always a relative handful of people who make the whole thing go. The rest of the membership simply takes advantage of what the others have organized.

The same holds true in politics. In most elections, only a minority of eligible people show up to vote. A much smaller number than that is actually reasonably well informed about the candidates, the issues, and the current events and concerns that animate political life. An even smaller number gets involved intensively enough to have some influence over the selection of candidates, to circulate petitions, to hold demonstrations, to even write a letter to a public official.

We live in a republic. As I tell my students in History 151, a republic is a form of government that is held together from below, by the citizens themselves. The founders who chose for this country a republican form of government understood that they were taking a very real chance. Historically, republics did not survive. They still do not. Most of the world's "republics" are so in name only. They are really dictatorships or oligarchies. There is no magic that exempts our republic from the same fate.

All that has to happen is for the few to become . . . too few.

And how far away are we from that?

Friday, February 18, 2005

Cats Are Democrats, Dogs Are Republicans

Unsure which party fits you? That's easily remedied. Just figure out which household pet you most nearly resemble.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

In Praise of Larry Mumper

I'm a college professor. In American culture we have seldom been a popular bunch. The famous comedy Animal House captured a common image of us when it depicted "Professor Dave Jennings," played by Donald Sutherland, as a tweed-jacketed, pot-smoking flake. The famous tear-jerker Terms of Endearment depicted the English professor "Flap Horton," played by Jeff Daniels, as a tweed-jacketed, skirt-chasing flake. Most recently, Larry Mumper, a Republican state senator representing the Marion area, has introduced a bill that would somehow--the enforcement provision is nebulous at best--debar professors from "persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose." Apparently we professors do this all the time.

I quote from a Jan. 27 article in the Columbus Dispatch:

Mumper, a Republican, said many professors undermine the values of their students because "80 percent or so of them (professors) are Democrats, liberals or socialists or card-carrying Communists" who attempt to indoctrinate students.

"These are young minds that haven’t had a chance to form their own opinions," Mumper said. "Our colleges and universities are still filled with some of the ’60s and ’70s profs that were the anti-American group. They’ve gotten control of how to give people tenure and so the colleges continue to move in this direction."

Stuff like this is kinda silly, in my opinion. Bills like this are made to be ideological soap boxes. Sen. Mumper gained his victory as soon as the bill began to attract national, even international, attention. He is probably better-known now that at any time before or hereafter.

Ironically, I think that he would be somewhat embarrassed if the bill did become law. If enacted into law the state would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending it against an inevitable lawsuit, and this at a time when the state budget is hard-pressed to deal with the most basic needs. I suspect that the 21st district representative, Linda Reidelbach--who seems very intent that the state should spend its money carefully--will ultimately vote against this bill or vote for it only if she knows in advance that it hasn't a prayer of passage.

Even so, at first, I admit, the bill got me down. I can't help it. I'm the sort of person who wants everyone to like him, and it saddens me to find that Sen. Mumper doesn't. I have won three teaching awards in my career, including the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching, which is the highest my university can bestow. But I am still, after all, a professor who is a Democrat and, some would say, a liberal, which apparently makes it hard to differentiate me from an outright Commie.

Upon greater reflection, however, I want to speak in praise of Larry Mumper. For Sen. Mumper, I now realize, was one of the influences who got me off the sidelines and spurred me to think about what I could do as a citizen to improve the quality of political discussion in Ohio. So thanks, Senator!

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Cost to Run for Office in the Ohio 21st

Candidates spent over a billion dollars in 2004 in order to run for office. While the presidential, gubernatorial, and U.S. Senate races accounted for most of this tally, the cost to run for even a modest office such as representative of the 21st District was substantial.

As usual in American political races, the incumbent was able to raise substantially more money than the challenger.

Incumbent Linda Reidelbach raised $118,378.

Challenger Abramo Ottolenghi raised $45,005.

And for what purpose was all this money spent? Mostly so that we would merely know their names.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Hello, World / Bonjour, Le Monde

About twenty percent of the traffic to The Ohio Twenty-first thus far comes from outside the United States. I didn't anticipate that when I created this blog, and it raises the question of whether to continue to write as if the reader is familiar with this area or to write in such a way as to orient a reader who may be from Europe, the Middle East, or Australasia.

I've decided to go with the second option. After all, twenty percent ain't hay. Besides, it may give people from other countries a better grasp of my own.

Follow this link to a map centered on my home. If you zoom out, you'll soon see the entire 21st District (which is essentially the northern fringe of Franklin County, Ohio). If you zoom out much more, you'll soon be able to place the state in the context of New York, Washington, Chicago, or whatever metropolis is most familiar to you.

For background on the United States, check out the entry in--I kid you not--the CIA World Fact Book.

Here's an interactive map of Ohio.

