Sunday, August 10, 2014

Yes, A University Education Used to Be Affordable.

Curmie has been thinking a lot recently about the costs of university attendance—being married to a financial aid director does that to one, but so does being an advisor, both officially and unofficially, to undergraduate students. I’m technically on vacation, despite which I’ve received e-mails, Facebook messages, texts, or in-person visits in the last two weeks from four different advisees who wonder if they’ll have to go (deeper) into debt to continue their educations. This quartet of students, all in good standing, I assure you, Gentle Reader, represents only the tip of the iceberg.

There’s also one of those ubiquitous internet memes, this one declaring that “In 1978, a student who worked a minimum-wage summer job could afford to pay a year's full tuition at the 4-year public university of their choice.” The meme has been around a while but came back to prominence this week when PolitiFact declared it “mostly true,” demurring only in that the phrase “of their choice” over-states the case.

As you probably know, Gentle Reader, the PolitiFact folks are often horrible in deciding which of their labels—true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, pants on fire—to apply to a particular case (Curmie has ranted about PolitiFact’s incompetence in this regard here, here, and here, for example), but their research per se, at least in terms of pointing the inquisitive reader to useful, objective information, is actually quite good.

Well, it turns out that this time they earned their reputation, both good and bad. They linked to a useful chart published by the National Center for Education Statistics and then proceeded to misread it. The $1389 figure they originally cited was the average tuition cost for all 4-year universities, including private schools (!), in 1978-79. (They’ve fixed it now, although they haven’t changed their final “mostly true” verdict.)

So… what are the real figures? Well, that summer job: 13 weeks, 40 hours a week, minimum wage ($2.65 at the time) would generate $1378 in income (before taxes). A year’s tuition and fees at the average four-year public university at in-state rates in 1978-79: $688. The summer job, in other words, would for tuition and about half of room and board at the average four-year state university, where the total year’s bill would be $2145. That’s 200% of the cost of tuition, or 64% of the total cost of attendance. Yeah, yeah, sure. Some flagship state universities would have cost more. Students still had to buy books and other supplies. The occasional late-night beer and pizza was de rigeur. And that wages figure was before taxes. [Please note: all figures below exclude taxes. Curmie isn’t so naïve that he thinks they don’t matter, but inserting a qualifier every time I cite a statistic is going to get really old for both of us. Please consider it stipulated throughout.]

But those figures also don’t count scholarships, and they don’t count additional income from part-time jobs during the school year. In fact, a 10-hour-a-week, minimum wage, job during the academic year would completely close the gap. That is, a student who worked 40 hours a week for 13 weeks in the summer and 10 hours a week for 30 weeks during the school year, all at minimum wage, would earn $2173, or 101% of the total cost of attendance at a four-year state university. And whereas some flagships would have cost more, this is an average figure, meaning that some would have cost even less.

Flash forward to today. That summer job would now generate $3770 in pre-tax income. Tuition and fees at a four-year public university in 2011-12, the last year for which we have figures (and trust me, costs have gone up considerably since then): $7701. Total cost of attendance: $16,789. The student who works full time for 13 weeks in the summer and 10 hours a week during the school year now makes $5945, or only 35.4% of the cost of attendance. Indeed, even if a student worked full time, 52 weeks a year, at a minimum wage job, that wouldn’t cover the cost of going to the average four-year school now.

So those of Curmie’s generation aren’t necessarily heartless when they scoff at the financial woes of today’s undergraduates. They just remember when times were fundamentally different, and many would be shocked to learn of the figures cited above. Ignorance does often lead to arrogance.

Why, then, are state universities increasing out of the reach of far too many students? I’d suggest four reasons. First, the minimum wage hasn’t kept up with the cost of living. If you plug the years 1978 and 2012 into the calculator at the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, you’ll find that it took $3.52 in 2012 to equal the buying power of $1 in 1978. But the minimum wage has increased only by a factor of 2.74. Translating those numbers into our scenario: if the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation, it would now be at $9.33, and our hypothetical student working 820 hours for the year (full time for 13 weeks, 10 hours a week for 30 weeks) at minimum wage would have an extra $1700 and change in earnings. That’s a little over 10% of the total cost of attendance. Looked at differently, it’s pretty close to another $7000 in debt today’s student will have to pay off because politicians would rather pad the bottom line of campaign donors banks than actually serve the citizenry.

Second: the proliferation of expenses. When Curmie entered college in 1973, his dorm had no kitchen for 130+ residents, there was no cable TV access, and there were four pay phones—not even the option for a phone in your room. If you needed to use a computer, you walked to the computer center. (Here Curmie resists the temptation to say “Uphill. Both ways. In a blizzard.”) And so on. Now dorm rooms have not only phone jacks and cable connections, they’re wired for internet and wi-fi accessible. There’s a kitchen for every handful of students (except perhaps in freshman dorms), there are computers and printers everywhere… you get the idea. These things cost money.

So does the significant increase in non-faculty personnel. There’s now an assistant to the associate dean for about everything under the sun, and student affairs jobs are proliferating faster than zits on prom night. There’s a lot of literature on this—here’s an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education a few months ago, for example. All the research shows the same thing: faculty positions have been essentially stagnant relative to the student population, but administrative jobs are burgeoning.

Indeed, Benjamin Ginsberg wrote in the Washington Monthly in 2011 that:
In 1975, colleges employed one administrator for every eighty-four students and one professional staffer—admissions officers, information technology specialists, and the like—for every fifty students. By 2005, the administrator-to-student ratio had dropped to one administrator for every sixty-eight students while the ratio of professional staffers had dropped to one for every twenty-one students.
Again, the trend is only getting worse.

Moreover, whereas faculty salaries pretty much follow inflation; administrative salaries outpace it. When I was a teenager, my father was president of one of the campuses in the State University of New York system. While he was technically the highest paid employee of the college, in point of fact there were several faculty members who, if they chose to work summer school, actually pulled down higher salaries than he did. We did live in a house owned by the college, but it was actually rented (albeit at below market value). And my mother was expected to do a host of community service activities, all gratis, of course.

Today, the president at my school makes about five times my salary as a full professor. His house is completely provided by the university. And his predecessor’s wife, doing no more than my mom did in terms of enhancing the college’s image in the community, got paid more than a full-time assistant professor for her explicitly part-time service. (Note: an assistant professor, for those of you who don’t know academic parlance, is a tenure-track [occasionally tenured] faculty member, generally in the early stages of his/her career. These people almost invariably have a terminal degree—PhD, MBA, EdD, MFA, JD, etc.—in their chosen field.)

These two factors taken together mean that a lot of money is being eaten up by the salaries of people who do not directly affect the education of students. This isn’t to say that some of these folks aren’t valuable, even indispensable, contributors to the university’s mission, but after 35 years in the classroom I can tell you that a goodly number of these people are far more interested in proclaiming their own significance than in actually… you know… doing anything.

But, according to Robert E. Martin, professor emeritus of economics at Centre College,
The balance between people who are actually in the trenches and those who are overseeing that work has gotten grossly out of line. That imbalance is one of the primary reasons for why costs grew so out of control over the last three decades.
There’s a political element here, too, of course. Democrats like bureaucracies and hierarchies (while pretending the opposite, to be sure); Republicans like managers to be paid a lot more than academics, who, in GOP-think, would be managers if they were really as smart as they pretend to be. And both rally ‘round the flag—nay, the altar—of “accountability.” And that means regulations and self-studies and forms and reports and similar exercises only tangentially relevant (on a good day) to the educational mission. Needless to say, the Assistant to the Executive Paper Shuffler for Assessment is paid more than some mere full professor of physics with a list of publications as long as your arm and a boatload of teaching awards.

