Sunday, August 9, 2020

“Good Trouble” and the Canary in the Coalmine

Hannah Watters’s photo

Some stories are significant because they’re so singular: the explosion in Beirut this week is an example of this phenomenon. Some stories, on the other hand, are significant because everyone knows they represent the tip of the iceberg… or, in this case, the tip of multiple icebergs. And it returns Curmie to the erstwhile centerpiece of this blog: education, specifically idiots in charge.

Curmie wonders what the cumulative noun for school administrators is—you know, herd of buffalo, murder of crows, pod of dolphins… what for school administrators? A constipation? A harrumph? An idiocy? A Stasi? Well, anyway, a collection of these critters at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia decided on a set of rules that seem pretty much designed to suppress the rights of their students and to avoid any responsibility for their imperiousness. And then they decided to prove how unfit they are for positions of authority. 

To be fair, they were put in a tough position by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who is a contender, along with Iowa’s Kim Reynolds, for the title of Most Irresponsible Handling of the COVID-19 Pandemic by a Non-President. Let’s face it, if you’ve outpaced the likes of Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis for this… erm… distinction, you’re a LOT longer on arrogance than on sense. Kemp has not only not ordered a statewide mandate to wear masks; he has forbidden local jurisdictions from doing so. It’s unclear (to Curmie, at least) whether an individual school or school district could enforce a requirement should they choose to do so; the school’s own rhetoric suggests they could. North Paulding officials were undoubtedly pressured (at least) into re-opening with no regard for student and staff safety: this doesn’t let them off the hook, especially for the real thrust of this essay. 

As anyone who has ever been in a high school knows—hell, as anyone who has ever seen one of the zillions of movies, plays, or television series about high school knows—the changeover time between classes approaches bedlam, with virtually every student in the school (at North Paulding, that’s normally well over 2000 of them) spilling into cramped corridors and staircases. The chances of physical distancing are precisely those of Curmie voting for Loony Louie Gohmert in November: zero. Plus, of course, a significant number of them, whether on their own adolescent initiative or at the behest of troglodyte parental units, aren’t wearing masks. It doesn’t help that School Board President Jeff Fuller, holder of a BS in Political Science, thinks he knows more about epidemiology than people with… you know… relevant credentials, and declared CDC guidance “complete crap.” It should also be noted that several members of the football team had already tested positive, a staff member who was exhibiting symptoms (!) came into contact with most of the faculty, and there weren’t enough slots available in the school’s virtual learning program. Parents who mistakenly assumed the school would give a shit about its students and faculty enforce masks and social distancing guidelines missed the artificially imposed deadline to enroll their children in the virtual program. 

And so the school forged ahead with on-site classes. Students who didn’t get into the virtual program were told they face expulsion if they don’t attend in person. The school, by the way, would neither confirm nor deny the positive test of that staff member. Note: it’s hardly a violation of individual privacy to admit that yes, “a staff member” has been infected. They’re weaseling around trying to claim they’re concerned about literally anything but their public reputation, denying responsibility for the effects of their own actions. Certainly the safety of all concerned doesn’t seem to have been very high on their list of concerns. 

I know, I know, death tolls from the Rona for those under 24 are much lower than for old farts like Curmie, and masks aren’t a foolproof protection, especially for the wearer. Here is where Curmie offers apologies in advance: few people find their way to this blog without having an understanding of the basics of all the standard liberal arts subjects, including (in this case) history and biology. But let’s consider a few facts: 

1. There are other negative outcomes than just fatalities. True, the only personal friend of Curmie’s to have died from COVID-19 so far was in his seventies and already in poor health. (He still didn’t deserve to die!) But the number of Curmie’s former students, none of them as much as half his age, to have tested positive is now in double figures. (And they’re just the ones he knows about.) Several have/had serious symptoms for over a month. Two, at least, will have permanent damage to vital organs: one to her heart, one to her lungs. This is no hoax. 

2. There are other people in schools than students: teachers and staff are people, too… although there was that one gym teacher Curmie wasn’t so sure about. Some of them are in high risk demographics because of age, general health, height (!), or specific medical conditions.  Others have high-risk family members at home.

3. Students have families to whom they might spread the disease. Parents tend to be older than their offspring, and grandparents even older than that. Duh. 

4. COVID is highly contagious, and can be spread by people who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. (Typhoid Mary, anyone?) 

5. The medical community is virtually unanimous that wearing a mask and staying at least six feet away from others is the most effective means of controlling the spread of the virus. This professional opinion is particularly prevalent among immunologists, epidemiologists, cardiologists, and pulmonologists, so Curmie doesn’t really give a flying fuck what Jim-Bob on Facebook or even ophthalmologist Rand Paul have to say on the matter.

On to the specifics. Student Hannah Watters took a photo (seen above) and a video of the congestion in the hallways on the first day of classes (Monday) and posted them on Twitter. Someone else, @Freeyourmindkid, reposted the following day, and the posts turned viral. By Wednesday noontime, Hannah was called into the office and handed a five-day suspension for violating the school’s code of conduct, which, as we all know, Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. She was suspended for five days… actually something of a blessing that she wouldn’t be exposing herself and by extension her family to the virus, but still a bad mark on her record, etc., etc., etc. 

