Friday, June 12, 2015

Kent State and Curmie's Coming of Age

All of us have that moment: the one that brings the world into focus and changes everything. Perhaps it’s a moment of triumph (the moon landing or the election of the nation’s first African-American President); perhaps it’s a moment of despair (the assassination of John Kennedy or the attacks of 9/11).

From the May 4 museum. 
The iconic image of Mary Vecchio
screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller.
For those of Curmie’s generation, there were lots of choices: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Apollo moon landing; maybe Woodstock… or Altamont, the alleged death of the Hippie era; the resignation of Richard Nixon. For me, though, there’s no question: it was the killing of four Kent State students by National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970.

I was 14, finishing up 9th grade in a few weeks. My father, a loyal supporter of President Nixon, was President of one of the SUNY campuses, so I literally lived on a college campus: the view out of my bedroom window was of two dorms and a dining hall. Speaking of windows and dorms… as Curmiphiles who know me personally may be aware, I’m currently at an NEH Summer Institute at Kent State. I’ve been here a week, with another fortnight to go, living in a dorm. And as I look out my window I see the building where the May 4 museum/visitors’ center is located. I can’t see the site of the killings themselves, but it’s just the other side of that HPE annex that was built in the late ‘70s.

This afternoon I wandered over to the museum. It’s quite small, and the May 4 Memorial could readily be mistaken for just another piece of public art. There’s also a walking tour: again, very restrained. There are couple of markers, a bit of text; some stained glass in one of the library’s reading rooms; a fountain dedicated to all students who died in residence, a deft inclusion of the May 4 victims without making it about them. But the university appears to have been quite adept at walking a very fine line, simultaneously commemorating the chilling events of 45 years ago and moving on with the academic mission of the institution.

I need to make three points. First, the fact that the museum doesn’t take up a lot of space doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a punch. I was fortunate enough to be the only visitor in the place this afternoon (a couple was leaving just as I entered), which allowed me to stand in the main video room and just be surrounded by the sound and images. It took less than a minute for the tears to come, only a little longer for the insensate impulse to hunt down the National Guard officers most directly responsible for this outrage and either rip their throats out or piss on their graves, as the case may be. The locals who opined that a few dead kids was an unfortunate but reasonable price to pay for law and order… I would, at that moment, have cheerfully given any one of them a splenectomy by reaching down their throats.

Second, I need—for my own reasons—to come to terms with just why this moment in American history struck me so profoundly. It was partially the “bringing the war home” element, partially the ensuing nationwide student strike (and further deaths at Jackson State less than two weeks later), partially the fact that students were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, directly contrary to what candidate Nixon had promised. But it was more than that for me, personally. As noted earlier, I was the son of an ardent Nixonite college president. In both those capacities, my father exercised a lot of influence on my thinking. In many ways this process was positive, or at the very worst benign. He was also struggling to keep order on his own campus, and (I found out later) some student radicals had made veiled but ominous threats against me as a way of blackmailing him into agreeing to their demands.

I was a pretty conservative and very naïve kid. I had long hair (shorter than it is now, but what of that?) and I listened to the Beatles and Rolling Stones and Iron Butterfly, but I hadn’t yet become a Deadhead, or even really tuned into Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or Pete Seeger, as I was to do in college. I’d never tried any illicit drugs; I hadn’t participated in any kind of political activity beyond hanging a couple of generic peacenik posters on my bedroom wall. I was, in the eyes of the Establishment, a “good kid.”

But every time I heard about the Kent State shootings as the inevitable result of the undisciplined disobedience of the student protesters, that the Guardsmen were legitimately in fear for their lives, that the Guard leaders were trying valiantly to defuse rather than aggravate the situation (gee… which side was armed to the teeth and which side completely unarmed?)… well, for the first time, I began to detect the distinctive aroma of bovine fecal matter in the government’s proclamations, in the press, and even in my Dad’s pronouncements.