Third, universities (and legislatures) have taken to the insidious practice of pretending that required fees are somehow different from tuition costs. At Curmie’s own university, in-state “tuition” for a 15-hour load is $3315 a semester. But, and as they say in the burlesque shows, it’s a big but, there’s another $1141 per semester in additional expenses. Remember when, say, library usage was a presumptive part of tuition expenses? Not any more: $13 per credit hour. But that’s not the worst part of all these fees. No, that honor would go to passing construction costs for new buildings on to current and future students. Thus, students are often paying hundreds of dollars a year for future construction of buildings they’ll never see except as visiting alumni.

This very conscious deception is propagated by virtually every university administration and every state legislature in the country, all of whom cheerfully abrogate their responsibilities and place the expense not where it belongs, with the states and the universities, but with the segment of the population in the worst possible position to pay for it: the generation of students not yet established in the workplace. Of course, this makes it look as if tuition figures are manageable and state budgets are balanced: mortgaging the future has never been so pervasive.

But a figure that at first glance seems to deflate much of the foregoing is in fact the most damning statistic of all: spending per student in constant dollars is virtually unchanged in the last 25 years. So what’s the problem, right? Well, what that figures really demonstrates, however, is that state universities are cutting essential resources to provide the fluff. All those extra administrative jobs? They mean less money for financial aid, less money for facilities maintenance, less money for libraries… you get the picture. Moreover, the lazy rivers and climbing walls and similar fripperies, even if not funded by the taxpayers per se, make the universities’ job in convincing state legislatures that educating the next generation might really be more valuable than providing yet another tax break for their millionaire cronies just that much more difficult.

From Arnie Levin of The New Yorker
All of which leads us to state funding. An article on the Dēmos website shows that over half the states in the country have cut spending on public universities by more than 25% since the so-called “great recession,” and every state except North Dakota has cut at least some. Those figures, by the way, don’t include the steady erosion of state support throughout the last two or three decades. Thus, all six of even North Dakota’s state universities currently receive a lower percentage of their total revenues from the state now (which is to say 2012, the last year for which we have figures) than a quarter century ago. The drop-off has ranged from a relatively modest 5.8 point drop at Dickinson State to a substantial 27.7 falloff at Mayville State. Every state university in Curmie’s native state of New Hampshire also receives less state funding as a function of total budget than in 1987; the same is true of his adopted state of Kansas. His “home” (where he went to high school) state of New York shows 35 of 39 schools experiencing drops of up to 30.2 points; the median is a 13.9 point difference, from 70.8 to 56.9%, at SUNY Oswego. Curmie’s current home is in Texas, where 39 of 40 universities draw less of their income from the state now than a generation ago; Curmie’s own institution is down from 66.9 to 43.3%, meaning the university has had to find a way to replace about a quarter of its income. And the cuts keep coming. (It doesn’t help that idiots like Rick Perry are trying to convince the public that a $10,000 degree exists anywhere but Cloudcuckooland.)

Let’s look at the practical application of those numbers. My own university runs an annual budget of about $240 million. 23.6% of that figure—the difference between what used to be paid by the state and what is now—means the administration needs to find a different way to come up with a little over $56 million annually, because making sure oil companies don’t have to pay taxes is important. We have about 11,500 full time equivalent students. That shortfall amounts to a little over $4900 per full time student per year. Want to know why our tuition has increased?

So there are the reasons—or at least some of them—for why the average student today leaves even a public university well into five figures of debt, whereas the average student in my day had little or none. Just having the minimum wage keep up with inflation and state funding remain steady as a function of the entire university budget would have made the difference of a little over $6600 a year, or somewhere in the neighborhood of $26-27,000 over four years for students at my university. Their average debt at graduation: a little under $22,000. The more perspicacious of Curmiphiles might notice a certain general correlation between these two figures.

Whereas student expectations and the universities themselves play a role, the majority of the problem can be blamed on politicians who have theirs, whose kids go to private schools, and above all who give no thought to anyone or anything else, including the future of their state and their nation. Imagine Curmie’s surprise.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Gaza, the Elephant in the Room, and the Six Blind Men


It is a familiar motif in detective fiction that our hero/heroine seizes on an apparently off-topic phrase uttered by a secondary character that somehow triggers the thought process that ultimately leads to figuring out the identity of the villain. My wife and I streamed an old episode of “Midsomer Murders” the other night, and there was the trope; it reoccurred in this week’s “Poirot” episode on PBS. The technique would be considered trite, except for one thing: that really is the way the ideas come together.

My most recent conference paper (and a whole new approach to pedagogy, at least for me) stemmed from the chronological confluence of my late father’s birthday, a colleague who asked to borrow a book, and an unexpectedly poor showing by a theatre history class with a lot of good students in it. The details don’t matter—what’s important is that seemingly disparate ideas often come together in meaningful ways.

The elephant: the same as and different from the sum of its parts.
A couple of nights ago, the two ideas that came together were the current crisis in Gaza (Curmie notes the current cease fire and hopes for the best while not evincing great confidence) and hearing the phrase “the elephant in the room.” But what I thought of was not this metaphoric presence, or the symbol of the Republican party, but rather the pachyderm described in the fable, variously attributed to China or India, of the six blind men and the elephant. There’s a Jainist version, a Buddhist version, and a 19th century American doggerel poem by John Godfrey Saxe. What the various versions have in common is a motif of a half dozen blind men who encounter an elephant—but each one experiences only one part of the beast: one its trunk, another its tusks, another its tail, and so on. Thus, unable to see the entire animal, the men report (in the Jainist tale) that an elephant must be a pillar (the leg), a rope (the tail), or a solid pipe (the tusk), etc.

What matters is that each of the blind men reports honestly and accurately. As the sage in the Jainist version points out, all of them are “right” from their own idiosyncratic perspectives. The Buddhist version, however, emphasizes the quarrelsomeness of the men, each convinced of his own superior understanding: “each to his view they cling / Such folk see only one side of a thing.” And the American poem? It closes with a “moral”:
So oft in theologic wars,
     The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
     Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
     Not one of them has seen!
Curmie has three real-life Jewish friends (at least two of whom have commented on the CC Facebook page) who have threatened to unfriend anyone who publicly supports Hamas. Curmie also has friends, especially in the UK and Ireland, who are not only supporting but organizing boycotts of Israeli goods. None of these folks are bad people, or even particularly narrow-minded. They are just grabbing a tail and can’t imagine how someone could possibly describe the elephant as being wall-like.

The fact is, both sides claim that they, and they alone have a right to that territory. Both sides claim, and can produce evidence to support their assertions, that the other guys have targeted civilians, or at the very least paid no more than lip service to the idea of avoiding what has come to be known as “collateral damage.” Both sides wave off their own atrocities by saying the other guys are worse. Both sides believe that news coverage is slanted to portray the other guys in a better light than they deserve. Celebrities are lining up on both sides, as if their understanding of the situation were anything but superficial: it’s Javier Bardem, Mandy Patinkin and Penelope Cruz (and others) against Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason and Jon Voight (and others), as if anybody cared.

