Saturday, June 24, 2017

Idiots Threaten Shakespeare Companies Across the Country

Corey Stoll as Brutus in the Public Theater's Julius Caesar.
There really are other stories worthy of comment out there, but the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar seems to be the gift that keeps on giving. Even after the play's closing, the controversy surrounding the Caesar-as-Trump schtik has engendered some of the best discussions of Shakespeare we’re likely to encounter as a larger population. Curmie, as a theatre historian and critic, has access to, and an interest in, more purely scholarly investigations on an ongoing basis, but the average American, even the average theatre-goer, has seldom had the opportunity he or she has had over the last few weeks to read some very high-level and yet eminently readable stuff.

Among these commentaries are those from practitioners like Corey Stoll, who played Brutus (the lead, in other words) at the Public, and Rob Melrose, who directed the 2012 Guthrie Theatre/Acting Company co-production in which an Obama-like Caesar was assassinated on stage in Act III. Most telling about Melrose’s commentary is this three-paragraph passage describing why he thinks his production avoided controversy whereas Oskar Eustis’s did not:
I think one key difference in the corporate response to the two productions is simply that most people who wrote about and talked about our production — the one with an Obama-inspired Caesar — actually saw the show, where it is clear that most of those outraged by The Public Theater’s Trumpian emperor either didn’t see the play or didn’t stay to the end. [emphasis Curmie’s] 
The Breitbart article that started the controversy is — I kid you not — a review by someone who talked to someone who saw the show. This second-order correspondent also thinks the play ends with the death of Caesar, as if they are killing the bad guy at the end of a superhero movie. In fact, the assassination takes place in the middle of the play, the rest of which deals with the terrible consequences of this action. Shakespeare built the outrage into the text. Mark Antony is so outraged — for himself, and on our behalf — that outrage suffuses the play’s entire second half. If you see a production, you get outraged with the play, not against it.
Our Obama-inspired production also didn’t have any gestures that tipped our hand to say “this is definitely Obama.” We wanted to make sure audiences could make the Obama connection if they wanted to — or could ignore the connections if they only wanted to live inside in the circumstances of Shakespeare’s play. In Eustis’s production, the Trump connections are more overt : Caesar wears an overly long red tie, Calpurnia speaks with a Slovenian accent (or “Slavic” if you are writing for Breitbart). There is also much more humor and satire in the Public Theater production. Caesar usually is not a very funny play, and I tip my hat to Oskar Eustis for finding so many genuinely funny moments. That may have bristled some people as well, but Eustis is hardly the first person to make fun of the president.
In other words, much if not all of the furor over the Public’s production was born of ignorance, and a rather proud and self-righteous ignorance, at that.

But Stoll’s article is, of course, more relevant to the current kerfuffle. Here’s the most important paragraph in Curmie’s mind:
When Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater and our show’s director, first assembled our cast for rehearsals, my anxieties centered on my desire to hold my own in such a strong company. After four weeks in the rehearsal room, we moved to the theater and I saw Caesar’s Trump-like costume and wig for the first time. I was disappointed by the literal design choice. I had little fear of offending people, but I worried that the nuanced character work we had done in the rehearsal room would get lost in what could seem like a Saturday Night Live skit. I was right and wrong. Audiences did laugh at Caesar, in an explosive, hungry way that shocked us with its intensity, but when it came time for the assassination scene, they lost their nerve. In early previews, isolated audience members would scoff or even applaud during the bloody, awkward, and ugly assassination scene. Two weeks in, once we refined our performances to neutralize the laughter, you could hear a pin drop. By then, I better understood Eustis’s decision to be so literal in making Caesar Trump. A nontrivial percentage of our liberal audience had fantasized about undemocratic regime change in Washington. Acted out to its logical conclusion, that fantasy was hideous, shameful, and self-defeating.
Notice that even Stoll himself had trouble getting past the literalization of the Caesar/Trump linkage, but ultimately he realized that it was the anti-democratic impulses of the left, not the authoritarianism of the right, that presents the greater danger in the play, and quite possibly to 21st-century America. Curmie is pretty certain that a significant percentage of both sides failed to make that connection. Perhaps this can be attributed to a failure in the production; more likely, it’s a failure in the spectators.

Speaking of the public’s (as opposed to the Public’s) failures: one of the most disturbing elements of the largely Astroturf outrage at Eustis’s production is that Shakespeare companies around the country started getting death threats. Getting riled to violence because of a play is not exactly a new phenomenon—one thinks of the first run of The Playboy of the Western World or the Astor Place Riots, for example—but if those events were spawned by hypersensitivity or hyperbolic nationalism, this round can only be attributed to utter stupidity. It’s repulsive enough that members of the Public Theater experienced death threats. It’s another step towards outrageousness that those threats extended to Oskar Eustis’s wife and daughter. “I want to grab you by the p---y,” one caller allegedly said. “Your husband wants Trump to die. I want him to die.” But for full-blown, terrifying lunacy, there’s the fact that other Shakespeare companies around the country—people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Public’s production—are also under threat.

The two theatres most often mentioned in press coverage of this phenomenon are Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, and Shakespeare Dallas. The Washington Post (linked above) and Salon, neither of them exactly bastions of conservative thought, both ran stories talking about how “Trumpsters” (Salon’s term) were sending death threats to “the wrong [theatres].” Serious question: is Curmie alone in thinking there’s no such place as a “correct theatre” to which to send death threats?

But there’s something else at play here for Curmie. Yes, it takes a special kind of stupid to make death threats at all. And yes, sending hate mail to Massachusetts or Texas because of a New York production secures an even more exalted place in the annals of history’s greatest morons. But, for Curmie, things just got personal. I have a friend and former student who’s acting at Shakespeare and Company this summer; three others that I can think of off the top of my head have worked at Shakespeare Dallas in recent years, and it’s only chance that they aren’t there now. I have a colleague at Arkansas Shakespeare, and seven present or former students at the Texas Shakespeare Festival. I know of at least three other summer companies with “Shakespeare” in the title where personal friends have worked in the past. One of them qualifies as “Shakespeare in the Park,” which seems to be the designated Google search term for assholes who might be violent if they weren’t so imbecilic and so craven. Curmie doesn’t like it when his friends get threatened, especially when they haven’t done anything that any sane person could construe as even remotely deserving of such treatment.

This episode serves to underscore some unpleasant truths about our country. Foremost among these is the political schism, the product of an arrogant buffoon of a President and a press corps interested only in spinning their partisan rhetoric, and the truth be damned. We are reminded that there are a lot of idiots out there (like we didn’t know that from who got elected President, right?). A more fundamental concern is attack on the arts in general. Any kind of commentary, any nuance, any perceived threat to the Hegemonic Legion of Doom, however miniscule, is increasingly likely to draw the wrath of the propagandists at Breitbart or Fox News: and the proudly anti-intellectual denizen of the White House will give them cover, even as they shill for his disastrous policies.

It ain’t pretty out there, y’all.

Academic Freedom and Reasonable Doubt: The Johnny Eric Williams Case

Professor Johnny Eric Williams
This started out as a comment to a post by Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall over at Ethics Alarms, entitled “Sought: An Ethical Reason Why This Professor Should Not Be Fired Immediately, And Never Hired For A Teaching Position Again, Anywhere.” Soon, however, my reply took on a life of its own, extending well past the length of a mere comment on someone else’s post, sort of demanding multiple links, and, well, putting my lengthy commentary on current events in higher education on someone else’s blog instead of my own.

The background is this: on the evening of Sunday, June 18, Trinity College (CT) associate professor of sociology Johnny Eric Williams took to social media to re-post an article from Medium by “Son of Baldwin” with the shall we say provocative title of “Let Them Fucking Die.” There’s a preface there now: “NOTE: This essay is in the context of bigotry and is speaking about bigots. If you aren’t a bigot, then it doesn’t apply to you. But, if you happen to feel hit, then holler, dog.” One suspects that was a later add-on, but in the absence of a screenshot of the post as it first appeared (maybe there’s one out there?), Curmie can’t say for sure.