Her alleged violations (you can see the legalese in the linked article): 

1. Using a cellphone without permission.
2. Accessing Twitter during school hours without permission.
3. Using recording equipment with permission. Of special note: this provision seems specifically designed to prohibit “record[ing] misbehavior.” Nope, nothing to hide, these people. Nope.

For the record: Ms. Watters is, as a student in grades 9-12, permitted to use her phone when not specifically in class. Her Twitter post happened outside school hours. We’ve been here before, Curmiphiles. The good news is that we have a school that seems to acknowledge that except in exceptional circumstances they have no right to interfere in the private lives and communications of their students outside school hours. The bad news is that they seem perfect willing to lie (or, more charitably, to pay no heed to facts) in order to do precisely that. So there’s one legitimate complaint. 

Ms. Watters was apparently told (or perhaps misunderstood) that the problem was distributing photos of underage kids without consent, but that doesn’t seem to be the real issue here. There’s a law, intended to protect victims of child pornography, which is (of course) sometimes misapplied by schools and other agencies, but surely every small-town newspaper in the country runs photos of the fans at the local high school football game. It’s not that, at least not legitimately. 

Documenting “misbehaviors,” the specific target of the policy in question, is, if Curmie might be permitted a grad-school term, vexed. On the one hand, Curmie is not a fan of narcs. On the other hand, he is a fan of whistle-blowers. Curmie would argue that Hannah Watters was functioning in the latter capacity in this case. You, Gentle Reader, are free to disagree. But what matters is that this is an area that calls for discretion, which (needless to say) was not exercised. The school argues pragmatism for both the hallway congestion and the lack of a mandate for mask-wearing. In the former instance, they have a case. There’s simply no way to transport that many students from room to room in a matter of a few minutes other than what we see in that photograph. School officials are correct in noting that the changeovers are brief and unavoidable. Saying the photograph is “taken out of context,” however, is nonsense. The photo shows precisely the reality on the ground, and everyone who has ever been to high school except in the most rural areas knows it. 

According to analysis at Georgia Tech, any gathering of 100 people in Paulding County right now is 92% likely to include someone infected by the virus; it’s over 99% for groups of 500. Even with a significant portion of the student population staying home and attending virtually, there are roughly 1700 students in those hallways at a given moment: the chances that one of those kids is infectious approaches ontological certitude… and a single cough or sneeze could (not to be confused with “would”) infect hundreds. (UPDATE: yesterday, the Saturday after the first week of classes, an Atlanta TV station ran a report that six students and three staff members who had been in the school last week had now tested positive.) 

All of which brings us to the use of masks. Ms. Watters claims that, on average, well under half the students in her classes were wearing masks. She tracked twelve meetings (classes or advisement): the percentages ranged from a high of 57% to a low of 29%. Of course, the school claims that mandating mask usage is unenforceable. Bullshit. The problem isn’t that they couldn’t enforce such a requirement; it’s that they won’t. (Side note: it appears that Curmie’s current employer will open for business-as-sort-of-usual in a couple of weeks. But masks are mandatory except in one’s own private office or outside if physical distancing can be maintained. Faculty can ask offending students to leave the classroom, and to call the university police if the student won’t comply.) 

Moreover, you can bet that girls at North Paulding will still get sent home for wearing spaghetti straps or short skirts… in Georgia… in August. These deeply sexist dress codes are founded on the principle that boys can’t concentrate if they can see girls’ thighs, midriffs, cleavage, or (OMG!) shoulders, and it’s the girls’ fault. Curmie went to high school in the days of the miniskirt, and can’t remember a time in a 40-year college/university teaching career (including ten years at church-affiliated institutions) when a week would go by without some young woman wearing something that would get her sent home from North Paulding High. Somehow, Curmie and indeed all the other males (and interested others) in the room managed to stay on task. Moreover, I suspect that learning my classmate will have permanent organ damage because I behaved like a privileged asshole might affect my concentration more than a glimpse of female shoulders would. There’s no mask mandate solely because school administrators are idiots, cowards, or sociopaths. (Curmie notes that these terms are not mutually exclusive.) 

To be fair to the braintrust at North Paulding, they’re the canary in the coalmine. They’re not more reckless, more hypocritical, more craven, more hubristic, or more disingenuous than hundreds if not thousands of other schools across the country trying to achieve normalcy when that’s just not possible. They’re not worse than the others; they just got there first. And Hannah Watters goes to their school. She repeats the famous invocation of “good trouble, necessary trouble.” Somewhere, John Lewis is nodding and smiling.

Monday, August 3, 2020

AOC, Father Damien, and Patriarchal White Supremacy

About the only Democrat making news these days is the ever-controversial Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). Joe Biden, following the advice of (at least one of) Sun Tzu, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Paul Begala, seems content to stay out of the spotlight and not interrupt as the Trump administration self-destructs (unfortunately, it’s taking the country with him, and Biden isn’t exactly the guy to reverse the trend). His potential running mates are similarly MIA, fearing, no doubt, a gaffe that would derail their candidacy. Biden’s own struggles with coherence are to be excused, of course: at least he’s better than the alternative, and “we’re idiots and charlatans, but we’re not as bad as those guys” seems to have become the rallying cry of the Democratic Party.

