Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Media Has Put a Finger on the Scale

That the mainstream media has been in the tank for both current front-runners for their respective parties’ presidential nomination can now be taken as a given. The xenophobic Tribble-head was and is an entirely media-driven creation, with nearly $2 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) worth of free media coverage. That’s 46% of the entire field of 17 candidates, two and a half times as much as Hillary Clinton, 75% more than all the Democrats combined, and 64% more than all the other Republicans combined. The despicable Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, sums it all up for us. Speaking of the Trump candidacy, he said “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.” And that’s all that little turd cares about.

On the Democratic side, it was more a matter of timing. As Adam H. Johnson puts it,
Who is and isn’t a “serious” candidate in our modern public relations-driven democracy is largely tautological. Whoever the news media say is important early on typically becomes the most important. This leads to a feedback loop that anoints the “frontrunner” in the “invisible primary” where success is measured by name recognition, money raised, party insider support and a host of “serious” accomplishments, all before the most essential of feedback has been provided: actual voting.
And pre-Iowa numbers are even more staggering than the cumulative totals, which show that roughly 70% of the free media coverage on the Democratic side has gone to Clinton.

The earlier the primary of caucus, the more driven it is by name recognition. So when, a little over a month before Iowa, Hillary Clinton had received 11 times more airtime than Bernie Sanders, that’s significant. (Joe Biden’s decision not to run got six times as much coverage as the entirety of the Sanders campaign as of late last November.) To be fair, the HRC campaign still got less than half the attention of the Drumpf.

The media was also swift to declare—in headlines—Clinton the winner of every debate, even though Sanders gained ground among actual voters after most of them.

The Washington Post did its part by running 16 negative stories about Sanders in 16 hours, oh so coincidentally in the period Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) describes as “includ[ing] the crucial Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, and the next morning’s spin.” A convincing Clinton win in Michigan would probably have ended the Sanders insurgency. But pollsters ended up with considerable egg on their respective faces when Sanders didn’t in fact, lose by 20+ points, but won.

Indeed, because of that victory in Michigan (and subsequent comfortable wins in Idaho and Utah), Sanders remains a potential if unlikely nominee. He’s not the favorite, but it’s not out the question that he might yet get more pledged delegates than Clinton will. Surely even Debbie Wasserman Schultz isn’t so inept or corrupt (or Hillary Clinton so megalomaniacal or narcissistic) as to deny the nomination to a candidate with more actually elected delegates… right? Right?

Of course, the likes of Marcos Moulitsas are dreadfully fearful that voters might actually support someone other than the insider candidate, so he proclaimed on March 4 that if Sanders hadn’t closed the gap on Clinton by March 15, he’d forbid anything negative to be said about Clinton on his site (the Daily Kos) thereafter. Moulitsas is an idiot but not uninformed; he knew full well that the states voting on the 15th favored Clinton, but that Sanders was likely to take the majority of the next eight. Depending on who’s counting, Sanders needs to win about 57 or 58% of the post-March 15 delegates to get a majority (leaving superdelegates out of the mix for the moment). That’s exactly what he did on March 22. Today there are caucuses in Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington. Sanders is expected to do well in all three states. Will he win a sufficient majority of the remaining pledged delegates? Barring a major intervening event, probably not. But such events do happen, and it’s not at all unreasonable for him to stick around a while longer. (Remember, it was June when Clinton dropped out of the 2008 race, needing a far higher percentage of remaining delegates than Sanders needs now.)

But the New York Times has had enough of this democracy stuff. They’ve got a coronation to plan. In a piece by Amy Chozick and Trip Gabriel published yesterday, Bernie Sanders might as well never have existed. Clinton, you see, is “turn[ing] her attention to a general election campaign.” Sanders, who has well over 40% of the pledged delegates thus far awarded, is irrelevant. They don’t even entertain the notion that Clinton might not get the nomination. To be fair, they’re equal opportunity incompetents: no Republican candidate other than the former reality TV buffoon is really considered, and only Ted Cruz is even mentioned.

Inevitability and electability have been the twin pillars of the Clinton campaign since the beginning. The former may just succeed as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The oft-repeated mantra, “I like Bernie, but he can’t win,” thus takes on a double meaning, with different responses. A lot of people seem to think that the unlikelihood of a Sanders nomination is a reason to vote for Clinton. Sorry, but that’s just stupid. If you prefer Clinton, by all means vote for her, but “he can’t win” becomes relevant in a primary only if there are more than two candidates in a winner-take-all state (you might prefer Kasich but will vote for Cruz to stop Trump), or if the unelectability extends to the general election (you prefer Sanders, but don’t think he can beat Trump, whereas Clinton can).