What is clear is that Son of Baldwin is less than pleased with the state of race relations in the country right now. His prose is more fiery than most, but ultimately he presents a rather familiar argument:
In a battle between the moral and the immoral, the immoral will always win because they have no qualms about not abiding by the rules. Whereas those of us who imagine ourselves as moral gladly die at the immorals’ hands because we think better glories await us in some other, unseen realm. We, the moral, are terrible at memory. We never remember who created these rules and for what purpose. The immoral created morality so that we would accept their abuse and never even dream of retaliation. Like any drug white/cisgender/heterosexual people have ever given us, we get high on this notion that forgiving them after they slaughter our grandparents in churches, obliterate our siblings in the streets, and mangle our children in playgrounds makes us better people than they.
His screed concludes:
Saving the life of those that would kill you is the opposite of virtuous.
Let. Them. Fucking. Die.
And smile a bit when you do.
For you have done the universe a great service.
Ashes to ashes.
Dust to bigots. [emphasis in original]
Williams was subsequently to claim that his re-posting of Son of Baldwin’s piece was a response to the police shooting of Charleena Lyles in Seattle on Sunday morning. That would make sense in terms of timing, but given the fact that the article on Medium opens with a photo of recent shooting victim Rep. Steve Scalise and an accusation of racism and homophobia against him, commentators who argue that Williams seems to be endorsing Son of Baldwin’s implicit claim that Rep. Scalise somehow deserved to die can be forgiven their misinterpretation… if indeed it is such.

Screen capture of the posts that led to the controversy.
Anyway, Williams re-posted Son of Baldwin’s essay with the comment, “It is past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put an end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.” And he added the hashtag “#LetThemFuckingDie.” A few minutes later, he added, “I’m fed the fuck up with self-identified ‘white’s’ daily violence directed at immigrants, Muslim, and sexually and racially oppressed people. The time is now to confront these inhuman assholes and end this now.”

Needless to say, this set off a firestorm in right-wing echo chamber circles. Calls for Williams’s firing were immediate, and (of course) there were threats of violence against him and even his family—you know, the kind that mouthpieces of the right claim never happen to leftist firebrands. Let’s be clear: Prof. Williams, contrary to the assertion in an otherwise thoughtful editorial in the Hartford Courant, did not “[create] an unsafe atmosphere at the college.” Other people did. Just as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are not responsible (short of actual incitement) for the violence their mere presence on a college campus might engender, neither is Prof. Williams to blame for the fact that people who disagree with him threaten violence. It is important to note here that neither Williams nor indeed Son of Baldwin advocate violence. The latter’s advocacy for selective non-intervention and the former’s condoning of, if not actual support for, that position may be abhorrent and unethical (Curmie thinks so), but it falls far short of incitement.


Just yesterday, I wrote in a comment on another of Jack’s posts (one in which Curmie’s insistence that the higher education classroom is not, in fact, a site of leftist propaganda was honored as “Comment of the Day”) that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education generally supports conservatives, but not because they’re conservatives. This statement is an ideal example of what I meant. Whereas as FIRE release concentrates more on the threats that Professor Williams has received (and that other faculty who have taken controversial positions in recent times have received), they do explicitly endorse a statement by the chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure:
There is only one option consistent with academic freedom. Professor Williams is entitled to his right to express his personal views on social media and the university has the right to differ with those views. But Trinity College must defend the professor’s right to express them without fear of retaliation by the institution. Trinity College should refuse to let the sort of threats and intimidation directed against Professor Williams and the entire campus achieve their insidious aims.
Despite literally dozens of false media reports to the contrary, Professor Williams did not write the screed that generated the current brouhaha. Nor did he explicitly endorse it, although his re-post of someone else's blog piece could be interpreted that way. What he said himself is angry and vulgar, but Curmie sees it as well within the realm of protected speech that ought not inspire more than a raised eyebrow from university officials... except, of course, for the hashtag, which on the one hand merely references the article’s title and on the other seems to approve of the content.

And that’s the key. Does Professor Williams’s post actually advocate what the right-wing media storm says it does? Or was it merely an example of a moment’s sloppiness, worthy of an apology and nothing more? Does Professor Williams conflate whiteness and bigotry, or did he merely re-post an article which appears to do so? Does it matter that Professor Williams was not acting as a representative of the university when he made the offending remarks? I know of a case in my own experience in which a common colloquial expression was interpreted literally and led to accusations of advocating violence. Is this a variation on that disturbing theme? 

The answer to all these questions, to me, is unclear, meaning that those of us who don’t know Prof. Williams, haven’t read his scholarly work (which presumably is of a standard that a respected institution like Trinity considers worthy of a senior faculty member), haven’t sat in on his classes, aren’t equipped to make such decisions.

The person who is in the best position to make those determinations is Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, who seems to be handling the situation with finesse: she shut down the campus for the safety of all and re-opened it when it appeared there was no imminent threat. She issued an official response which states that Son of Baldwin’s call for “indifference to the lives of bigots” is “abhorrent and wholly contrary to Trinity’s values.” She argues that the use of the offensive hashtag was “reprehensible and, at the very least, in poor judgment. No matter its intent, it goes against our fundamental values as an institution, and I believe its effect is to close minds rather than open them.” But she also insists that Trinity “[continues] to uphold our fundamental belief in academic freedom and support our community members’ constitutional right to free speech,” and deplored the threats to Professor Williams. She forwarded the case to the Dean of the Faculty, who will advise her on “whether college procedures or policies were broken.” This strikes Curmie as absolutely the right path to take. Let’s see what the actual facts are, if this case is an anomaly or fits a pattern, if Professor Williams can muster a more persuasive apology than simply arguing that he did not intend to incite violence (well, of course he didn’t, but that’s not the point).

There is also a petition of support for Professor Williams. Like many such documents, it started off locally (it opens “We the undersigned faculty at Trinity College”) but has expanded to include signatories from well outside the college. Importantly, it stands alongside the FIRE statement in affirming academic freedom and, specifically, the use of social media as subject to its protections. The drafters of the petition are correct that many of the attacks on Professor Williams are founded on distortion and misrepresentation. That doesn’t mean they all are, of course, but the use of intimidation and fear-mongering is an all-too-familiar tactic of what one of Curmie’s favorite professors used to call the “foam-flecked brigade” of any ideology. This time, it’s the easily-incited right. Next time, it will be the equally malleable left.

Like virtually everyone else who has opined on this matter, Curmie is ignorant of a lot of the details of the situation. What I do know is that revoking tenure without absolute certainty of the legitimacy of doing so is at least as great a threat to higher education as allowing a single renegade professor (assuming he even fits into that category) to remain employed would be. Tenure is not a guarantee of a job for life. It is, rather, a nominal assurance of academic freedom. In terms of a situation like this one, it merely shifts the standards for dismissing a professor from, loosely speaking, “preponderance of evidence” to “beyond reasonable doubt.” 

I have reasonable doubt. I'm not sure this qualifies as the ethical defense of not firing Prof. Williams Jack rhetorically seeks, but Curmie kind of thinks it does.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Margaret Court Arena Dilemma

Anyone who has paid any particular attention to this blog over the past few years knows that Curmie often picks up on story ideas from netpal Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms. This time, I saw the story first, but there was too much on my plate at the time, so I e-mailed Jack to get his take. Jack obliged, and posted his thoughts shortly thereafter.

Here’s the deal: Tennis great Martina Navratilova wrote an open letter to the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne (like Jack, I didn’t know tennis facilities were literate). In this epistle, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Navratilova argues that stadia ought to be named for an individual in recognition of “their whole body of work,” not merely their accomplishments, say, on the tennis court. For this reason, she concludes that Margaret Court’s name ought to be removed from that venue because the honoree is an avowed homophobe and was (perhaps still is) a racist.

The Margaret Court we can all celebrate.
There is no question that Court was a magnificent player, earning 24 Grand Slam singles titles and 62 overall, counting both women’s doubles and mixed doubles. Her nearest competition, Serena Williams, now 35 and pregnant, has 23 and 39 respectively. It’s conceivable that Serena could pick up another singles title, or even two, but it’s difficult to argue with Court’s assertion in January that “Nobody will ever hit my 62.”