Best known of the members of “The Squad” of first-term liberal Democratic Congresswomen, AOC represents what Howard Dean used to call “the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.” She is an agitator, and as such has both more wins (her ritual disemboweling of Ted Yoho on the floor of the House, for example) and losses (describing the Pentagon’s budget total as the increase in that budget, for example). This week, Representative Ocasio-Cortez posted the following on her Instagram page:
Even when we select figures to tell the stories of colonized places, it is the colonizers and settlers whose stories are told – and virtually no one else. Check out Hawaii’s statue. It’s not Queen Lili’uokalani of Hawaii, the only Queen Regnant of Hawaii, who is immortalized and whose story is told. It is Father Damien. This isn’t to litigate each and every individual statue, but to point out the patterns that have emerged among the totality of them in who we are taught to deify in our nation’s Capitol: virtually all men, all white, and mostly both. This is what patriarchy and white supremacist culture looks like! It’s not radical or crazy to understand the influence white supremacist culture has historically had in our overall culture & how it impacts the present day.
I know, shocking, right? It’s obvious (well, it’s obvious to an objective observer) that she’s simply using an example to illustrate a larger point; she’s not attacking Father Damien’s worthiness, merely pointing out that given a choice between a white man (even a non-American!) and an indigenous woman, the powers-that-be opted for the former. It’s equally obvious that she could have picked a better illustration of her larger point. As Simcha Fisher writes, “As often happens with AOC, she wasn’t wrong, but she also managed to say something true in a way that you have to work to defend.”

On the one hand, there are 102 officially recognized sculptures in the National Statuary Hall Collection: two chosen by each state, one by the District of Columbia, and one (Rosa Parks) not linked to a particular location. If Curmie’s quick perusal is correct, 85 are of white men. The only state with two BIPOC representatives is New Mexico, which chose Popé, the leader of a 17th century Pueblo revolt against the Spanish, and Dennis Chávez, the nation’s first Hispanic to win a full term in the US Senate. So it’s pretty easy to make a case that the statues, taken in aggregate, suggest a disproportionate interest in the contributions of white men. The argument isn’t that these men aren’t worthy (although some aren’t), but that they are not more worthy than people with more melanin or fewer Y chromosomes. Unfortunately, of course, AOC’s initial post only hints at what subsequent statements from her office make clear, that she considers Father Damien an important figure and a great man, but that’s not what she’s talking about:
Fr. Damien conducted acts of great good, and his is a story worth telling. It is still worthy for us to examine from a US history perspective why a non-Hawaiian, non-American was chosen as the statue to represent Hawaii in the Capitol over other Hawaiian natives who conducted great acts of good, and why so few women and people of color are represented in Capitol statues at all.
Naturally, if even an active misreading of Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks could serve as red meat for the right-wing press, desperate for anything vaguely political that doesn’t demonstrate just how venal, incompetent, and mendacious the GOP has become in the days of Trump, they’re all over it. In this instance, they could also count on the righteous indignation of the Catholic Church, eager to make headlines for something other than diddling altar boys. It’s also interesting to note that whereas Joe Biden is the de facto leader of the Democratic Party right now, the attack dogs are focusing primarily on AOC, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and (still) Hillary Clinton. Gee, I wonder what those people have in common, and why would a bunch of beneficiaries of patriarchal white supremacy choose these folks in particular for derision?

Of course, AOC is a politician, and as such craves notoriety. She could have chosen a far less revered figure than Father Damien to serve as the example of patriarchy and white supremacy. In a way, her follow-up point is more thought-provoking this way, but that’s only for the people who didn’t tune her out after the original post. She has something legitimate to say, but the story became about her, not her message. That’s a tactic for the other guys.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Senator Cotton, “Necessary Evil,” and Correcting the Correction

Curmie has been doing a different kind of writing of late—you know, like… his job—so the blog hasn’t been active for a couple of weeks. There have obviously been a lot of potential subjects: the continuing COVID-19 response incompetence; the misreporting of events in (especially) Portland and the still not completely identified goon squads (feds? mercenaries?) trampling on the Constitution; the upcoming election… But what interests me most, for a variety of reasons, is Senator Tom Cotton’s comment about slavery as a “necessary evil.” Well, sort of.

Senator Cotton

Senator Cotton

The brouhaha—or at least this manifestation of it—began with the New York Times’s controversial 1619 Project, a revisioning of American history which treats the de facto beginning of the country not as of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but rather with the arrival in the New World of the first slave ship in… well, 1619. Senator Cotton, to say the least, is not a fan. He recently proposed legislation to withhold federal funding from schools which use the 1619 Project. Of course, like “defund” in the unfortunate slogan “Defund the Police,” “withhold” in the previous sentence really means “reduce.” The proposal would make schools adopting the 1619 Project ineligible for federal professional development funds. The logic of preventing the biology teacher from getting better because the history teacher chooses to partake of a free resource that a politician in another state doesn’t like is not readily apparent, but there you go.