Of course, the media have been rather scrupulous about keeping actual numbers about electability out of the headlines. Why? Well, because Sanders currently annihilates Trump by 17.5 points. Clinton wins, too, but by more than six fewer points. Sanders also fares 5.5 points better against Cruz and 7.5 better against Kasich (the difference between a narrow win and a fairly substantial loss for the Democrats).

But what’s really interesting about the Times article is this: “Mr. Trump has shown a particular weakness among female voters, who favored Mrs. Clinton 55 percent to 35 percent in a New York Times/CBS News poll released this week, twice the gender gap of the 2012 presidential election, when President Obama defeated Mitt Romney.” Interesting. Trouble is, Curmie actually bothered to look at the source, the published version of those poll results. There’s not a thing there that separates male and female voters. The polls may have said precisely what Chozik and Gabriel claim, but the documentation they provide doesn’t say so. This would be slipshod journalism at the undergrad level, let alone for someone working for the freaking New York Times.

That poll, unlike the article which uses it as evidence, does recognize that the Senator from Vermont is still alive and well, and his campaign is at least the former if not the latter, as well. Accordingly, Sanders and Clinton are both matched up against their likely GOP opposition. And Sanders beats Trump by 15 vs. 10 for Clinton; interestingly, Sanders/Cruz and Sanders/Kasich were not listed as possibilities, at least in the published data. It does say something about American politics that the two leading candidates have positive/negative ratings of -33 (Trump) and -21 (Clinton). Meanwhile, the two candidates who would stand the best chance of beating the opposition candidate in November, Sanders and Kasich, are ignored. Welcome to American democracy.

But you know who does divide male and female voters? Quinnipiac. In their latest poll, Clinton does beat Trump handily among women voters, 16 points (although only by 2 points among white women). Sanders wins by 29. Yes, 29. Tell me again about how women are all about Clinton and only Clinton. More tellingly, isn’t it interesting that the Times article cites evidence that may or may not exist, but fails to mention even more overwhelming support for Sanders.

It is no secret that Curmie is pro-Sanders and anti-Clinton. Both, independently. Not pro-Sanders because anti-Clinton. Not anti-Clinton because pro-Sanders. So those who disagree will no doubt think this is all sour grapes. Part of it may be. But I prefer both my politicians and my journalists to be at least reasonably honest. That is not happening in this campaign.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Case of the Disappearing Swastikas

Perhaps the easiest way to be roused from my writing torpor is to write a comment that turns into a post of its own. I know it’s been since January that I’ve written anything here, but I always managed to find a reason not to find the time… plus, it’s spring break here in Curmieville, so that’s a good opportunity to get some writing done.

The impetus for this commentary, then, was a post by Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall over at Ethics Alarms. (As usual, Curmiphiles are encouraged to check out his page.) Jack has a way of discovering articles I wish I’d gotten to first. Anyway…

This is a scene from the movie.  I’m guessing Tappan Zee High School
doesn’t have choristers that look quite like this.
Bob Pritchard, the superintendent of schools in Orangetown, NY, intervened in the Tappan Zee High production of Mel Brooks’s The Producers this week, caving to pressure from the ubiquitous “concerned parents” and removing the swastikas from the musical’s signature song, “Springtime for Hitler.” Mr. Pritchard is a coward and a fool. Seriously, what legitimate educator would argue that “there is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate”? To cite some examples noted by Jack: how about a history book? a class project? a screening of “Schindler’s List”? a production of The Sound of Music?

Still, Jack ultimately decided that removing the swastikas was the least bad of a host of bad options. Here’s where we disagree. Below, the last 90% or so of my comment on his post:

First, let me confess to ignorance of the stage version of The Producers. I know the film, of course, but being neither a big musical theatre guy nor made of money, I’ve never actually seen the play. Assuming it to be substantially similar to the film, therefore, is for me (but not for those more informed) a risky proposition.

It is not clear whether the school’s administration formally signed off on the choice of play, but de facto they did: the rights and royalties for a musical will cost—depending on a variety of factors such as venue size, number of performances, and ticket prices—hundreds or (more likely) thousands of dollars, and no high school theatre director can just write a check on a school account for that amount of money. Expenditures of that size need approval.