Those tunnels built by Hamas with money and supplies intended to be used for humanitarian aid? They’re real. The Israeli MP who says that the mothers of Palestinians should be killed so they can’t raise any more “little snakes”? She’s real, too. So is the general who argues that there are no innocent civilians in Gaza and claims the Palestinians who currently suffer there are like the Germans who elected Hitler and “rightfully” paid the price. (Curmie refrains from pointing out that this argument pretty much says that German Jews are to blame for the Holocaust.) And so is the Hamas-sponsored children’s television show that advocates “shoot[ing] all the Jews.” And yes, it’s true that more Palestinian children have died from the hostilities in the last few weeks than Israeli soldiers have been lost in eight years. And it’s also true that Hamas intentionally holes up in residential areas so Israel inevitably will inflict civilian casualties if they respond. And on. And on. And on.

The place is a mess, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. Hamas and to a lesser extent Likud are both in power in part because they express what is good for the people they purport to represent in terms of hatred and fear of those other people over there. And the everyday citizenry of Gaza and of Israel aren’t necessarily wrong in listening to the siren song of xenophobia. But there will be no solution that either matters or lasts in that part of the world until three things happen: everyone involved takes a step back to see a more comprehensive view of reality, both sides recognize themselves as both perpetrators and as victims, and the rest of the Arab/Muslim world decides to help Palestine instead of using the area as a prop in their public relations campaign against Israel. It’s looking like a long wait.

“It’s a rope.” “No, it’s a fan.” “You’re crazy: it’s the branch of a tree.” It is all of these and none of these. There’s an elephant in the room. Everyone knows it’s there. They just don’t know it’s an elephant.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Oops... one more yearbook story

Stephen Strachan: Curmie Contender
Within an hour of posting my last piece on the quartet of yearbook controversies, one of the more faithful readers of this blog posted a comment on the Facebook page that she was surprised I hadn’t talked about the New York principal who plagiarized his yearbook message to students… he even congratulated the wrong class! (Side note: Curmie attended a university commencement ceremony a few years back in which the speaker—the state comptroller—repeatedly invoked the name of our arch-rival when presumably attempting to congratulate our graduates.)

The fact is, I didn’t know about this one. It hit the papers while I was out of the country, and whereas I had an internet connection of a sort, I frankly had a lot better things to do than spend a lot of time web-surfing. Even had I known about Roosevelt High School’s Stephen Strachan, I might have saved it for a separate post. It’s the outlier in the group in the sense that all the other stories were at least loosely about photographs and sometimes their accompanying cutlines: those that were excluded, those that probably should have been excluded, those that were altered without permission. (Not to mention the fact that my last post was over 2700 words already.)

But now I feel the need to say yes, this guy is an utter idiot, and ought not to be allowed on school property except with a ticket to the basketball game or band concert. What Strachan did, apparently, was to gain “permission” from a friend—the principal of a California high school—to use his remarks as the basis for Strachan’s own what-a-swell-group-of-kids-you-are message. He then made a few edits—replacing the names of California students with those of his own, but failing to change the name of the high school (!)—and mistakenly sent the wrong file off to the publisher.

Curmie has done this. Well, sort of. Once I’ve written a recommendation for a student, for example, I generally start with what I’ve already written if I’m asked to write another one. I edit it, and I try to highlight qualities in the student that would seem to make him or her a particularly good fit with a given program. But the fact is, if Mary Smith is applying to a half dozen grad schools, she’s going to get one letter, slightly revised. And I confess that I once missed editing one place in the letter and therefore told University X that Mary would be a great fit at University Y. (For the record, she was accepted at both schools.) So, yeah, I empathize.

Except that I don’t. For one thing, I wrote the original document, and I’m talking about precisely the same person. For another, no one—not Mary, not any place she’s applying—expects that I’ll craft a completely original document every time she applies someplace new. By contrast, every time I write my semi-annual state-of-the-organization speech to the honor society I advise, I start with a completely blank screen. Why? Because the circumstances are different, and the students in the room have a right to know what I think right now. Sometimes, to be sure, I’ll quote something I wrote the previous semester or the previous year: but I always do so for purposes of comparison—I said I wanted to see something happen, let’s see how we did—and I always make it clear that I’m quoting an earlier document.

Not so, Mr. Strachan. If he “got permission” from me to quote something I said, I’d grant it—but I’d expect my work to be attributed to me. I can’t grant someone the right to plagiarize from me, because the system only works if everyone involved in the communicative process is fully aware of who said what—that applies to the listener/reader, as well: in this case the students of Roosevelt High School, who were unfortunate enough to have been subjected to what we shall euphemistically refer to as his “leadership.”

A bit of the Newsday article:
Strachan, in a statement released through the Zimmerman/Edelson public relations firm, said: “I sincerely apologize to the Roosevelt community and to the class of 2014 for the inadvertent clerical error causing mistakes to be printed in the 2014 yearbook. An unedited draft of my remarks was accidentally published rather than the final version, and I take full responsibility for the oversight.”

An edited version of that page currently is being printed, and each student should receive a corrected yearbook by Friday, the statement said.

Jake Mendlinger of Zimmerman/Edelson said the total cost to replace that page of the yearbook is about $800, which will come out of the principal’s “discretionary fund.”
Curmie responds: 1). Why do you need to release your statement through a public relations firm?  2). One presumes that the term “inadvertent clerical error” is to differentiate this example from the intentional clerical errors made elsewhere. 3). The term “clerical error” sure makes it sound like you’re trying to shift the blame away from yourself, there, Ace. 4). If you “take full responsibility,” why is the money to reprint the books coming from a discretionary fund instead from your own pocket?

One is also tempted to wonder why the yearbook editor and/or advisor didn’t catch the error before it embarrassed everyone associated with the school. But what Curmie really wants to know is where the hell they found one Alfred T. Taylor, the vice president of the local school board. He’s quoted as describing the matter as an “unfortunate mistake,” a charitable but marginally accurate description. But then he said, “It’s unfortunate that somebody thought it was newsworthy.”

Really? Have we in fact found the one person in Roosevelt who understands less about education than the principal of the local high school? Yo, Dude, the high school principal just got busted for plagiarism. Don’t you care about original thought, basic honesty, or really accepting responsibility for one’s own actions? If a 15-year-old kid plagiarizes, it’s an unfortunate event, but it’s a fact of life. (It’s also, according to your own Code of Conduct, a Level 7 offense, carrying a minimum five-day suspension.) When a principal does it, it damned well better be newsworthy, or all is truly lost.

Yeah, there’s some definite Curmie consideration happening here.

A Quartet of Yearbook Controversies

Curmie was especially busy this may, as there was less time than usual between the end of spring semester and the beginning of the classes associated with his biennial trek to Ireland with students. The annual check-in with end-of-the-year high school activities is therefore happening a little (OK, a lot) later than planned. But, in the spirit of better late than never, here we go.

For whatever reason, different end-of-the-year events seem to be highlighted more in different years. Sometimes it’s prom; sometimes it’s the graduation ceremony itself; sometimes it’s senior days. This year, the hot topic is yearbooks. What I propose to do here is to look at four different controversies. In two cases, the school administrators got it wrong, realized it, and did what they could to make it right. In the others, the administration screwed up, then hemmed and hawed and muttered platitudes while actually doing bubkes. Whew—I was afraid that nobody was going to act like school administrators.