Yes, we can point out, as Christopher Clarey does in the New York Times, that “eleven of Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles came at the Australian Championships, where the fields were predominantly or exclusively Australian in her earliest years and the draws were sometimes as small as 32 players,” or that she was never #1 in the world according to computer rankings that only came into play as she was nearing retirement. But the fact is that she was one of the greatest female tennis players in history. From that perspective, there is no doubt that an arena at the site of the Australian Open ought to be named in her honor.

But (and as they said in burlesque, it’s a big but), whereas her racist comments (praising the efficiency of South African apartheid, for example) seem to have been relegated to the past, and one easily can forgive a little nostalgia for temps perdu from a septuagenarian like Ms. Court, her homophobia and, frankly, nastiness, seems to be accelerating rather than moderating of late. Her expressed resolve to boycott Australia’s national airline, Qantas, “where possible for [her] extensive traveling” because of the carrier’s expressed support of marriage equality marks her as not simply an opponent of the LGBTQ community, but as an enemy.
The Margaret Court who's a problem.

Yeah, well, people say things in the heat of the moment and then tone down the rhetoric after they’ve had a chance to think more reasonably all the time. So that’s what she did, right? Uh… no. Rather, we get a screed linking homosexuality to Hitler, communism, and the Devil, quoting fabricated statistics, and implying some sort of lesbian recruitment program luring impressionable young women into “lust for the flesh.” So much for moderation.

There’s also Court’s “tennis is full of lesbians” line. Fact is, it always has been, although Court seems to be suggesting ‘twas not ever thus. (Possibility: there were just as many lesbians and bi-sexuals in the game when Court was playing, but they were far likelier to remain closeted. Another possibility: 1969 Wimbledon champion Ann Jones is correct that the number of lesbians on tour is actually decreasing.) If you’re listing the greatest female tennis players of all time, it won’t take you long to get to Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. Add to that list such excellent players, past and present, as Gigi Fernandez, Lisa Raymond, Hana Mandlíková, Casey Dellacqua, Helen Jacobs, Amélie Mauresmo… well, you get the idea. And those are just the ones we know about.

Meanwhile, the arena named for Ms. Court issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to “equality, diversity, and inclusion,” and there are rumblings of a potential boycott of the Court Arena (the temptation to call it the Court Court is overwhelming), led by Australia’s currently top-ranked woman, Sam Stosur.

Ironies abound. There’s the whole “boycotts don’t work” argument, which of course applies as much to Court’s snubbing of Qantas (by the way, Australia’s other major airline, Virgin, also supports marriage equality) as it does to any prospective players’ action against playing in a venue named for someone whose religio-political position is so out of line with their own.

There’s the question of whether Tennis Australia and/or the Melbourne Park complex want to continue to honor a figure who so openly disparages their official stance on LGBTQ rights… but there’s also the possibility that Ms. Court may not wish to continue to have her name associated with organizations who positions differ so much from her own.

The biggest irony, of course, is the fact that the reason there’s a venue named in Margaret Court’s honor at all, is that Billie Jean King pushed for it. Yes, that Billie Jean King, who was long since “out,” and who had both defeated and been defeated by Court in Grand Slam finals. King still believes Court’s name should remain on what is the #3 venue in Melbourne (#1 is named for male Australian tennis great Rod Laver, #2 for Vodaphone, whom we suspect paid handsomely for the recognition). That doesn’t mean she isn’t “disappointed”:
I think it’s really important to always have acts of kindness, love over hate, than to make judgments on others. Do I agree with her? Absolutely not. I’m gay and I think she’s been hurtful to our community and doesn’t really understand us as humans first. But you know what? Judge not that ye be not judged; that’s how I live my life.
So where does all this leave us? Jack Marshall posed the question thus: “Do Margaret Court’s political views and anti-LGTBQ statements create an ethical obligation to remove her name from Margaret Court Arena?” To that question, I think the answer is “no.” But had he phrased his “quiz” differently, “Does Margaret Court’s outstanding career as a tennis player create an ethical obligation to retain her name on the arena despite her recent virulent anti-gay rhetoric?”, the answer to that question, too, is “no.”

The dilemma is two-fold. First, is Navratilova right that such honors ought to recognize the “whole body of work,” or is King correct that Court’s post-tennis comments may be “hurtful” but not disqualifying? It’s not like, say, the Baseball Hall of Fame, which has clearly delineated criteria for inclusion. Naming a venue after someone is much more ad hoc.

Secondly, Court’s current position would have been regarded as pretty mainstream when she was performing the athletic feats that earned her the honor to begin with. In 1977, a year after Court played in her last Grand Slam, this country (Curmie can’t find numbers for Australia) was evenly split as to whether “gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults” ought even to be legal; now that figure is about 5:2 in favor among those with an opinion. As recently as 1996 (when Gallup first started polling on this topic), support for same-sex marriage was at only 27%; now it’s at 61%.

One wonders how appropriate it is to demand that a 74-year-old woman change with the times when there’s still a significant population who agrees with her stance. But her current statements, not the ones made when they were more widely accepted, are relevant, and they are deeply offensive to a significant number of fans and players alike. Moreover, Evonne Goolagong, Navratilova’s choice for the honor, was herself a multiple Grand Slam winner, well-liked, and apparently uncontroversial; her aboriginal roots would also add a touch of a different kind of inclusion, in a sport that remains pretty monochromatic: a casual fan would be lucky to get much further than the Williams sisters if asked to name prominent non-white tennis stars of the 21st century.

There are solutions, of course. A company like Qantas could buy naming rights. This sort of thing happens all the time: the example that comes first to mind is Qualcomm Stadium (formerly Jack Murphy Stadium) in San Diego; there are others. Barring that, however, the officials in Melbourne have some serious soul-searching to do. Curmie is really torn on this one—it’s not that Court was found to have cheated, or that she’s been convicted of a serious crime, but her virulent bigotry does in fact give a black eye to the Australian tennis world. Ultimately, if I had to make the call, I’d proclaim that we (Tennis Australia and Melbourne Park) will be as outspoken and aggressive in favor of LGBTQ rights as Ms. Court is in opposition to them, we’ll make those statements on posters you can’t avoid seeing as you enter the premises, and we’ll make it clear that the arena recognizes her athletic accomplishments and only her athletic accomplishments. If she then chooses to have her name associated with an organization whose belief system is so antithetical to her own, so be it. But the ball is (ahem) in her court.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

An Actually Racist Statement Results in “Remedial Action”; Same Teacher’s Good Pedagogy Gets Him Fired

Curmie’s long hiatus has left him with a lot of catching up to do if he wants to resurrect the Curmie awards this year. The good news, in multiple ways, is that the calendar year so far has generated only a dozen or so topics that Curmie has any interest in writing about. The bad news is that quality and quantity are different things, and there are some doozies in this group.

We start with a two-parter, only the second half of which happened this year (in January). As is often the case, Curmie heard about this story from netpal Jack Marshall. I don’t have a lot to add to Jack’s analysis, but if the Curmies are to make a return, we need to start churning out the posts about worthy contenders.

So, we start last fall in Folsom, CA, where a student asked Sutter Middle School history teacher Woody Hart for a definition of equality: this was apparently triggered by a class discussion of an exam question, but it’s a reasonable enough request for a student that age to make under any circumstances, especially given the ubiquity with which the term was no doubt being tossed about, only six days before the national election.

Hart’s response was, shall we say, disturbing: multiple students claim he replied, “When you hang one black person, you have to hang them all (as) that is equality.” Say WHAT??? Well, his version differs slightly: “If you hang black people in the South, that means that you hang any black person who comes from outside the state.” Oh, well, that changes everything… except for the whole “it doesn’t change a thing” part. Curmie is not sure whether to be more perplexed by what apparently passes for rational thought in this quotation or offended by the face-melting racism hidden not very damned deep below the surface.