So here’s where I agree with your point that cultural illiteracy was very much at play from the beginning of this saga. I’m not suggesting that every high school administrator should have seen the movie or the play, but certainly the “Springtime for Hitler” schtik has long since passed into the public consciousness. I was too young (in junior high, perhaps?) to have seen the film on its first run, but I knew about the campy production number long before I actually saw the film when I was in high school or college. Similarly, I know that “I will take what is mine with fire and blood” is a ”Game of Thrones” reference without ever having picked up one of the books or tuned in to the television show. A competent administrator would at the very least have known what s/he was signing off on. Or… you know… asked: that’s an option, apparently.

There are, as you say, many legitimate reasons why this is not a good choice for a high school production, plus one you didn’t mention: it’s very male-heavy, especially in the leads, and most high schools (or universities, for that matter) have a lot more good women than good men in the talent pool.

But the show was approved, implicitly if not explicitly, and, having done so, the administration is to my mind, ethically bound to stand behind the production except in cases of utter outrageousness that are not mandated or at the very least supported by the script. Actually, this one is a tough call in some ways: unless there’s something in the stage version that isn’t in the film, there’s nothing that demands swastikas. And I suspect that whereas the design concept might be compromised by the administration’s intervention, removing the offending objects could be done with relatively little disruption to the rehearsal process in purely pragmatic terms (i.e., outside the realm of aesthetics, ethics, or copyright law). On the other hand, using them is a completely appropriate choice.

Should the director simply have acquiesced? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I’ve been in academic theatre (admittedly at a different level) as a student or a faculty member (or, during grad school, as both at once) for over four decades, and that’s long enough to recognize the thin edge of the wedge. This time it’s swastikas. Next time it will be the word “skank”, or a little authenticity in the choreography in an Elvis-inspired musical, or a very funny, sweet and thoroughly asexual “gay scene,”or—Allah forbid!—a totally innocuous musical in which the central characters happen to be Muslims.

As a practicing theatre artist, I am well aware of the power of symbols, and I do not wish to dismiss the concerns of those who are offended by the image. But the problem with The Producers is not, cannot be, swastikas. The entire scene is intended to be a farce, an idea so inane that no sentient spectator of the play-within-a-play could think it worthy of staging. Our heroes are trying to produce a flop, after all. As you point out, Jack, context matters, and reducing the symbol of the Third Reich to a kitschy backdrop goes a long way to deflating its power. And there is no way any rational person could view the use of Nazi iconography in this play as in any way endorsing Hitler. Does the scene make fun of the Holocaust? No. No, it does not. I kinda think Mel Brooks wouldn’t be the guy to do that.

We can make a case that the play should never have been approved to begin with. We can stipulate that the changes being demanded are probably not that difficult to make. But I still think it’s a bad call, born of cowardice rather than principle.

At its best, theatre, like any other art form, challenges the spectators, incites responses, asks more questions than it answers. I am fond of reminding my students that, linguistically, “aesthetic” is the opposite of “anaesthetic.” Even at the high school level, theatre provides the possibility of engaging in actual dialogue about things that matter, such as, for example, the symbology associated with one of the most repressive and unhuman regimes in history.

The superintendent, though well-intentioned, is ultimately saying, in effect: “You can do this play, but I forbid you to do it correctly.” His decision also capitulates to what amounts to a heckler’s veto. How much better would it be to stage the play the way the director and students choose, and then to have a post-show discussion about the decision to include swastikas: why did you decide to go ahead? would you have the same objections to swastikas if we were doing The Sound of Music or The Moon Is Down? the play isn’t really about Nazis at all (it is not, in fact, “a satirical musical about Adolf Hitler,” even if the idiot on Channel 2 says otherwise), so a). why get so upset, or b). why not just tone it down? (And so on.)

Recognizing and respecting the perspectives of others is central to pedagogy, to a democratic society, and to adulthood. This is a tougher call than most, but in the end, I’m going to side with more speech rather than less, even if some people are upset. As you say, Jack, we live in a time in which “foes of humor, satire, controversy, and even free speech itself are causing Americans to self-censor and be hesitant to utter anything but bland sentiments and consensus opinions.” To me, that’s a rallying cry to create art fearlessly. Of course, I’m not the one taking the angry phonecalls.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

There's a New Curmie II Winner!

There are lots of other things to write about, but I wanted to get the 2015 Curmie II winner announced while it’s at least still January. The Curmie II, you may recall, is for the stupidest utterance by a politician. The award is not for political statements per se, irrespective of how much I (or any sane person) might disagree, nor is it for outright lies, which of course there are plenty of in the political arena. No, the Curmie II is for “statements so absurd on their face that we wonder how the speaker is capable of dressing himself, let alone holding public office.” Unlike the original Curmie, I pick this one myself rather than having readers vote.