Let’s use that journalistic inverted pyramid structure on this one and start with the most egregious case. That would be in Wasatch County, Utah, where administrators decided prudishly, unilaterally, inconsistently, arrogantly, and without as much as consultation to Photoshop the pictures of female students in the school yearbook.

Yeah, there’s a dress code, which bears considerable similarity to every other dress code: a). it is incompetently written, with numerous mistakes of grammar and punctuation, b). it outlaws about everything, c). it gives absolute discretion to the administration to be arbitrary and capricious in deciding what constitutes a violation.

And a lot of girls’ photos were altered by the administration, probably illegally and certainly unethically. Equally importantly, a fair number of photos showing precisely the same kind of clothing weren’t altered. What that means, if nothing else, is that a lot of girls violated the policy as it could be interpreted by voyeuristic idiots like Wasatch County School District superintendent Terry E. Shoemaker. Seriously, if the examples that have been made available to the public are anything to go by—if they are even accurate but isolated examples—then the problem isn’t with the girls, it’s with the drooling middle-aged men like Shoemaker who get turned on a little too easily by the sight of a little adolescent skin. (Curmie flashes back to another case it Utah—about 75 minutes away, from what I can tell—a couple of years ago.

Seriously, the unedited photos I’ve seen are as innocuous as it is possible to be. There’s nothing, and I do mean nothing inappropriate about any of the unedited shots I’ve seen. Maybe, maybe covering up a tattoo or a bra strap could be forgiven (that is, after all, the sort of thing professional photographers are sometimes asked to do by their clients), but in the case of sophomore Kimberly Montoya (that’s her in the photos at the right: the real shot and the clumsily edited one), what got the old boys’ hearts a-palpitating wasn’t cleavage (there’s only the slightest hint of that in any of the allegedly offending photos) or a tattoo; it wasn’t a bare midriff or the glimpse of an undergarment… it was <gasp> shoulders. Yes, shoulders. That’s what got awkwardly covered up by the censorious asshats who dropped out of the Photoshop workshop after the first lesson and couldn’t even make their absurd editing look competent.

Turns out, there’s actually a line about shoulders in the dress code… not in the “extreme” clothing section, but under the definition of “modesty.” So the good folks running Wasatch High School aren’t quite ready to emerge from the 1950s, and by God, their students aren’t going to be allowed to do so, either. That’s ridiculous enough, but the arbitrary decision-making, the utter lack of transparency, and the smugness of the administration’s response are the greater problem. Sophomore Shelby Baum notes that “They didn’t tell you before they edited it, they didn’t give you an option to fix it, so you look funny in your yearbook picture.” Baum’s photo was altered in part to cover a dress-code compliant tattoo. And, of course, there was no objective—or even consistent—criterion for what was considered acceptable. Two girls wore the same top—one photo was altered to add sleeves, the other wasn’t.

Even Idiot in Charge Superintendent Shoemaker admits the process was flawed, although of course he’s righteously indignant that anyone might expect him or his lackeys to act like adults in the 21st century instead of something out of a bad community theatre production of The Crucible. “We only apologize in the sense that we want to be more consistent with what it is that we’re trying to do. In that sense we can help kids better prepare for their future by knowing how to dress appropriately for things.” News flash: the students were dressed appropriately, whether terminally constipated jackasses like Shoemaker think so or not.

Shoemaker did issue an unapologetic apology, blaming the students for not paying attention to the sign (4 feet by 5 feet, he hastens to tell us) that warned against “tank tops, low cut tops, inappropriate slogans on shirts, etc.” Guess what? None of the students in the pictures I’ve seen did any of that. And Shoemaker, like all moral cowards, passed the buck on the administrative snafus associated with his nonsensical censorship policy from school officials to the yearbook staff. What a sorry excuse for a leader this little putz is!

But wait (as they say in the infomercials), that’s not all! Turns out that boys didn’t really have to obey any standards at all. There’s a page in the yearbook with the headline “Wasatch Stud Life.” The sub-head reads “Studs doin’ what studs do best.” Curmie likes to imagine himself reasonably creative, but seriously, Gentle Reader, I couldn’t make this shit up. There are photos of boys with shirts gaping open, boys showing off tattoos, boys showing significant quantities of boxer shorts. Ah, but you see, they’re boys. Boys will be boys. Or studs. Or whatever.

Curmie is unlikely to be accused any time soon of being a raging feminist, although he’s certainly been accused of worse. But it’s hard to argue with the interpretation of Holly Mullen, the executive director of the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City. An article in the Salt Lake Tribune describes her reaction:
The celebration of boys as “studs” while girls’ bodies are digitally covered is evidence of a bigger cultural problem…. “It speaks to allowing young men to dress and act as they choose and yet young women have to be kept in order,” Mullen said.

The notion that women must be controlled and directed so as not to inflame male sexual appetites only objectifies women and can contribute to sexual assault, Mullen said.

The dynamic often plays out in sexual violence, she said. “It’s a crime of control and taking away someone else’s control and autonomy. It sets them [men and women] up for that down the line.”
Yeah, what she said.

In other words, if there are mistakes to be made in terms of what photographs to include in the yearbook and how to edit them, the good folks at Wasatch found a way to make them. Their approach was ham-handed, opaque, incompetent, capricious, inconsistent, arrogant, puritanical, censorious, irresponsible, unethical… and, oh yeah, sexist in the extreme. Other than that, it went off without a hitch. Chances of a Curmie nomination for Shoemaker and his minions: Excellent.

And so we turn to story number two: the inclusion in Mesa (AZ) High School’s yearbook of a two-page spread celebrating the school’s teenaged parents. Curmie chose the word “celebrating” in the foregoing sentence carefully, by the way. I thought about “acknowledging” or “highlighting,” but the pages in question… well… celebrate some of the most ignorant, counter-productive behavior in which teens could engage. Sex at age 16 or 17 without appropriate birth control measures has disastrous consequences for everyone involved—from the mother to her relationship to the father to the child to society at large. Yes, teen pregnancy and teen parenting is part of life. So is heroin addiction; I don’t see the yearbook trying to spin that into a photo spread. (Maybe I shouldn’t have written that last sentence lest it give some idiot yearbook editor and irresponsible advisor an idea.)

It is true that if you look closely at the pages in question, there’s some ambivalence about whether this parenting thing was such a good idea, but, really, how many of us get past the headlines and the multiple soft-focus (metaphorically speaking) photographs. Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall wrote about this case as it was garnering national attention; the following is an excerpt from a comment I wrote on his Ethics Alarms page.
This yearbook spread does indeed glamorize irresponsible behavior, and clearly sets out to engender a case of the warm fuzzies, concentrating on the pseudo-heroic efforts of young mothers struggling with the difficulties of student parenthood while blithely ignoring the purely voluntary choice that put them in that position. (Of course, it is possible that one of the mothers might have been a rape victim and chose for religious or ethical reasons not to terminate the pregnancy. That’s another matter altogether.)