Tyrie McIntyre, the father of one of the (few) black students in the class, complained to school authorities, who acted. Sort of. They agreed to remove McIntyre’s son, Tyler, from the class. According to the Sacramento Bee, Principal Keri Phillips “outlined remedial action for Hart, saying he will use examples at a level that eighth graders can understand…. avoid stereotypes or culturally insensitive language and rely on ‘very simple analogies that do not focus on the controversy.’” Curmie gets the middle part, but fears that the eighth graders understood the example all too well, and there was no “focusing on the controversy” in Hart’s statement. It was the controversy.

Curmie is afraid he must agree with Mr. McIntyre that “there was no way to justify the statement that he made.” That doesn’t make Mr. Hart an awful person, but it does make one raise a skeptical eyebrow, wondering if the 70-year-old teacher just got trapped in a clumsy statement or if there’s some real, thinly disguised racial nastiness going on here.

School Board President Zak Ford:
Not the Sharpest Knife in the Drawer
What passes for the brain trust in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District would have us believe that question was answered in January. The Sacramento Bee again: “Board President Zak Ford expressed outrage at the meeting, calling the remark ‘very inappropriate and flat-out stupid.’ Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt called the comment inappropriate and apologized to thousands of district parents and staff members.” So far, so good, right? Except the reason for the meeting was that Hart had had the audacity to display a Confederate flag, one presumes the Stars and Bars, but perhaps the actual flag of the Confederacy (as well as a Union flag), while teaching about the Civil War. WHAT??? That’s a problem?

Curmie can add to but not really improve on the commentary of local resident Cliff Zall: “The Confederate flag is a wart on our history, but gosh darn it, it’s part of our history. The next thing you know, history is not going to be history. It’s going to be what we wish it was.” Here’s the addition: how are students to know that the Confederate flag is anathema if they don’t know what one looks like? Indeed, wouldn’t the suppression of such a readily-available image just make it a little more deliciously naughty, thereby increasing its appeal to the average 13-year-old? Or, if they already know, how is seeing one in the context of a discussion of the Civil War in any way inappropriate?

Students—you know, the people who were actually there—argued that Hart was treated unfairly by the Board. Eric Hall, an 8th grader at the school, presented a petition signed by about a quarter of the total student population, asking that Mr. Hart, “a great teacher” who “got the class interested in things,” be retained. By this point, however, the Board had already forced Hart into retirement. Here’s a snippet from yet another article from the Sacramento Bee:
Allison Simmons, a junior at Folsom High School, said Hart was her eighth-grade teacher. Simmons said she hated history until she participated in his classroom simulations, which made history come alive. The classes didn’t promote racial insensitivity, but quite the opposite, she said.

He’s teaching you what’s right and what’s wrong throughout history so you don’t repeat it,” Simmons said. “You guys made a stupid decision to take the best teacher away from so many students,” she told the board.
Curmie has no opinion on Hart’s teaching skills, but can’t fault Ms. Simmons’s analysis that the Board’s decision was, in fact, stupid. I’d add anti-intellectual, hypersensitive, arrogant, ill-informed, pompous, and ultimately chilling, but “stupid” works, too. The only possible explanation for this ruling (because that’s effectively what it was) is that the Board was embarrassed by their earlier inaction when Hart really did do something that constituted a breach of professionalism, and they pounced on any pretense to put the entire situation behind them. That would be unethical, but not imbecilic.

But then, Board President Ford said “that the investigation of the Hart matter does not mean teachers should be afraid to be provocative or to use historical artifacts to “help students understand uncomfortable aspects of history.” And now we’re back at “stupid,” because this comment shows Mr. Ford to be dumber than the proverbial sack of hair. How else should teachers perceive such a nonsensical decision, if not as a direct threat to their classroom autonomy and an assertion that the Board will act arbitrarily, whimsically, and irrationally whenever it chooses. Ford shouldn’t despair altogether, however. Curmie is writing again, and there might be a Curmie nomination on the horizon.



Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Julius Caesar Kerfuffle, Take 2: A Theatre Historian's Perspective

Curmie suggests reading the play before
commenting on it.
The saga of Delta Airlines’ and Bank of America’s reneging on promises made to the Public Theater because of a production of Julius Caesar which links Shakespeare’s title character to President Trump continues. It is an oversimplification but likely not a falsehood to suggest that the majority of the people who are up in arms about the show have never voluntarily read or seen Julius Caesar, or indeed any other play by Shakespeare. Curmie has; he has letters after his name and a few decades of teaching theatre history and dramatic literature to college students. It is therefore not boastful to suggest that I might just get this stuff better than does someone whose understanding of English Renaissance drama comes from Breitbart and the Drudge Report. So it’s time to dust off the PhD and talk about something Curmie actually knows something about.

For one thing, a passing knowledge of the central themes of Julius Caesar leads to the inevitable conclusion that the assassination of a nation’s leader is never a good idea. (And how long would William Shakespeare have lasted in Elizabethan England had he suggested otherwise?)  We may, in this play, initially think Brutus is the hero—his is the largest role, after all, and his participation in the murder of Caesar is the central motivating action of the play. But Caesar’s death leads only to precisely the kinds of problems the conspirators were trying to prevent, as Mark Antony begins to understand almost immediately. He demonstrates this new comprehension in the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, which clearly serves to show Caesar as a noble and generous ruler. It is this oration that gets the play into serious structural difficulties: Caesar is the title character, Brutus is the lead, but it is Mark Antony who carries Shakespeare’s voice.

This irony of precipitating fate by trying to avoid it is hardly new with Shakespeare, of course. After all, the back-story of the play Aristotle regarded as the epitome of the tragic form, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, involves precisely that phenomenon. Had Oedipus stayed in Corinth, trusting in his sense and moderation to avoid the two-fold horror of killing his father and sleeping with his mother, he would never have been forced off the road at that intersection, wouldn’t have killed Laius in the world’s first documented case of road rage, wouldn’t have been a position to solve the riddle of the Sphinx and thereby be awarded the newly-widowed queen as his bride.

But Shakespeare shows regicide a lot. Think Hamlet. Think Macbeth. Twice each, if you count the pre-play murder of Hamlet’s father. In both cases, the second regicide is linked to the first, but not as clearly as a casual reader or spectator might imagine. For one thing, ghosts were seen by the 16th century Anglican Church as inherently emanations from the Devil, so trusting in the apparition at the top of the former play is, shall we say, contraindicated. Perhaps for this reason, Hamlet constructs what seems to him to be a legitimate test of Claudius’s guilt (it isn’t, as if Claudius were completely innocent, he would reasonably interpret the “mousetrap” scene as a threat on his own life by his nephew, who arranged the entertainment), but even then he balks at actually exacting vengeance on the king. Of course, he believes he’s stabbing Claudius when he actually slays Polonius, but Renaissance thinking concentrates on the deed as much as on the intention: a prince who kills a counselor might not be acting in the best interests of the state, but he’s probably on safe legal and indeed ethical ground.

It isn’t until Claudius has already directly caused the deaths (or imminent deaths) of Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself that Hamlet plunges his sword, the tip of which was poisoned by Claudius himself, into the usurping king. The killing may be related to the death of Hamlet’s father, but there’s certainly no proximate cause. Moreover, the killing of the king—the one we see in Act V, scene ii—is, if not literally an act of self-defense (Hamlet will die, anyway), at least the first cousin to such an act.

Macbeth is an even more intriguing case. The murder of Duncan is a Very Bad Thing, and we’re reminded of how good the king has been to Macbeth shortly before the Thane repays his Lord by stabbing him to death. But notice that Macduff, even with plenty of evidence that Macbeth had turned into a tyrant, does not take immediate action. Rather, he goes to England to gain the support of Malcolm, the legitimate heir to Duncan’s crown. It is there that he learns of the murder of his wife and children, providing him with a personal motive to go after Macbeth, but it’s important to remember that Macduff is already persuading Malcolm to raise an army: the personal vendetta is simply the icing on the proverbial cake.

