Thursday, October 4, 2018

Kavanaugh's Unfitness and Curmie's Memories

It wasn’t that long ago that Curmie was working on a piece he called “Triple,” as there were three stories he wanted to cover with short commentaries rather than writing a longer essay about a single topic. I’d decided to treat them in what I perceived to be descending order of importance. I wrote the first mini-essay, about “Plaid Shirt Guy” (I’ll get that posted eventually), but I got tired and went to bed before writing the second of the three parts, about the credible but imprecise and anonymous allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. (The third section was to be Serena Williams’s petulant display at the US Open; I may or may not get back to that one.)

The building, unlike Brett Kavanaugh, doesn't make Curmie want to puke
The next morning I woke to news that the charges against Judge Kavanaugh were no longer anonymous, and carried at least some more specificity than had hitherto been realized (or at least publicized). Everything changed then. Personally, I went from a grudging acceptance of Kavanaugh as a deeply problematic inevitability to real questions about him—not for what he is alleged to have done as a teen-ager, but because of how he comports himself now. Do I believe that any candidate ought to be judged on events from decades ago? No. Curmie intends to vote for Beto O’Rourke for Senate in a few weeks; I’m not unaware of his arrests for DWI and burglary a generation ago. But I’m voting for him for two reasons: most importantly, he is not the mendacious, pusillanimous, fecal accretion that is Ted Cruz, but more relevant to the point here is the fact that he’s come clean about his past, addressed it, and argued that he’s not a post-adolescent idiot anymore. I believe that.

Had Brett Kavanaugh taken a similar approach, Curmie would be back to thinking about Kavanaugh the way he thinks about Samuel Alito: as a lightweight partisan, technically qualified but not one of the nation’s 100 best conservative judicial minds. That isn’t Brett Kavanaugh, though.

His defense is two-fold: that stuff didn’t happen, and if it did, it shouldn’t matter. Besides, that’s what guys do. Well, sort of. I suspect it’s true that most boys have, shall we say, run through a stop-sign or two. Curmie did when he was a teen—in part because the girl’s text and subtext (or at least Curmie’s interpretation of the subtext) didn’t exactly converge and Curmie chose to believe in the one most in synch with Curmie’s short-term desires at the time. In retrospect, the motivation seems not to have been lust, much less a power dynamic; rather, I think it was the intoxicating naughtiness of the moment.

I would, however, argue that we’re talking about a much lesser offense. In this scenario, no one was physically restrained, nor were there any locked doors. There was no use of superior physical strength, no taking advantage of a drunken girl unable to give a reasonable consent. There were no leering friends laughing at a victim. There was no attempt to cover her mouth, nothing close to making her fear for her personal safety (per se), no attempt to remove panties, or indeed anything close to that. Does that excuse the behavior? No. Does being younger than Kavanaugh was at the time of his alleged transgressions? No. But does it suggest a different scenario than the one described by Dr. Blasey Ford? I think so.  More importantly, it was behavior I outgrew by the age of 16.

OK, let’s flip the script. A few years later, Curmie, then a young adult and a college professor, was accused of forcing himself on a student. Curmie had just cast a show, and this particular young woman didn’t get the part she wanted. It’s unclear exactly how the story developed. The bottom line was that I had supposedly offered her a better role if… well, you know. It’s unclear whether she was just venting to her friends and made up a story that one of them passed along, or whether there was an actual allegation about me to my boss. Anyway, as I understand it, the suggestion was a little too specific, and (purely by luck) I had a credible witness that I was someplace else at the exact moment in question. But I didn’t know that when my boss talked to me.

Obviously, I denied the allegation, and I suggested a possible motivation. What I didn’t do was scream. Or vow vengeance. Or evade questions. Kavanaugh’s performance at the post-allegation hearing, on the other hand, was not that of an innocent man. He came across as a guy who’s been fined $200 for jaywalking: “yes, I’m technically guilty, but nobody ever really enforces that rule.” Given the multiple sources—whether the FBI could be bothered to interview them or not—who corroborate the general character of the young Brett Kavanaugh, even if not the specific allegations that precipitated the second look at his candidacy, we can confidently believe that he was considerably less than the choir boy he pretends to have been. This may mean that he graduated summa cum laude from the Bill Clinton School of Sexual Predation, chanting the institutional motto, Nega, Nega, Nega (deny, deny, deny). Or it may mean, as some have suggested, that attempted rape was such a matter of course for Kavanaugh and his privileged cohorts that it really did make no impression on him… why, after all, would he remember an event as inconsequential as that? Curmie can’t decide which is worse: perjury or a stunning level of hubris. Either way, we’re a long way from a legitimate reason to confirm.

The foregoing presumes that Kavanaugh really did assault teen-aged Christine Blasey. That’s because, speaking as someone who has been falsely accused, Curmie believes her. She brings a calm credibility to her allegations; and Brett Kavanaugh’s performance at the hearings did not give his denials the same gravitas. Indeed, at this point it becomes irrelevant for our present concern whether Kavanaugh is “innocent.” Rather, the hubris, petulance, paranoia, and general lack of decorum he displayed in the re-opened hearing ought to have disqualified him not merely from SCOTUS, but from every courtroom in the country except as a defendant.

Chances he’ll be confirmed, anyway: 99%

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Citizens Who Aren’t... But Actually Are.

The news headlines of late are almost universally depressing. There’s the pretentious and largely hypocritical brouhaha over Nike’s featuring Colin Kaepernick in an ad. There were the totally disingenuous SCOTUS confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, marked by petulant grand-standing from the left and outright mendacity from the right. And seriously, is there a single Senator whose chances of voting other than party line are better than 10%? There are the sadly predictable lies (yes, lies, not merely cherry-picking or decontextualizing) from Lying Ted Cruz (remember, that’s the moniker applied by one Donald J. Trump) about challenger Beto O’Rourke in the most intriguing race in Curmie’s adopted state of Texas.

All of these stories are, to borrow a phrase from Stevie Nicks, hauntingly familiar. This is largely because politicians lie and people are stupid. But there is something more than a little insidious about the media’s fascination with these tired variations on a banal theme: real stories, ones that actually tell us something about the direction we’re heading as a nation, are buried below the proverbial fold… at best. One the the most significant of these is a recent article from the Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff. Here’s the key paragraph:
In some cases, passport applicants with official U.S. birth certificates are being jailed in immigration detention centers and entered into deportation proceedings. In others, they are stuck in Mexico, their passports suddenly revoked when they tried to reenter the United States. As the Trump administration attempts to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, the government’s treatment of passport applicants in South Texas shows how U.S. citizens are increasingly being swept up by immigration enforcement agencies.
This is outrageous. We can start with the State Department’s assertion that it “has not changed policy or practice regarding the adjudication of passport applications.” Does anyone else notice the peculiar odor of bovine feces wafting from this statement, or is it just Curmie? Of course the process has changed since the xenophobic Trump administration came to power. To say otherwise would be laughable were it not for the serious repercussions at stake here.

Yes, it is almost certainly true that “the U.S.-Mexico border region happens to be an area of the country where there has been a significant incidence of citizenship fraud.” But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t tens of thousands of bona fide Latinx American citizens born and raised near—but north of—the US/Mexico border. When we add in the fact that some of the victims are military veterans or even active military and border patrol agents (!) the issue moves from problematic to scandalous. If we’re talking about men a couple of years older than Curmie, the US government not only allowed these folks to serve in the military, they insisted on it in the 1960s and early ‘70s.

It is important that we exercise a little discretion here. Not everyone with a US passport was born on this side of the border. There are, in effect, three groups of affected people: those who are intentionally and fraudulently claiming American citizenship, those who honestly believe themselves to be US citizens when the true facts of their birth suggest otherwise, and legitimate US citizens who got caught up in the wash. We can reasonably assume that the first group exists—people named Hernandez or Garcia are not more likely to lie to the government than those named Smith or Wu or Benedetti or Kleinschmidt, but they’re not significantly less likely to do so, either. As long as it’s “better” to be a US citizen than a Mexican, someone will be trying to scam the system.

But the second and third groups exist, as well. Ask Curmie when and where he was born, and he can answer… but really, it’s only hearsay. I was there, but it’s not like I remember the details.  My parents told me I was born in such-and-such a hospital at such-and-such a time on such-and-such a day. There’s a birth certificate that seems to confirm what I was told. But I have literally nothing these people don’t have… except an Anglo surname.  Oh, and by the way, by law, a passport is prima facie evidence of citizenship.

