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President Barack Obama meets with Attorney General Eric Holder in the Oval Office of the White House on August 18, 2014. (AP)

With Ferguson, Obama Forced To Confront Race Yet Again

Aug 20, 2014

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Scott Horsley

The tense situation in Ferguson, Mo., following the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, is another test for President Obama. He's struggled at times over how to navigate long-simmering tensions between police and the African-American community.

President Obama says he understands the passions and the anger that have engulfed Ferguson over the last week and a half, but he's carefully avoided taking sides. His warnings against violent confrontation have been directed equally at the protesters and the police.

"Ours is a nation of laws for the citizens who live under them and for the citizens who enforce them," he said at a press conference Monday.

That studied even-handedness disappoints some African-American observers. Paul Butler, who studies race and criminal justice at Georgetown Law school, wants to hear more outrage from the president about the conduct of a nearly all-white police force in a town that's two-thirds black.

"With the spectre of urban insurrection in an American city that looks more like Fallujah than Ferguson, this is not the time to be detached," he says.

Others, however, defended Obama's cautious approach. Joshua Dubois, who used to head the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, says now that the Justice Department is investigating the Ferguson shooting, it's important that the president not appear to be putting his thumb on the scale.

"There are a lot of folks who want President Obama to be all sorts of things: an activist, a marcher, a poet, a race theorist. But in this case, I need him to be the president. I need him to make sure that this investigation is carried out in a full and fair way and that that family and that community in Ferguson has closure in terms of the way the criminal justice system operates."

A survey by the Pew Research Center finds sharp differences in the way the shooting and the police crackdown that followed are viewed by blacks and whites and Democrats and Republicans. It's possible that a more one-sided approach from the president would simply deepen that divide. But Butler argues that's no reason for Obama to hold back.

"Look, the president has his haters. And he's always going to have his haters. I think he's gone out of his way to try to appease them. And that's resulted in neglecting not just his political base, but a large sector of the American population, including African-Americans, who need his leadership on these issues."

Butler says he had high hopes when the first black president was elected. But Obama quickly learned the perils of speaking bluntly about race and law enforcement. Obama had been in office just six months when he was asked during a news conference about black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. The professor had been looked out of his house and was arrested when he tried to force his way in.

"The Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home," Obama said.

The comment was catnip for cable TV, but the president had to backtrack just two days later.

"To the extent that my choice of words didn't illuminate but rather contributed to more media frenzy, I think that was unfortunate."

Obama later hosted a beer summit for the professor and the policeman. Afterwards, he scarcely mentioned race for the next three years.

Until Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teenager who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Obama said. And while he was careful not to second-guess the Florida jury that acquitted the shooter, Obama spoke in unusually personal terms about the painful suspicions that nearly every young, black man is confronted with.

"There are very few African-American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping at a department store. That includes me."

While Obama has generally steered clear of programs designed exclusively for African-Americans, he did launch an initiative this year focused on the challenges of young black men. He conceded this week that there's a lot to do.

"In too many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear. Through initiatives like My Brother's Keeper, I'm personally committed to changing both perception and reality."

Obama has described the initiative as a long-term project. But observers like Lester Spence of Johns Hopkins University grow more impatient each time another young black man is killed in a place like Ferguson, Mo.

"I am so tired and frustrated. And I know America's a better place than it was. But this continues to happen? And we've got a black guy as the president? You've got to be kidding me."

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A still from the video for "Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift. (YouTube)

Taylor Swift Aims For Pop's Throne

Aug 20, 2014

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On Monday, Taylor Swift announced her new album, called 1989 after the year of her birth, during a live stream that began with her greeting fans from atop the Empire State Building. Available in October, 1989 will include "Shake It Off," the song whose video she also premiered during the event.

Swift's choice of settings revealed a lot. She settled into a deluxe New York domicile last spring, and her sound has migrated away from her old home of Nashville, and country music too. Following up on the shiny success of the crossover singles from her 2012 album, Red, Swift announced that 1989 will be her first "documented, official pop album." She also said that this will be her most "sonically cohesive" set of songs, inspired by the happily ambitious pop sounds of her birth year, when Madonna, De La Soul, Janet Jackson, Bobby Brown, Roxette and Debbie Gibson all had highly danceable hits.

Like her earlier pop forays, "Shake It Off" was produced by multiplatinum Swedes Max Martin and Shellback, who've also worked with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Pink, Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, Maroon 5 — virtually every major charting artist right now, with some notable exceptions, like Rihanna and Beyonce. Synth-driven and hopped up on horns, with a cheerleader chant at the center that's both self-motivational and just a bit snotty, Swift's new song is built to hang around the radio for months. She's written a lyric, about her favorite subject of "haters" who criticize her very public leisure time and love life, that's characteristically both self-deprecating and impetuous. But it matters little in this song. The whole composition exists for that competition-crushing hook, a kiss-off, pep talk, dance step and nostalgia trip, melted into the ultimate musical Charms Blow Pop.