The yearbook feature does, in fact, empower a group of young women who, having made a mistake, are trying to mitigate the negative consequences by continuing their educations. But such an argument remains sufficiently destructive to the next generation of prospective mothers who see only a romanticized view of profoundly counter-productive behavior that there is no question that cooing over teen pregnancies is a net minus.
Particularly problematic for me was the argument in favor of including the feature: “Student parents don't have time to go to homecoming and do all that because they have a kid, so they don't really get to be seen on the yearbook, so we thought it would be a good idea to put them on the page where they could be seen.” Thus spake yearbook staffer Austin Contreras. He’s a kid, so I don’t want to be too hard on him, but the fact that teenaged parents don’t participate in school events is precisely why they shouldn’t be featured in the yearbook. Yes, include them in class photos, in candids if they happen to be there. No, don’t, to paraphrase an editorial in the Arizona Republic, “turn them leperlike from the colony and deny them an education.” But don’t “[glamorize] a life-altering mistake,” either. This seems reasonable to me. All of us make mistakes, but this is a huge one at that age. Acknowledge those who overcome the obstacles in their lives, but acknowledge, too, that some of those obstacles were self-created.

The problem here is the flip side of what happened in Utah, where censorial impulses ran amok and the administration butted into the yearbook’s operation in unnecessary and embarrassing ways. Here, the faculty advisor and other responsible officials failed to suggest that a really bad idea was a really bad idea. It’s too little, too late to proclaim in the wake of the controversy that “Yearbooks are an opportunity to commemorate students' school activities and achievements. The material presented reflects choices made outside of the school environment.”

Including the pages was dumb, but I’m less exercised than my friend Jack. Chances of a Curmie nomination: Fair.

Moving on to Mundy’s Mill High School in Jonesboro, Georgia. There, senior class vice president and apparently all-around good kid Paris Gray was suspended and threatened with not being able to graduate for a “quotation” that accompanied her yearbook photo: “When the going gets tough, just remember to Barium Carbon Potassium Thorium Astatine Arsenic Sulfer Utranium Phospheros.”

It’s been over 40 years since Curmie was in a chemistry classroom, but he can recognize a nerd joke when he sees one. The chemical symbols for those elements are Ba C K Th At As S U P. “Back that ass up,” in other words. Apparently this is what passes for riotously hilarious in some quarters these days.

OK. So. Young Ms. Gray was being ever so clever, and the editors, advisor, and whoever else was supposed to check on such things were too f*cking stupid to notice the obvious asleep at the wheel, so the passage made it into print. Naturally, the fact that the silly and not very funny joke made it past the dim-witted authorities was Paris’s fault, and what raised no alarms when the gag was submitted was enough to send administrators into crisis mode in the spring.

They blustered and made threats and did all the things dumb administrators do. Then what The Atlantic’s James Hamblin calls “Internet justice” struck, school officials backed down and apologized, and all was well with the world.

Let’s face it, this incident does raise issues about Ms. Gray’s readiness to be granted a diploma. For one thing, if you’re going to make a joke that involves words on a page, misspelling three words in a row is probably contra-indicated (that would be sulfur, uranium, and phosphorus, in case you’re wondering). Of course, it could be the editor who screwed that up (certainly s/he doesn’t emerge from this incident covered in glory). But it’s unquestionably Ms. Gray who wants us to believe that “back that ass up” means something like “You have to go back and start all over.” Um, no. Not now, not ever, and certainly not in the most famous (or at least notorious) use of the phrase, in the ‘90s rap song “Back That Azz Up,” which is, well, just nasty. That makes Paris either utterly devoid of interpretative ability or a liar trying to excuse her own actions behind a façade of fatuous innocence. My money’s on the latter, but I’ll pretend otherwise.

But if incompetent spelling and inability to comprehend text aren’t enough to keep Ms. Gray from graduating, neither should acting like an adolescent. The school was right to back down, and they did so in time to minimize the damage. Chances of a Curmie nomination: Slim.

Finally, there’s the case of Jessica Urbina (right), a student at San Francisco’s Sacred Heart Cathedral High School, whose picture was left out of the yearbook because she wore a tuxedo instead of a dress. It’s a dumb rule, and the lack of transparency is also an issue.

But there are three fundamental differences between this case and the one in Utah. First, it’s a Catholic school, and as such they ought to be granted a little more latitude in deciding what is and isn’t appropriate: there are lots of things Curmie might not like about the way they run things, but—within some fairly broad parameters—they have a little more autonomy than a public school would, and school officials were trying to follow Diocesan rules.

Second, Ms. Urbina’s picture was not altered so she “[looks] funny in [her] yearbook photo.” It may not seem preferable to omit the photo altogether rather than to change it. But we’re not talking about a voluntary touching-up here. What happened in Utah was, effectively, misrepresentation, which to my mind is worse than omission.
Finally, and most importantly, school officials issued a comprehensive, public, and apparently sincere apology. I was particularly struck by the following paragraph:
Many people suggest that the past few days have been deeply revealing about our school community. We agree. We are an imperfect community that can and does fail. We are a community that is open to self-reflection, and to the constructive criticism and leadership of its students, as well as to the criticism from members of our broader community. We are a community that strives to grow, improve and do what is right. We are a community that sees, in all situations, an opportunity to learn. While we would have preferred to have this learning be less public than the current situation, especially for the impact it has on individuals and families, we are a community open to sharing our struggles and joys with the wider world so that we can all learn from each other, whether from successes or failures. More than 300 years ago, St. John Baptist de La Salle, one of our founders, said that our students will learn far more from us by our actions than by the words we speak. This is one of those moments.
School officials, like everyone else, are fallible. They got one wrong, realized it, and did whatever they could to rectify the situation. They behaved like grown-ups. So did Jessica and her family. And, ultimately, everyone won. Chances of a Curmie nomination: Zero.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

John Brennan Richly Deserves to Be Unemployed

At least he's good at something: lying is a skill, right?
Curmie started a piece today on high school yearbooks, or, rather, on four different controversies involving such publications this year. I’m going to put that essay on hold for the moment, though, to talk about the current furor over CIA Director John Brennan. Brennan, whose rise to the leadership of the agency has been aptly described by The Guardian’s Trevor Timm as “failing upwards,” was a supporter of rendition, torture, and all the other insidious Bush-era programs the Obama administration pretended for a while to oppose, all the while immunizing the worst offenders from criticism, let alone much-deserved job losses and long-term incarceration.

Brennan was floated as a possibility for the CIA’s top post when President Obama was first elected, but withdrew from contention amid a swarm of reminders of what a sinister little weasel he truly is… only to re-appear as Obama’s chief counter-terrorism advisor. In that position, he was caught lying on numerous occasions, most notably the outrageous claim that no non-combatants were killed in a year’s worth of drone strikes in Pakistan. Here’s an article about the falseness of the claim, even using the CIA’s own massaged numbers. That patently mendacious assertion was made on June 29, 2011. Analysis by New America shows a total of six strikes leading to civilian deaths, accounting for between 61 and 68 civilian fatalities in the previous year. Brennan, in short, is a liar. That’s an OK quality in a spy, I suppose, except when he’s lying to his presumed bosses: the President, Congress, and the American citizenry.

He told a bunch of other lies, too, including false information about the death of Osama bin Laden. For this record of colossal arrogance, untrustworthiness, and deceit, he was duly rewarded by President Obama with the nomination for the CIA position in January of 2013. Obama cited serial prevaricator Brennan’s “integrity and commitment ‘to the values that define us as Americans.’” Really, he did: it’s right there on the White House website.

The confirmation process was anything but smooth, with two leading Democrats—Senators Mark Udall and Ron Wyden—expressing real concerns. Republican Senator Rand Paul launched a real-live filibuster—the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” kind, not the candy-assed variety that has been allowed to hold sway of late—against Brennan’s nomination. After some 13 hours, the vote finally happened, with Brennan being confirmed by a less-than-overwhelming 63-34 margin.