But even Macduff’s actions would have been ethically complicated to the Elizabethan mind. Yes, Macbeth’s ascension to the throne came as a direct result of his perfidy. Yes, Macbeth turned out to be a horrible ruler. Yes, Malcolm was rightfully king. But the theory of basileus, what was later to be called “divine right,” affirmed both a political and a religious belief that monarchs are chosen by God and it’s not for mere mortals to interfere with His plan. Bad kings will ultimately get their comeuppance, but it’s God’s job, not ours, both to judge and to impose justice.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon comes in the full (modernized spelling) title of an early Elizabethan play generally attributed to Thomas Preston: A Lamentable Tragedy Mixed Full of Pleasant Mirth, Containing the Life of Cambyses, King of Persia, from the Beginning of His Kingdom unto His Death, His One Good Deed of Execution, After That Many Wicked Deeds and Tyrannous Murders Committed by and through Him, and Last of All, His Odious Death by God’s Justice Appointed. Normally, Curmie talks about this title in terms of the English utter disregard for Italian and French ideals of purity of form, but it tells us something about justice, as well. Cambyses is, as the title suggests, guilty of “many wicked deeds and tyrannous murders.” But it’s not up to the populace to exact vengeance. Their job is to endure, and to let God sort it out in the end.

Similarly, the right path for Brutus was to put a check on Cassius et al. and to let Caesar do his thing; everything will be sorted out by a higher power in due course. And the same applies to those who oppose Donald Trump. Curmie is a member of the “Resistance” to the extent that he regards the current occupant of the White House as a dangerous, xenophobic, grifter. Curmie will resist virtually every decision of the Trump administration, but the key word in this sentence is “virtually.” A political position is not inherently bad just because it is advanced by an unethical ass-clown like Donald Trump. Nor will you hear “not my President” rhetoric from Curmie.

And no one, repeat, no one deserves to be killed in cold blood. Curmie suspects that Oskar Eustis, the director of the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, agrees.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Julius Caesar, Philistines, Corporate Cowardice, and Active Misreadings

A couple of days ago, Curmie was actually casting about, wanting to take advantage of his newly-returned desire to write, but unable to find a topic of more than moderate interest, the latest escapades of the most corrupt presidency in history and its nearly-as-unethical opposition having long since passed the point of generating ennui. But the last couple of days have provided a new story, two new-to-me stories, and a story that I have come to realize is indeed a worthy subject for an essay. The Blog Gods have heard my plaint.

Tina Benko and Gregg Henry in the Public Theatre production of Julius Caesar.
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Today, Curmie does something he hasn’t done in a very long time: write about a topic while it’s still “hot.” Sunday, Delta Airlines and Bank of America both withdrew their funding of the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar, literally the day before it officially opened. The play, which was in previews for about three weeks (and somehow was already reviewed) has caused controversy by portraying the title character as a Donald Trump clone: what New York Times critic Jesse Green describes as “a petulant, blondish Caesar in a blue suit, complete with gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife.” Subtlety does not appear to be this production’s strong suit.

Of course, Caesar is killed by his must trusted advisors about halfway through the play, a structural anomaly that makes Julius Caesar one of Curmie’s least favorite Shakespeare plays. Let’s face it, after Mark Antony’s big speech in Act III, we’re left with the longest dénouement in history. It’s really hard to bring off Acts IV and V because they’re, well, boring as hell.

But Curmie strays. You see, apparently this production’s assassination scene is more graphic than most, prompting further indignation from paranoid right-wingers: you know, the ones who call other people snowflakes. So the right-wing media ginned up an Astroturf campaign to apply pressure to the Public Theatre’s corporate sponsors. And the hegemons controlling those corporations—being devoid of any understanding of theatre, historical perspective, ethical sensibility, or moral courage—promptly capitulated.

Delta sniffs:
No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ at this summer’s free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of the Public Theater effective immediately.
Apparently their vaunted “values” don’t include honoring commitments to theatre companies any more than they honor them to their customers. What Delta does with its money next year is completely up to them, and if they don’t want to be associated with one of the most famous and indeed prestigious theatre programs in the country, that is absolutely their prerogative, even if it is cowardly and ill-advised. But they’ve made a commitment for this year, and even if their high-priced legal team (which they need because their service is so terrible) can get them out of legal obligations, their ethical duty to support the Public Theater financially for the remainder of the season stands, even if they publicly disavow this production.

At least Bank of America understands that much… sort of. They, too, unethically withdrew funding from this play, although they did not completely sever relations with the Public. Still, they accuse the company’s production of an intention “to provoke and offend.” The former is certainly true. The latter might be true, but there certainly isn’t sufficient evidence to say that with any certainty. Bank of America, like Delta, is craven and culturally illiterate. Do they not get it that the whole point of Julius Caesar is that killing the title character is a Bad Thing? Perhaps the production does not make that sufficiently clear—it does sound more pretentious than profound—but the company’s official statement seems both apt and sincere. I quote it here in its entirety:
The Public Theater stands completely behind our production of Julius Caesar. We understand and respect the right of our sponsors and supporters to allocate their funding in line with their own values. We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions.  Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare's play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.
That’s a good response to a pretty knee-jerk reaction by corporations who should know better. As Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall wrote, “Corporate donors to the arts should give because they support art, artists and public access to art, not because they endorse or insist on any particular message or artistic vision.” Indeed, it would be foolish to expect any theatre company to intentionally avoid plays or interpretations of plays that would resonate with a contemporary audience. (Disclaimer for those who don’t know Curmie personally: my scholarly interest centers on modern adaptations of inherited, often classical, material. What I do, in other words, is to explore as a scholar precisely the kinds of adaptations and productions the Public and groups like them explore as artists.)

There have also, of course, been expressions of support for the Public: from other sponsors like the New York Times and from the New York City Comptroller, who sent copies of the play to the heads of the two corporations, with a note saying that “Art matters. The First Amendment matters. Expression matters,” and that the companies’ cravenness (Curmie’s word, not his) “undermines the very vibrancy of the cause you chose to support in the first place.”

But if the corporations were running scared without good reason, their pusillanimity pales compared to the National Endowment for the Arts, which is more concerned with covering its own collective ass than in being a legitimate advocate for art or artists. All they could muster was this:
The National Endowment for the Arts makes grants to nonprofit organizations for specific projects. In the past, the New York Shakespeare Festival has received project-based NEA grants to support performances of Shakespeare in the Park by the Public Theater. However, no NEA funds have been awarded to support this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar and there are no NEA funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts’ grant to Public Theater or its performances.
Way to fight for the cause, guys! Seriously, Curmie has (unsurprisingly) been an advocate for the NEA for years, but if this is how they’re going to act when the heat is on, we might as well do without.

Of course, this is a serious matter. The arts don’t matter to Americans… or, rather, they don’t matter to politicians (especially, but not exclusively, Republicans), and they don’t matter enough to voters to throw the rascals out. This production got nothing from the federal government and about 2/10 of a cent per New York State resident from the state. The NEA receives about 46 cents per American per year. By contrast, even in this era of Tory “austerity,” Arts Council England gets nearly $12 per UK citizen; in Germany it’s over $18.50, over 40 times the American per capita rate... and that's with the Euro at an all-time low relative to the dollar.  The result is that corporate (and foundation) sponsorship is inordinately important here. When corporations support art, it’s a good thing. When they start attaching strings—“you can only do pabulum”—that’s another matter. It isn’t censorship (despite what some lefties might say) but the result is pretty much the same (despite what some on the right would say). You’re not going to be prosecuted for doing this production of Julius Caesar, but remember that you’re getting almost all your funding from corporate sponsorship (remember, the whole idea is free Shakespeare in the Park, so box office isn’t in a position to make up the difference if the suits start thinking they should have approval rights for anything that goes up under their sponsorship).

Curmie knows something about this from having dealt with local businesses who sponsor summer stock or university theatres. He knows what some folks demand for just a couple thousand dollars. Make that a couple million, and the self-entitlement is likely to be thick on the ground.