According to an article in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, federal funds would also be reduced on a pro-rated basis, according to “cost associated with teaching the 1619 Project, including in planning time and teaching time.” Given the fact that use of the Project per se is free, we’re talking about… what? Curmie can’t predict how much time an individual school would spend on the 1619 Project, but he did a little rough guessing based on his old high school’s faculty size and current budget. Assuming every American History course spent two weeks doing nothing else but the 1619 Project, and we pro-rate the salaries of those teachers accordingly, we’re looking at about 2/100 of 1% of the district’s budget. In other words, a penny per $50.00. Even if Curmie’s guesses are off by a factor of 10, he doubts that many districts would file for financial exigency on this basis alone. Moreover, the legislation appears to have little traction even in the Republican Senate; it would be DOA in the Democratic House.

Indeed, Senator Cotton admits that the exercise, even if by some miracle it were to be signed into law, is little more than symbolic: “It won’t be much money. But even a penny is too much to go to the 1619 Project in our public schools.” So Senator Cotton is, depending on your point of view, standing up for principal… or just grandstanding. But what really caught headlines this summer was a statement Senator Cotton made in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat Gazette (linked above). Here’s the full paragraph:
We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.
And now the fun begins. A lot of media, especially but not exclusively of the left-leaning variety, seized on the “slavery was a necessary evil” phrase, attributing it to Cotton. Here are links to CNN, The Guardian, even Business Insider, for example. Trouble is: he didn’t say that. He said that the Founding Fathers said it. Actually, of course, they didn’t actually say that, but some may well have believed it.  Of course, they weren’t exactly of a single mind. The Southerners—Washington, Jefferson, Lee, et al.--may have thought in those terms; indeed, over 70% of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave-owners. Others, however, not only didn’t own slaves themselves, but were, either at the time of the Declaration or thereafter, active abolitionists. President Lincoln did indeed make an argument akin to what Senator Cotton attributes to him. In one of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, he says this:
I say in the way our fathers originally left the slavery question, the institution was in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind rested in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. I say when this government was first established it was the policy of the founders to prohibit the spread of slavery into the new territories of the United States, where it had not existed.
It’s quite a step from there to argue that the Founding Fathers intentionally put slavery on the path to extinction, but we’ll let that slide. And, of course, Senator Cotton was righteously indignant that anyone would accuse him of arguing in favor of that necessity, tweeting: “More lies from the debunked 1619 Project. Describing the *views of the Founders* and how they put the evil institution on a path to extinction, a point frequently made by Lincoln, is not endorsing or justifying slavery. No surprise that the 1619 Project can't get facts right.” Perhaps Senator Cotton will someday learn not to bring a peashooter to a knife fight. That time has not yet arrived.

We turn now to Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-winning journalist behind the 1619 Project. Here’s her reply tweet: You said, quote: ‘As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.’ That ‘as’ denotes agreement. Further, if by path to extinction you mean growing the enslaved poP from 500k to 4 million at Civil War, a war fought over slavery, then, ok.” And, since Ms. Hannah-Jones beats me to this argument: yes, “as” does indeed denote agreement. Leaving that word out would have rendered Cotton’s arguments merely historically problematic. As it is, whether he has sufficient command of English grammar and rhetoric to realize it or not, what he’s actually doing is using the alleged beliefs of the Founding Fathers as authority for his assertion of “necessary evil.”

To be fair, Tom Cotton’s intellectual superiority to wilted lettuce is not statistically significant, so he might just not be able to write coherently: a failure that would link him even more closely with a certain other Twittering twit. It may be that “as” was a misprint (Curmie often neglects to delete all the remnants of an abandoned sentence structure; he understands). Or maybe it’s a Freudian slip: a little truth about Cotton’s own attitude that slipped out unconsciously while he was desperately grasping for high moral ground. Or maybe, just maybe, Senator Cotton said exactly what he meant, making him a lousy historian, a racist asshole, and an opportunist pol in a party looking for its next generation of despicable “leaders.” Oh, and a liar. Mustn’t forget that.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Facebook and Other Censorious Asshats

Curmie is indebted to Ken White at Popehat for the term “censorious asshat” that serves as part of the title of this piece.

Here’s the deal. When Curmie awoke this morning he checked in with Facebook, as usual. One of Curmie’s posts on the Facebook page had been deemed “false” by “an independent fact-checker,” specifically by that paradigm of journalistic mediocrity, USA Today. The offending meme, riffing on the anti-maskers, shows a soldier carrying a donkey across a field. The cutline reads:
This picture is from World War II, a soldier carrying a donkey. It is not that the soldier loves donkeys or has some sort of perversion. What’s happening is that the field is mined and that if the donkey was allowed to wonder [sic.] as it pleased, it would likely detonate a charge and kill everyone. The moral of the story is that during difficult times the first ones you have to keep under control are the jackasses who don’t understand the danger and do as they please.
Ah, but the geniuses who have no understanding of humor decided to point out that the photo wasn’t really from World War II. [I know, the horror!] OK, first off, Curmie doubts that anyone looking at that meme, especially anyone seeing it on Curmie’s page (I attract a pretty intelligent clientele, if I do say so myself), unquestioningly believed that the details provided in the meme were literal fact. They existed not to be regarded as truth, but to set up a joke. No one cares that it was really the French in Algeria, or even that the field wasn’t actually mined. Seriously, if we were talking about a gag that starts “A priest walks into a bar,” these morons would feel compelled to point out that there’s no solid evidence of such an event, that all we know is that the man was dressed as a priest, that it’s true that he entered but we don’t know if he walked, and really, it was more of a pub than a bar. Curmie also awaits Facebook’s revelation that Abraham Lincoln didn’t really say not to believe everything you see on the Internet.