The first winner, and still all-time champion because his line requires literally no context, was Congressman Mike Rogers, for his immortal words, “You can’t have your privacy violated if you don't know your privacy is violated.” Last year’s recipient was former President George W. Bush, who somehow managed to keep a straight face while claiming that “I think you have to earn your way into politics. I don’t think that anything is ever given to you.” Context is required for this one: the statement is not completely ridiculous on its face—naïve, perhaps, but not face-meltingly stupid—but coming from someone with considerable inherited wealth, the son of a President and grandson of a Senator, this is a truly a legitimately award-winning display of obliviousness.

This year, amid all the pre-election bluster and preening, there were a number of worthy contenders, but the selection finally boiled down to two candidates: Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton. Both finalists have strong cases. DWS staked her claim with the thoroughly bogus Democratic Presidential debate schedule—a mere six debates (there were 25 the last time there wasn’t an incumbent), scheduled at ridiculous times (the Saturday before Christmas, MLK weekend, etc.), with penalties exacted for any candidate who appeared at an unsanctioned debate and indeed for any media outlet who covered such a debate. (Why major media outlets didn’t tell her to perform an exercise best suited to particularly limber hermaphrodites is certainly evidence of their duplicity, cowardice, and/or general incompetence.)

But she’s not our award winner for two reasons. First, whereas Curmie has it in his head that DWS was proclaiming one of the virtues of such a schedule to have been maximizing viewership, he can’t find a link to her saying that prior to this month, after the December 31 cut-off date. Secondly, it’s impossible to believe that Wasserman Schultz actually thinks her transparent stacking of the deck for the Clinton candidacy was really an exercise in increasing voter engagement. (Even PolitiFact didn’t buy that bullshit.) No, she was simply lying, and that doesn’t get you a Curmie II. Clearly, DWS doesn’t think the Democratic Party should be a democratic party.

The runner-up congratulates the Curmie II winner.
That leaves our winner of the 3rd Annual Curmie II Award as Hillary Clinton, for her outrageous tweet on November 22, “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” As with ex-President Bush’s award-winner last year, this one requires context. Just as GWB’s remarks might sound reasonable coming from someone other than a privileged son of a privileged son, so might HRC’s make at least some sense had they been written by someone other than the principal defender of a serial sexual abuser who happens to be her husband.

Curmie thinks back a couple of decades to when he was trained in rape crisis intervention. One of the cardinal tenets of that process was that anyone claiming to be a victim of sexual assault should be treated as if she (usually “she,” sometimes “he”) was believed. There was a sort of implicit blind faith that all such accusations are legitimate. They aren’t, of course, but they are more often than not, and as long as due process is upheld for the alleged assailant, it’s reasonable to proceed by believing the victim until and unless there’s reason to doubt her story.

Curmie has dealt with (meaning providing advice or support, not actually adjudicating) three date rape cases over the years; in two of them her knew both the accuser and the accused. In two of the three cases, Curmie would say the chances that an assault took place fulfill “preponderance of the evidence” standards but still fall short of “beyond reasonable doubt.” This, of course, complicates matters considerably, as we run considerable risk of real victims feeling unsupported on the one hand, and of innocent people being irrevocably stigmatized on the other.

It’s a vexed question, then, one not entirely suitable for condensing to 140-character proclamations. Still, Twitter is part of the world we live in, so over-simplifications are understandable and even reasonable if contextualized. But to have that statement come from Hillary Clinton, whom Juanita Broaddrick says “tried to silence [her],” who declared the allegations surrounding the Monica Lewinsky affair to be a “vast right-wing conspiracy” (except for the whole, you know, being completely true part), who presumably was consulted before hubby paid out close to a million bucks in an out of court settlement with Paula Jones. And we mustn’t forget Kathleen Willey, who alleges she was fondled against her will in the White House per se.

Indeed, if we count “consensual” sexual activity that—according to feminist theory—wasn’t really consensual at all because of a power dynamic, then we’re looking at an 8-time abuser (or should that number be 14? Or more?), and Hillary has played dutiful little wifey through it all, striking out at anyone with the temerity to accuse her randy spouse of the slightest impropriety, and de facto adopting a “boys will be boys” attitude through it all.