This is Swift in empire mode. She was already on her way with Red, which sold more in its first week than any other album in a decade, and took her beyond both country music (which she'd already arguably redefined) and the still-loyal fan base of girls whom her music had guided through pubescence. But Swift has always stood slightly outside the pantheon of female pop stars that have defined the early 2000s. She's exceptional, partly because she's rarely made music primarily for dancing — the foundation of the Top 40 — and partly because she's never traded in provocation, the stuff that grabs attention instead of earning it. Though she's had her share of (mild, manageable) scandal, Swift has never been comically crude the way Perry tends to be, or pugnacious like Pink, or overtly sexual like Nicki Minaj or Rihanna. She's stayed above the fray. But now she wants to claim pop's inherently troublemaking center.

"Shake It Off" is her bounce off the bleachers, her tryout for the cheerleading squad — much more so than her earlier work with Martin and Shellback, which retained her trademark just-us-girls vulnerability. Checking off the boxes, Swift puts her all into belting clichés ("I never miss a beat," "haters gonna hate"); she raps, though thankfully only for a moment; she lets the song's gigantic beat (which, in another cliché deployment, she declares "sick") direct her. She's having fun showing how she can be just like the other mega-selling girls. In fact, she can best them.

What Swift probably knows, and will just ride out, is that pop requires overstepping, and, it follows, a certain refusal to be either tasteful or sensitive. She surely intended the song and video's appropriations of multiracial styles — the nods to rap, the twerking, the phrase "sick beat" itself — to work as both a comical critique of other artists who've recently caught heat for alleged minstrel moves (ahem, Miley) and a jab at her own status as the queen of Stuff White People Like. But they jar, because they feel strategic and unintentionally unkind. When a joke is built around someone looking ridiculous doing something uncharacteristic, it's easy for the behavior, not the person doing it, to become the humor's target. Performing many different kinds of dances — ballet, breakdancing, the robot — in the video, Swift plays the inept Everywoman (as she has, often). But the fact is, she's not every woman, she is a particular woman who normally doesn't shake her booty the way a Fly Girl would, and who normally wouldn't use a phrase like "sick beat," and "Shake It Off" sets up those cultural crossings as pretty crazy. Swift's critique suggests she wants to have her pop and somehow stay above it, too.

Right now, as others have noted, Smith doing a dance like the Tootsie Roll is extra-risky, because so many white performers are using black styles as a bridge to everywhere — authenticity, erotic freedom, commercial success — while artists of color stand to the side or in the background. In 1989, the mood might have been lighter; in 2014, it often seems like pop itself runs on a devouring sense of privilege, a trash-all-barriers spirit of unquenchable arrogance. For Taylor Swift to tap into that spirit is truly something new. But she's still smarter than the average pop star, and 1989 itself may be more complicated than "Shake It Off." It will be interesting to see how this new Swift story shakes out.

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A Tale Of Two Polls

by Cory Turner
Aug 20, 2014

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Cory Turner

Two new polls this week attempt to quantify the public's feelings for the Common Core State Standards. The K-12 benchmarks in English and math were little known this time last year. But they've since become the subject of a high-profile political fight. Now a majority of the public opposes them.

Or do they?

Poll Number One, out today, puts support for the Core at just 33%. But Poll Number Two, released yesterday, puts it at 53%. That's a big difference.

Which one is wrong? Or can they both, somehow, be right?

PDK/Gallup

Poll Number One is a joint effort between Gallup and Phi Delta Kappa, or PDK. They've been doing this annual, education poll for 46 years.

In last year's poll, the Common Core barely registered: the new kid in class that nobody knew. That's changed, says Bill Bushaw, the CEO of PDK. "Last year, two-thirds hadn't even heard the words together. Now 80 percent indicate that they know about the Core."

And that new kid has an image problem. The PDK/Gallup poll found that 60 percent of respondents oppose the Core.

But why?

Roughly half of respondents said they learned about the Core from TV, newspapers, and radio. And critics — like commentator Glenn Beck — have used all three to wage a public campaign against the Core standards.

Poll Number One found that misconceptions are, well, common among opponents. A majority said they believe the standards were initiated by the federal government. They worry the Core will result in a national curriculum and national tests. And their biggest fear, says Bushaw, is that the standards "would limit what teachers could teach locally."