Fast forward a year or so, to January of this year, at which point Brennan allegedly told Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein that the CIA had searched the computers of Senate staffers engaged in an oversight investigation because they feared the committee might have gained access to internal review documents they weren’t authorized to see. Senator Feinstein subsequently complained on the Senate floor in March that “The CIA did not ask the committee or its staff if the committee had access to the internal review or how we obtained it. Instead, the CIA just went and searched the committee’s computer.”

Here’s a post-facto version of Feinstein’s argument, as reported by Spencer Ackerman of The Guardian:
Feinstein, in her dramatic speech on the Senate floor in March, said the agency breached the firewall to obstruct the committee’s investigation of the agency’s torture of post-9/11 terrorism detainees, a years-long effort expected to be partially declassified in the coming days or weeks. That investigation was itself prompted by a different coverup: the destruction of videotapes of brutal interrogations by a senior official, Jose Rodriguez.
Despite that, the committee has concluded that the torture was an ineffective means of gathering intelligence on al-Qaida—contradicting years of CIA assurances it was crucial – and that the agency lied to its overseers about its value.
Feinstein’s indignation was well-placed, not least because there are precious few documents that ought to be kept from an oversight committee. But, Gentle Reader, I urge you to look at what Brennan was asserting, remembering that this is the best-case scenario for the CIA’s public image and credibility. He’s saying that the reason the CIA took the outrageous action of searching Congressional computers is that the world’s allegedly most sophisticated spy organization doesn’t know how to keep documents out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have access to them. Mr. Brennan had his choice: he could admit to a series of felonies, or to having the crime-fighting abilities and general competence of Inspector Clouseau on a bad day.

Of course, he took another option: righteous dudgeon. He—to use the phrase of The Hill’s Alexander Bolton “[waged] an aggressive counter-attack,” rolling his eyes and claiming that “nothing could be further from the truth” than Feinstein’s charges. He continued, “I mean, we wouldn’t do that. I mean, that’s just beyond the scope of reason.” He was lying, of course. You could tell that because he’s John Brennan, his lips were moving, and words were being formed. And he probably picked the wrong adversary: Senator Feinstein is well-respected on the hill, in part because even political rivals like Senator Lindsey Graham say she “is somebody who’s not prone to say wild things.”

And so now it emerges that what we knew all along—that if John Brennan says it, it’s probably not true—turns out to have been proven by the CIA’s own investigation. Yes, the CIA was spying on the very people charged with overseeing their activities. Yes, Brennan is either less trustworthy than the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse or dumber than a stack of burnt toast. Who knew, right? Other than anyone who was paying the slightest bit of attention, that is.

So now he’s issued a private apology and seems ready to continue to be the same prevaricating jackass he’s always been. Brian Hughes (article linked above), however, writes:
“Brennan is either a liar or incompetent—or maybe both,” one senior Democratic Senate aide told the Washington Examiner. “No, I don’t think the White House can expect us to give him the benefit of the doubt here.”
Two Democratic Senators—Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich—have already called for Brennan’s ouster; don’t be surprised if there are further demands from both sides of the aisle: Senators Graham, McCain and Wyden all come to mind as possibilities.  Others will join if there’s already enough blood in the water. Yet somehow the Obama administration itself remains convinced that Brennan is the right man for the job: “full confidence” is the President’s term.

Excuse me, waiter, but could I have an extra helping of WTF with that bullshit-burger? It’s pretty clear that the President is joining Dorothy on her trip to Oz. The only question is which of her fellow travelers he’s chosen to emulate. Is he really without a brain? How else to explain his apparent inability to perceive what’s been obvious to everyone else for months if not years? Does he lack the courage to do what’s right even if it casts doubt on his initial decision-making? Or is what he is missing heart—the human capacity to care whether justice is served, competence rewarded, and mendacity punished?

Of course, the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man all actually had those attributes all along. It just took the Wizard (“really a very good man, but… a very bad Wizard”), to point that everything they sought was always already present. I’d like to think that the POTUS has those qualities, too. But I’m beginning to suspect the contrary. (That’s Curmie-speak for “I’ve been pretty damned convinced for a while,” in case you were wondering.)

John Brennan has had a chance to resign. He didn’t take it. He should therefore be fired. Anyone want to bet that he will be?

I didn’t think so.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Curmie Contender: Dew Yew Bee Leave This? Edition

Sometimes people just jump up and down and scream that they want to be in the running for next year’s Curmie Award, given to the person or institution who most embarrasses the profession of education. Well, metaphorically, at least.

Clarke Woodger: Curmie Contender
Such an eager contestant is one Clarke Woodger, the owner of the Nomen Global Language Center, a private school in Provo, Utah that specializes in variations on the theme of English as a second language. According to an article in the Salt Lake Tribune, Woodger fired his social media specialist, for writing about homophones. Yes, really.

Tim Torkildson wrote a blog on the school’s website explaining what homophones are—words that sound the same but mean different things and are often spelled differently. This would seem to anyone with an IQ above room temperature to be an obvious topic to discuss with ESL learners: one of the most difficult things about English is that we have far more homophones than most other languages do. While this adds to the richness of our discourse—and allows for many more puns and other word-play—it’s a particularly arduous task for non-native speakers (Nomen caters to foreign students seeking admission to American higher education) to differentiate between “pairs” and “pears,” “be” and “bee,” “road” and “rode,” and the like.

Well, let Torkildson tell it:
This week I was fired for writing a blog about homophones for an educational website.

“I’m letting you go because I can’t trust you” said Clarke Woodger, my boss and the owner of Nomen Global Language Center. “This blog about homophones was the last straw. Now our school is going to be associated with homosexuality.”

I said nothing, stunned into silence.

“I had to look up the word” he continued, “because I didn’t know what the hell you were talking about. We don’t teach this kind of advanced stuff to our students, and it’s extremely inappropriate. Can you have your desk cleaned out by eleven this morning? I’ll have your check ready.”
To be fair, Woodger claims that his concerns with the blog had nothing to do with homosexuality, and it may be true that the blog entry in question, which has been taken down, was problematic in other ways. Still, the Tribune’s Paul Rolly does quote Woodger as saying that “People at this level of English… may see the ‘homo’ side and think it has something to do with gay sex.” So his protestations seem a little… compromised.

That said, Torkildson himself defended Woodger against some of the more damning accusations that have come from all quarters in the past couple of days. The now-unemployed blogger told Newsweek’s Zach Schonfeld that he hadn’t been accused of advocating a gay agenda or anything like that. The objection was simply that Woodger thought students would be confused.

That presents us with a different problem, but a problem nonetheless. Woodger is not, in the typically clever and typically vulgar term used on the Wonkette site, an “ash whole.” He is, rather, at best nigh eve and probably more than a little dents.

When I first came across this story and posted it to the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, it didn’t take long for a dear friend and former student of Curmie, now a middle-school teacher, to point out that her 5th-graders know what homophones are. Another commenter suggests that homophones are introduced in the 2nd grade. So… yeah. I’m all for giving the benefit of the doubt. Mr. Woodger is not, perhaps, a homophobic (not to be confused with “homophonic”) jerk, or at least as big a one as some have alleged. He is, however, dumber than a turnip and totally unfit to run a lemonade stand, let alone a school.