Once upon a time the land comprising the 21st District belonged to the Indians, though I am unaware of any tribes that resided here during historical times. The closest Indian communities were to the south, around Chillicothe; to the west, near present-day West Liberty; and to the north, around Upper Sandusky. The French claimed this region until their defeat in the French and Indian War. The British claimed it between 1763 and 1783. The United States won possession of it, supposedly by right of conquest, as a result of the War for American Independence, though it took a protracted Indian war (1790-1794) to enforce that claim. The areas comprising the 21st District were part of districts created to give land to veterans of that conflict. I live in what was once the U.S. Military District. A short distance to the west was once the boundary with the Virginia Military District.

Of course, scarcely any resident of the 21st District knows or cares anything about the remote history of the area. Home buyers may be intrigued to see references to the military districts on the abstracts of title they receive when they purchase property. But they quickly forget about such things. And why not? It makes little difference to their lives.

What typically matters more are the things you'd expect to matter: good jobs, good schools, good places to shop, good churches, and good parks, museums, and cultural sites, in roughly that order. The 21st District is essentially a belt of bedroom communities. Most people work in and around downtown Columbus, though in a development few anticipated, the completion of an expressway around the city--I-270--led to the construction of a series of corporate parks in this area during the late 1970s and 80s. This area was at the fringe of the city when my family moved here in 1972. Metropolitan Columbus has since swept another ten miles or so to the north.

The economy of this region--central Ohio, as it's generally called--is diversified. It consists of some manufacturing (e.g., Anheuser Busch, which has a huge brewery here), higher education (e.g., The Ohio State University, which has the nation's second largest main campus), finance and insurance (e.g., Nationwide Insurance); and government (Columbus is the state capital and county seat; it also has substantial federal infrastructure). As it happens, to take these elements in reverse order: I pay taxes to the government, once worked for Nationwide, currently work at OSU, and like to drink beer. Call it the circle of life.

The diverse economy shields the region somewhat in times of recession. Franklin County invariably has a lower unemployment rate than the state of Ohio. On the other hand, Ohio not infrequently has a higher unemployment rate than the United States, and Franklin County's unemployment figures are sometimes worse than that of the country as a whole.

This link to the U.S. Census Bureau provides population data on Franklin County. You can modify the data pretty readily to look specifically at Columbus, Dublin, or Westerville, though for some reason not Worthington. To my knowledge, you'd actually have to crawl through the specific tract data to come up with a demographic profile for the 21st District as a whole. Each government entity tends to draw boundaries with only loose regard for those of other entities. But you can get a rough idea by using the relevant zip codes (i.e., postal codes), in my case 43229.

What you discover is that the median age in my zip code area is 31.8. Fifty-five percent of households contain children under eighteen, though the average household contains just 2.3 people. Thirty-five percent of households consist, like mine, of persons living alone. (I've been divorced for five years). Seventy percent of the population is white, twenty-five percent is black, three percent is Hispanic (officially, at least: that part of the population tends to be underreported), and two percent is Asian. More or less.

That's a significant change from 1972, when my family moved here. This area used to be pretty much lily white. Among many whites it is still commonly believed that with the influx of a significant number of persons of color the neighborhood goes to pot: "white flight" remains a significant phenomenon. But I have never seen evidence that this libel is anything but a libel. And indeed, my neighborhood is in most respects more attractively maintained than it was when I first lived here in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The chow is a lot more interesting, too. Within five minutes' drive I can reach a good Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Greek, Indian, and even Ghanian restaurant, depending on what I feel like having. Plus Bruno's, the venerable Intalian restaurant that has been here since I was a kid.

I guess I should add that my family sold the house in which I live back in 1984, the year after my mother's death. I lived elsewhere--mostly other parts of Columbus but also in London and Santa Monica--until October 2003, when I bought the place again. In the intervening years my father also passed away--he died in 1989, before my nieces and nephews had a chance to know him--and I wanted them to have something tangible from their own parents' past. (It didn't hurt that this house has 800 more square feet than my previous residence, either.)

Here's some additional data for the rest of the 21st District, kinda sorta. It's broken out by zip codes and does not fit the district exactly, but it comes fairly close. I've arranged it to conform more or less to the contours of the district. Other zip codes contain portions of the district as well, but to include them here would misrepresent the picture because they primarily serve other districts.

43017 43235 43229
(space)43085 43224

See also this excellent report prepared by the Ohio Department of Development's Office of Strategic Research. It's for Frankin County but the data, especially the maps, are suggestive for the 21st district.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

War Comes Home: In Memoriam

To date, fifty Ohioans have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The list below includes those whose hometown is listed as one of the cities within the Ohio 21st District. I have no way of knowing if the dead were actually residents of the district. (It seems a meaningless issue, anyway.) The list is drawn from Fallen Warriors - Iraqi Freedom, maintained by Defend America News.

