Can't Touch This

Ten issues that are too hot -- and too confusing -- for our leaders to handle.



Efficiency studies and image consultants. The U.S. attorney and the FBI. Tennessee Waltz and Tarnished Blue. Memphis Tomorrow and the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce. Leadership Memphis and the Leadership Academy.

Put them all together and many of the big things that vex Memphis, divide Memphis, and define young and old in Memphis would probably not change much.

Separation of church and state. Forty years after the infamous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair's lawsuits against Bible readings and prayer in school, she might be surprised at some of the ways schools and churches are linked. Many parents could not have raised children without churches that provided daycare centers, after-school care, gyms, playing fields, and transportation, and groups such as Young Life that provide social life, diversity, summer camps, and trips.

Free speech. The word "m-----f---er" looks awful, doesn't it? Or maybe it doesn't, depending on your age, race, or level of sensitivity. Ten-year-olds can hear it in movies and songs every day. Everyone's George Carlin. Oops, sorry. He was a comedian who had these seven words and .... oh, forget it.

Integration. Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education and with the benefit of 40 years of affirmative action and minority recruiting, the story is resegregation. And not only in elementary and secondary public schools in the city of Memphis. It's less acceptable to talk about self-segregation at Rhodes College, MUS, Hutchison, Tennessee State University, Morehouse, Jackson State University, or the Southern Heritage Classic.

Ford and Herenton. Willie Herenton and Harold Ford Sr. are giants in Memphis political history. The Ford dynasty is familial, the Herenton dynasty personal. How long can they last?

Drugs and binge drinking. Medical marijuana? Never heard of it during the recreational-drug haze of the '60s and '70s, when college towns imposed a $5 fine for possession of marijuana and drinking 21 beers at the campus hangout was a ritual on your 21st birthday. Talk about diminished moral authority.

Democracy. Free exercise of democracy in Iraq? How about democracy in Memphis? Single-digit percentage voter turnouts are the norm in many elections.

Taxes. Tennessee is a low-tax state relative to, say, New York and Connecticut, the former homes of International Paper. But Memphis is a high-tax city relative to Nashville and the rest of the state, especially for homeowners. You can blame regressive taxation on competition from border counties in Mississippi and opposition to a payroll tax. But if a Republican governor, Don Sundquist, could stake his career on tax reform and lose, what are the chances of significant changes?

Big-league sports. Maybe there's a connection and maybe there's not, but after Memphis got an NBA team and a new arena, the grass stopped getting cut on public property and property taxes and the cost of utilities went up. No payroll tax and no state income tax makes every year an all-star year for pro jocks in Tennessee. A "jock tax" or luxury tax and an NHL-style salary cap would restore some sanity in a business that depends on subsidized stadiums and free-agent players who stay a couple years then move on.

Prosperity pockets. From the riverfront to Collierville, our best neighborhoods, public and private schools, colleges, and parks have never looked better. Wealth begets wealth, but sometimes it's a mile deep and an inch wide.

Philanthropy. You say charity isn't controversial? A few years ago, some wealthy Memphians with nothing personal to gain tried to turn Shelby Farms over to a conservation trust but were rebuffed by the Shelby County Commission. In his book Is Bill Cosby Right, "hip-hop intellectual" Michael Eric Dyson describes the concentration of power in the hands of a wealthy few as an American "philanthocracy." Will some far-sighted multimillionaire revolutionize philanthropy and, knowing full well some of it will be wasted, write a big check to ... the city treasury?

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