Many years ago, the town my father lived in decided that they could lay claim to a right of way through his property. There was a town hall meeting, and the town officials came up with some document from the 19th century that sort of suggested without actually saying that in certain circumstances the town could indeed lay claim to property in that way… a sort of eminent domain with literally no remuneration for landowners. Naturally the acquisitive assholes whose property wasn’t affected were in righteous dudgeon about how these greedy people could possibly want to restrict access to their private property. Dad pointed out that he (and his father before him) had been paying tax on the entire property listed on the deed, which had no amendments, since 1918 (this all happened in the 1980s). In other words, there wasn’t a single person at the town hall who had any better documentation than he did. (The town supervisors won the town hall vote, but backed off in the face of a hefty lawsuit.) 

The same phenomenon is at work here. There is not a single one of us who has more documentation than those being detained. Note that the previous sentence is expressed in quantitative rather than qualitative terms: it may well be that we have better documentation, even if no more of it. But even if that is the case, the time to question the legitimacy of a passport applicant’s credentials would be at the time of first application: not a renewal, and certainly not during the duration of a passport’s currency. To make such a decision requires substantive evidence—not just suspicion, evidence of fraud. Yet some passports issued this year are already being revoked. That the State Department is inept is not news, but they do keep coming up with new ways of demonstrating their incompetence: after all, either that initial issuance by Trump’s State Department was insufficiently vetted, or the current crackdown is a fishing expedition at best.

To me, the central issue is the presumption of the status quo. That is, someone who doesn’t already have a passport can reasonably be expected to prove that s/he deserves one. Once that document has been issued, however, that person’s citizenship has already received the imprimatur of the federal government. There’s nothing wrong with questioning the authenticity of a birth certificate, but once it’s been deemed legitimate, the burden of proof shifts. A passport-holder should never be expected to prove citizenship: the passport is proof. To overturn the government’s own ruling, it should be necessary to prove the holder is not a citizen. “But that’s hard,” say you. “Precisely,” say I.

But not only is the burden of proof misplaced, the evidence required to prove citizenship is ridiculous. Could you, Gentle Reader, provide “evidence of [your] mother’s prenatal care, [your] baptismal certificate, rental agreements from when [you were] a baby”? Curmie couldn’t. Ah, but Curmie’s parents (or their insurance) could afford a hospital instead of a midwife, and he’s white. This would appear to make all the difference. (Note: Muslim citizens are similarly being denaturalized: imagine Curmie’s surprise.)

Finally, let’s dispense with the notion that it’s business as usual. The State Department’s claims that domestic passport denials are at the lowest rate in six years for midwife cases. It may even be that this statement is literally true (and a statement from Mike Pompeo’s State Department has roughly the credibility of that Nigerian prince who writes to Curmie from time to time), but we should point out two things. First, this statistic, even if true, does not address the more sinister practice of rescinding passports already issued.

Secondly, and at least as importantly, the percentage of per se denials doesn’t really tell us much, as it appears that many applications simply end up in limbo. They’re not exactly denied, but the applicant doesn’t get a passport, either. The strategy, and please forgive Curmie for calling it as he sees it, is to delay, to pile on ridiculous new requirements, and delay some more. It is, to coin a phrase, Clintonesque. The result is the same as a denial, but there are two political advantages from the State Department’s perspective. First, State can make the kind of assertion noted above without exactly lying (merely actively misleading). But a denial is also far more likely to lead to a lawsuit—a lawsuit of the kind that plaintiffs win more often than not—than merely stalling until the applicant gives up… and there still isn’t a denial.

This stuff matters. Yes, there are leftie commentators who are comparing this issue to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II or even the worst excesses of Nazi Germany. Is that really where we are? Of course not. But have we taken far too many steps down a road towards a very nasty, xenophobic, and unjust nation? Oh, yes.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Goucher Mendaciously Still Calls Itself a Liberal Arts College

Curmie started his college-level teaching career in 1979. This fall, he will pass the 200 mark in total number of sections of courses taught—not counting independent studies and practicums. He has seen literally dozens of ideas and strategies (not to mention jargon) come into favor and then fade from view when it was discovered that the flavor of the month was more often than not just a re-packaged bad idea from a decade ago.

This is not to say that all changes in curriculum or instruction over the last 40 years have been bad, but roughly 1/3 are just fancy new names for what has been done for years. (Call it “acting” in a theatre class and it’s to be scorned as not really academic; call it “role-playing” in business management or law, and it’s a brilliant new approach to pedagogy.) The overwhelming majority of what’s left are demeaning (to faculty and students alike), counter-productive, time-consuming, anti-intellectual exercises in meditative bean-counting because the average university administrator lacks the expertise, the intelligence, and/or the moral courage to tell corporations to train their own damned employees or provide a few options of where politicians can shove their quantification fetishes. Our job is to prepare students to be citizens of the world, not merely workplace drones, and certainly not ovine lackeys conditioned to vote against their own best interest because the talking head on the TV said to.

In other words, after nearly four decades in the classroom, Curmie has developed a rather discerning olfactory sense when it comes to the presence of bovine fecal matter in the pronouncements of the educationists, most of whom have little to no actual classroom experience. So it was that Curmie detected that familiar aroma when reading a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It doesn’t really matter which one; they’re depressingly interchangeable. In his own personal page, Curmie posted this:
Just read another of those all-too-ubiquitous articles about how universities need to adhere more closely to their “business models.” This one concentrated on increasing efficiency and reducing costs. I’ve got an idea: we could stop throwing pots of money at consultants who have no idea what they’re talking about and who offer only two flavors of advice: the intuitively obvious and the utterly inane.
A friend commented that Goucher College has just announced the elimination of a number of majors and courses of study. Curmie hadn’t read about that yet, so it was off to the Google machine.

José Bowen: smart, wrong, and deceitful.

It turns out that Goucher is indeed eliminating majors in math, physics, religion, studio art, music, theatre, Russian studies, elementary education, and special education. Minors in German studies, Judaic studies, and book studies are also disappearing. The college isn’t in financial trouble, quoth President José Bowen, but Goucher is committed to affordability, and blah blah blah. “Affordability,” by the way, translates into a quarter-million dollar pricetag for a four-year degree. Yes, that’s before scholarships and financial aid, but even after those are figured in, we’re almost certainly looking at something well into six figures, and that’s a healthy chunk of change in Curmie’s neighborhood. (And let’s not pretend that loans qualify in any legitimate definition of “aid.”)

Goucher, of course, is exactly the kind of small college that is going to be hit hardest by politically-driven cynicism about the value of higher education, declining support for student aid programs, and unprecedented demand for superior facilities and equipment: small enough that a change of only a few students can profoundly affect the bottom line, far more expensive than state universities but insufficiently selective to make a degree from there carry immediate gravitas.

Many of these schools are scrambling for whatever enrollment boost they can find. Sometimes this results in innovation (Goucher’s justly renowned study abroad program, for example). But often it’s more of a gimmick, (e.g., the elimination of transcripts in admissions decisions). Moreover, all too often, schools like Goucher show far too much willingness to sacrifice their stated mission to achieve a short-term financial boost. More disturbingly, they can be tempted into betraying their raison d’être even when their numbers are perfectly fine; this year’s freshman class, for example, is the third largest in the college’s history.

Thus, the elimination of these majors makes no sense, even as President Bowen intones that Goucher is somehow bucking the trend to move away from the liberal arts:
Despite many competitors shifting away from a traditional liberal arts model, Goucher remains almost uniquely committed to being a modern liberal arts college. We have long resisted the temptation to adopt more of the vocational programs currently in vogue with segments of the American public. Any new programs we offer will be interdisciplinary and in the liberal arts tradition. We have chosen this path carefully and strategically.
Curmie isn’t saying Bowen is lying, but the odor wafting from Bowen’s pronouncements is strikingly redolent of the cow pasture. Because, as Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty points out, these are “programs that are considered part of any liberal arts college’s mission.” Precisely. OK, specific area studies majors often thrive until a key faculty member retires or leaves, then wither. This may be the case with Russian studies, German studies, and Judaic studies at Goucher. A thriving Philosophy department could pretty much make up for the loss of a religion major. And so on. But you can’t call yourself a liberal arts college without majors in math, physics, and the fine arts. You. Just. Can’t.