Still, it is difficult to imagine what is going on in the minds of the execs at Delta and Bank of America. Do they think that theatre is somehow apolitical, when (Curmie would argue) it started as a means of consolidating power for the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus? Surely the political content of everything from The Oresteia to “Master Harold”… and the boys is manifest? Doesn’t every high school student know what The Crucible is really about? Was Tartuffe written in a vacuum?

Indeed, Curmie often uses two Shakespeare plays—Richard III and Macbeth—to illustrate the politics of drama. Question: which was written first? Unless you’re a Shakespeare scholar, you might not know off the top of your head. But how about this: Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, just about the midpoint in of Shakespeare’s career, to be succeeded by James I. Elizabeth loved stories of England’s history; James was Scottish, liked tales of the supernatural, and detested women. The title characters of both plays were actually the villains: Richard is defeated by Elizabeth’s grandfather; James traced his lineage to Banquo who, though murdered by Macbeth’s minions, was nonetheless prophesied to “get [i.e., beget] kings.” So: which play was written first, and when, relative to 1603, were they written? Q.E.D.

Finally, Curmie is obliged to respond to the paranoid delusions of some on the right who proclaim that if a Clinton or Obama were portrayed this way, the liberals would be incensed.  The facts say otherwise.  There was a joint production a few years ago by two of the country’s most prestigious troupes, the Acting Company and the Guthrie Theatre.  Here are snippets from three different reviews:
  • Noah Millman: “Caesar… is a tall, charismatic African-American politician; he doesn’t look or sound much like Obama…, but the audience is unquestionably going to read him as an Obama stand-in nonetheless.”
  • The Morning After arts/entertainment blog: “...Caesar is cast as a tall, lanky black man, the Obama inference is a bit too obvious.”
  • Jay Gabler: “...Bjorn DuPaty cutting an unmistakably Obama-like figure as the eponymous ruler.”  [in all cases here, emphasis mine]
Oh, and the director, Rob Melrose, says that “I think both Oskar [Eustis] and I are doing the same thing, which is, whenever you produce this play, you have to think about who is currently in power. I think when you encourage an audience to think that way, it brings the play into people’s lives in a way that’s palpable.
    There is no doubt that the Public’s production points more unmistakably to the current President than the previous one did to the one then serving, but that is hardly the same as saying that what was so readily apparent to several reviewers of the earlier production was somehow missed by everyone else.  Note, too, that one of the reviews quoted above was published on a site called The American Conservative, and another underscores Mr. Obama’s “[failure] to live up to the Messsianic hype.”  In other words, the authors are anything but Obamaphiles.  Yet neither they nor anyone on the left that Curmie can discover as much as batted an eye at the Acting Company/Guthrie production.  Moreover, such parody (or pastiche?) is either legitimate or it is not.  How some hypothetical audience of some hypothetical production may or may not have behaved (or might behave in the future) hardly seems relevant.

    The idea that plays, or productions of them, are somehow apolitical is patently absurd. Most productions that attempt to move Shakespeare out of period are fraught with peril (and the Public’s Julius Caesar may well an example of this phenomenon), but some (Ian McKellen’s Richard III, for instance) are brilliant. And, as Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis said in his curtain speech before the official opening:
    ...when we hold the mirror up to nature, often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things. Thank God. That’s our job…. The Public’s mission is to say that that the culture belongs to everybody, needs to belong to everybody, to say that art has something to say about the great civic issues of our time, and to say that, like drama, democracy depends on the conflict of different points of view. Nobody owns the truth. We all own the culture.
    Amen to that.

    Saturday, June 10, 2017

    Again with the Dress Codes and the Idiots in Charge.

    It may be a little late in the year to start collecting nominations for the Curmie Award, which we missed altogether last year, but since education has been and will always be a central topic of Curmie’s blog, I’m going to talk about this story whether there’s an award nomination down the line or not.

    Summer Bond in the offending garment,
    It is, alas, a familiar story of high school dress codes and administrators who get their jollies by forcing students—well, some students—to conform to arcane, archaic, and profoundly sexist regulations. A young woman named Summer Bond (she’s identified only as “Summer” in all the news stories, but her lawyer uses her full name in a press release, so Curmie will do so, as well) was suspended and, apparently, not allowed to participate in her graduation ceremony from Hickory Ridge High School in Harrisburg, NC, presumably for wearing the shirt you see in the picture on the left. Yes, really. Or perhaps for “insubordination” for not prostrating herself before Petty Tyrant Executive Moron Principal Michelle Cline, bellowing mea culpas at the top of her lungs. Whatever. Fact is, it’s stupid.

    Let’s get some stuff out of the way in a hurry. First, the dress code is (of course) an exercise in sexism. Girls mustn’t distract boys by, you know, looking attractive or fashionable. Obviously, there are legitimate functions of a dress code: no school wants gang signs or explicit bigotry on clothing, and it’s true that see-through tops or similar manifestations are at best unprofessional and at worst disruptive. OK, fine. But Curmie went to high school with some very beautiful young women who routinely (it being the ‘70s) wore skirts that wouldn’t come close to passing Hickory Ridge’s current dress code, and still managed to keep his mind on his courses. The “no cleavage” rule might work at a high school in North Carolina, but it wouldn’t last a day at virtually any university in the country. Curiously, students across the gender spectrum manage to concentrate.

    We have further evidence of the gender-based nature of the school’s dress code in this reporting from WCNC in Charlotte: “earlier this year, 45 girls were brought into the principal’s office just because they were wearing leggings without shirts that were long enough.” (For the record, on any given day, about half the women in Curmie’s department would be similarly dressed.) Curiously, there are no reports from Hickory Ridge of boys violating the dress code. Go figure.

    OK, Curmie gets it. The fact that high school dress codes are designed to blame girls for boys’ behavior is old news. Moving on. Other things to note up front:
    • The fact that Summer is an excellent student is irrelevant. She could be barely passing, and the injustice would be just as manifest.
    • She will, of course, graduate, although she may not walk. Even Michelle Cline isn’t stupid enough to risk the kind of damages that lawsuit would inevitably precipitate.
    • She was never in danger of losing (note correct spelling, please, multiple sources) her scholarship to “a major university.” Any university that would give any credence to the petulant grandstanding of a two-bit high school principal instead of Ms. Bond’s grades, board scores, and recommendations is unworthy of attendance.
    • There seems to be some history between Summer, her mom, and Principal Cline. This would appear to be at the center of the controversy.
    Assuming the news reports are correct, here’s what happened: Principal Cline approached Summer at lunch (note that apparently no one had complained all morning), demanding that she put a jacket on over her top. Summer protested that there was nothing wrong with what she was wearing, but a friend loaned her a jacket, which she put on. We’re done, right? No, apparently that wasn’t enough, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.  One source suggests that (according to Cline) Summer's lower back still wasn’t covered, making that top the strangest shaped garment in history, but whatever…

    Anyway, Cline then demanded that Summer change clothes altogether, but—because of that chronic tension mentioned earlier—there was apparently an arrangement (or merely a maternal insistence?) that Summer could not be punished in any way without her mom being notified first. So, with the school’s inability to contact the mom, we’re done, right? Nope. Cline throws everyone else out of a school assembly, calls in an armed School Resource Officer, and threatens Summer with arrest (!) for… uh… well, something. The mom called the school back just in time, but Summer was still suspended for ten days and threatened with expulsion.

    OK. Analysis time. Notice that the local story from WCNC says that the problem is that Summer’s shirt “rests just off the tops of her shoulders and exposes her collarbone.” The HuffPost article specifically states that Summer was “suspended for wearing a shirt that showed her collarbones.” Curiously (not really) the school’s vaunted dress code, which school officials would have us believe descended from Mount Sinai to a trumpet fanfare, has nary a word about collarbones. Imagine Curmie’s surprise. The closest thing to an actual violation on Ms. Bond’s part is in fact a pure judgment call: the dress code demands that “all shirts should adequately cover the upper body including the shoulders…” Summer’s shoulders were covered, but one might reasonably quibble over the definition of “adequately.” As a side note, the WCNC’s Tanya Mindes wore a shoulder-revealing top as she reported from the scene. One suspects that viewers were somehow able to listen to what she was saying. (Curmie has wondered repeatedly over the years about what is so inappropriate about shoulders: here, here, and here, for example.)