U.S. Army (includes Army National Guard and Army Reserve)

Pfc. Harrison J. Meyer, 20, Worthington, Ohio, Nov. 26, 2004, Iraq
Pfc. Branden F. Oberleitner, 20, Worthington, Ohio, June 5, 2003, Iraq
Pfc. Kevin C. Ott, 27, Columbus, Ohio, missing June 25, 2003, death confirmed June 28, 2003, Iraq
Chief Warrant Officer Brian K. Van Dusen, 39, Columbus, Ohio, May 9, 2003, Iraq
1st Lt. Charles L. Wilkins III, 38, Columbus, Ohio, Aug. 20, 2004, Iraq
Pfc. Nicholaus E. Zimmer, 20, Columbus, Ohio, May 30, 2004, Iraq

Iraq Coalition Casualty Count maintains statistics on the number of US and Allied military personnel killed and wounded in Iraq.

Iraq Body Count maintains a list of all Iraqi civilians killed since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, whether killed by US forces or by insurgents.

Needless to say, in a conflict as controversial as the Iraq War, statistics of this sort are exploited by both proponents and opponents of the conflict. Defend America News is an arm of the U.S. military and its coverage is favorable to the American war effort. Iraq Coalition Casualty Count and Iraq Body Count are sites maintained by opponents of the war, but their figures are generally considered accurate. This is particularly true for Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which uses figures supplied by the U.S. Department of Defense and similar agencies of allied governments. The United States does not keep track of Iraqi civilian dead--at any rate, not officially--and Iraq Body Count works as best it can from press reports.

No vision of the morrow's strife
The warrior's dreams alarms;
No braying horn or screaming fife
At dawn shall call to arms.

--from Theodore O'Hara, The Bivouac of the Dead

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Times That Try Men's Souls . . . and Families

Because a reservist's place of residence correlates only very loosely with the unit in which she or he serves--when I served in the Army National Guard I lived in Columbus but served most of the time with an artillery battery in Marion--it's hard to tell how much the War on Terrorism has pulled away reservists who live in the Ohio Twenty-first. But my guess is that the number is substantial.

Check it out:

The Ohio National Guard - has several units from this area listed as deployed. As of February 9, about 3,618 Guard personnel have been activated.

Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Regiment, 4th Marine Division, is based in Columbus. It has not yet been mobilized, but you can bet the training tempo is ramped up.

(still working on local Army Reserve and Naval Reserve units)

Army Reserve Units
338th Army Reserve Band - based in Whitehall

Naval Reserve Units


I live in the 21st House District of the Ohio General Assembly. The district encompasses a swath of northern Franklin County (click the link for a detailed pdf map; you'll need Adobe Acrobat to read it) and includes parts of Dublin, Worthington, Columbus, and Westerville.

I thought I'd begin keeping this blog as a way to ground my interest in politics in a practical context. If, as they say, all politics is local, this would seem an intelligent approach. Periodically on this blog I will look at the local, state, national--even international--political scenes. But I will always try to draw a thread of connection back to the 21st House District.

As nearly as I can tell, the district boundaries are drawn with a view toward advantaging Republican contenders for the House of Representatives seat. In civics class this is called "gerrymandering," but it's the way business has always been done and, if kept within limits, no one cries foul.

And in fact the incumbent is a Republican, Linda Reidelbach. Her Democratic opponent in the 2004 election was Abramo Ottolenghi. She received 26,547 votes (52.61 percent); he got 23,917 votes (47.39 percent). This data is drawn from from the first place I could find it on the web, a Democratic blog called Bring Ohio Home which includes recent Ohio State House election history. They apparently found it on the web site of the Ohio Secretary of State, which has very good links to state election results if you spend enough time navigating the site.

I will do my level best to post to this site once a day. I don't expect anyone to discover it for a while, and by the time they do I hope I will have posted enough info to make the blog worth reading.

Oh: who am I? Well, who do I have to be? I'm a citizen who lives in the 21st Ohio district. That ought to be the end of it--and would be if it were normal for Americans to take a serious interest in politics and government.

But if you must know, I'm also a 45-year old homeowner. I'm a lifelong Democrat. Yet I welcome the appearance of a new, moderate Republican political action committee called My Party Too. It is headed up by former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, who served as director of the Environmental Protection Agency under the first George W. Bush administration. By most accounts, including her own, she was not treated very well. My current reading includes her new book, It's My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America.

Lastly, I believe that healthy republics are held together from below, by a politically aware, engaged citizenry. Judged by that criterion, I do not think our republic could at present be called healthy. But I see signs of improvement. More people seem to realize these days that political choices matter, that the two major parties are not tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum, and that even within the two main parties there are significant differences in opinion and approach, as the existence of My Party Too demonstrates. People talk more about politics and the blogosphere especially is dominated by political discussion. Some of it is crap but some of it is discussion of a very high order.

Anyway, I would like to be one of those politically aware, engaged citizens. This blog is my way of stepping up to the plate.