Yeah, yeah, they’re not eliminating departments, just majors, and there will still be coursework available in all of those areas of study. But it isn’t the same, and Bowen knows it. How does Curmie know? Because Bowen isn’t an idiot, however much he may be acting like one at the moment. He may be behaving like a corporate minion with neither the intellect nor the interest in education to lead a college, but he’s no dummy. Bowen is Stanford-educated, with an undergrad degree in chemistry, Master’s in music composition and humanities, and a PhD in musicology and humanities. He has a distinguished career as an educator and administrator—a little too much of a TED Talk huckster for Curmie’s taste, but certainly not without relevant skills.

It is therefore particularly disappointing that Bowen, of all people, would spearhead an effort to strip his college of its legitimacy. Because let’s be totally honest here: every day Goucher continues to advertise itself as a liberal arts college is another day it lies to its students and to the public at large. This kind of abandonment of the core principles of the liberal arts is bad enough when it happens at a place like the University of Akron, which announced it is cutting some 80 (!) degree programs, including (as at Goucher) undergrad degrees in math and physics, plus humanities courses (French, art history…). But at least Akron is up front about its priorities: it wants to become a technology leader, and to foreground programs like polymer science, biosciences and cybersecurity. Curmie doesn’t know diddly about any of those areas, but he’s pretty sure two of the three have nothing to do with the liberal arts. Curmie thinks that’s misguided, but Akron apparently wants to be in the job-training rather than education business. So be it.

Goucher, however, wants to pretend to be something it no longer has a right to claim. The major advantage of a true liberal arts education is that students can readily find their way into disciplines they had no intention of studying when they were 18. Curmie changed majors in college. José Bowen did so nine times! But if we want to get purely pragmatic, it’s simply a statement of fact that programs without majors tend to have more difficulty attracting and retaining good faculty. I think I can speak for the majority of the profession when I say that we’d rather work with people who actually want to be in the room.

Not having those majors affects the quality of students, as well.  This is—or at least should be—especially significant in areas like the performing arts, which contribute directly to the quality of life for the entire campus and indeed the larger community. Whereas Curmie has worked with a number of non-majors who have done excellent work, a stroll by the laughably horrible skits presented by the students on the orientation staff a couple of weeks ago suggests that a credible theatre program depends on students who are in fact serious about the work. I suspect this is even more true in music, especially on the instrumental side.

Indeed, instrumental music may provide an apt metaphor for what is happening at Goucher. There may be more interest in violins and trumpets, but if there’s no bassoon or ‘cello, it’s not an orchestra. Similarly, students may be more interested in economics or political science, but it’s not a liberal arts college without full courses of study in (at least) physics, math, and all of the fine arts.

To assert otherwise is to perpetrate a fraud.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Melissa Howard and the Diploma That Wasn't

There are a couple of stories about primary elections in the American southeast that have caught Curmie’s attention this week. One is serious, and plays into larger issues of securing the electoral process. I might get to writing about that sometime soon, but that’s a complex and frankly rather terrifying issue. Sometimes, you just need a story best accompanied by raised eyebrows and an ample supply of popcorn.

Melissa Howard and her fake diploma.
That’s probably her real mom, though.
And that is why, Gentle Reader, the gods have provided us with Melissa Howard, an erstwhile candidate to represent the 73rd district in the Florida House.  A little over a week ago, FLA News Online reported that Howard’s claim to have graduated from Miami University in Ohio couldn’t be corroborated. The National Student Clearinghouse lists Ms. Howard, maiden name Melissa Marie Fox, as having attended Miami in the early 1990s, but not as having received a degree.

On the one hand, it is passing strange that a political candidate would lie about something so easily proved one way or the other, but it’s just as odd that a news agency would pay to verify so pedestrian a credential: a BS in Marketing isn’t exactly going to make an otherwise reluctant voter to suddenly take an interest in a candidate. It is true, of course, that FLA News is a conservative site, and Howard’s opponent in the Republican primary, Tommy Gregory, is a more loyal minion of the NRA and in general the more frothing-at-the-mouth reactionary of the two candidates to replace current Representative Joe Gruters, who decided to seek a seat in the State Senate rather than run for re-election to the House.

Anyway, when the story broke, Ms. Howard, of course, denied it. According to the FLA News article,
She offered to send yearbook pictures and even provided a picture of her at a graduation ceremony. When FLA News asked for the one document that would verify graduation–a diploma–Howard promised to send an electronic copy but did not. She claimed it was in her mother’s storage unit in Ohio. Her campaign consultant later said Howard did not graduate in 1994, she was one credit short and later completed it in 1996. However, the campaign was unable to provide a copy of her diploma, despite four days of repeated requests.
Still, there’s not really a story yet. Getting a copy of a transcript can take a few days, and FLA News may well have been less than an honest broker in the proceedings.

But the campaign completely overplayed its hand, as with this preposterous claim:
This is just another attempt by our desperate opponent, Tommy Gregory to lie about Melissa Howard. He lied about her being a Democrat in Ohio, which the Supervisor of Elections refuted. There’s nothing he won’t do or say to hurt Melissa or her reputation within the community. It’s shameful. Melissa graduated with a degree in marketing and we have requested her transcripts from the University and have been told they take 4-6 weeks to arrive.
Anyone who knows anything whatsoever about the process of getting a transcript can tell you that whereas three or four days might be a bit short (although Curmie was e-mailed an electronic copy of his grad school transcript in a matter of hours a couple of years ago), 4-6 weeks is ridiculously long. One week, maybe. Four to six weeks (oh, so conveniently enough time to get past the primary in a safe GOP district), not a chance.  Of course, that’s for a transcript as opposed to a diploma, but a transcript would certainly have served the purpose.

Former President Obama showed a prescience one might wish had been more on display during his actual term in office, in a speech in Johannesburg at a celebration in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday.  He said:
We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders, where they’re caught in a lie, and they just double down and they lie some more…. Let me say, politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught ‘em lying, they’d be like, “aw, man…” Now they just keep on lying.
Obama’s remarks were widely and no doubt accurately interpreted as a not so thinly veiled excoriation of President Trump, whose administration has indeed reached levels of mendacity hitherto undreamed of even by the most dishonest of pols. But those comments certainly apply, as well, to the likes of small-time prevaricators like Melissa Howard.

What’s important here is that her falsified credentials were completely unnecessary. Ms. Howard is a successful businesswoman, and coming up one or two courses short of graduation (which appears to have been the case) from a quite reputable university is not an insignificant achievement, and, as Zac Anderson of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune notes in a follow-up essay, “If Howard had been honest about not graduating, her academic credentials likely would never have been an issue in the race. There are other state lawmakers without college degrees.”

Indeed, it’s quite easy to imagine a scenario whereby an honest misunderstanding could have happened:
—Where’d you go to college?
—Miami of Ohio.
—What was your major?
And we now have a completely accurate and perhaps even completely honest exchange which leads to a completely reasonable but completely erroneous conclusion. Well, except for the fact that Miami doesn’t have a Marketing major... more on that later.

Even after the story broke, if she’d apologized, said she had come very close to graduating but struggled with that one course (or whatever), blamed her campaign’s website’s false claim on a miscommunication with a staffer, the chances that she’d have lost more than a handful of votes are pretty slim.

But Howard, to use President Obama’s phrase, doubled down, with headline-making results. Let’s face it, she’s the best-known failed state representative candidate in the country. Why? Because of the lie? No, as President Obama said, politicians lie. It’s just that in true Watergate fashion, the cover-up was worse than the crime. Howard stalled, claimed she’d made up the missing credits two years after finishing her full-time studies, asserted that her diploma was in her mom’s storage facility, then posed with Mom and Diploma in a stratagem that was nothing if not audacious. It even worked, briefly. FLA News Online even rescinded (as opposed to “retracted”) its story.

But then university officials became pro-active. Miami, as noted above, doesn’t offer a BS in Marketing; marketing students would receive a BS in Business. But Howard didn’t, in fact, major in Marketing, but in Retailing (why would anyone sane lie about this?), which would have led to a degree in Family and Consumer Sciences... assuming she actually got a degree. Moreover, one of the signatures on the obviously fallacious diploma was that of Robert C. Johnson, who was, alas, the Dean of the Graduate School, not of Business nor of Education and Allied Professions. Oops.