Curmie would be pleased to send them all a box of laxative and get on with his day, except that having the post labelled as “false” means that Curmie’s posts, already seldom seen by more than 10% of the people who like his page, will show up on the feeds of even fewer folks who don’t actively seek out his posts. Oh, by the way, the photo you see here: taken from someone else’s Facebook page; there’s no disclaimer on that page. Ah, equity…

This is, by the way, the third time Curmie’s posts have been questioned. In one of the other cases, Curmie did post something from a clearly partisan source that seemed at the time to be a little devoid of context. It was not intentionally misleading (on my part, at least), and indeed the “ruling” from the Grand Poobahs of fact-checking was only “partly false.” Still, it was a moment of intellectual laziness, and Curmie was rightly dinged for it.

The other time, Curmie posted something that looked interesting but a little suspicious: and he said so, specifically requesting his readers who knew more about the subject would help separate fact from fiction. Ah, but he posted something that turned out to be incompletely contextualized (fact-checkers care about context when it suits them to do so; otherwise, they’re the quintessence of literality). The fact that Curmie labelled it as questionable is irrelevant to the bot that enforces the “rulings” of PolitiFact (or whoever). [Note: Curmie has had his issues with PolitiFact in particular for some time. See here, here, and here, for example.]

Of course, there’s one category of posters who aren’t subject to Facebook’s faux interest in the truth: politicians and their minions. It’s right there on FB’s self-righteous ”Business Help Center” page:
Posts and ads from politicians are generally not subjected to fact-checking. In evaluating when this applies we ask our fact-checking partners to look at politicians at every level. This means candidates running for office, current office holders - and, by extension, many of their cabinet appointees - along with political parties and their leaders.
Why, you ask? Well, free speech, of course! A candidate for office is even allowed to post outright lies: “If a claim is made directly by a politician on their Page, in an ad or on their website, it is considered direct speech and ineligible for our third party fact checking program — even if the substance of that claim has been debunked elsewhere.” Riiiiiiiiiiight. Trump or Biden or their respective parties can repeat nonsense that was proven to be false months ago—and a). it’s actual mendacity rather than a misinterpretation or an unintentional omission of context, and b). the falseness of the statement is actually relevant—but the likes of Curmie will be censured because a joke meme misidentifies a soldier in a way that doesn’t change a thing.

Still, not to worry. Surely only three such instances (even if two of them shouldn’t count at all) over a period of several months shouldn’t make much difference, right? Well, this is Facebook, so who knows.

But the day’s saga doesn’t end there, Gentle Reader. It’s Thursday, and Curmie has taken to posting reminders on Wednesday or Thursday to remind Curmiphiles to vote for the Political Asshole of the Week. So I went to the Facebook page to re-post last Saturday’s link. Gone. Indeed, Sunday’s post had disappeared, as well. In fact, I can’t post anything from this blog, either to the Curmudgeon Central page or on my own personal page. Of course, I received literally no notification that (or when) the posts had been removed. When I went to post directly from the blog to either of my Facebook personae’s pages, I got a pop-up that said it was a violation of Facebook’s community standards. That’s it. Nothing more specific than that, and not just the inability to post a particular article, but to post literally anything from manjushri924.blogspot.com. I honestly have no idea what’s going on. Curmie has never advocated violence or criminality, and whereas there’s some adult language now and then, the blog itself is behind a warning that “This post may contain sensitive content.” You’ve got to say you’re OK with that to see the posts themselves.

Were I of a cynical disposition, of course (perish the thought!), I’d suspect that some pol who got nominated as Political Asshole of the Week decided to throw his weight around. Oh, by the way, the fun folks at Opinion Stage shut down the poll because it’s been seen too many times? Yeah, right. The days when Blogspot had their own polling apparatus are missed. Or perhaps it’s time to migrate to another platform? We shall see…

Anyway, readership here will likely go down, as Facebook has been the principal means by which most readers find their way here. But Curmie writes mostly for himself, anyway, to keep his writing skills sharp and to clarify his own thinking on matters of the day. And who knows? Maybe someday Curmie will be told what exactly is so offensive about this blog, so he can either fix it or tell Zuckerberg to perform an action best suited to particularly limber hermaphrodites. In the meantime, Curmie will try to revive his dormant Twitter account to announce his blog posts, to continue to post to his Facebook page but list this page as manjushri924 dot blogspot dot com in doing so, and to urge you to follow this page directly. Oh, and to try to figure out how to do the Political Asshole of the Week poll without having to pay for it.


Sunday, July 12, 2020

Free Will and the Craven (Ex-)Congresscritters

The Canadian rock group Rush was never one of Curmie’s favorites. He didn’t dislike them, but there are no Rush CDs on Curmie’s shelf, nor any of their songs on his Spotify “starred” list. Their stuff seems to be a favorite of the local classic rock station, however: enough so that it’s not unlikely that one of their songs will show up on the car radio during Curmie’s commute.