    It’s also worth noting that a suspension of more than two days for a dress code violation is allowed only for the sixth offense, but that the same student handbook gives carte blanche to school administrators to do pretty much whatever they want for some pretty ill-defined offenses. It’s another “Fuck You, We’re the Administration” clause. The order of the violations which can lead to suspension is telling. Here are the most egregious violations:
    • 1. Being a persistent discipline problem.
    • 2. Failure to report to the Control Room.
    • 4. Disrespect to an Administrator.
    More minor offenses—you know, stuff like actual crimes—are also included. Stealing is #11, vandalism is #12, bringing a weapon to school is #15, fighting is #16, drugs and alcohol #17. But the really important stuff to the school is at the top, and Curmie suspects that anything short of abject obeisance is going to be regarded by the likes of Michelle Cline as disrespect. It isn’t. Disrespect is what Curmie feels and expresses towards you, Ms. Cline, you heinous, bullying, buffoon.

    Thursday, June 8, 2017

    English News and the Twittering Twit

    The big news from the United Kingdom as Curmie writes this is the election, which is currently predicted to result in a serious blow to the ruling Tory party: possibly, even probably, as of this writing, a hung parliament. Curmie is reminded of a line often attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”

    Britons have, perhaps, had enough of the profound incompetence, moral bankruptcy and intellectual cowardice of Theresa May. She may be able to cobble together a coalition, perhaps even retain a majority, but her power play of calling an election (having pledged not to do so) to consolidate her party’s majority in Parliament has, like everything else she’s set her hand to, failed miserably. Even Fox News is calling the prospect of a plurality rather than a majority for the Conservatives a “Crippling political defeat.” A senior Tory official told The Telegraph (the most right-leaning of the legitimate British news sources), “This is bad, it's worse than bad. Her advisers should walk out of the door now never to return, regardless of the final result. They should be banished forever.”

    Um… wow. What’s really significant about this is that any result short of the Tories maintaining a comfortable ruling margin would be an enormous surprise. Even a few days ago, when Curmie was in London, there was an aura of castles in the air to Labour-supporting friends’ hopes for a legitimate insurgency. It’s still unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn will be moving into #10 Downing Street anytime soon, but what was once a pipe dream is now, in theatre terminology, a playable objective. That’s still unlikely, but Curmie’s guess is that he’s about as likely to be the new Prime Minister as Theresa May is to retain the job. Best guess is that the Prime Minister in a few weeks’ time will be a Tory whose name isn’t Theresa May. We shall see.

    Indeed, the longshot status of any meaningful Labour threat allowed the week’s news to be dominated by last weekend’s terrorist attack on and near London Bridge. Curmie wasn’t in the immediate area where the attacks occurred, but did cross London Bridge (by train) only nine days before the incident. A couple of things are striking about that affair. First: the casualty count. Eight people were killed, and dozens injured. That’s horrible, but imagine how much worse it would have been here, where the perpetrators could have bought about any weapon imaginable, including assault rifles and grenade launchers, providing only that their credit card went through.

    Check out the guy on the right.  Dammit, he paid for that pint!
    There were multiple tales of heroism, ranging from Roy Larner, the not-entirely-sober man who took on the three murderers bare-handed, screaming “Fuck you, I’m Millwall,” to the unnamed gentleman who may have been willing to evacuate a particular area but would be damned if he’d leave his pint behind, to Richard Angell, a witness to the events, who told the BBC, “If me having a gin and tonic with my friends, flirting with handsome men, hanging out with brilliant women, is what offends these people so much, then I’m going to do it more, not less. Because that’s what makes London so great….”

    All told, Curmie has spent close about a year in the UK: most of it working on a Master’s degree in Birmingham, but probably a couple of months in London, which retains a special place in my heart. There is a spirit to London unduplicated by any other city I’ve ever visited. It is, after all, the place that withstood the Blitz, in which some 18,000 tons of high explosives were dropped on England (mostly, but not exclusively, on London) over an 8-month period. Over 40,000 English civilians were killed, and nearly ten times that many were rendered homeless. Did the Blitz have its desired effect of weakening English resolve? Uh, no. Quite the opposite, in fact. Britons pulled together as never before; “business as usual” was the ultimate act of defiance.

    So when John Oliver ripped into the American media’s characterization of the UK as “reeling” or “under siege,” he was absolutely correct: “In no way is Britain under siege. Is it upset? Yes. Is it pissed off? Oh, you fucking bet it’s pissed off. But to say it’s under siege and its people are reeling is to imply that it’s somehow weak enough to be brought to its knees by three monumental arseholes.”

    Speaking of arseholes, no description of the events in London would be complete without mention of our National Embarrassment, the Petulant Yam, whose tweetstorm served, once again, to prove to the world that the so-called “leader of the free world” is unfit to be the assistant manager at a small-town McDonald’s. Any normal person, let alone a presumed statesman in an international spotlight, would respond to the events on and around London Bridge first by offering condolences, support, and perhaps prayers. Not our Donny. First response: a self-serving, xenophobic, and tone-deaf tweet: “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!”

    Seven minutes later he sent an appropriate tweet, offering the support missing from the early missive. Miracles do happen.

    Needless to say, the fit of statesmanship and, dare I say, sanity, didn’t last. First, it was picking a fight with London mayor Sadiq Khan because, well, because it was already 6:31 a.m., and our Imperial Brat hadn’t been a world-class assclown yet that day (last Sunday). Please note that what Mayor Khan had said was that Londoners should not be alarmed by the increased police presence (Side note: there was nothing but praise for London’s first responders from literally every person-on-the-street interviewee.). Naturally, DJT actively misinterpreted the mayor’s comments in a snotty tweet: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’” There is, of course, some reason to doubt the authenticity of this particular tweet: it was spelled correctly, after all.

    Twelve minutes later, Twitter Boy outdid even himself for stupidity, calling attention to the fact that the terrorists had a van and some knives rather than a gun. To a sane person, this would mean that it’s a good thing a trio of murderous yahoos didn’t have access to firearms. In what passes for a brain in our estimable President, however, it’s somehow an indictment of gun laws. Don’t work too hard trying to figure that one out, Dear Reader; it’ll only make you crazy.

    Then more yelping about his wildly unconstitutional travel ban, more whining about Mayor Khan, and on and on about security and blahblahblah. Needless to say, Orange Grifter casually overlooked the cuts to police orchestrated by… wait for it… Theresa May. Indeed, last weekend’s attack may well have had a silver lining. Certainly no one Curmie ever wants to meet is happy about what happened, but it now appears inevitable that whoever the Prime Minister will be next month, it won’t be the totally inept Theresa May. If, in politics, the enemy of your enemy is your friend, then Trump and May are conjoined in their opposition to (or by, depending on your point of view) Sadiq Khan. In other words, Donald Trump does have a positive purpose: aligning himself with like-minded buffoons and thereby making them unelectable. And here you were thinking he’d be more use as a speed bump…

    Monday, June 5, 2017

    Musings on the Jester's Privilege

    Yes, it has indeed been almost a year since Curmie wrote anything here. I didn’t even get a post written up for the Curmie Awards. I could blame the new job (which I’ll soon be able to give up), but that wouldn’t really be accurate. Yes, I’ve been more tired at the end of the week, and more interested in watching something escapist on Netflix than in previous years, but I haven’t actually been working more hours this year than previously. Nor was the problem a lack of subject matter: quite the contrary, in fact. There’s been a surfeit of material that would make even a less curmudgeonly person than I a little grumpy.