Still, Howard persisted, briefly, before finally admitting she’d lied about the degree, claiming, “It was not [her] intent to deceive or mislead anyone.” Wow. She accused journalists, her primary opponent, and at least by implication her presumptive alma mater of lying about her; she staged a trip to Ohio to prove an innocence that never existed; she ultimately fabricated a fake diploma, even somehow convincing her mom to pose with it. Curmie wonders what one must do to qualify as being intentionally deceptive on Ms. Howard’s home planet.

And yet she announced she was staying in the race! Joe Gruters, the Howard campaign treasurer and presumably same person who is the incumbent in that House seat, came up with one of the great political quotes of all time. First, he said he’d urge her step aside if arrested (!), but followed it up with this gem: “in the meantime it’s a slippery slope when you start asking candidates who lie to remove themselves from the ballot.” How, exactly, is anyone to take the Florida GOP seriously after that?

But, as they say in the late-night infomercials, Wait! There’s more! Of course, she lied about staying in the race, too. (Well, to be fair, it wasn’t really a lie, as she might just have been crazy enough to believe her own rhetoric.) But before she dropped out we also have an unnamed Republican political consultant saying this:
Common sense and normal politics would say she can’t survive it but everything seems to be upside down…. I wonder if people don’t feel anesthetized or insensate from [President Trump]. He set the bar so high or so low, depending on your point of view, that the stuff that used to matter doesn’t seem to matter.
When your own party’s mouthpieces start saying outright that the POTUS has so degraded normal standards of integrity that they don’t even matter anymore, it might be a portent of some serious introspection on the part of the handful of remaining Trump supporters who are otherwise intelligent adults.

Meanwhile, it strikes Curmie that there are three lessons to be learned from the Melissa Howard affair:

  1. Telling the truth is better than lying.
  2. When the hole is too deep, stop digging.
  3. If you need a diploma forged, don’t hire someone over Craigslist..

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Return to Janus VI... sort of.

Horta eggs.
In “The Devil in the Dark,” one of the more memorable episodes (as demonstrated by the fact that Curmie still remembers it) of the original “Star Trek” television series from the mid-‘60s, our intrepid heroes of the Starship Enterprise are called to the planet Janus VI, where miners of the rare mineral pergium are being attacked by a seemingly malevolent monster. There’s a fight, the creature is wounded, but it doesn’t attack when it has Captain Kirk trapped. Something is afoot! Mr. Spock does that really cool Vulcan mind meld thing on the creature and learns that it’s called a Horta, and that it means no harm. It’s just that those little spheres about two feet in diameter the miners had played games breaking open aren’t just silicon nodules; they’re her eggs, and she’d been protecting her young.

And so all is well. Dr. McCoy patches up the injured Horta, saving her life. The miners apologize for their deeds, claiming they didn’t understand the true nature of the eggs and that they meant no harm. The Horta’s babies (not all the eggs were destroyed) can mine the pergium faster than the miners can, and since they have no use for it, the miners are welcome to it, and they’ll get rich. And then everyone sits in a circle and sings Kumbaya. (All right, I made up the last past.)

Least tern eggs.
Curmie thought about this tale from over a half century ago when reading about the real-life destruction of hundreds of eggs of the least tern, a tiny bird (adults weigh only about an ounce and a half) on the endangered species list and protected (would ‘twere so!) by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The culprits were presumably beachgoers who seized their breeding ground on Sand Island in Alabama for a volleyball game. (We know this because these idiots left their net up when they left.) Yes, really.

The Audubon Society’s release on their website reads in part:
[Emma] Rhodes and [Andrew] Haffenden [of Birmingham Audubon’s Coastal Programs] found abandoned plastic tent poles, an erected volleyball net, and about 30 Least Tern eggs stacked in small piles and arranged decoratively around wide mounds of sand. Human hands must have plucked the eggs out of their simple sand nests, likely to clear the beach for a volleyball game, says Katie Barnes, coastal senior biologist for Birmingham Audubon. “It’s really hard to imagine how someone could do that to a little egg,” she says.

Around the makeshift volleyball court, Rhodes and Haffenden counted at least 100 abandoned nests—likely an underestimate, as they didn’t want to disturb the colony to get a more precise count. Each nest held one to three dead eggs that had cooked on the sand when the human disturbance forced the parents, whose bodies shield their unhatched young from the hot sun, to flee, Barnes says.
The New York Times adds that Haffendon had seen 17 boats around the volleyball net on July 4. He said “we really need to get out there”; it’s unclear why it took nearly a week to do so, although of course it may have already been too late. [Side note: the Times also reports that the least tern is not endangered, and proceeds to link to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service page, which says that it is. Thanks, “paper of record”!]

The Alabama and Janus VI stories converge at one particular point: the destruction of another creature’s eggs in an act that is simultaneously wanton and yet seemingly without malice. Certainly we are led to believe that the miners on Janus VI feel actual remorse that they unknowingly destroyed intelligent life forms. Whereas it would be a stretch to claim as much for the jackasses who  wiped out most of an important breeding ground for an endangered species, it would take a similar leap of faith to conclude that they intentionally targeted the eggs and hatchlings of a protected species.

But here is where the two stories diverge. Whereas the miners might have exercised a little more brainpower, figuring out the connection between the destruction of those spheroids and the attacks, we can forgive them for not understanding that the life forms (or at least one such life form) on Janus VI is silicon-based, so the silicon nodules they discovered might be more than they seem.

Our volleyballers, on the other hand, are the perfect storm of stupidity, arrogance, and insensitivity. Curmie will not hold it against them that they didn’t realize the eggs they dug up and arranged in a decorative circle were from an endangered species, but they sure as hell knew they were eggs, and if they couldn’t figure out that disturbing a nesting site, even to the point of interfering with eggs that had already begun to hatch, would have serious consequences for the birds in question, they’re also too stupid to understand the rules of volleyball… of course, given the fact that one of those rules is to take the damned net with you when you’re done, maybe Curmie just proved his own point.

The point is not merely that these people are proudly ignorant (there’s a lot of that in Alabama… and elsewhere), but that they just didn’t care: didn’t care that they scared off the adults, didn’t care that their actions would surely cost dozens if not hundreds of lives of baby birds, didn’t care that they might well be violating not merely the dictates of everyday compassion but federal law, as well.

And now we’re at another difference between Alabama and Janus VI: whereas the Horta knows who attacked her eggs and magnanimously forgives them, the least terns will have no such opportunity, as the possibility of ever identifying the culprits is roughly equal to the chance that Curmie will vote for Ted Cruz this November. Moreover, new “guidance” from the Trump administration last December effectively eviscerates the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (mostly to protect corporations rather than individuals: imagine Curmie’s surprise), making prosecutions problematic even if the miscreants were identified. There is no happy ending in Alabama; the best we can hope for is that the species will ultimately survive despite the insensitive human interference.

Curmie, who spends most of his life surrounded by post-adolescents, and who has witnessed a significant decline in empathy on the part of the 18-25 crowd over the last decade or two, is tempted to blame this on “kids these days,” especially when reading about the game of “beach volleyball,” a sport practiced only by the young. But a volleyball game on a beach is not necessarily “beach volleyball,” and the culprits could just as easily be a family, or a beer league softball team, or the Weekend Explorers Club at the Happy Hollow Retirement Village. And one doubts that all those boats were operated by college-aged folk.

Still, it’s kind of worth hoping that Curmie’s “kids” theory is accurate. An adult who displays this level of callousness is probably beyond hope; a teenager who comes to see the consequences of his/her actions might be salvageable. Of course, if it is teenagers and they don’t see the light, we’re stuck with their level of pathological obliviousness for a lot longer. It’s kind of a no win situation.

Maybe someday we’ll figure this whole co-existing-with-other-species thing out… but we clearly haven’t yet, and all indications suggest we’ll make only marginal progress by Stardate 3196.1. Alas.

Friday, August 10, 2018

There are no outdoor sports as graceful as throwing stones at a dictatorship.

“Never Sorry,” Alison Klayman’s 2012 documentary on Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, languished in Curmie’s Netflix queue for rather a long time. This past weekend, Curmie finally watched it. I recommend it, by the way. But the quality of Ms. Klayman’s cinematic achievement isn’t why Curmie mentions the film. Rather, what stands out right now is one of the moments depicted therein: the January 2011 destruction of Ai’s million-dollar studio in Shanghai by the Chinese government.