And so it is that one of the group’s better songs in Curmie’s opinion was fresh in his mind when he read about Republican Congresscritters who were so terrified of the Tangerine Tribble that they capitulated to his every perverse idea, lest (OMG, the horror!) they be faced with a primary challenge.  The song, as you may well have already surmised, is “Free Will.” It has a two-stanza chorus, the first of which follows:
You can choose a ready guide
In some celestial voice
If you choose not to decide
You still have made a choice
Yes, inaction is a choice, especially when it’s your job to act. Whereas Curmie has no doubt that the POTUS is a petty, vindictive, and (of course) powerful little fecal accretion, he can muster precisely zero sympathy for these sniveling toadies. They are sworn to preserve the Constitution, to place the welfare of the nation foremost in their list of priorities. They’re now admitting that they didn’t do that. 

Dave Trott: “retired" Congresscritter
Over seventy years ago, at the Nuremberg trials, some defendants argued that they were just following orders: “Befehl ist Befehl” (an order is an order). Many of these ex-military officers would literally have been risking their lives had they disobeyed an order… and yet the so-called Nuremberg Defense was rejected except as a mitigating factor in the punishment phase.

The fact that the fear is of a primary challenge rather than a general election loss is also telling: they come from safe, quite possibly gerrymandered, districts. They are the product of corruption, and they chose not to bite the hand that feeds… until that same iniquitous system might be used against them, of course.

This little posse of whiners could have actually done some good. They could have represented the ideals of the country and of their party. They could have prevented at least part of the Trumpster Fire of incompetence, cronyism, and venality we as a nation have suffered of late. But no. They were concerned about their “careers.” Dancing attendance on a petulant, mendacious and dim-witted wannabe dictator is a career? What would being an amoral drudge look like, then?

Maybe Curmie fails to understand because he’s publicly voted in the minority, often alone, more times than he can count. He was the sole “nay” in a roomful of over 200 “yeas” on one occasion… at least a dozen people told him that if “[they’d] known someone else was going to object, [they] would have, too.” Curmie doesn’t work that way. Compromise and consensus are good things, but they aren’t divine. If it’s the best we can do and it’s acceptable even if flawed, OK. But fatally flawed is fatally flawed… and as we can see in the coronavirus response, sometimes the word “fatally” is literal.

Curmie does understand, though, that sometimes it’s hard to stand up to authority, to speak truth to power. There are certainly moments when deciding a particular hill isn’t worth dying on is a function more of pragmatism than of cowardice. Curmie has been making a lot of those decisions lately, mostly as his white liberal friends indulge in orgies of self-flagellating virtue signaling. But most of the time another factor is that most of us never get any real say in how policy is decided. There’s “input,” which if it’s other than sycophancy, is promptly ignored, and which is likely to lead to ostracism and possibly exile from even the insignificant pockets of political power to which we’d previously had access. But these GOP pols had a vote. They could have at least been true to their own ideals. They chose instead to meekly bow to the schoolyard bully.

Moreover, presumably these are people who could be successful in other fields—in business and law, mostly, both of which professions pay better than the Congresscritter’s salary. There really are worse fates than not being in Congress. “Retiring,” of course, is the chicken’s way out. Um, “If I was still there and speaking out against the president, what would happen to me?” Seriously? Did you think you were going to be disappeared à la the KGB? Speak your truth. But, no. You don’t actually stand for anything. Just like your colleagues in the Senate who could have said “no” to the obviously unqualified Bret Kavanaugh, who could have examined the evidence in the McConnell-engineered farce that was the impeachment trial, who could have insisted on recognizing the threat posed by COVID-19 once it was manifest to all and sundry: you have no political philosophy other than your own short-term interest.

You are contemptible. Not as bad as Trump, but neither is Sauron.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Political Asshole(s) of the Week: 3rd edition

Curmophiles have determined, by the narrowest of margins, that the new Political Assholes of the Week (candidates here) are that collection of governors who, through a literally fatal combination of arrogance, privilege, and political cowardice, refused to order the wearing of masks, social distancing, etc., in the face of a pandemic that is ravaging the country. Curmie wants to be sure each of these craven hacks gets due recognition, so here’s at least a short list of the worthy Political Asshole of the Week recipients: John Bel Edwards (D-LA), Steve Bullock (D-MT), Doug Ducey (R-AZ), Gary Herbert (R-UT), Asa Hutchinson (R-AR), Kay Ivey (R-AL), Jim Justice (R-WV), Bill Lee (R-TN), Henry McMaster (R-SC), Kristi Noem (R-SD). Please note that some of these folks are guiltier than others, and that some may have seen at least a glimmer of light in the last week.

It should be noted, too, that Senator Paul received more total votes than the governors did: combine his solo nomination with the one for the entire GOP Senate majority, and he’d have outdistanced the governors. So he gets a Special Dishonorable Mention.

Nino Vitale: stupid, insane, or just grandstanding?
And so we move on to this week’s candidates, remembering that the obvious choice—a certain corrupt asshole who commuted the already inadequate sentence of one of his gaggle of mendacious minions—is ineligible, because otherwise no one else would ever get a chance. So let us return to the subject of COVID-19. It’s difficult to imagine anyone who better fits the title of Political Asshole of the Week than Nino Vitale, a member of the Ohio House of Representatives. From this distance, it’s difficult to determine if Vitale is stupider than skunk shit, hearing voices from the planet Looneytunes, or he’s just another third-rate party hack trying to get his name in the paper, whatever the cost. Curmie guesses the answer is a little of all three with an emphasis on the last, but can’t be sure.