Are we really to believe that someone who runs a language school doesn’t have the… wait for it… language skills of a 5th-grader? Are we to believe that he doesn’t think that teaching ESL students about homophones will make their future lives in the Anglophone world considerably easier? Are we to believe that the owner of the largest ESL school in the state doesn’t understand the Streisand Effect? Because if he’d simply said that Torkildson had been released for other reasons, this would have been a prime example of tempest in a teapot. Everything would have blown over quickly once people realized they were hearing only one side of the story, and perhaps Mr. Torkildson might not be as sore abused as he would have us believe.

But Woodger’s bizarre statement that suggests that any word that begins with “homo”—“homogenized” or “homogeneous,” for example—is inherently so confusing to the adult mind that no one could possibly think of anything other than homosexuality… well, that is precisely why the word “homosexual” is at all associated with the school. (Note: I remain unclear as to why such a linkage constitutes a problem at all, but that’s a rant for another day.) It will no doubt come as a shock to Mr. Woodger, but other languages use prefixes, too. Of course, he’d know that if he had the language skills of one of my friend’s 5th graders. (It might take a high school education to know what I mean by celebrating his wonderfully “Dickensian” name.)

Clarke Woodger strikes me as the kind of person who begins sentences with “Some of my best friends are…” or “I’m not prejudiced, but…”. Is he as obnoxious as the Rick Santorums of the world? No. But he’s just as stupid. And a better contender for the Curmie.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Gloria Kathurima, Tom Robinson, and the Nature of Racism

in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson
in the trial scene in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird











































Sometimes there’s a purely coincidental propinquity of events that helps bring a little clarity… or at least a little introspection.

A few days ago, I wrote about that bizarre float in the 4th of July parade in Norfolk, Nebraska. So, a day or two earlier, did Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall. We came to many of the same conclusions, although whereas Jack was to state unconditionally that the display was not racist, I was a little more circumspect. Here’s what I wrote as a comment on Jack’s essay (with one typo cleaned up):
I’m intrigued by the discussion of racism. Certainly I agree that nothing in the events described qualifies as inherently racist… but I think the word “inherently” matters here. The fact that there is not an obvious racial motivation for what is clearly an intentionally offensive float, one which displays its creator’s “disgust,” does not mean that it is intrinsically devoid of such volition. Even the little boy who cried “wolf” was right once. Similarly, whereas there are those who reflexively scream “racism” at every criticism of the current President, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t expressions of anti-Obama sentiment which really are grounded in the fact that he has a little more melanin than you or I do.

In this case, Ms. Kathurima and her daughter have experienced racism—or believe they have—and you say that you “don’t blame her” for perceiving it in this instance. Nor do I. That Mr. Remmich intended to insult the POTUS, I think goes without saying. Why, specifically, he set out to do so is an open question. Maybe it’s racial. Maybe it’s political. Maybe he knows his neighbors and pandered to their predilections. I certainly don’t know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t, really, either.

I grapple with a variation on this theme constantly in my professional work, especially in the area of communication theory as it applies to aesthetics. Oversimplified a little, the modernist/positivist view is that the sender of a message creates and encodes meaning, and the receiver’s job is to “find” the meaning through a process of decoding. The post-positivist view, however, is to argue that the sender catalyzes rather than creates meaning, that meaning is in fact created by the receiver of the message. To me, the two positions are equally valid.

One of my standard approaches to this dilemma is to suggest to students that “somewhere in this room is someone who has had a major fight with a loved one because what one of you thought you said was not what the other thought he/she heard.” Moreover, whether the “blame” for a misinterpretation should be placed with the sender or the receiver is likely to be influenced in your mind not so much by philosophical or theoretical concerns as by which of those positions you happened to occupy on the occasion in question.

We are left, then, with two significant questions, neither of which I am prepared to answer with confidence. 1). Is the meaning of a communication determined by the sender, the receiver, or by some presumably objective external agent? 2). At what point does a particular reaction pass from confirmation bias into, well, experience?
Jack was kind enough to make my commentary his “Comment of the Day,” and posted it separately on Friday. As a tag to that post, he wrote
1. The meaning of a communication is determined by the sender’s intent.
2. Since most bias is based on experience, I think the answer is both “always” and “never.” Experience doesn’t excuse or validate bias, it just explains it.
The problem with associating meaning with the sender’s intent, of course, is spelled out in Jack’s own later comment on the same post—it requires the presumption of “competent communication.” And if nothing else can be asserted with confidence about this particular mess, I feel comfortable in asserting that Mr. Remmich cannot be counted on to provide such competence, or it would have been a hell of a lot easier to figure out that a). he was portraying himself as the zombie-ish figure standing in frustration outside the outhouse/presidential library on the float, and b). that he was upset by the VA and Bergdahl incidents. Indeed, we could lay the entire responsibility for the communicative process on the listener if only we could limit ourselves to “competent interpretation.” Alas, there far too many potholes in far too many places along the road to communication to blame any one source.

In a comment on his own post, Jack added, “If the woman who thought the float was racist thinks any criticism of the President must be racist, the sender [can’t] do a thing about that, other than not communicate at all.” There is no evidence to suggest that she thinks that at all, and Jack’s comment could be taken either as a true hypothetical or as an assertion that she is guilty of this narrow-mindedness. I’m guessing the former. But I base that conclusion in part on “knowing” Jack—we’ve read and commented on a lot of each other’s blog pieces over the last three and a half years, and we even met in person for a few minutes once. Anyway, the idea of different perceptions stuck with me later in the day.

My wife and I went to see a university production of To Kill a Mockingbird directed by one of my colleagues Friday night. In the play, as in the book and movie, Tom Robinson, a young black man, stands accused of assaulting a white woman. By the time he testifies, two things are clear: that he is innocent, and that he will probably be convicted anyway, despite a spirited and persuasive defense by our hero, Atticus Finch. Robinson had in fact run from the scene of the crime, however, after being seen by the girl’s father (who, by now, has been clearly established as the real cause of his daughter’s injuries; there was no rape at all). Here’s are the questions and the testimony (this is from the book; the play may be slightly different):
”Then you ran.”
“I sho’ did, suh.”
“Why did you run?”
“I was scared, suh.”
“Why were you scared?”
“Mr. Finch, if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too.”
What struck me, apart from the obvious truth of the statement given the setting in 1930s Alabama, was the use of the word “scared.” That word stood out. Gloria Kathurima, the Kenyan immigrant/naturalized citizen who had become something of a flashpoint in the Norfolk controversy had used it, too: describing her reaction to the float and the responses of her fellow parade-goers. “That's when I really became scared,” she said.

I remember thinking that was a strange turn of phrase, especially for someone as articulate and seemingly unflappable as Ms. Kathurima. I could understand “disgusted” or “resentful” or even “irate.” But “scared” seemed odd. I didn’t think much of it until seeing the show last night and hearing Tom Robinson talk about being “scared.”

The scene and the story of To Kill a Mockingbird as a whole are structured so that there is absolutely no doubt that Tom Robinson has every right to be afraid. If he didn’t get out of that shack and as far away as possible as fast as possible, he’d be beaten or possibly lynched. Everybody knew it—everybody in the fictive courtroom that day, and all the real people who read the book, saw the movie, or watched the play. Still, our reaction was probably more sympathetic than empathetic—most of us can approximate an intellectual understanding of what would be going through the mind of someone like Tom Robinson, but few—I hope—will have first-hand experience of that sort of terror.