Until she thought she could score some political points by being a “feminist.” Or perhaps she actually is blinded to Bill’s comprehensive lasciviousness. Is she hypocritical or stupid? Either way, for Hillary Clinton of all people to claim that all victims should be believed… that’s Curmie II material.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Announcing the Winner of the 5th Annual Curmie Award

Yes, there is a Curmie winner this year, and I apologize for the delay in the announcement. It’s been a crazy few days since voting closed, highlighted—if that’s the word—by a ridiculous wait at the airport for DHS, or INS, or CPB, or whatever acronymic monstrosity it was, to remove its thumb from its ass, and by the opportunity to watch a pissing match between Curmie’s university’s lawyers and a playwright’s agents over which state would have jurisdiction in the 1 in 10,000 chance of a problem (a dispute in which everyone lost, of course… well, everyone but a different playwright and a different agency).

There were fewer votes this year than in the past, a function in part of Facebook’s greed newest algorithms, which limit viewership of posts in the absence of payola. Curmie posted daily reminders on the Facebook page after voting started; none of them were seen by as many as 10 of the 460+ fans of the page. Thus, despite the usual assistance from netpal Jack Marshall (thanks, Jack!), viewership of the nominations post was down by more than 50% from last year. Really, though, the problem was that barely 10% of those who visited the page actually voted. Still, elections are decided by those who vote, and we have a worthy recipient of the 5th Annual Curmie Award for most embarrassing the profession of education.

School officials would have us believe that this isn’t a disruption
for students trying to get to class.
Without further ado, it is with considerable pleasure that Curmie announces that the 5th Annual Curmie Award is presented to… Florence (CO) High School; its Principal, Brian Schipper; and its Superintendent, Rhonda Vendetti. The school’s outrageously evangelical approach is frankly a little much even for a Christian school, which theirs isn’t. It’s a public high school that operates solely (apparently) as a recruitment apparatus for a local church, The Cowboy Church at the Crossroads, and its pastor, Randy Pfaff.

Pfaff may be paranoid or a charlatan (Curmie’s pretty certain he’s both), but he’s not the problem. The problem is a public school administration which allows a local minister to be the de facto advisor to a student organization, to hold prayer meetings on school property that are so large that non-participants literally can’t maneuver past them, to hold all-school assemblies based on Christian gospel, to promote obviously sectarian events over the school’s PA system and by distributing flyers on school property. You get the idea.

Our runners-up… In 2nd place was the State Department of Education in Florida for a scheme which literally punished schools and teachers even if students got perfect scores on standardized tests if those same students also got perfect scores last year: no improvement, you see.

3rd place went to Principal Alan Luker of an elementary school in Gustine, TX, who decided that the way to solve the mystery of the gym floor pooper was to make literally every kid in the 4th and 5th grades to drop their pants. Apart from the outrageousness of the act itself, what the hell was he looking for?

Bedford (VA) Middle School and its representatives Assistant Principal Brian Wilson and School Operations Chief Frederick “Mac” Duis claimed 4th place. They punished an 11-year-old boy for marijuana possession, even though they knew—or damned well should have known—that their alleged evidence had tested negative more than once.

5th place was shared by the Cypress-Fairbanks School District in greater Houston and Marquette University. Cy-Fair copped its nomination for punishing a student for wearing a spaghetti-strap dress: bare shoulders distract the boys, you know. She was five at the time, by the way. Marquette revoked the tenure of a professor who posted a blog post the administration didn’t like. Curmie didn’t expect this one to win, but as a tenured professor who occasionally posts blog essays that those in power might not like, he’s kind of sensitive to this stuff.

In 7th place was the (ahem) brain trust at Glen Oak Elementary School in Lewis Center, Ohio. They became a finalist by punishing a teacher by treating a bully exactly the way the experts say she should.

Rounding out the finalists is the administration of Harrisburg (PA) Sci-Tech High School, who threatened one of their seniors with suspension for wearing a too-revealing dress to prom, three full days after the event, for reasons that were simultaneously sexist, inconsistent, and creepy.

Curiously enough, Curmiphiles don’t seem to be entirely convinced
that scenes like this belong in public high schools.
But the day and the Curmie belong to the good folks of Florence, for whom the notion that a public school ought to be a secular institution is apparently an alien concept. Funny, Curmie voters thought it was pretty obvious. Maybe it’s the phrasing. Let’s tell them that they shalt not privilege a single religion over the U.S. Constitution. Curmie would say that we should translate the 1st amendment into Ancient Greek so it might actually get read, but he’s pretty sure that everyone in Florence thinks the New Testament was originally written in English.

Thanks to all who voted. We’ll have a Curmie II post up before long. I hope.