Ai Weiwei in his Berlin studio.
Last Friday, the very day Curmie watched “Never Sorry,” it was déjà vu all over again, as Chinese authorities razed another of Ai’s studios, this one in Beijing. Ai has also been arrested, beaten, and “disappeared” for nearly three months. So while the destruction of the Beijing studio came as a surprise, it wasn’t a shock.

Naturally, there’s an official explanation: in 2011 it was tax evasion; this time it was an expired lease (Ai had an arrangement with the landlord to evacuate the premises by August 15; the wrecking balls and jackhammers arrived on the 3rd). But literally no one believes the real reason was anything more or less than Ai’s high-profile and relentless criticism of the corrupt and authoritarian Chinese government.

Ai was never a supporter of the government that exiled his father, Ai Qing, during the Cultural Revolution. Ai Weiwei’s international fame was nonetheless a source of pride for China, and when he returned to his homeland in 1993 after living in New York for several years, he was tolerated if not embraced by the authorities. Most famously—to the average American, at least—he was a design consultant for the “Bird’s Nest” stadium which became one of the most iconic images of the 2008 Summer Olympics. By the time the Games had opened, however, he had refused to attend the opening ceremonies or to pose for photographs outside the structure: “Today is not the time to dwell on our problems, but neither should we accept those who tell us these games are not political.”

More significant in terms of his relationship with China’s hegemonic rulers, however, was his lengthy and very public campaign to shed light on the actual death toll of the devastating Sichuan earthquake earlier in 2008 and to recognize the victims and their families. The official count of casualties—just under 70,000 dead (a figure later revised to about 90,000) told a grim enough story, but Ai believed, no doubt correctly, that the government was low-balling the estimate to avoid taking responsibility for the shoddy construction of schools, which contributed directly to the deaths of thousands of children.

Ai’s international fame, like that of other artists in totalitarian regimes, served for a while at least as a buffer against persecution. That is, China knew that international headlines would ensue from any action taken against Ai, and that, in turn, would call attention to the hollowness of China’s claims to free expression and the sanctity of human rights. On the other hand, willingness to arrest, incarcerate, and otherwise nettle Ai served as a warning to lesser-known artists and intellectuals: if we can do this to Ai Weiwei without repercussions, imagine what we can do to you!

It was precisely this latter attitude that undergirds the 2011 destruction of the Shanghai studio. This time, though, it seems different. Ai has lived in Berlin for three years, and whereas he seems ready to leave that city (if he has not already done so) while maintaining a studio there, there is no intimation that he will return to China. Moreover, his direct contribution to the overwhelming majority of his recent work is conceptual: other artists and craftsmen create the actual sculpture or installation or whatever.

A Study in Perspective—Tiananmen Square
So last week’s incident in Beijing isn’t so much about Ai Weiwei himself; it’s about the art. The Beijing studio was functioning as much as a storage facility as anything else, and the reason it had not already been abandoned was the difficulty of moving the massive artworks contained therein. This shift in emphasis on the part of Chinese authorities is problematic. Certainly it betrays something of the paranoia that always attaches to any dictatorial regime. But whereas Ai’s art has quite often had an obvious political element, that doesn’t mean its subject is inherently Chinese. Thus, whereas one of his most famous works, “A Study in Perspective—Tiananmen Square,” is a photograph of the artist giving, shall we say, a monodigital salute to the site of the massacre of peaceful protestors six years earlier, there are similar photos of the White House, the Eiffel Tower, and other Western landmarks.

Similarly, @Large, a 2014 site-specific work at Alcatraz, implicates a wide range of oppressors. Mother Jones’s Shane Bauer writes that U.S. State Department officials “knew the exhibition would deal with themes of freedom, captivity, and human rights. What they did not know is that the United States would be among the many countries Ai would call out for cracking down on dissidents.”

Likewise, in the 2017 film “Human Flow” (which made the Oscar short-list of 15 documentaries but was not one of the five official nominees), Ai, in the words of one critic, “created an ambitious, humane and often shocking cine-essay on the subject of migrants and the 21st century migrant condition.” Of course, having been directly affected by the Cultural Revolution, Ai knows whereof he speaks.

So it’s not the specific subject matter of the artwork that gets Chinese authorities in a tizzy. It’s the fact that it’s art. Ai explains this position in an interview with the Smithsonian’s David J. Skorton:
I had experience in [an] authoritarian society. I realize why they hate art, why they have to censor art, why they have to control art…. Art is not [always] political, or art [does] not function as some kind of statement, but still, art has been censored in many, many nations. So what is it they are really afraid of? I think because art represents our instinct, our sensitivity, which we… still have not clearly defined by science or by philosophy.
He goes on to suggest that it is art’s unpredictability that makes it so problematic for the oppressors. “Art,” he says, “talks about human’s inner truths.” And that is always going to scare The Man… and why these petty displays of censorial power demonstrate weakness more than strength.

Ai told NPR that “any authority that cracks down on artists, journalists, intellectuals, and lawyers has completely lost its legitimacy to rule. It is evidence of vulnerability and fragility in facing the challenges of today and the future, and an inability to do so with a peaceful mind or a rational manner.”

We—all of us, from the political left, right, and center—would do well to remember these words.

*This essay derives its title from a line by Ai Weiwei in an interview with the BBC Radio 1.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Trying to Be Fair to Jeff Sessions

Image result for jeff sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions
“Colleges Are Creating ‘a Generation of Sanctimonious, Sensitive, Supercilious Snowflakes,’ Sessions Says.” Such is the headline for a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education [if the article is behind a paywall, you can access it via Curmie’s Facebook page] about remarks by Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a high school summit sponsored by the conservative group Turning Point USA, one of whose core “aims” is to “Effectively push back against intolerance and bias against conservatives in higher education.” Same old, same old, right?

Let’s face it, Jeff Sessions is one of the dimmer bulbs in the considerably less than brilliant firmament that is the Trump cabinet. No, he’s not the worst of the lot, but Curmie isn’t entirely certain that putting Godzilla in charge of HUD wouldn’t be one of the better appointments of this administration (he'd certainly be better than Ben Carson). And Mr. Sessions knows about as much about higher education as Curmie does about quantum mechanics: he knows that such a thing exists.

That said, it’s time to be fair. Sure, his speech was laden with what the Chronicle’s Chris Quintana calls “well-worn stereotypes,” and yes, there was the obligatory fluffing of Sessions’s boss, but whereas such sycophancy might be a little more de rigeur now than in previous administrations, all this stuff is pretty much boilerplate. Moreover, it’s curious that few on the right seem terribly concerned with the free speech rights of people who disagree with them. OK, fine.

But, unless he deviated significantly from his prepared script, his speech wasn’t all that bad. No, he didn’t handle the “lock her up” chant very well: he looked embarrassed and tried to say something non-committal rather than telling the assembled adolescents to shut up and move on, i.e., precisely what Trump’s supporters tell his political adversaries all the time. (To his credit, Sessions did note after the fact that he should have brought up presumption of innocence.  Not as good as saying it on the spot, but partial credit.)  Nor did he choose to moderate a perfectly good rant by recognizing that (for example) even wealthy colleges can’t afford to pay for security for the likes of professional assholes like Milo Yiannopoulos every time the College Republicans will chip in for his speaker’s fee. And he sort of conflates a judge’s decision not to throw out a lawsuit with ruling in favor of the plaintiff.

But he certainly didn’t complain about being “a persecuted conservative student in Alabama,” as Quintana would have us believe. Not even Jeff Sessions is stupid enough to claim that conservatives were an oppressed minority in 1960s Alabama. He said that he was one of a small group Republicans who opposed the likes of Democrats like George Wallace. (Sessions implies without saying outright that it was Wallace’s segregationist stance that led to Sessions’s opposition, thus avoiding an outrageous lie and merely misleading the audience in, shall we say, a Clintonesque manner.) This would have been in the nascent years of the Southern strategy, during which time racist white Democrats became racist white Republicans (e.g., Strom Thurmond) without missing a beat, but thereby reformulating the national (especially Electoral College) political calculus.