Vitale asks, “Are you tired of living in a dictatorship yet?”. Well, actually, yes, Curmie would prefer to live in country in which someone convicted of multiple felonies can’t have his sentence commuted by the guy he was trying to protect by that perjury and obstruction. Such an event bears a little more resemblance to dictatorship than does the slight inconvenience caused by making you wear a mask so as not to inadvertently kill your friends and neighbors.

Vitale also demands, in junior high level hysterical all capital letters no less, that people not get tested. No rationale offered.  He continues: “Have you noticed they never talk about deaths anymore, just cases? And they never talk about recoveries. They just keep adding to numbers they have been feeding us from over 3 months ago!” Gee, do you suppose that the numbers are going up because that’s what numbers do when you’re counting things? “Recoveries”? Yes, there are over a million Americans who have “recovered”; that’s in part because recoveries include people who have been released from the hospital, but who may have lingering health issues, including permanent damage to lungs and other vital organs. Curmie has a couple of friends in that category, and is a little loath to consider them truly “recovered.” As for not talking about deaths—well, here Curmie can help you out, you duplicitous little turd: over 4000 Americans died from COVID-19 in the last week. Indeed, literally every week since late March has had a death toll from this virus that exceeded that of 9/11. Over 3000 of your fellow Ohioans have died from the virus; 47 of those fatalities were reported on the day you made your moronic Facebook post.

Whether or not Representative Vitale becomes Political Asshole of the Week, he does make Curmie embarrassed for the species.

Texas GOP: they don't really care even about their own.
Next up: the Texas Republican Party, which sued the mayor of Houston for protecting its rank and file delegates to the state convention. This is outrageous enough on its own, but it’s important to take it in context. Earlier in the week the state GOP decided to move forward with an in-person conference despite the state’s surging infection and death tolls and Houston’s being a hotspot for the virus, with demand for ICU units outstripping supply. Ah, but the actual politicians—Governor Greg Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, and similar people of privilege—would be addressing the crowd of 6000 or so virtually. The rationale: “to focus all the attention on the business of the meeting and to get everybody in and out of here as quickly and as safely as possible.” Curmie need hardly tell you, Gentle Reader, that this is politics-speak for “we’re willing to risk the health and safety of other people, even our loyal supporters… but not ourselves.”

So now they think they can make some cheap political points for saying that Houston’s Democratic mayor is somehow discriminating against them because we wants to keep them and their families (and yes, Houstonians working in the hotels, bars, and restaurants they’d frequent) safe and well by disallowing an in-person convention. The key point here is that the top brass, whose mendacity is matched only by their cravenness, weren’t going to be there anyway, because they recognized the danger. Few events in recent history have so encapsulated the hubris of Republicans in power as this act of raging hypocrisy.

Speaking of hypocritical Texas Republicans (there’s another kind?), we turn now to our third nominee, Senator Ted Cruz. In a different week, Sen. Cruz might have had to struggle for the nomination against his colleague John Cornyn, whose completely inane comments about not knowing whether children can get and transmit the coronavirus even though over 1700 children have been diagnosed just in Texas marks him as either an idiot or a liar (psssssst: he’s both). But we’re trying to keep one slot open for non-COVID-related stories, so ol’ Rafael sneaks in, barely ahead of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose “People will do what they do” reply to a question about toppling a statue of Christopher Columbus at least had the mitigating factors of being impromptu and decontextualized. (Still pretty bad, though.)

Ted Cruz, hypocrite.  Some things don’t change.
Anyway, back to Ted Cruz. Here’s the thing. Boycotting major corporations is largely ineffective. Curmie used to buy three or four chicken sandwiches a month from Chik-fil-A; he hasn’t had any Hate Chicken in several years. He’s probably withheld between maybe $150 from them in gross sales any given year of late. And… let’s see… they bring in a little over $10 billion a year, so Curmie has punished them to the tune of (assuming Curmie didn’t misplace a decimal point somewhere) about 15 ten-millionths of 1% of their revenue. Take that, billionaire Cathy family!

But it’s certainly Curmie’s right to make that decision, which, after all, is far more to make him feel better about himself than to punish the corporation. And it’s equally fine for other groups of people not to support Nike, or Target, or Hobby Lobby, or Starbucks, or whatever. We can agree or disagree with each other’s motives, but we cannot deny each other’s right to buy or not buy Product X or Service Y even for idiosyncratic reasons. You understand that, Gentle Reader, as does Curmie. Ted Cruz does not.

When, a year ago, Cruz himself made a big show of boycotting Nike, that, you see, was exercising free speech. (It was.) But now, when the Goya Foods CEO made some fawning comments about President Trump and the Twittersphere erupted with calls to boycott the company, that response is an attempt to “silence free speech.” Senator Cruz has an understanding of the Constitution that would be embarrassing in a junior high kid. Free speech isn’t defined by whether Senator Cruz (or Curmie, or anyone else) agrees with it. Nor does it guarantee freedom from repercussions. It’s simply a protection against governmental interference. If you proffer a stupid opinion, you can’t go to jail for it. That doesn’t mean I have to keep buying your garbanzo beans. (Of course, for Curmie to stop doing so, he’d first have to start…)

Of course, the idea that Ted Cruz is a hypocritical asshole has been obvious for years to anyone paying attention. But is he the Political Asshole of the Week? That, Gentle Readers, is for you to decide.