The case in Norfolk is more nuanced. The bad guys of the piece—such as they are—are merely boorish in an ignorant and unsophisticated way: they are nothing like the embodiment of evil we see in the Ewell clan in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is impossible to believe that Gloria Kathurima’s “really… scared” was anything like Tom Robinson’s. On the other hand, it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that someone who looks like me understands completely what someone who looks like Ms. Kathurima goes through on a daily basis. If I were “[black] like her,” if I had endured the quotidian slights, the subtle ostracisms, and possibly worse, perhaps I’d be scared, too.

It is perfectly possible that a dispassionate observer would say that Ms. Kathurima has suffered the effects of racism not at all, that her perceptions of it are totally unfounded. It is even more plausible that the same objective witness would see no race-related intent on Mr. Remmich’s part. But I can’t see that that’s the end of the discussion. We can’t know what was in Remmich’s mind; someone even suggested on Curmie’s Facebook page that his stated reasons for making the float had been made up post facto when someone called him on his racism. That’s possible, although I doubt it.

And whereas Jack was right in his original post to suggest that Kathurima “has been told over and over again by Melissa Harris-Perry, Chris Matthews, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the NAACP and others that President Obama is a great man who is being robbed of the credit due him by the racism of his enemies,” he also points out that “she is used to racism, [and] the scene of a mostly white crowd laughing at what she may have thought was a crude depiction of black President must have felt like a minstrel show to her. I don’t blame her.”  I might add, too, my oft-repeated observation that whereas all racism is stupid, not all stupidity, even when dealing with people of different skin colors, is racist.

It is, after all, all about perception. Because, as Atticus Finch reminds us, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Good advice.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Matter of Context: Yes, That Float Was Tacky

The world’s first great democracy, ancient Athens, showcased the strength of its government and citizenry by a variety of means, not the least of which was self-mockery. At the Lenaea Festival and later even at the Great City Dionysia, the polis staged rowdy and vulgar satires that left no one free from the scathing wit of the likes of Aristophanes, whose barbs were aimed at everyone from the strategos Cleon (The Knights) to Socrates (The Clouds) to the demi-god Dionysus himself (The Frogs). Variations on the theme appear in other governmental systems as well: the Feast of Fools, for example, or the wide political latitude granted to the court jester.

The phenomenon may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, but a little reflection leads us to the simple fact that the ability to laugh at oneself is a sign of strength, not weakness. This phenomenon has also played out in this country’s fairly recent history. One of the most reassuring moments in the period immediately after 9/11, for example, was when David Letterman went back on the air in New York. But we knew we were really going to be all right when he started telling Bush jokes again.

So there is nothing whatsoever wrong with satirizing American politicians, up to and including President Obama. Except, well…

In Norfolk, Nebraska this 4th of July, a float carried on the back of a flatbed truck showed, in the words of the Omaha World Herald’s Hunter Woodall:
... a figure standing outside an outhouse labeled the “Obama Presidential Library”.…
The figure was dressed in overalls and standing next to a walker outside of the outhouse. The hands and head of the figure were greenish and appeared to be zombielike; the hands were pressed against the sides of the figure’s head. Miniature American flags were atop the float and on the truck.
As one might expect, there were two fundamentally different responses, or rather two fundamentally different sets of responses. There were those, like Gloria Kathurima, who regarded the float as “not OK,” and indeed as “not just political [but] absolutely a racial statement.” Kathurima, who immigrated from Kenya as a girl and is now a naturalized citizen, was, according to the NBC affiliate in Sioux City, IA (about 90 miles to the northeast), “deeply offended.” The station aired an interview with her in which she says, “[Some people were] laughing, some people were pointing, some people were clapping, and that’s when I really became scared. I was thinking ‘What are you guys laughing at? What's remotely funny about this?’ I don't see any sort of policy being argued. I don't see any sort of stance being taken.”

We can argue with the characterization of racism—see Jack Marshall’s piece at Ethics Alarms, for example—but in a town in which whites outnumber blacks by a ratio of about 55:1, an apparently gratuitous insult to a black man who also happens to be the President of the United States does take on a certain distastefulness. Couple that with Kathurima’s daughter’s experience in the local school district—descriptions of the other kids’ not liking her, always wanting to touch her hair: this speaks to an alienation, whether or not inspired by racial animus. Intended or not, that’s going to look a lot like “a racial statement” to a lot of people, especially those with a little more melanin than average in a small Nebraska town.

But even if we discount the racial element altogether, we’re still left agreeing with Jack Marshall’s list of adjectives: “wrong,” “harmful,” “ugly,” “inept,” “unfunny,” and “divisive.” Ms. Kathumira is unquestionably correct that there really isn’t a policy statement to be derived from the display: just contempt for the current President. And here’s where we get to the other group of people mentioned earlier: the ones who approved the float, the ones who laughed—these are not the cream of the nation’s intellectual crop.

But H. Dale Remmich, who designed and built this monstrosity, is a special kind of incompetent. He claims to have had two impetuses for his creation: the “ongoing issues of the Veteran's Affairs administration” and “the government's handling of the Bergdahl scandal.” OK, if you tell me that I’m looking for the former in this float’s satiric intent, I might be able to find my way there with a guide dog—I guess the figure could be taken to be a veteran whose benefits got bound up in VA incompetence. (Remmich claims it was intended to represent himself… why it was so intended is less than entirely clear.) But the Bergdahl case? How in the name of all that’s holy are we supposed to derive that particular meaning, based on this ill-conceived and poorly constructed monument to self-described “political disgust”?

For all this, Remmich is an intellectual giant compared to the judges who gave the float an award and especially to parade committee member Rick Konopasek and announcer Wally Sonnenschein, whose mental superiority to a decaying cucumber is not immediately apparent. Konopasek, having just said that floats could and would be denied for being “morally objectionable,” meaning, apparently, that anything sexual would be banned, immediately proceeds to claim that “If we start saying no to certain floats, we might as well not have a parade at all.” Uh, Rick… you are, presumably, saying no to certain floats.

The prize-winner, however, is Sonnenschein, who, it seems, was able to keep a straight face while declaring that “I really don’t see anything wrong with the Obama float and I’m kind of amazed anyone is complaining.” The first part of his statement is no doubt true, more’s the pity. The second part is either utterly disingenuous or ol’ Wally would come in third place in a battle of wits with a corn dog and an anvil.

The fact is that context matters. If this parade has a history of poking a little fun at political leaders, so be it. But no one seems to be defending the float on those grounds, meaning that this year’s entry was probably an outlier: one that should have been denied a spot in the parade for being out of tune with the purpose of the event. Analogously, when Representative Joe Wilson interrupted the State of the Union address a few years back to shout “You lie” at the President, he was rightly rebuked not because his accusation was inaccurate (although it was, at least in that particular moment), or that he didn’t have the legal right to object to the speech, but rather because expressing himself in that way, in those circumstances, was boorish, disrespectful of the presidency (not merely of the President), and a disgrace to his own constituency.

One of the things that stuck in my mind this Independence Day season was the number of friends who rejoiced in the fact that for this one day, at least, we get to cease being members of a particular political party or religion or race or socio-economic status and simply be Americans. Remmich, Konopasek, Sonnenschein and their ilk seek to deny us that unity, and we are all the poorer for that.