Education Next

Poll Number Two comes from Education Next, a journal sponsored by Harvard's Kennedy school, the Hoover Institution at Stanford and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. While this poll found many of the same misconceptions about the Core, it also differs from the PDK/Gallup poll in a big way. That difference stems from the way this poll asked the central question, about whether people support or oppose the Core.

PDK/Gallup asked it this way:

"Do you favor or oppose having the teachers in your community use the Common Core State Standards to guide what they teach?"

The result: Sixty percent of respondents said they oppose, which isn't all that surprising since the question hits on what we know, from the poll, is opponents' greatest fear: that the Core will somehow limit teachers.

Here's how Education Next phrased that question:

"As you may know, in the last few years states have been deciding whether or not to use the Common Core, which are standards for reading and math that are the same across the states. In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance. Do you support or oppose the use of the Common Core standards in your state?"

See the differences? It's longer, for sure, with more context. "States have been deciding whether or not to use the Common Core" sends a subtle but clear message: no federal takeover here.

Also, take a second look at this line:

"In the states that have these standards, they will be used to hold public schools accountable for their performance."

That idea — accountability — polls really well with Americans.

So ... was there a difference in responses to this Education Next question and its analogue in the PDK/Gallup poll? You bet. In the latter, support for the Core was 33 percent. In the former, with that language about state control and accountability, support hit 53 percent.

The team at EdNext also put the same "do you support" question to a different group of people, but without using the words "Common Core."

Support jumped: from 53 percent to 68 percent. It's clear: drop those two toxic words, "Common Core," gain 15 points.

This negative association with the name is a relatively new phenomenon, says Paul Peterson, a professor at Harvard and the Editor-in-Chief of Education Next. He says his team posed the same two questions in the same poll two years ago, and the words "Common Core" made little difference. A strong majority then approved of common standards, with or without the name.

Given these two polls and the considerable differences in that central, Common Core question, it's natural to ask: Is one of these questions the right question?

"I've studied survey research since I was in graduate school some forty years ago," Peterson says, "and the first thing you learn is that there is no right way to ask a question."

But can both polls be right? Can a majority of Americans oppose and support the Common Core?

In a word: yes.

Because, when it comes to polling, a word can make all the difference.

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Between innings, racing sausages entertain Milwaukee Brewers fans. (Getty Images)

Deford: Frankly, Hot Dogs Best Served At The Ballpark

Aug 20, 2014

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Boog Powell outside his barbecue restaurant at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

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Let's boldly confront the greatest mystery in all of sport: Why do hot dogs always taste better at the ballpark?

Baseball food has, of course, taken on a much greater variety since 1908, when "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" only celebrated peanuts and crackerjack. But it is another enduring mystery of sport why fans eat during a baseball game, while the preferred mode of cuisine for football is before the game, out in the parking lot — tailgating.

But then, perhaps we shouldn't be surprised at this inexplicable circumstance. After all, at movies, you are all but forced to purchase a large bin of popcorn, while in a similar theater where plays are presented, you are not only advised to silence your cell phones but if you must enjoy even a little sweet, to "take the time to unwrap your candy... right now!"

Ah, but life is rife with such eerie contradictions, is it not?

The hot dog, however, is so much a part of baseball that we shouldn't be surprised that the single most popular between-innings attraction in all the national pastime is in Milwaukee, when, at the bottom of the sixth inning, people dressed up as a variety of 7-ft. sausages race about the field: the bratwurst, the kielbasa, the Italian sausage, the chorizo... and, of course, Frankie Furter, outfitted in a baseball uniform.

Thus, we turn now to the greatest gourmet in baseball — Boog Powell, the hefty former MVP for the Orioles, as famous for his palate as for his home run swing. Many athletes have invested money in restaurants with their names attached — usually with disastrous economic results. Boog, though, has authentic epicurean credentials: been cooking since he was a child, catching his own fish dinners, growing his own tomatoes, and since 1992 has had his own barbecue establishment properly situated right at a ballpark — Camden Yards in Baltimore. There, the yummy, smoked dishes are prepared to his personal recipes. Boog even has his own book out: Baltimore Baseball and Barbecue. Certainly this is the first baseball memoir to be co-authored by a food columnist (Rob Kasper).

So naturally, it was to Boog I went to finally supply the secret to why hot dogs taste better at the park. But, alas: "Gee," the baseball food sage replied tentatively, "that's a tough question. Could just be a state of mind. Most people come to a game to enjoy themselves and forget the rigors of life. They want that hot dog to be wonderful."