More to the point, he didn’t actually say that “colleges” (in general, per the headline) or “Many of the nation’s colleges” (per the article) are “creating and coddling ‘a generation of sanctimonious, sensitive, supercilious snowflakes.’” He said that “some schools are doing everything they can to create” such… erm… crystalline ephemeralities. "Some," not "most," and certainly not "all."  Like it or not, he’s right. Just look at the litany of examples he provides:
At Brown University, a speech to promote transgender rights was cancelled after students protested because a Jewish group cosponsored the lecture. Virginia Tech disinvited a conservative African American speaker because he had written on race issues and they worried about protests disrupting the event…. 
Through “trigger warnings” about “microaggressions,” cry closets, “safe spaces,” optional exams, therapy goats, and grade inflation, too many schools are coddling our young people and actively preventing them from scrutinizing the validity of their beliefs. That is the exact opposite of what they are supposed to do. 
After the 2016 election, for example, they held a “cry-in” at Cornell, they had therapy dogs on campus at the University of Kansas, and Play-dough and coloring books at the University of Michigan. Students at Tufts were encouraged to “draw about their feelings.”
These episodes, however isolated, are the stuff of headlines, and however well-intentioned their proponents may be, they're embarrassing: to the university, to progressive thought, and to education writ large.

In one of the last entries of my previous blogging persona, Curmie (then known as Mulcher4) extolled the “Virtues of Doubt”; that essay happened to have been about the murder of abortionist Dr. George Tiller, but the point was more universal. In that essay over nine years ago, I wrote, “Absolute self-confidence terrifies me, and not simply because my own neuroses are so manifest.” This is still true, even more so when that confidence/arrogance/hubris manifests in a post-adolescent.

Equally importantly, the very essence of education is to throw a lot of ideas into the ring and see which ones seem to fit the evidence. Recognizing the difference between fact and opinion matters. Free speech matters. This isn’t about simple politeness, which is generally a good thing, or about respecting others’ opinions, which is also generally a good thing. Nor is it about sitting in a circle and singing Kumbaya. It’s about fighting for the truth, not for a personal dictum that may or may not be grounded in rational thought. Above all, it’s a recognition that people who see the world differently aren’t inherently evil, and that what we see on that cave wall over there just might be a shadow instead of the full image.

Curmie identifies politically as a contrarian: whatever the political landscape in his area, he’s likely to be in opposition. After 17 years in East Texas, Curmie may be regarded as a lefty (and not merely because that’s the hand he writes with, although that’s also true: cue the Simon and Garfunkel, “communist ‘cause I’m left-handed, that’s the hand they use, well, never mind”), but plonk him down in Massachusetts and he might just move a little right-ward. More to the point, to quote myself from almost seven years ago, “alas, I must tell you that in my experience there have been more assaults on academic freedom and 1st amendment rights on campus from the left than the right.” This statement is, alas, more true now than it was then.

In case you hadn’t noticed, there are a lot more people on Curmie’s right than on his left, but if Curmie ever gets into trouble for having a big mouth or an over-active keyboard, I’ll bet you dollars to donuts it’s for not being sufficiently “progressive” or “inclusive” or otherwise orthodox in his liberalism… you know, for crimes like suggesting that men are allowed to have ethical objections to abortion, or that people who voted for somebody I didn’t aren’t (necessarily) evil, or that casting a white girl as Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame falls a little short of burning a cross while wearing a white hood and robe.

A couple of other points to make in passing:
  • Curmie is a fan of both FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, mentioned with approbation in Sessions’s speech) and the ACLU for much the same reason: they care about the rights guaranteed by the 1st Amendment. FIRE is thought to be conservative, the ACLU to be liberal. But that’s only because their clients tend—by no means exclusively—to break that way. Not every case either organization takes up is necessarily worthy of the time and effort, but Curmie is grateful that both organizations exist.
  • It was interesting to note that Mr. Sessions doesn’t really address university curricula or faculty as part of his critique, concentrating instead on administrators, particularly in the student services area. Could this be the beginnings of a recognition on the part of the right that university faculty (and their colleagues in public education in primary and secondary schools) aren’t responsible for everything that has ever gone wrong in this country, from the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby to the popularity of Nickelback? Nah, I didn’t think so. 
  •  Fox News whines predictably that the gathering of a few hundred high school kids from around the country to listen to a gaggle of partisan speakers doesn’t get enough press coverage. “Charlie Kirk, the 24-year-old founder of TPUSA, now in its sixth year, told Fox News that a similar event for young liberals ‘would be streamed everywhere... and it would be glorified as a wonderful organization,’ calling the media bias ‘blatant’ and ‘corrosive.’” Curmie would like an example—just one, please—of an event for liberal kids, or even, God forbid, for outstanding high school kids regardless of their politics or lack thereof (!) which has received even comparable coverage. Curmie is a patient man; he’ll wait. 
  • It does strike Curmie as a bit odd that a speech about free speech opportunities for all, and about the importance of engaging with “difficult or challenging ideas” should be delivered at an explicitly partisan gathering by an A.G. who is addressing them not really in his official capacity, and who was only one of a series of utterly like-minded speakers who fed them the same one-dimensional pabulum every day, all week. The message of the right is therefore just as hypocritical as that of the left: our side should have the right to express our opinions… and to stifle yours.
La la how the life goes on.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Enough about Helsinki. Let's Talk about Montenegro.

The recent European tour offered pretty conclusive proof that Donald Trump lacks the maturity, intellect, integrity, diplomacy, or temperament to be an effective President. In other words, it told us nothing we didn’t already know 20 years ago. He was simultaneously paranoid, crude, boorish, insulting to allies, and pandering to our enemies. Nothing new there, either. But Curmie’s going to stop there.

There was nothing inherently treasonous in anything he did or did not do. Perhaps, perhaps his performance in Europe, particularly in Helsinki, could be symptomatic of some more sinister forces at work—if, for example, Rachel Maddow’s ”Worst Case Scenario” turns out to be both accurate and provable, but what Curmie sees is what he’s seen for years: a narcissistic, hubristic, xenophobic buffoon… not a Manchurian Candidate, not a traitor.

Moreover, Democrats’ attempts to subpoena the translator—the only other person in the room in Trump’s private meeting with Vladimir Putin—is a transparent and ill-advised grand-standing ploy, designed not to get at the truth, but rather to force Mitch McConnell into denying their tantrum demands. No President, not even one as ill-suited to the job as this one, should be subject to this level of voyeurism. If he wants to have a private conversation with a foreign leader, then that conversation must indeed remain private, at the very least until there is sufficient evidence of malfeasance to warrant such an intrusion. That threshold had better be very high indeed. McConnell was right to refuse, although one suspects that his real reasons for the denial are likely to have been as unethical as the request itself.

The most notorious line to come out of Helsinki, of course, was that “I don't see any reason why it would be” Russia who interfered in the US Presidential election of 2016. That statement, uttered despite a raftload of evidence uncovered by American intelligence agencies that Russia absolutely did attempt to surreptitiously influence that election, caused headlines world-wide, and condemnation not only from the usual suspects, but also—finally—from the likes of Paul Ryan, Orrin Hatch, and Trey Gowdy. Of course, Trump reversed course, walking back his comment with what is surely a contender for the World’s All-Time Least Convincing Retraction™. (It did spawn some great memes, though.) Curmie supposes it might be possible that Trump actually misspoke in Helsinki. It is also possible that Curmie will win a Pulitzer for this essay, but he hasn’t added that line to his résumé just yet. Let’s put it this way: People lie. Politicians lie more than most people. Trump lies more than most (any?) other politicians. And this was a particularly dubious statement even by Trump’s standards, not least because of the context of the original statement and the immediate undercutting of the purported walk-back.

Intentionally or otherwise, however, the brouhaha created a wag the dog moment, distracting our collective gaze away from the potentially far more important story of the arrest of alleged Russian spy Maria Butina. Butina’s arrest and the public announcement of that arrest bookended the Helsinki presser. Did Trump say something totally outrageous, knowing that he’d later claim to have misspoken, simply to buy some time to figure out a strategy of how to deal with the Butina situation? Curmie doubts it, primarily because although Trump is sufficiently reckless and sufficiently mendacious to make the attempt, I doubt that he’s smart enough to have thought of it. But, irrespective of intent, news about Ms. Butina was dropped to below the proverbial fold.