EDIT: Something went wonky with the poll. I'm calling it off early this time.

Friday, July 10, 2020

International Students and Breaking the ICE

I know; I know. Curmie said he wouldn’t write about the Trump administration, but this is my blog, my rules, and I can break ‘em if I want to. And not only is higher education my turf, but I’m the unofficial coordinator for my department’s international programs. So when the Sphincter Posse at ICE announced that they’d be hunting down international students and trying to deport them if their university decides to go all-online, Curmie turned Mama Bear. Coming after my cubs is explicitly contra-indicated.

The policy change is a familiar one to Curmie, whose life in academia is peopled with a fair number of mid-level administrators whose principal raison d’être is to justify their own existence. So it appears to be with ICE, who are pretty much admitting one of three things: that they don’t really have anything to do, they haven’t a clue how to do their jobs, or they just like throwing their weight around and couldn’t care less about justice. Any way you slice it, patrolling the area anywhere near the southern border and harassing anyone with a “z” or a tilde in their surname just isn’t enough to keep these little weasels occupied. (As usual, Curmie means no disrespect in this nomenclature to actual fauna of the genus Mustela.)

We can expect little else than than petty xenophobia from this administration, and to the feeble minds of the policy-makers the only thing worse than a “foreigner” is a smart one. Curmie gets that. He understands, too, in the words of a Friend of Curmie, “the cruelty is the point.” After all, why else would anyone want to join a notoriously brutal, racist, self-important organization if not to be, well, brutal, racist, and self-important? And we can guess that the students who’ll be the first to be harassed won’t have surnames like Smith or Saunders, but rather Yang, Muhammad, or Lopez. 

It’s asking a bit much of an administration founded on jingoism and testosterone poisoning to show any evidence of ethics, but at least some recognition of the pragmatics of the situation wouldn’t come amiss. Students have no say, none, in whether their university holds face-to-face classes or goes exclusively online, yet they’re the ones left hanging if the university makes a decision which, while not necessarily an obvious choice, is certainly a reasonable one.

In many cases, the students are already in the country and literally can’t go home, as a number of countries are closing their borders to people coming from the US, so incompetent is our handling of the crisis. We’ve already talked about some of the numbers in previous posts here, for instance; no need to repeat them. Let’s just say: they’re bad. Other students aren’t here yet, but have non-refundable plane tickets and apartment deposits. Still others, if they leave under threat of deportation, might not be able to return. Plus, of course, if there’s no face-to-face instruction, the majority of international students won’t want to be here anyway, unless they effectively have no choice. And we mustn’t forget the mountain of red tape to cut through for universities and students alike—and Curmie thought it was the Dems who liked governmental paperwork for its own sake. Guess not.

Of course, Harvard and M.I.T. promptly sued the government to stop the rule from going into effect. This is good news from two points of view. First, someone is standing up to governmental bullying and grandstanding. Harvard President Lawrence Bacow sums up the basis for the suit:
The order came down without notice—its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness. It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.
The University of California at Berkeley announced plans for their own suit, with outgoing President Janet Napolitano describing the Trump administration’s action as “mean-spirited, arbitrary and damaging to America.” She further describes the policy as “illegal, unnecessary and callous.” Of course, she’s right: outrageousness, interference in university operations, and cruelty for its own sake were the obvious goals of this initiative. They’re not collateral damage; they’re the goal.

Equally important is who is taking up the fight. Harvard, M.I.T., and Berkeley are three of the most prestigious universities not merely in the country, but in the world. More to the point, they have deep pockets and high-powered legal teams. Less than 48 hours after the announcement of the policy change, the two Boston area institutions had filed a 24-page lawsuit. Curmie can’t write that fast even when he’s already done the research. That means either that these guys (those would be non-gender specific “guys”) are really good, or they anticipated that the Xenophobe-in-Chief might do something this irrational. Or both. 

Curmie’s university and scores if not hundreds of others would also take a major hit if this absurd policy were to go into effect, but we’re not really in much of a position to fight it. So, strange as it seems for this loyal son of Dartmouth, he’s cheering on Harvard with all his might. Strange bedfellows, and all that.

The other good news is that a lot of colleges are looking for ways to circumvent the Stupid. Curmie hereby volunteers to teach an in-person course as a voluntary overload to any and all international students. Much as Curmie would cheerfully teach Fuck ICE 101 and 102, as suggested by the internet meme, we’d need outside permission to develop such a course. But Curmie sees no problem in requiring a Chinese grad student in Chemistry to take a course in Global Theatre. We’d meet face-to-face, but of course Curmie can be as lenient as he chooses in excusing absences. He wouldn’t allow more than 45 per semester, of course. And the academic standards would be at least as high as the University of North Carolina demanded of its athletes all those years. Curmie was thinking of a final exam with a single question: “Have you ever seen a play?” “Yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know” would receive full credit. All other answers would get a B. But shhhhhhh, Gentle Reader, don’t go noising that question around. If students find out what’s going to be on the exam, Curmie would have to think of another question. And that would take more thought than the entirety of the ICE has ever expended.