So, proof again that some things in heaven and earth are simply beyond mere human knowledge. The mystery of the ballpark frank, the red hot, the wiener, the hot dog, can only be answered in the heart, not in the taste buds. So saith Boog.

Now, please pass the mustard!

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Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, launched a grassroots effort to make the Deep South's culture more accepting of gays and lesbians. Brad Clark discusses their work in Mississippi. (AP)

Gay Rights Movement Tackles Cultural Battle In The Deep South

Aug 20, 2014

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Boog Powell outside his barbecue restaurant at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

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Mercedes Ricks may be the perfect candidate to help launch a new cultural push in Magnolia, Miss.The 50-year-old native of Columbia ended up in this tiny south Mississippi town by way of New Orleans nine years ago.

"I met these ladies from here," Ricks says after greeting guests in the barroom next to her Mariposa restaurant. "They invited me to come spend the weekend in Magnolia. We were going to the river and drink beer and Katrina happened that weekend."

Ricks says the hurricane left her with nothing but a swimsuit and river shoes. It was the people in Magnolia that helped her start over. With a wide, mischievous grin, she explains how last year she ran for at-large city alderman and won.

"You tell me what is the chance of an immigrant, lesbian in Mississippi?" Ricks says.

Summer Conversations

Gay rights activists are winning a legal battle to overturn state laws prohibiting same-sex unions, most recently in Virginia. Now, the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign is opening a new front — a cultural campaign to win hearts and minds in a part of the country where they've met the strongest resistance: the Deep South.

Ricks hosts a small gathering, where her friend Larry Best explains the grassroots initiative, dubbed Project One America.

"Let's go to Arkansas, let's go to Mississippi, let's go to Alabama," Best says. "Because if we can get equality there, we've won America."

Human Rights Campaign has opened offices in those three states, and is now sponsoring a series of "summer conversations" like this one.

"The approach in Mississippi has sort of been don't ask, don't tell," Best explains. "We're just not going to talk about it. Our straight friends and family don't talk about it. They may know we're gay but nobody talks about it, because we just don't talk about such things in the South."

At least not in the towns where he grew up. Best says the more gay people talk about their lives, that stigma will fade.

Ricks shares her story with a couple who drove up from Kentwood, La.

"My partner and I been 17 years and we thought about going somewheres and get married," Ricks says. "But in the same token when we come back it's not valuable."

Mississippi has a ban on same-sex marriage and won't recognize unions performed in states where it is legal. The law is the same in Louisiana, Dave Travis says at Ricks' gathering. Travis and his husband, Bob Frey, traveled to Maine to marry.

"We've been together for 30 years," Travis says. "Married less than a year and what made us get married is that we could file joint federal taxes."

Now that the Supreme Court has struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Travis says it's time for similar barriers in the states to fall.

"We're like everybody else — we work, we pay taxes, we own property, we pay property taxes, we vote," Travis says. "I'm not asking for any special rights. I'm just asking for equality."

But Frey acknowledges that winning the cultural battle down South won't be easy.

"In Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, people grew up with a certain idea and it's hard for them to break those ideas," Frey says.

The Definition Of Marriage

Rev. Phillip Gandy is the senior pastor at Liberty Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Miss. He's also a Republican state senator and gained national attention last year as sponsor of the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Opponents say the law gives Mississippi businesses license to discriminate against gays and lesbians, but Gandy says that's not the intent.

"It was designed to draw some parameters for the government," says Gandy. "And say that if you're going to burden my right of religious expression, you're going to have to have a compelling state interest to do that."

He says the state law is modeled after the federal statute that Hobby Lobby used recently in its victorious case against the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate, and is a way to protect people who conduct business according to their faith.

As for the legal and cultural efforts to legalize gay marriage, Gandy says: "If you're a real Christian, a follower of Christ, you're going to love people. And you love people where they are. You may not agree with people but that doesn't mean that we judge them and say you've got to be like we are. Some have asked what I thought of gay marriage. I don't really have a thought. Scripture has spoken on that. Marriage is between a man and a woman."

Gandy says for thousands of years — pre-dating Christianity — society has functioned according to that traditional definition of marriage.

"Just like an athletic contest if you going to play football and you say, 'I don't like the boundaries, I don't like the sidelines, and I don't like the 10-yard markers and I don't like the goal posts.' What do you have? You have chaos," Gandy says.

When asked whether homosexuals are being kept off the playing field and would want to be able to get married or have a family, Gandy says, "They might say that, but would it hold up in historical precedence? Would it hold up?"

The argument has held up this year in more than 20 court rulings around the country that have found state same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. And a challenge is pending in Mississippi.

No matter the legal outcome, the question is whether a more frank dialogue can foster common ground.

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