And that story, in turn, moved what might under other circumstances have been headline news into a mere blip. I refer here to a statement President Trump made in an interview with Tucker Carlson. Carlson, as Curmie has mentioned before, is no idiot, although he often plays one on TV. Here’s the section I want to discuss:
TC: So, NATO. NATO was created chiefly to prevent the Russians from invading Western Europe. I think you don’t believe Western Europe is at risk of being invaded by Russia right now. So, what is the purpose of NATO, right now? 
DJT: Well, that was the purpose. And it’s OK. It’s fine. But they have to pay. And they weren’t paying, and other Presidents went, and they’d make a speech, and then nothing would happen. And… the fact that they didn’t pay is not… a new fact. This is something that people have known for a long time. Other countries were delinquent. In the real estate business, we use the word “delinquent.” They didn’t pay. They didn’t pay for past, so I went there three or four days ago, and I said, “folks, you gotta pay. Because we’re not going to pay from 70 to 90, and I think 90 is really the right… depending on the way you define it, 90%... we’re not going to pay 90% of the cost to defend Europe. And on top of that, the European Union kills us on trade…. 
TC: So, membership in NATO obligates the members to defend any other members that’s attacked. So, let’s say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked. Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that… 
DJT: I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question. You know… Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. 
TC: Yeah, I’m not against Montenegro… 
DJT: Yeah, right. 
TC: Or Albania… 
DJT: Oh, by the way… they’re very strong people. They’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive, and, congratulations, you’re in World War III…. But that’s the way it was set up.
At one place in the middle of this sequence, and again at the end, President Trump reiterates the point about other NATO countries “not paying,” concluding this section with a rather pompous “add that to your little equation on Montenegro.”

There are lots of points to be covered here. First, let’s stipulate that the US has traditionally paid a disproportionate share of NATO’s expenses. This is indeed a problem that has been identified by previous US Presidents—President Obama, for example, incurred a fair amount of wrath from Europe for his description of “Europe and a number of Gulf Countries… who are calling for action… pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.” He then accepted the term “free riders,” proposed by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.

So the American frustration with NATO’s “free riders” is not a new phenomenon. The initiative to require a defense expenditure of 2% of GDP for each member state by the year 2024 was passed four years ago. President Trump wants to accelerate that timetable, and indeed to increase the goal to a far more robust 4%. (The U.S. is currently at 3.7 or 3.8%, depending on the source.) On the first goal, I wish him luck; perhaps he will indeed fulfill his boast that he can accomplish what previous Presidents have not: I hope my skepticism is misplaced. On the latter point, however—we don’t currently spend enough on defense? And if our closest allies increased their commitments by close to 70% (this rough number determined by dividing the 2% target by the current NATO median of 1.18%), we’d still need an increase… not merely in the military budget in dollar terms as the economy grows, but indeed in the percentage of GDP? Sorry, no.

It’s also untrue that the U.S. is footing 90% of the bill. The official figure is about 67% (The Atlantic says 72%), still disproportionately high by roughly a factor of three (based on GDP), but further evidence of POTUS’s inability to tell the truth even when he has a point: a trait he shares with his Democratic opponent in the last election. Moreover, there is little to suggest the President really understands the way NATO is funded… and if, as appears to be true, he knows less than Curmie about this, it’s not a good sign.

But now we get to the crux of the matter: the comments about Montenegro. OK, it was only an example, and it wasn’t introduced by POTUS himself. But his comments are chilling. Of course, Carlson’s set-up is disingenuous. Yes, NATO was designed to protect Western Europe, but after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the ensuing emancipation of the Baltic and Balkan states, Ukraine, etc., the concept of “Western Europe” became anachronistic. NATO now includes a number of countries which were at one time either part of the USSR or de facto under its control: precisely the reason those countries, although not geographically “western,” choose to affiliate with NATO and its goals. The Soviet Union is no more, and the countries near the Russian border would like to keep it that way. So no, Russia isn’t likely to invade Western Europe, but that’s not where all European democracies reside, any more.

Yes, Montenegro matters, both in terms American credibility and also in purely stark geopolitical terms. As Rich Lowry (hardly a left-winger!) points out,
The Baltics are immediately in the line of Russian fire, as targets of harassment by Vladimir Putin and officially part of the Soviet Union as recently as 20 years ago. Every chink in NATO’s credibility directly affects their security…. [Trump’s] open questioning of the wisdom of defending small allies in faraway places is worse: A predatory Russian leader who has already annexed the territory of one neighboring sovereign country is listening.
Of course, NATO would be under no compulsion to support Montenegro in a war of aggression (yeah, that’s likely to happen, right?), which is what POTUS seems to be suggesting with the “aggressive” comments. It is indeed true that Montenegro has been a little testy at least once in recent history: when Russia, or at least pro-Russian forces, tried to stage a coup in Montenegro. The trial of 14 people accused of an attempt to kill then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and install a pro-Russian government began almost exactly a year to the day before President Trump’s remarks. Needless to say, the Kremlin denies the allegations; needless to say, if you believe that denial, Curmie has a bridge for sale in New York, going cheap.

Last month, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a right-center think tank which views the world through a certain political lens but has a reputation for truth-telling (think The Telegraph in terms of British newspapers), published a report with this conclusion:
Despite the coup’s failure, the future of Montenegro’s progress toward Western integration remains uncertain. The institutional actors behind the failed coup attempt remain largely in place and steadfastly opposed to NATO membership. Should they come to power, they likely would withdraw Montenegro from the Alliance, retract its recognition of Kosovo, and potentially reunite with Serbia. Thus, to prevent the reversal of Montenegro’s Western trajectory, the U.S. and its NATO allies immediately must work to deepen their engagement with the country. Without undertaking measures to strengthen military cooperation, facilitate democratic reforms, accelerate the European Union accession process, and renew financial support for programs in the rule of law, the West is unprepared to counter Russia’s destabilizing efforts.
In other words, this is a really, really bad time to even discuss turning our collective backs on Montenegro, perhaps even more so than on the Balkan states, which are also under Russian threat.

Important, too, is the fact that Montenegro’s entry into NATO came about during the Trump administration, requiring a 2/3 vote of the US Senate (the vote was 97-2) and Presidential approval. The time to object was last year, not now.

Foreign policy decisions, especially those with military implications, are always difficult, or at least they damned well should be. On the one hand, there’s the danger of significant losses of blood and treasure. On the other, we’ve seen the aftermath of appeasement and isolationism. Irrespective of larger philosophical issues, however, the simple question is whether this country will honor its promises. Montenegro, like it or not, is a member of NATO, and therefore, according to Article 5 of the NATO Charter, entitled to mutual defense. By the way, Article 5 has been invoked precisely once in NATO’s history: by the US, post 9/11. For the record, Montenegro, per capita, has more troops in Afghanistan than the US does, and is on track to meet the 2% of GDP goal by the target date of 2024.

That President Trump would be anything less than emphatic about defending a fellow NATO state is a disgrace. He has defied the Senate, stressed our relationship with European allies, and rendered the collective word of the US government subject to his petulance. All in a day’s work for the bloviating vulgarian that is POTUS.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Pussy Riot Returns for Some Global Face-Time

It’s been a while since Pussy Riot were making headlines, and nearly six years since Curmie wrote about them except in passing. Curmie watched the documentary “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer” a while back, but had otherwise all but forgotten their existence. Well, they never went away, and they just made headlines again, although the linkage between group and event came rather after the fact.

The best moment of the World Cup?  Just maybe.
Those of us who watched the World Cup final between France and Croatia also saw Pussy Riot at work, although most of us didn’t know it. The group has claimed responsibility for the pitch invasion early in the second half of the match. 

 Television cameras cut away from the events on the field and the announcers muttered about the intrusion into the game (Curmie will hope it was only because they assumed the four people who ran onto the pitch were quotidian attention-seekers), especially as Croatia was mounting a counter-attack which just might have turned into a scoring opportunity. (And given that both of France’s first-half goals in a 4-2 victory were at least arguably the product of bad refereeing, that lost opportunity must have been especially galling for the Croats.) Olga Kurachyova, one of the protesters, apologized for interrupting the game: “It is a pity that we disrupted the sportsmen,” she said, but added that “FIFA is involved in unfair games unfortunately. FIFA is a friend of heads of states who carry out repression, who violate human rights.”

Indeed, two things need to be noted here. First, FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) may be the only organization in the world as corrupt as the Russian government. Second, coverage of the Cup, at least in the several games Curmie saw, mentioned nary a word about how repressive the Russian régime really is, but there was plenty of ooh-ing and aah-ing about what a great tournament this was and how magnificent the facilities are. Coupled with President Trump’s clinging to his bromance with Putin despite increasing evidence that Russia did indeed meddle in the last US Presidential election, this whitewashed view of a country, or rather of a political machine run by a former KGB apparatchik, is more than a little disturbing.