    And there was the Presidential election between the two least ethical major party candidates—at least as a tandem—in history. In the last thing Curmie posted on this blog, he sort of endorsed Jill Stein, who turned out to be an utter wackadoodle, despite being more aligned with Curmie on most issues than either of the Machiavellian and utterly corrupt front-runners; Gary Johnson proved to be an ignorant fool, too, so Curmie held his nose and voted for Hillary Clinton against the puerile and petulant grifter we ended up with. The Trump administration seems bent on destroying literally everything of value to the population as a whole—the environment, the education system, the Bill of Rights…—so narrowing the field to concentrate on one topic of particular interest or one act of especial malevolence isn’t easy.

    But mostly, the reason I haven’t written anything is that I’ve been lazy, or at least too lazy to write my usual long-form posts of 1500 words or so. The result is that the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page has been updated frequently with other people’s work, but not my own. I haven’t pounced on a story that’s really still in the news, making it very difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said at least as well as I could say it, so I never finished a couple of essays I started. And inertia just kept getting harder and harder to overcome. But, as Sally Bowles sings in Cabaret, maybe this time.

    There have been three incidents of late that have brought to the forefront the concept of the Jester’s Privilege, the principle by which comedians fall into a special category, having not merely the right but indeed the obligation to speak a brutal truth without fear of reprisal. The first of these events took place about a month ago, when Stephen Colbert issued his “cock holster” barb, which followed a few seconds after labelling the President a “pricktator.”

    Next was Kathy Griffin’s already-infamous “beheading” (right) of President Trump in a photo shoot. She’s shown holding a bloodied replica of DJT’s head.

    And finally, there was the latest Bill Maher kerfuffle. Responding to an invitation from his interviewee on “Real Time,” Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, to visit the politician’s home state and “work in the fields with us,” Maher retorted in mock indignation, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger.”

    The media have gone pretty crazy about all three moments of comedians going “too far,” with calls for all three to be fired, and even for Griffin to be prosecuted. The reactions have been depressingly predictable. On the two specifically anti-Trump pieces, the political left babbles about 1st amendment rights and the right harrumphs about respect for the Presidency: precisely the opposite reactions to posters showing former President Obama being lynched, or to the despicable Ted Nugent’s obvious threats against Mr. Obama (be it noted: I never thought Nugent ever intended to do anything about those threats—he’s too much of a cowardly blowhard—but threats they undoubtedly were).

    Where to begin? Let’s start with the whole “did s/he have the right to do this” debate. The answer is, as it often is, “yes and no.” (Shoutout to Curmie’s students in Asian theatre classes over the years.) That is, all three are unquestionably examples of protected speech, whether the VFW thinks so or not. Colbert, Griffin, and Maher all had the legal right to do what they did. But such protections don’t mean actions have no consequences, and they don’t render an action ethical just because it’s legal.

    Frankly, I’m not terribly surprised by any of these incidents. Colbert used to be funny because he played an invented character—a stereotype of his actual political opposition—so well. Since switching to speaking in something resembling his own voice, however, he’s become nearly as boring as he’s become boorish. In other words, Colbert probably caused the least ripple of the three because he did what we expected of him—not that we were shocked by the others, but Colbert’s schtik has become cruder in recent months. (N.B. Neither Colbert nor Curmie is unaware of the fact that in an Internet age the late-night time slot no longer means a lot in terms of the final audience.) And it isn’t as funny anymore. It’s intriguing, too, that the outcry from the left is about the alleged homophobia of the joke rather than the vulgarity of the insult to the POTUS. Colbert didn’t exactly apologize—nor, I suppose, should he—for delivering exactly what his audience wanted, but he did say that he “would change a few words that were cruder than they needed to be.” Uh… yeah. Also, Colbert is a major star, and male. He opened the next night with a rather smug “I’m your host, Stephen Colbert. Still? I am still the host? I’m still the host!!” He’ll be fine, whether he should be or not.

    Griffin’s case is, to me, far more interesting. Her “offense” consisted only of visual images, “across the line,” perhaps, but it’s difficult to believe she ever meant an actual threat to President Trump. There’s nothing more graphic about the photos of Griffin and the dummy head than about virtually any decent production of Macbeth in the last 400+ years or The Bacchae in 2400+ (Curmie came to this thought independently, but his netpal Jack Marshall got the Macbeth allusion in print first…). Griffin apologized in what has become a predictable mix of enforced obligation, self-serving spin, and a smidgeon of actual repentance. She’s right about one thing, though. Her career took a (short-term) hit. One certainly suspects that a has-been-who-never-really-was like Griffin took a chance: she had to know that the Toddler-in-Chief is pathologically incapable of not taking to Twitter at the slightest provocation. Usually, he embarrasses himself. This time, though, he was justified, and his usual ineptitude serves only to underscore the significance of his getting one right for a change. Yes, (as many anti-Trumpsters have argued) it would be just as awkward for young Barron to hear his father’s disgusting pussy-grabbing comments as to see Dad’s seemingly severed head (knowing it wasn’t real), but that doesn’t mean Griffin’s publicity stunt was ethical.

    Kathy Griffin should have been fired from New Year’s Eve coverage for her drunken incoherence last time out. She hasn’t said anything funny in about a decade. But CNN stuck with her. Of course, they had the legal right to fire her now for this little fracas, but it would be stupid to do so. So, of course, they did. She’s a D-lister. She’s female. And they’re cowards. Griffin’s career may take a short-term hit, but Curmie suspects she’ll get extra points for naughtiness in some quarters: she’ll have a different target audience, but she’ll be fine. If not, then the predictable leftie whining about gender discrimination may actually have merit this time.

    Bill Maher’s case is the most intriguing of all. The torches and pitchforks crowd is after him for using the “n-word.” This despite the fact that he applied it to himself, and that it was (whether Maher knew it or not) a literary reference to Gone with the Wind, a fact virtually none of the breathless press coverage deigned to mention. There’s something stagey about the delivery… had he primed Senator Sasse to mention working in the fields so he could come back with a clever retort? Could be. But what matters is that Maher is both more innocent and more guilty than Colbert or Griffin. Assuming the line was truly an ad lib, it’s far less pre-meditated than a scripted monologue or planned photo shoot, and therefore more forgivable. And, to the extent that it’s a literary allusion (and an apt one, given the set-up line), rendering it accurately matters.

    But still, “nigger,” however and by whomever applied, is a word used in the 21st century by white people in only two ways: quoted clinically/journalistically (as, for example, in this piece) or to shock. Maher clearly chose the second of these paths, and a veteran host/performer such as himself cannot have done so without a pretty good idea of what would happen. Yes, Maher fancies himself a lot smarter than he is, and yes, he relishes the role of gadfly. Still, there are unwritten but universally understood rules you just don’t break, and this is one of them.

    There are those, including Jack Marshall, who think that Maher, who has described female politicians with whom he disagrees as “cunts,” and who has shown more than a little Islamophobia over the years (and gotten away with it) may be in deeper trouble than he anticipated this time because whereas it’s okay to insult some constituencies (Republicans, religious minorities…), it’s not okay to do so to African-Americans. Maybe. Maher, who promised never to apologize for being politically incorrect, of course did indeed apologize—sort of—this time around. Whereas that marks him as, shall we say, a little less than a person of integrity, in purely pragmatic terms it may be enough to weather the storm. HBO will decide based on the only thing that matters to them: whether they think the gaffe (if that’s what it was) will cost them viewers, or whether any publicity is good publicity. Curmie’s guess is the latter.

    What makes all three of these cases interesting is that they seem to fall into a grey area. The perpetrators all did something dumb, but not—taken in isolation—so dumb that public censure and/or firing was literally their bosses’ only recourse. All of the comedians in question engaged in vulgarity of language or visual image not really to make a point, but rather to call attention to themselves. And their respective unwanted (we presume) notoriety could cost them. However, all three (especially the two men) are niche entertainers: they built their careers on a cadre of hard-core followers, not on engaging a wide spectrum of society. They’re Lenny Bruce, not Bob Hope, or even George Carlin. Their fans will remain their fans. And with Griffin—the (ahem) poorest of the three—checking in with a net worth of about $20 million, all for being not very funny and rather dumb, Curmie doubts that he’ll lose any sleep wondering whether they can scrounge a crust of bread to make it through the night.