It turns out, of course, that my suspicions were correct. The Guardsmen, seemingly retreating to avoid further confrontation, turned in unison to fire into the crowd.  The nearest of the four students fatally shot by the Guard was about 85 yards away and simply observing the activities, not even taking part in the protest. And this is according to Nixon’s own appointed commission, headed by former Pennsylvania governor William Scranton. The nearest of the nine students wounded in the 13-second fusillade (a total of 60+ shots fired from 28 military-grade rifles) was 20 yards from the Guardsman; the furthest was nearly 250 yards away. Think about that. 250 yards away, and he was shot in the neck… by the alleged good guys? Only two of the 13 casualties were shot from the front. They were the aggressors? I don’t think so, criminal acquittals of the killers notwithstanding.

No. The Kent State killings (and the disingenuous aftermath) were indeed the ultimate declaration of war by the authorities on my generation, and I knew then, with my 15th birthday still nearly five months away, not only that I’d have to take sides, but which side I’d have to take.

Don’t get me wrong. I was still a “good kid.” I still didn’t go on protest marches or smoke dope—that... erm... may or may not have come later. But I never uncritically believed either the government or the press again. Intellectually, as a functioning member of a democratic system, I grew up that day. We were talking this morning in the Institute about the process of finding “gain” in “loss.” What I lost that day was precious. What I gained has defined me for the 45 subsequent years.

Finally, let’s talk about today. In this regard I’d make two observations. First, I fear there couldn’t be a Kent State today. Yes, I fear that, because such a declaration betrays a profound and disturbing apathy among today’s post-adolescents. This isn’t true of all late-teens and 20-somethings, but a terrifying percentage of my students can’t be bothered to fulfill their responsibility (yes, responsibility) as citizens and even vote, let alone write letters to Congresscritters or actively engage in political campaigns, either for specific candidates or for issues (abortion rights, gay marriage, etc.). The overwhelming majority of people under 30 are liberal on social issues, but that doesn’t matter if making their voices heard isn’t worth a few minutes of their time.

Secondly, the 1st Amendment rights so central to the protest at Kent State in 1970 have been eroded, precipitated by both the right (qualitatively) and the left (quantitatively). The right’s ululations about “political correctness” may be exaggerated, but they’re not without merit: you can get into big trouble—as student or faculty—for expressing an opinion the apparatchiks censors bleeding hearts don’t like. There is a right to freedom of speech guaranteed in the 1st Amendment; there is not a right to be unoffended. That paradigm has been inverted on far too many campuses. Alternatively, the right’s suppression of science (forbidding the use of the term “global warming,” for example) is chilling in the extreme.

My own campus has a “Free Speech Area” which a). isn’t, really, and b). suggests (accurately) that the rest of the campus doesn’t qualify. Curmie is a progressive, yes, but he’s more of a civil libertarian, and that means healthy arguments, not suppression of ideas. That doesn’t mean we need to suffer trolls on our Facebook pages or blog posts; it does mean that debate is always encouraged: I can’t learn anything from those who always agree with me. If I want to be agreed with, I’ll just talk to myself.

I leave you with another “gain” from that horrible day in 1970: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s brilliant “Ohio.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Curmie Has a Common Name. Again.

Snazzy logo.  At least the graphics designer is competent.
Several years ago, Curmie was re-entering the US after escorting a cadre of students to Dublin and London on a Study Abroad trip. He intentionally positioned himself last among the group heading through immigration, only to be told that he had to follow the officer because… well… because. So, while students phoned their awaiting parents that yes, they’d landed, but that their group leader was being led away by The Man, Curmie was sent off to a room somewhere in the Customs/Immigration complex at George Bush International Airport in Houston.

Curmie was told to stand in that line over there, so he did. He looked around and noticed that literally everyone else in the room was either in uniform or looked either Hispanic or Middle Eastern. After five minutes of waiting in a line that didn’t move at all, Curmie was then ordered to go sit down. So he did. In the back, he could see a cluster of Junior G-Men huddled around his confiscated passport, glancing at it, then at him, mumbling to each other. After ten minutes of this bad community theatre production of How to Pretend to Be Doing Something, one of the agents called Curmie up to the desk, handed over the passport to told him he was free to go.

With a nod at one of the many posters adorning the walls, all of them crowing about INS’s alleged “transparency,” Curmie asked if “this” (by which he meant but did not say aloud “this clown show”) would likely happen again. The agent, an African-American woman perhaps 20 years old and 100 pounds, drew herself up to her full glory and proclaimed, “I don’t know. You have a common name.”

Well, in one sense, that’s true. According to (and if you can’t trust some random website, who can you trust?), there are over 13,000 folks in this country alone with the same first and last names as Curmie’s. The chances that one of us is a bad guy are pretty good. But if you throw in a middle name, a suffix, and a freaking passport number, and I’d suspect the field might just be narrowed a little, yes? Naturally, I suppressed the urge to make this observation—or to burst into laughter—until I was well clear of the authority of the DHS, INS, or whatever other acronymic idiocracy might hold sway.

All of this happened nearly seven years ago, however, so it’s hardly news. Except that it just happened again a couple of weeks ago. Curmie was just in London for a short trip with his boss, and returned to the States via Dulles. There’s a new (or at least new to Curmie) electronic procedure that makes going through Immigration and Customs smoother, and least in theory. But once again, Curmie set off alarms (not literally): there was a big X through half of the “receipt” that substitutes for a Customs declaration card. So Curmie went where directed, responded truthfully to the three questions asked by the agent (the most important of which was clearly about whether Curmie had ever gone by another name (specifically Curmie’s surname with a different first name with the same initial). The agent said he couldn’t clear me. So off we went to Line C; all Curmie could think of was Arlo Guthrie’s Group W bench. There did not appear to be any father-rapers there, however.

At least this time the process was faster and far more efficient. The agent was thoroughly professional, apologized for the fact that the other agent hadn’t simply cleared me (which apparently he could have), and sent me on my way. I asked about why Curmie had to go through this process again. Yep, there are a lot of people with my same first and last name: they are in fact the 8th and 5th most common names, respectively, in the country. The agent said he hoped he’d made it so this wouldn’t happen again. I told him this was the second time in my last six trips abroad. He shook his head somewhat ruefully, scowled at his computer, and repeated what he’d just said, with a little more emphasis on the “hope” part.

This got followed, of course, by the inane requirement of going through airport security again, a procedure that wastes considerable time and pots of money to do nothing substantive beyond forcing that one guy who bought a bottle of water after clearing security in Rome (or wherever) to dump it out before flying to Cleveland (or wherever) because SECURITY. Since very few bags are actually checked at Customs, sending the majority of them on their way to their final destination without ever putting them back in the hands of the traveler while continuing random (or not so random) checks would reduce the absurd lines by 80% or more.

There are, of course, greater wastes of money than the follies attending to entering the country. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t pay attention to stupidity when it happens. There is a political dynamic to all this, of course, but not one that breaks along party lines: Curmie has been stopped by representatives of the Bush and Obama administrations, and it will—assurances from the agent at Dulles notwithstanding—probably happen again in the next administration. Because, as Curmie has been saying for a very long time, the DHS (at least in this manifestation), much like the TSA, is much more about the appearance of security than in security itself. Perhaps because of his background in theatre, Curmie looks at these little scenaria as a bad magic show: the diversion is supposed to convince us that the world is safer, but even a reasonably attentive observer knows that it is not, and the need to be perceived as being safe is perhaps the clearest indication of our lack of real safety. If you have to tell me, in other words, it ain’t so.

After all, if you’re going to go to the trouble of forging a passport that can fool both a computer and a live agent, the chances are pretty good you’re not going to change your name from Walter Smith to William Smith, right? You’re going to be William Anderson or Samuel Walters or Heinrich Pofflewitzel or something. And if you can clear someone in a matter of seconds, why not do it? Answer: because you need to look as if you’re actually doing something. In the world of “national security,” appearance trumps reality 10 times out of 10.

The waste of resources, not to mention the fact that I’d have been pushing it to make my connecting flight if it hadn’t been delayed, is troubling. What’s worse, however, is the utter laxity surrounding the entire process except as manifested in remarkably silly charades.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

IRFRAK: The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act Kerfuffle

Curmie wrote more blog posts in January this year than ever before… and then followed it up shortly thereafter with two months of nothing. Anyway, it’s time to get back on track, at least a little. And we start with the great Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act Kerfuffle (hereafter, the IRFRAK).

So… let’s start by saying that the world supplies of Stupid, Vicious, and Disingenuous must be seriously depleted now, as so much of those qualities have been expended over the last few days. We begin with the bill itself, absolutely the product of an imagined “war against Christians/Christianity” that right-wing media have somehow managed to convinced their ovine followers to believe in. Because, Christians are under attack, you see, being denied the right to substitute their religious beliefs (often directly counter to what their Holy Book requires of them) for the Constitution, denied the right to claim that they can do whatever the hell they want because Jesus, denied the right to discriminate against people unlike themselves because Old Testament. (By the way, don’t start talking about mixed fibers or shellfish or tattoos—those prohibitions applied long ago, but not in today’s world, silly. But to suggest that God doesn’t hate gays as much as we do is heresy.)

Anyway, the RFRA was trumpeted by proponents and reviled by opponents because it would allow assholes in the name of Jesus (hereafter, ANJs) to refuse service to people they think are icky. That such distortions of actual Christian teachings were used to support racial segregation (and worse) a couple decades ago is apparently to be forgotten.

Then, when Governor Mike Pence signed the bill into law, he did so in a private ceremony (a phrase which, ironically, invokes the concept of marriage), surrounded by a collection of religious leaders and, more tellingly, supporters of a gay marriage ban—which of course leads us to the real impetus for the law: if gay people are allowed all the privileges and responsibilities of… you know… real people, then we need a new law to uphold our right to be ANJs.

Surprising no one—although of course the bigots, fools and charlatans who passed and signed the bill purported to be dumbfounded—the new law pretty well passed by “controversial” and went straight to “incendiary.” Everyone from George Takei to Rush Limbaugh weighed in, and a stupid law passed by stupid people in a single state became the talk of the nation.

Gov. Mike Pence being taken to the woodshed by George Stephanopoulos.
Governor Pence went on national television and made an utter buffoon of himself, unwilling to say either whether or not the new law would do what everyone knew it was intended to do, or whether it should. If his appearance with George Stephanopoulos on “This Week” was intended to “clarify” the law’s intent, then Pence failed epically. Indeed, if water-muddying were an Olympic event, Pence established himself as a front-runner for the gold in 2016. But please, God, don’t let him near the 2016 prize he’s really seeking. He’s the perfect blend of Sarah Palin stupid, Scott Walker vindictive, Mike Huckabee hateful (while pretending not to be) and Jeb Bush smug. But he’s really the next version of Mitt Romney: nary a core belief (except his own self-interest) and a consummate prevaricator. I suppose we should rejoice that he isn’t—or at least doesn’t seem to be—as batshit crazy as Ted Cruz, Michele Bachmann, Rand Paul, or Tom Cotton.  Small mercies.

Anyway, having made it perfectly clear that the new law was absolutely intended to allow discrimination based on sexual preference (because that’s what the ANJs want) but unable to bring himself to say so (because then he’d be shown to be the bigoted twatwaffle he really is), he (or, more likely, a ghost-writer) penned a piece in the Wall Street Journal (excerpts here; full article—behind a paywall—here), saying that of course Indiana wouldn’t pass a law that permitted discrimination… the fact that they had done so—or at least attempted to do so—should not in any way be taken as evidence that such a thing could occur. (Curmie is reminded of the 17th-century French Academy, which argued that actual events aren’t necessarily plausible.)

Sometimes The Onion really is “America’s finest news source.” They ran one of their best (and most scathing) satirical articles last Monday. Its title: “Indiana Governor Insists New Law Has Nothing To Do With Thing It Explicitly Intended To Do.” Not to be outdone, Andy Borowitz wrote an article that opens “Indiana Governor Mike Pence is ‘stunned and amazed’ that so many people appear to have gay friends, Pence has confirmed.”  Comedians are now our best journalists.

Anyway, Pence (the real one, who is very like the satirical version except not quite as funny) says that if he “saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, [he] wouldn’t eat there anymore.” Needless to say, not eating there is a step or two short of charging them with a violation of civil rights laws and working to put them out of business. One presumes that if he witnessed a gay-bashing, Mike Pence would courageously refrain from joining in.

Meanwhile, as dissension mounted, defenders of the bill argued two mutually exclusive positions: that the bill was virtually identical to existing federal statute (and therefore shouldn’t be criticized), and that it was necessary because, you see, the federal law was insufficient to protect Bible-thumpers from discriminating against everyone else exercising their religious freedom. Wanting to have it both ways is apparently a pre-requisite to being an ANJ.

Inevitable conclusions: Mike Pence is an intellectual lightweight, a liar, and a jerk. Anyone purporting to have been broad-sided by the national outrage is so out of touch that Mitt Romney is shaking his head in disbelief, is dumber than the proverbial sack of hammers, or is a dissembler of such stature that Pinocchio’s proboscis could extend from here to Tierra del Fuego and he still couldn’t keep up with Pence.

And then there’s the saga of Memories Pizza. By now, Gentle Reader, you know all about this family business. A young journalist from a local television station asked the proprietor and his daughter about their response to the RFRA law and the accompanying furor. They said some pretty stupid things about denying their services to a (purely hypothetical) gay wedding, although they’d serve gay customers in their restaurant per se.

Cue the outrage. And then cue the outrage at the outrage. And then cue the outrage to the outrage to the outrage. The restaurant’s Yelp page exploded with negative reviews, most of them, no doubt, from people who had never eaten there. There was a choreographed and largely successful campaign to put the pizzeria out of business. People would call in fake orders. There were death threats (Curmie has no way of knowing whether these actually took place, but has no evidence to the contrary).

And, of course, there was a Glenn Beck-orchestrated GoFundMe campaign that generated over three-quarters of a million dollars—even after the site takes it cut—in only two days. The tax implications are unclear—I’m pretty sure the contributions aren’t tax deductible, but will the pizzeria be on the hook to Uncle Sam for a few hundred thousand bucks? Curmie’s no tax accountant, and he’s seen claims both ways. It would be especially apt if the loathèd government made a tidy bundle out of these shenanigans, but they may not profit at all. Any way you slice it (get it, “slice it”?), however, Memories Pizza will end up with a lot more money out of this enterprise than any small-town pizzeria is going to net in a very, very long time.

How to parse this all out? First, the human capacity for hypocrisy and over-reaction has seldom been more in evidence. The pizzeria owners said something dumb but apparently sincere during a local news interview. They draw a line between serving gays (they will) and catering a gay wedding (they won't). Let us leave aside for the moment the relative unlikelihood that there would be a significant number of gay weddings interested in procuring the services of a pizza joint in a town of a little over 2000 people. (To be fair, Curmie ate pizza at a wedding reception only three months ago, but that involved shutting down a pizzeria for the private event and making use of the entire space as well as the food. In other words, this called for a special consideration, and any business owner would be perfectly justified to say “no” for whatever reason.)

Crystal O’Connor: “That's our belief.”
The point is that for all Kevin O’Connor’s silly claim to that he “chose” to be heterosexual, neither he nor his daughter Crystal have actually denied service to anyone; they just said that they would, in a purely hypothetical (and limited) scenario. This is enough for reasonable people to think twice about patronizing Memories Pizza. It is not enough—nothing, including actual denial of services, is—to call in death threats, to place fake orders, or to give 1-star, profanity-laden, Hitler-referencing, reviews on Yelp (which is an utterly unethical business, anyway… but that’s a rant for another day) without having actually eaten the food. Such behavior undermines any claim the pro-LGBTQ community (I almost said the “left,” but there are of course many conservatives—and Christians—who are passionate about equality) has to the high moral ground. In this moment, at least, the O’Connors were definitively out-assholed by their detractors.

But while we’re on the subject of threats, let’s also condemn at least as vociferously the yahoos on the other side of the religio-political divide: those who threatened the job (and the person) of Alyssa Marino, the ABC57 (South Bend) reporter who committed the sin of asking for a response from a local business-owner. There is nothing in her reporting that is anything but respectful. Be it noted, however, that the same cannot be said for the smug set-up for the piece by studio anchor Brian Dorman (contrasting “a welcoming South Bend with a much different view”) and the misleading at best on-screen crawl that the restaurant “denies some service to same sex couples,” a statement which is, to be charitable, not entirely true. Neither of these items, however, can be linked to, let alone attributed to, Marino. The station’s new department has something to answer for. Marino does not.

Meanwhile, of course, although the O’Connors were allegedly in hiding, fearful for their lives, they did dare to emerge to do a Fox News interview. Funny how that works, isn’t it? And then, of course, there was the GoFundMe campaign orchestrated by Lawrence Jones, a contributor to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze and proud minion of James O’Keefe, who might just be the most unethical person on the planet now that his former boss, Andrew Breitbart, is no longer among us. All that is fine, of course. Being despicable shouldn’t prevent you from setting up a crowdfunding campaign, providing only that the donated monies end up in the hands of the advertised recipients, and that the money-gathering itself is above board. I have no reason to assume that the process was anything but honest. So Curmie must disagree with the depiction of the fundraiser as a “conservative media scam.” Still, if I were the O’Connors, I’d be more than usually diligent about receiving the money due me, and more than usually cautious about being manipulated by my presumed allies.

One last thought on the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised in the GoFundMe campaign: Curmie says something stupid several times a day. Where’s my check?

Other fallout from the IRFRAK: On “This Week,” Governor Pence proclaimed that “We’re not going to change the law, OK?” That promise was good for less than a week. Excoriated by the national press, Pence quickly trotted out a fix for the original stupid legislation, signing the Changes That Would Not Happen into law precisely four days after declaring that he wouldn’t do so. The changes are not as far-reaching as some would hope (overturning the RFRA altogether, for example), but the revisions were apparently precisely the right combination of judicious backpedaling and intentional obfuscation so that both sides can declare victory and move on. Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Elsewhere: Arkansas also watered down its similar bill and then passed it, Virginia passed one, Georgia withdrew theirs, Texas is considering one. Sooner or later, SCOTUS will have to get involved. Given the utter stupidity of most Roberts Court rulings, this isn’t a good thing. File this under: screed for a another day.

Perhaps not an actual photo of Joshua Feuerstein,
 but close enough.

And, of course, there’s the inevitable smug reversal of positions, with ANJ Joshua Feuerstein, a former televangelist, siccing his million-plus Facebook followers on a Longwood, FL, bakery called Cut the Cake because they refused to provide a cake with the message “we do not support gay marriage.” This is a well-crafted smear by Feuerstein, as his requested message walks the edge of hate speech without actually crossing over. It is political and incendiary, of course: that was its intent. Needless to say, the ANJs did exactly the same thing to Cut the Cake as the nutjobs on the other side did to Memories Pizza—threats, false orders, obviously fabricated reviews, the whole nine yards. Cut the Cake seems to be holding up just fine, at least from the look of their Facebook page.  That's the one piece of good news.

La la how the life goes on.