Of course, few if any spectators knew that the pitch invaders were actually political protesters until after the fact. The four protestors didn’t fit with our (or at least with Curmie’s) presuppositions about Pussy Riot. Contrary to what Curmie had come to expect, they weren’t masked, they were wearing costumes (police uniforms), and there was a man included in the quartet of pitch-invaders. Turns out he’s Pyotr Verzilov, described by ABC (that’s the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) as “one of the group’s most prominent members,” not least because he is the husband of Nadya Tolokonnikova, one of the three Pussy Riot members sentenced to two years in prison for the protest at the Moscow Cathedral in 2012 (she was released after serving about 17 months).

On the other hand, the World Cup final is always one of the world’s most-watched events. Curmie can’t yet find final viewership numbers, but recent history suggests that once you add everyone watching at home and everyone watching in a bar or a watch party, close to a billion people are likely to be watching at any given moment. And whereas some television networks cut away as soon as the disturbance was noticed, others apparently did not. Moreover, Pussy Riot’s claim of responsibility seems to have made headlines around the world (well, not so much in the US, which cares little about soccer and less about how foreign governments treat their citizens).

Lest there be any question about what Pussy Riot was up to, here is the video released by the group upon announcing their responsibility. Since they (or someone) was kind enough to supply subtitles, Curmie will transcribe their commentary:
Dear friend! Perhaps you know that there is no rule of law in Russia, and any policeman may easily break into your life for no reason. FIFA World Cup demonstrated really well how good Russian policemen may behave. But what will happen once it ends?
The conclusion and the solution is the only one—you should fight for preventing fabrication of criminal accusations and arresting people for no reason. In order for this to happen you need one thing called political competition. A possibility to participate in your own country’s life and be elected—for everyone. All of these are very simple things. But you should decide for yourself what you personally can do, so that *your* Russia would become much more beautiful. 
And one more thing. Today is 11 years since the death of the poet Prigov. And he became part of Russian Culture with a cycle of poems about a policeman. Read about him.
Well, our guys are waiting for us on the football match, where we should tell everyone about the heavenly policeman and about the earthly policeman. And also a couple of important demands that you will see at the end of this video. Something about these two policemen is written in this video’s description below. [You can see the translated text of this statement here.]. Well, see you later, my friend. [Curmie has regularized some of the punctuation, but tried to keep everything else unchanged.]
This is the first half or so of the whole video. It is very strange, indeed. The three speakers, presumably the three women who stormed the field, are wearing police uniforms and sitting in an apartment with stuffed animals in the background; all three talk, but they’re all reading from a prepared script. One wears a balaclava; a second puts one on in the middle of the message; the third spends a good deal of time preening for the camera. Color Curmie confused by all of this, but what they say shouldn’t get lost in the clutter of other images.

The video then moves on to an extended clip of the group’s on-pitch activities, including a double high-five (high ten?) between Pussy Riot’s Veronika Nikulshina and French striker Kylian Mbappe (more on this later) before she was literally dragged off the field by security personnel.

Finally, an animated cat (get it? pussy?) appears on the screen with Pussy Riot’s demands:
When the earthly policeman enters the game, we demand to:
1. Let all political prisoners free.
2. Not imprison for “likes.”
3. Stop illegal arrests on rallies.
4. Allow political competition in the country.
5. Not fabricate criminal accusations and not keep people in jail for no reason.
6. Turn the earthly policeman into the heavenly policeman.
These objectives are, as might be expected, simultaneously noble, idealistic, romantic, and naïve. More importantly, they are chilling. Far too many of the problems these goals seek to remedy are creeping into American life. OK, I’d like to think we have few if any political prisoners. But whereas liking a Facebook post might not get you arrested, it could get you fired (and have that firing be upheld by the courts) or suspended from school; these would seem to be first cousins of actual arrest.

“Illegal arrests at rallies” is a loaded term, but I suspect that a lot of objective people would say that something very akin to that has happened not infrequently—Curmie is thinking of the #Occupy movement of a few years ago; those on the other side of the political fence would no doubt cite other, no less relevant, examples.

As for political competition… The Electoral College has gone in a different direction than the popular vote in two of the last three Presidential elections that didn’t involve an incumbent. California has one electoral vote per roughly 720,000 inhabitants; Wyoming one per roughly 190,000. Of course, if you don’t live in one of the dozen or so states which legitimately could go either way in a Presidential election, you have no real say at all. N.B., this is not to suggest that the elections of Presidents G. W. Bush or Trump were tainted; their opponents knew the rules. The Electoral College may be anachronistic and ultimately undemocratic, but it is the way of the world, and candidates need to plan and campaign accordingly. Both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were bad candidates who ran bad campaigns; they, and the party bosses who ensured their nominations, bear full responsibility for their defeats.

Gerrymandering is endemic, to the point where in 2012 Democrats got 1,400,000 more votes than the Republicans for the House of Representatives but still had a 21 vote deficit in actual elected reps. Competitive elections still happen, but the odds are often stacked, and the results aren’t necessarily an accurate representation of the electorate’s wishes.

We in this country are seldom jailed “for no reason,” but you’re likely to be jailed longer for the same crime if you happen to be poor or black or Latinx or Muslim. Meanwhile, lying little shits like the Brock Turners of the world whine about how abused they are. We’re not Russia, but we’re closer than we should be.

Pussy Riots complaints are real, and they served as a useful reminder that Russia is a much uglier place than their government, or FIFA, or indeed Fox Sports, would have us believe. As Masha Gessen writes in The New Yorker,
… Pussy Riot became the only people to make a meaningful statement about Russian politics during the World Cup—and it came on the eve of Vladimir Putin’s triumphant meeting with Donald Trump. They also created, on one of the biggest stages in the world, an image of unjust and arbitrary authority, the sort with which a hundred and forty-five million Russians live day to day.
Before we close, though: the moment that several have called the highlight of the Cup. During the charge onto the field, protester Veronika Nikulshina swerved and headed towards French star Kylian Mbappe. Mbappe was named the tournament’s best young player after becoming the first teenager since Pele 60 years ago to score in a World Cup final. He is widely believed to be the sport’s next global superstar.

But while most of the players on both sides ignored the interruption and Croatian defender Dejan Lovren actively assisted in apprehending the protesters, Mbappe made eye contact. Was Mbappe curious? apprehensive? foolish? Did the fact that Ms. Nikulshina is a very attractive young woman matter? Did she know she was approaching a budding international celebrity? Did he know she was a protester rather than a garden variety hooligan? Or did they both somehow sense that they were granted a huge opportunity to help each other out? Curmie has no answers. But he does know this: that moment, the one you see in the photo at the top of this piece, will remain an enduring part of this World Cup. Fans loved it, and Mbappe was widely cheered for his actions. He was already a hero in more ways than one—both for his heroics on the field and for donating his entire World Cup earnings—over half a million dollars—to charity because he doesn’t think he should be paid to represent his country. His double high-five with Nikulshina was the icing on his good-guy cake.

Meanwhile, the interaction with Mbappe got Nikulshina and her colleagues a lot more publicity than the pitch invasion per se ever would have on its own. There was another benefit: the increased publicity made it difficult for the Russian authorities to come down as hard on the protesters as they might otherwise have done. Seriously, check out the grin on Nikulshina’s face when she hears her sentence (it’s at about the 30 second mark in the top video): 15 days imprisonment and a ban from attending sporting events for three years. Given the sentence Pussy Riot members received for the event at Moscow Cathedral, it certainly could have been worse. She also notes that Mbappe was “fantastic,” and that she thinks the interaction “brought luck to his team.” Well, the French side did score two very quick insurance goals, one by Mbappe himself, in very short order after the encounter. Just sayin’.

It would require a flight of fancy to believe that Mbappe was thinking about anything but football when he sent a right-footed shot screaming into the back of the net only 10 minutes or so after high-fiving Nikulshina, and there was no suggestion that “this goal is for Veronika,” or anything like that. Still, whatever we may think of Pussy Riot’s tactics, their cause is just and their valor is unquestioned. And young Mr. Mbappe seems to be an exceptional person as well as an exceptional athlete. Perhaps a little karma just might have been involved. If so, here’s hoping that it continues.

UPDATE: In other Pussy Riot news today, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia was wrong to jail the three Pussy Riot women from the 2012 protest at the Moscow Cathedral, and ordered Russia to pay some $57,000 in damages to Maria Alyokhina, Nadya Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich.