Sunday, July 16, 2017

Mid-July Mini-Reports

Time for some quick takes on items in the news over the past month or so. This may become a regular feature of the blog… who knows? We’ll take the stories chronologically.

Requires legislation to help incompetent parents.
#1. The June 18 edition of the Denver Post carries an article entitled “ Colorado proposes nation’s first legal limits on smartphones for children.” This is the initiative of one Tim Farnum, who noticed that his own “once energetic and outgoing boys became moody, quiet and reclusive. They never left their bedrooms, and when he tried to take away the phones, one of Farnum’s sons launched into a temper tantrum that the dad described as equivalent to the withdrawals of a crack addict.” Yeah, right. This is someone who had seen lots of folks struggling with narcotics withdrawal. Moron.

Anyway, since Farnum failed at parenting, proving himself incapable of saying no to his spawn, the only solution is… legislation! The proposal would prevent smartphone sales to anyone under 13, and would require providers to plow through a mountain of paperwork which would then have to be submitted to some state agency, which would—at taxpayer expense, of course—log everything to ensure compliance.

All this bill does is take authority away from parents who actually take the job seriously, and give it to the state. By the way, Farnum has now taken the smartphones away from his two sons, and with good results. He, being dumber than an anvil, no doubt believes this proves his point that smartphones should be kept away from kids. What it really demonstrates, of course, is that parents who acquiesce to every whim of their children tend not to be successful at raising healthy and well-adjusted children. But good parents ought to be able to decide whether their 12-year-old can have a smartphone… or if their 14-year-old shouldn’t. Farnum describes his politics as “fairly libertarian.” Curmie shudders at the prospect of someone Farnum would think of as an authoritarian jackass.

#2. The Transportation Safety Administration toyed with the idea of requiring books and magazines to be removed from carry-on bags in order to de-clutter bags, making security screenings more effective. This rationale was widely and probably rightfully regarded as nonsense by the public at large and especially by privacy rights advocates like the ACLU, who wrote a lengthy opinion on its website, recognizing the need for safety but arguing for the greater good of privacy. The good news is that whereas Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly proclaimed in May that he (N.B., yes, “he,” not “we,” or “TSA”) “might, and likely will,” expand employment of the new initiative beyond a handful of test cities, it now appears that either public outcry or a bout of common sense was sufficient to stall the program.

Academics (like Curmie) are particularly disturbed by the prospect of subjecting themselves to this level of intrusion into privacy.  Whether it’s the title. or the language of publication, or the subject matter (Curmie has read a whole lot of anti-capitalistic theory, for example), the risk of having one's reading material examined without a legitimate safety concern, and with a distinct possibility of unnecessary confrontation, disturbs a lot of folks, especially but by no means exclusively in the intelligentsia.  And the examiners—TSA agents—have neither the training nor the intellect to make appropriate decisions.

Note that the stated rationale for the added screening was that carry-on bags are now over-packed, thereby making it more difficult to determine what’s actually in them, because people want to avoid baggage fees, which apply on the first bag only to domestic flights. Meanwhile, the TSA is also contemplating banning laptops in the cabin only on all international flights. If anyone in Washington really believed that laptops are a threat, they’d be prohibited on all flights. If the problem is over-packed carry-ons, make airlines adopt the same baggage fees (which is to say, none) for domestic flights as are now common practice for international flights. The only plausible explanation is what we’ve known all along: TSA is as prying and meddlesome as it is incompetent (and that’s saying rather a lot), and John Kelly has little interest in civil liberties. He’s actually less unqualified than most Trump appointees, but he’s a military guy, not experienced in needing a rationale for his decisions, which he expects to be meekly obeyed. Civilians, especially academics, aren’t really good at that.

#3. From late June comes this story of an elderly Chinese woman who threw coins into a jet engine for good luck, delaying the Shanghai to Guangzhou flight by five hours, lest the attempt to ensure a safe slight lead directly to the opposite result. There’s really not much to say here except, well, wow.

#4. Speaking of stupid ideas, the Denver Post also reports this story about people who claim to be persecuted… for believing in a flat earth. You see, when these folks proclaim their… uh… faith, scientists and other heliocentric round-earthers call them stupid, for no other reason than that they’re, well, stupid. It turns out they even have a celebrity on board: NBA star Kyrie Irving. If ever you needed evidence of major universities’ wholesale abdication of education when there are sports dollars to be made, it’s Kyrie Irving: this idiot got into Duke! (Imagine yourself as an excellent but not quite excellent enough student who didn’t make the cut, while this cretin with a jump shot did.) Somehow Curmie suspects that no one at any university worthy of the name would have given him the time of day if he couldn’t play basketball better than virtually anyone else on the planet.

Seriously, the flat earthers are laughable… but also terrifying. They are not truth-seekers, nor independent thinkers, nor intellectual gadflies. They’re just garden variety morons who, like the snowflakes Curmie wrote about last time out, can do a lot of damage in sufficient numbers. This nation has already embarrassed itself on the world stage in terms of evolution and climate change. Further erosion of the most basic scientific truths cannot be condoned.

The Afghani delegation arrives in Washington, DC.
#5. Credit where it’s due: it appears that intervention by President Trump himself led to a reversal of a visa denial for young robotics team members. Two delegations, from Afghanistan and Gambia, were initially denied the short-term visas that would have allowed them to compete in the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge, currently underway in Washington, DC. The former group, an all-girls team from a country not exactly known for gender enlightenment, attracted more attention here, and this is where we’re hearing about presidential suasion being exercised. It’s unclear whether the President assisted the Gambians’ cause directly, but they, too, were allowed to enter the country after having their visa applications denied.

In neither case was the reason for the initial denial made clear: this is standard practice for the State Department under any administration. Whether it should be, of course, is another matter, and to an outside observer these cases seem particularly bizarre. It’s difficult to believe a bunch of high school kids are much of a threat to national security, but I suppose stranger things have happened. When the bans were first announced, many, including Curmie, feared that State was unilaterally extending the President’s travel ban beyond its original scope: Curmie even wrote that the “temporary” travel ban “sure [looks] like the thin edge of the wedge.” But he also described the SCOTUS ruling as a glass half full. It remains to be seen whether President Trump will craft policies that will allow appropriate access to this country irrespective of the applicant’s nationality. Frankly, I doubt it. But this episode has given Curmie at least a modicum of optimism.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Snowflakes in July

“Snowflake” has become a standard taunt leveled against lefties who complain of racism or sexism or the like. Sometimes, the disparagement is warranted: if a college president can’t gesture while speaking lest it be perceived as a “micro-aggression,” the lunatics are indeed running the asylum. But Curmie notes two things: first, whereas there are certainly entitled and ultra-fragile little creatures on the left, not infrequently they actually have a point. Secondly, and more relevant to this essay, the left does not have a monopoly on humorlessness, hypersensitivity, or over-reaction.

This is the kind of orange fool Jon Townsend was talking about.
The other one is pictured enough.
Witness two incidents from earlier this month. In the first, Jon Townsend released a video, one of literally hundreds on his site, which is about 18th century life. Purely coincidentally, this episode first aired on July 3. In this iteration of his show, Townsend finishes a series of videos shot at Mount Vernon with a segment on the making of a custard dessert: you know, eggs, cream, sugar, and butter. This particular recipe, which comes directly from Martha Washington herself, includes some orange juice, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Pretty controversial stuff, right, Gentle Reader? Well, whereas the episode is officially called “A Dessert Fit for the Washingtons,” the first image we have is of the words “orange fool,” which is (of course) the name of the dessert.  And Trumpistan promptly erupted in fits of indignation (most of which comments have subsequently been taken down, but are well-documented to have occurred).

Seriously, this nice and rather nebbishy guy who does videos about colonial life was subjected to all manner of harassment because any reference to an orange fool must inevitably be a dig against The Orange Fool. Maybe it’s a copyright violation or something.

Anyway, poor Townsend released another video, entitled “The Intrusion of Modern Politics On Our YouTube Channel,” in which he makes the point, self-evident to anyone with an IQ above room temperature or to anyone who had seen the video in question: “Guess what? Monday’s episode was not about politics.” Or, as commenter Scott DeGasperis noted, “Sometimes a custard is just a custard.”

This document can still get people fired up.
If only it was for the right reasons...
The following day, more drama, this time as a result of a series of tweets from NPR. It has long been a tradition at NPR to do an on-air reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. This year, they added a 113-tweet Twitter version… and the Trumpistanis raged in further righteous dudgeon, because the tweets were interpreted as “calling for revolution” (true in 1776, not so much now), “propaganda,” “trash,” and the reason NPR is being defunded. This, of course, roused those on the left (and the sane folk on the right) to mock the pseudo-patriotism of Trumpsters too ignorant to understand that they’re complaining about the very document they claim to be celebrating.

Certainly there were idiots on the right who rose to the bait (whether or not it was intended as bait) and made fools (not, apparently, orange ones) of themselves. Perhaps there’s a little more to the story than initially meets the eye, however. For one thing, whereas Curmie is completely certain that Jon Townsend intended absolutely no contemporary political reference in offering up a dessert recipe on Independence Eve, he’s only about 98% certain of NPR’s innocence. To be sure, if this was intended to lure idiots in tin-foil hats from their lairs, it was brilliantly done. But it doesn’t strain credulity overmuch to suggest that someone involved in deciding to tweet the Declaration would have noticed that single tweets like “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good” or “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us” might resonate in a particular way to a 21st-century audience. As of this writing, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people” has gathered some 15,000 re-tweets and 30,000 likes.

Curmie is reminded of a project in a high school Government class. We were dispatched to a local shopping center with copies of the Bill of Rights written up in the form of a petition; we’d ask shoppers to sign. It’s been over 40 years, so Curmie doesn’t remember the exact numbers, but the response broke roughly into quarters: one quarter let us know that they recognized the document they’d been asked to endorse. Another quarter simply signed without even reading. The remaining half of the people we approached split mostly evenly, with younger people generally in favor and older folks refusing to sign—remember, this would have been the Vietnam era, so “right to assemble” and similar protections took on specific meanings in 1972 or ’73.

In other words, if we’re presented with something in the present, we tend to think of them in the present rather than the past. The same could be said for the NPR kerfuffle, especially if a reader comes upon an individual tweet in isolation. But, to Curmie, those capital letters, references to “Princes,” and curious (to us) phrasings ought to be a tip-off.

But there’s one last point to make. Whereas Curmie thinks it unlikely that NPR was intentionally suckering dimwits into saying something stupid, and whereas a goodly number of Trump-loving imbeciles did indeed prove their ignorance, it appears likely that not all the dumb comments were necessarily what they seemed.

Indeed, there is evidence that some of the most outrageously stupid responses to the NPR tweets, posted by “Darren Mills,” are in fact the work of a troll: perhaps a left-leaning troll who intended to make Trump supporters look even stupider than they are, perhaps just a garden variety troll troll, who just likes to stir the pot for the sake of getting people angry. Either way, there’s a good chance that we’re looking at an over-reaction to the over-reaction.

If nothing else, these two stories demonstrate just how fractured the American political system is. Hypersensitivity is encouraged by the partisan media (it’s beginning to be difficult to regard that as anything but a redundant expression), by our politicians, and by our social constructions (education, churches, etc.). A few snowflakes aren’t going to do us any harm, but if you put enough of them together, they can not only run your car off the road, but they can lead to an avalanche: taking us all downhill very fast, destroying everything in its path, and providing not the slightest opportunity to recover what we’ve lost.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

This Isn't a Weapon, Either.

Not writing anything here for the first several months of the year have left Curmie with a backlog of stories to discuss. Today’s entry consists of a trio of incidents involving guns that aren’t guns, and threats that aren’t threats, in educational settings. This is an all-too-familiar and frankly rather depressing trope that Curmie’s been writing about for years. 2013 was especially fruitful in this regard. Over the course of that year, Curmie wrote about students’ getting into trouble, often charged with crazy shit like “terroristic threats” for the following. Age or grade level of the hardened criminals involved in parentheses:

  • Finger-shooting another student (age 6)
  • Possessing a single sheet of paper with a quarter of it ripped off, leaving the remainder in an extremely rough approximation of the shape of a handgun (5th grade)
  • Suggesting to a friend, while not on school property, that they “shoot” each other with their Hello Kitty bubble guns (kindergarten)
  • Making a “gun” out of Legos in an after-school program (age 5)
  • Throwing an imaginary grenade into an equally imaginary box containing “evil” (2nd grade)
  • Waving around a Pop-tart bitten into roughly the shape of a pistol (age 7)
  • Bringing a drawing of a cartoonish-looking bomb to school (age 13, autistic)
  • Carrying a pistol-shaped keychain, possibly 2” in size (age 12)
  • Drawing pictures of possible Hallowe’en costumes (age 8)
  • Disarming (!) a classmate who had a loaded handgun and was threatening another student (age 16)
  • Intervening between a bully with a switchblade and his intended victim (age 13)
Posts are here, here, and here. Note that these stories are all from a single year, and just the ones that Curmie wrote about.

So I suppose it’s good news that so far this year Curmie has encountered only three stories of this kind, and at least one of them is partially understandable. Or it could be that I’ve just missed the press coverage of those events… or, worse, this kind of inanity has become so commonplace that it’s deemed unworthy of reporting. But here we are.

Caitlin Miller: probably not really a terrorist.
We begin, then, in late March in Hoke County, North Carolina, where idiotic school officials (Curmie wonders if this phrasing is redundant) suspended a five-year-old girl for playing with a stick she pretended was a gun. Yes, Gentle Reader, you read that correctly. Caitlin Miller was playing “king and queen” with two of her friends; her task was to guard the royal couple. So she found a stick that vaguely resembles a gun, and used it to dissuade intruders. It is reported that she may have even pointed it in the general direction of another child. OMG! Terrorist attack! Call out the SWAT team, the National Guard, and the Navy Seals! There’s a five-year-old with a stick at large!

Seriously, the stupidity of the adults in this case transcends credulity. 1. There are three audiences for this event: a). the three girls involved in the game, all of whom know it’s a game, b). other children, who see a stick and think it’s a stick, and c). moronic, paranoid, unimaginative adults who should never be allowed on school property without a ticket to the concert or the basketball game. 2). The policy invoked by the mental midgets at the school prohibits “assaults, threats or harassment.” It apparently didn’t occur to them that the fact that Caitlin did none of these things makes her suspension outrageous. 3). Caitlin’s mother, in saying she understands the rationale for the rule—and presumably its kneejerk application to completely innocent play by kindergarteners—shows more tact than Curmie would. There is literally no excuse for the school’s actions. The teacher who reported the incident, the principal, the superintendent, and whatever drone found it possible to craft the district’s response: every one of these people should be summarily fired: after they spend a day apiece (the length of Caitlin’s suspension) in the stocks, to be pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables.

Zachary Bowlin: liked the wrong Instagram post.
And so we move on to Trenton, OH, where Edgewood Middle School 7th-grader Zachary Bowlin was suspended for ten days (the suspension was dropped after school officials belatedly figured out what a public relations nightmare their idiocy had precipitated talked to Zachary’s parents) for liking a friend’s Instagram post. Yes, really. Not posting, not commenting: liking. You see, what Zachary had “liked” was a photo of an airsoft gun (admittedly, it would take someone more knowledgeable than Curmie to have known the “airsoft” part at a glance), with the caption, “Ready.” There are a thousand explanations for why Zachary would “like” such a post, exactly one of which could be interpreted as a threat. An abundance of caution would lead to an investigation; the school, naturally, jumped straight to panic and suspension. There are unconfirmed reports that Chicken Little advised school officials to chill the fuck out.

To be fair, there does seem to have been something going on, although Zachary appears to have been totally innocent: a couple of days after the suspension-that-wasn’t, criminal charges were filed against two students at the school when one posted a photo of a gun and another (presumably not Zachary) liked the post and then texted a friend, saying he was going to bring a gun to school in his hoodie. Curmie remains unconvinced that discussing a potential action ought to be criminalized at all, much less categorized as a felony, but at least there’s cause for suspicion in that circumstance.

Certainly what Zachary did does not rise to the level of “violent, disruptive, harassing, intimidating, bullying, or any other inappropriate behavior” cited by Superintendent Russ Fussnecker (could Dickens have thought up a better name for this dweeb?) as part of the district’s (wait for it…) no tolerance policy towards any kind of student behavior the administration doesn’t endorse. (By the way, it took Curmie, who considers himself a reasonably adept researcher, nearly an hour to find the Student Code of Conduct online: it’s buried in the middle of this document on the Board of Education’s website. That in itself is telling.) But here’s the really outrageous part: the district claims that “Students are also subject to discipline, as outlined in the Student Code of Conduct for misbehavior that occurs off school property when the misbehavior endangers the health and safety of students within the District, or adversely affects the education process.” Uh, no. The Board can claim that right all they want, but it doesn’t exist. Schools don’t have the right to be voyeuristic assholes. They are permitted, however, to employ appropriate punctuation in their official documents; they have clearly decided not to exercise that particular right.

Finally for today, there’s an incident that actually preceded the one in Ohio, but Curmie lists it last because it’s unlike the other two stories in a couple of significant ways. First off, it occurred on a university campus. Secondly, this was case in which the initial problem was apparently the result of an honest mistake rather than abject stupidity.

One of the better snarky responses to
the incident at Colgate.
Here’s what happened: on the night of May 1, someone notified Colgate University police that a shirtless man was seen entering the O'Connor Campus Center while carrying what witnesses believed was a weapon. The UPD called it in to 911, there was predictable panic, and the campus was on lockdown for several hours before authorities ascertained that the alleged culprit was in fact carrying a glue gun for an art project.

At one level, there’s little of interest here: someone over-reacted to a perceived threat, but at least there was someone with what could legitimately have looked like a handgun heading into a campus building. It would have been approaching sunset, and it was apparently pouring rain. Visibility wouldn’t have been great. From a distance of even a few yards, in those conditions, a glue gun could look like a gun gun. Whoever called the UPD (we’re told only that it was a student) apparently made it clear that what turned out to be a glue gun appeared to possibly be a weapon. At 7:05 the university sent out an alert, describing a “dangerous situation in the Coop,” advising everyone to leave the building. So far, so good—appropriate caution and all that. [Note: several sources say the university’s response started shortly after 8:00, but the timestamps say 7:05 and 7:20. You may color Curmie confused.]

Trouble is that 15 minutes later, the possibility of a threat had metastasized into “an armed person.” It was like a game of “telephone” gone horribly awry. Inevitably, there were reports of an “active shooter.”

Of course, the incident carries with it two other topics for conversation. First, Glue Gun Guy turns out to be black, and there were accusations of racial profiling and bias coming not only from the predictable sources (a handful of black students who must endure being educated at one of the country’s most prestigious universities), but also—prior to any investigation—by the university president, Brian W. Casey, who invoked jargon-laden terms like “implicit racial bias” and “profiling.” What’s important here is that the UPD response started before the alleged gunman ever identified by race. Still, Campus Safety Director Bill Ferguson was placed on administrative leave because… well… because. Of course, had Glue Gun Guy actually been an active shooter, Ferguson would have been derelict had he not taken precisely the actions he did (minus the one or two misleading messages).

There’s an excellent discussion by Zach Winn on the Campus Safety magazine site. He writes:
Members of the campus community should never hesitate to call their public safety departments, even for something they might feel is minor or may reflect poorly on them.

Universities should be trying to foster an environment where students don’t think twice about contacting law enforcement. If even one report isn’t made because a student is concerned about backlash, then that campus has become less safe.

In short, President Casey is questioning students for something he should be celebrating them for.

Additionally, placing Chief Ferguson on leave, which many will interpret as a punishment regardless of Casey’s reasoning, sends a message that operating with an abundance of caution is the wrong way to react….

This isn’t to say President Casey is at fault for reviewing the incident, but to place Chief Ferguson on leave and talk about the problem of racial bias before the review has even started seems like the wrong order of business. [Emphasis in original.]
Indeed, the official report, issued on May 12, blames the miscommunication on “user error”: a mistake, in other words. The review also states, plainly, that “there is no appropriate way within the timeframe and scope of this investigation to fully, or even preliminarily, assess the role that bias might have played in the initial report to Campus Safety of perceptions of an armed person entering the Coop,” but nonetheless concludes that he university should “provide training to Colgate employees on working with and serving a diverse community, and recognizing and avoiding racial bias.” Just what a cynic would expect, in other words: there’s no evidence of an actual problem, but we should invest a lot of resources towards solving it, anyway.

To be sure, racial profiling may have played a role, either in the initial report or in the UPD’s handling of the case. One white Colgate student, Jenny Lundt, took it upon herself to demonstrate this point in a Facebook post that went viral to the tune of more than 26,000 likes and 17,000 shares. Ms. Lundt links her “white privilege” to the fact that she had a sword in her dorm room and occasionally trotted it out at parties and the like. Her screed begins:
THIS is what white privilege looks like. This is me, only one year ago on this very campus, running around the academic quad with a fucking sharp metal sword. People thought it was funny. People laughed- oh look at that harmless, ~ silly white girl ~ with a giant sword!!

Today, a black man carrying a fucking glue gun shut down my ~prestigious liberal arts college~ for 4 hours. The limited information that was released put all black men on this campus in danger and at risk of being killed. That is the reality of the institutionalized racism in the United States. If you think for even a second this wasn't profiling, ask yourself why this sword is still in my room and has not ONCE made anyone uncomfortable. No one has EVER called the police on me.
Yeah, well, maybe. But there’s a difference between a gun and a sword, as demonstrated by the recent London Bridge attacks—how much worse would the carnage have been had the attackers had firearms? Ms. Lundt has general point about racism. Whether the general is supported by this specific example is not absolutely clear. But Ms. Lundt does stand in peril of losing her progressive credentials if she doesn’t stop saying a sword is as lethal as a handgun.

The Colgate incident may or may not shine a light on institutionalized racism. It definitely serves as a cry in the wilderness for precision in language and the need to check sources before spreading alarms. We’re all guilty of these latter crimes from time to time; here’s a plea that we all work on this. We may not solve the world’s problems, but we can do what we can to stop contributing to them.

One thing these stories have in common is institutional over-reaction, a phenomenon which comes in many forms. Another similarity is the fact that significant decisions were made prior to determining the facts.  Finally, they share the fact that Curmie wrote more about them than he intended to... he'll stop now.


Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Evergreen State Case: Orwell Was an Optimist

Evergreen State College in Washington has been around since Curmie was in junior high, and it does (or at least did, until recently) indeed retain something of the savor of the 1960s. Indeed, although I’ve always known it was Evergreen State, I don’t think I really consciously made the connection that it was Evergreen State; I’ve always sort of thought of it as a private school, because to my way of thinking it would be impossible for such a college, described by one of its most famous alumni, Matt Groening, as “a hippie college, with no grades or required classes, that drew every weirdo in the Northwest,” to be otherwise.

By this, I do not mean to denigrate the school or all its people. The two Evergreen alums I’ve known have both been women of considerable intellect and considerable social conscience (one of them remarkably so in both criteria). And certainly a smallish college (a little over 4000 undergrads) which could give us not only Groening, but also the likes of Macklemore, John Wozniak, and Michael Richards, would seem to be doing something right, at least in terms of training artists. But perhaps the person who most encapsulates the world’s perception of Evergreen students is one who didn’t live to receive her degree: Rachel Corrie’s activism—some would say heroism—led to her being crushed to death by an armored bulldozer in the Gaza strip as she attempted to defend Palestinian homes from destruction by the Israeli military.

In other words, Curmie has a little trouble envisioning Evergreen as a place at which racist or sexist ideologies could possibly thrive. But that would be actual racist or sexist (or homophobic or transphobic or…) attitudes, not to be confused with something some entitled little brat might construe as a “micro-aggression,” or whatever this week’s jargon may be. Anyway, there’s a tradition there called “Day of Absence,” a title derived from Douglas Turner Ward’s excellent one-act play of the same name. [Side note: Curmie worked on a production of that play sometime in the mid ‘70s. i.e., about the time the tradition started at Evergreen.] At Evergreen, as in Ward’s play, all the African-Americans in a community disappear, leaving the remaining whites to contemplate what is lost. Thus, the custom was for all the African-Americans to vacate the Evergreen campus on a designated day in the spring semester.

Dr. Bret Weinstein:
At the center of the brouhaha
That is, until this year, when someone came up with the idea that the African-Americans would stay and the whites would be forced to leave. Precisely one faculty member, as far as Curmie can determine, had the necessary sense and courage to call out this inanity: Bret Weinstein, a biologist. (Note: he has been publicly supported, a couple of weeks after the fact, by one other Evergreen faculty member, veterinarian Mike Paros, who said “Most of the country at least either supports what Bret Weinstein did, or is concerned about Evergreen as a college where free inquiry can occur.” Dr. Paros seems to have a flair for understatement.)

Professor Weinstein formally protested the decision to re-structure the Day of Absence in a March 15 letter to Rashida Love, the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. (Seriously, where do they get these titles… and how many First Peoples students are there at Evergreen to legitimize not merely a full-time staff position but indeed—apparently—an entire office?)

He informed Ms. Love of his intention to remain on campus on the Day of Absence, writing:
There is a huge difference between a group or coalition deciding to voluntarily absent themselves from a shared space in order to highlight their vital and under-appreciated roles and a group or coalition encouraging another group to go away. The first instance is a forceful call to consciousness. The second is a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.
Later, in a lengthy podcast interview with Joe Rogan, Weinstein added, “as a person, as somebody devoted to the gains of the civil rights movement, and also I should probably say as a Jew, when people start telling me where I can and cannot be, it rings alarm bells.” New York Times editorialist Bari Weiss sums up the situation deftly:
Reasonable people can debate whether or not social experiments like a Day of Absence are enlightening. Perhaps there’s a case to be made that a white-free day could be a useful way to highlight the lack of racial diversity, particularly at a proudly progressive school like Evergreen. Yet reasonable debate has made itself absent at Evergreen.
Weinstein did go to campus on the Day of Absence, which he describes as “mostly uneventful.” Predictably (alas), although it seemed to surprise Professor Weinstein himself, after the event per se, a gaggle of students surrounded him in the hallway outside his classroom, screaming profanity, refusing to listen, and demanding an apology and/or his resignation. Weinstein describes being characterized as a racist as “ironic,” and “a strategic mistake” by his detractors.

Curmie had been under the impression that the protest followed hard on the heels of the Day of Absence. This was not the case, as former Evergreen Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Zimmerman points out in an essay in the Huffington Post. Not only was there a two-month gap between Weinstein’s letter and the protest, but over a month had passed between the actual Day of Absence and the brouhaha. Mr. Zimmerman also provides some important back-story details, which Curmie encourages you to read. By the way, it’s almost as if all that postmodern stuff about history occurring in the interstices between events might just have some validity. (Side note: Dr. Weinstein himself, for all his articulateness and sensibility, still has the arrogance of the natural scientist that the arts, humanities, and social sciences are somehow inferior because, he seems to believe, truth manifests only in objectively verifiable ways. Curmie admires his stance against thought control, but isn’t so sure he’d want him as a colleague.) 

This appears to be the new face of life at Evergreen State College.
The day after the hallway confrontation, Weinstein received a phone call from the police, warning him not to come to campus, as students were stopping and searching cars; the implication was that had Weinstein come to campus, he may have been dragged out of his car and… well, who knows? 

And then, Evergreen president George Bridges, who apparently has both the brains and the backbone of overcooked capellini, told the police to stand down (!), effectively leaving gangs of angry and self-entitled students to harass and intimidate whomever they chose, including Weinstein’s students. Weinstein quite legitimately feared for his safety, and entire campus was shut down for the following two days. The students also claim to have feared for their lives immediately after they tried to bully the professor, which makes them paranoid as well as moronic and hypocritical.

Meanwhile, President Bridges publicly declared the student protesters to be “courageous,” and capitulated to virtually all of a series of student demands (thankfully, not the one that Prof. Weinstein be fired), ranging from a promise not to file charges against the student protesters to meekly agreeing not to gesture (at all!) while talking to the protesters, to excusing protesters from doing their homework, to “an expanded equity and multicultural center” (whatever the hell that means) to “mandatory sensitivity and cultural competency training for faculty, staff, administrators, and student employees.” Nope, that doesn’t sound the least bit Stalinist. Nope.

The consensus seems to be that President Bridges was trying to keep the incident out of the press. That strategy worked briefly, but Dr. Weinstein then did something unthinkable for a progressive intellectual: he went on the Tucker Carlson show on Fox News. Here’s the thing: Tucker Carlson is one of a raft-load of conservative pundits (e.g., Bill O’Reilly, Laura Ingraham, Monica Crowley, even Glenn Beck) who found that they’d become more famous and could demand higher salaries from Fox News if they abandoned the sense and intellect they had previously demonstrated and instead pandered to prejudices and paranoias of the Bubbas who make up the majority of that network’s viewership. In other words, Tucker Carlson is not a moron, but he plays one on TV.

The latter gives him a pulpit; the former means that when there really is a story, he knows he doesn’t need to embellish it. The scary thing is that in his description of the events at Evergreen resembling “Phnom Penh in 1975,” he has a point. Yes, it’s an exaggeration, but there’s a difference between hyperbole and falsehood, and this stays clearly in the former camp. And Carlson quite reasonably wonders how and why Dr. Bridges is “allowing a mob to threaten one of his professors.” The signature quotation of the six-minute or so segment, however, goes to Weinstein: “I’m troubled by what this implies about the current state of the left.” Carlson’s response, “Ya think?” was simultaneously gratuitous and apt.

Needless to say, the right-wing press lapped this story up, and—in this case—rightly so. One of the better pieces was a YouTube post by “Roaming Millennial.” It’s posted under the header “Evergreen’s Bigot Professor vs. Brave Students!” Shall we say the title suggests a dissonance between text and subtext? Our hostess sums things up pretty well:
I don’t know about everyone watching this, but I for one am pretty tired of seeing footage of student mobs harassing professors for espousing reasonable and rational viewpoints…. Evergreen College has essentially turned into Lord of the Flies, with students running wild. 
She describes President Bridges as “a massive cuck.”  This is not a term Curmie would use… but only because he’s the wrong generation to have that expression as part of his active vocabulary.  Roaming Millennial adds:
My advice to these students is that if you don’t want footage of you acting like an insufferable douchebag floating around on the internet, you shouldn’t have been acting like an insufferable douchebag…. The fact that the president of the college is actually giving in to their demands is only going to encourage this type of behavior. When a child throws a tantrum because he‘s not getting his way, you don’t just give in to him; you set boundaries, and that’s what needs to happen to these students.
There’s more, but the piece veers off into a rather trite indictment of liberalism in general. That’s where the conclusion doesn’t necessarily flow from the evidence adduced. But as regards this specific incident, yeah, she’s absolutely right.

Of course, the Evergreen saga still had three more chapters (at least). First, there was the announcement by the college that Dr. Weinstein had returned to campus and was teaching again. (Nothing to see here; move along.) Trouble is, well, he hadn’t. Or at least that’s his claim, and he ought to know.

Secondly, a gaggle of Evergreen faculty decided that the problems were all of Weinstein’s making, claiming he was “endangering students.” “HOW?” is a question they do not seem prepared to answer. These 71 co-signers (terrifyingly, that’s nearly a third of the faculty) further vowed to capitulate to even more student demands, and denied that the protesters were in any way violent, despite video evidence to the contrary.

Finally (please, God, let it be finally), Evergreen held its graduation ceremony on at a rented baseball field in Tacoma, some 30 miles from the campus in Olympia. Attendees—graduates, faculty, and guests alike—had to pass through metal detectors to enter the space. Just… wow.

OK: a few bullet points to wrap up:
  • Neither Bret Weinstein nor Curmie denies that systemic racism didn’t just evaporate with the election of Barack Obama or something. It’s real, and there might indeed be some vestigial manifestations of it at Evergreen College. But that doesn’t mean that punishing an African-American for committing a violent crime is a racist act. Nothing Curmie has read or heard from Bret Weinstein suggests any racist inclinations.
  • Dr. Weinstein’s progressive credentials are sufficiently obvious to any rational observer that they need not be trotted out and reviewed. Numerous parallels to what’s happening at Evergreen present themselves. Roaming Millennial mentioned Lord of the Flies. Curmie was thinking Animal Farm… or 1984: pick your Orwell. Or, from history: Danton. Or Trotsky. Or…
  • This is not, as some on the right would argue, an example of “PC run amok.” It’s a whole different phenomenon: one which embraces mob mentalities, threats of violence, and the suppression of actual diversity. Dr. Zimmerman is correct in suggesting that the protesters believe, and the college administration pandered to that belief, that “freedom of speech is only for speech with which you agree and aggressively silencing those with whom you disagree is fair game.”
  • The protesters are post-adolescents, caught up in mob mentality and the perception of agency. They’re responsible for their actions, but they’re also still pretty much kids. More problematically, their absurd and potentially dangerous posturing is condoned, enabled, and indeed encouraged by adults who should know better: a good portion of the faculty and by an administration headed by someone who is either an utter idiot or a craven buffoon… or both.
  • Curmie’s father was a college president in more tumultuous times than these: a decade beginning in 1968. I vividly recall one incident, although not the cause (a response to Kent State? Something local like 24-hour visitation?). Anyway, a large group of students had taken over the administration building, and the VPAA showed up literally on our doorstep that evening, obviously in some distress, and handed Dad a list of the students’ demands. Dad took the sheet of paper, folded it up, and put it in his pocket. “Aren’t you going to read them?” queried the VPAA. “I don’t respond to demands,” Dad replied. If they’d like to make them ‘requests,’ I’ll look at them in the morning.”  And then he closed the door. I think it’s safe to say that Curmie’s Dad had a different approach to leadership than Dr. Bridges does.
  • Evergreen is no longer, can no longer be, the “hippie haven” it once was. Its 1969 music festival analog was Woodstock. Now it’s Altamont, known for its anger and violence, and widely regarded as the death of the hippie movement. And that is a great shame.
  • As of right now, Bret Weinstein still has a job. That’s a good thing, although Curmie can’t imagine why anyone would want to work in the snake-pit that is Evergreen State right now. George Bridges also still has a job. That isn’t a good thing. At all.
We close with the perceptive analysis of former VPAA Zimmerman: “Evergreen is not alone in the constellation of institutions of higher education facing these problems. It is, however, a place that has allowed extremists to dominate and discussion to die. Others will do well to learn from the mistakes made on this campus.” Amen to that.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

SCOTUS, the Travel Ban, and the Half-Full Glass

Curmie was not surprised that SCOTUS overturned lower court rulings to support parts of President Trump’s travel ban imposed against citizens of a handful of majority-Muslim countries, but confesses he didn’t expected unanimity. True, The Guardian, a reputable if left-leaning publication, tries to spin the ruling as not really unanimous: it was per curiam, meaning, if Curmie, who is no lawyer, understands the term correctly, that the decision was announced for the court, with no specific author and with the pretense of unanimity: the equivalent of a political convention’s nominating someone “unanimously,” even though everyone knows a sizeable minority of the delegates voted for someone else.

But, let’s face it, it has all the trappings of a unanimous decision, even if not everyone was completely on board (indeed, only three, very predictable, Justices—Alito, Gorsuch, and Thomas—were all-in to the point of wanting the entirety of the ban to go into effect immediately). Certainly President Trump, who is nothing if not hubristic, bellowed his presumed overwhelming victory for all to hear.

Curmie thinks the glass is half full.
               
It is unquestionably safe to say that the constitutional arguments will continue until the Court takes up the case again in October—after (ever so conveniently) the 90-day ban on citizens from those half-dozen countries and the 120-day ban on refugees will have already expired. But it may just be that what Curmie has long viewed as an unconstitutional edict is in fact merely ham-fisted (the BBC’s term), stupid, Islamophobic, ill-considered, ineffectual, divisive, discriminatory, and smug.

Let’s start with who’s excluded: citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. And let’s compare that list to the 9/11 attackers, who actually did mean us harm: of those 19 men, 15 were from Saudi Arabia; two others were from the United Arab Emirates, and there were one each from Egypt and Lebanon. Let’s add to the latter list the Boston Marathon bombers: both Kyrgyz, with one also holding Russian citizenship and the other also a naturalized American. Ah, Gentle Reader, you’ve noticed something. The Venn diagram charting those two lists looks like Little Orphan Annie’s eyes: the overlap is precisely zero people. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some folks in, say, Libya who’d be more than happy to blow up a city block in New York City… but there are no doubt a fair number of native-born Americans who’d cheerfully do the same.

You’ll also have noticed, Gentle Reader, that it has now been over 90 days since even the revised version of the original January 27 travel ban was proposed. During that time there have been… wait a minute, that number was just here… where’d it go? Ah, here it is: there have been zero attacks in the US.  Curmie, of course, doesn’t attribute that number to the lack of a travel ban, but feels pretty confident that had the ban been enacted and there had been no pseudo-Islamic terrorist events on American soil, that the White House would have bellowed full-throatedly that their nasty xenophobic stratagem was the difference between peace and ontological annihilation.  [Note: Curmie’s recent trip to the UK was sandwiched between the Manchester bombing and the London Bridge attacks; this essay is not in the slightest intended to suggest that the threat of specifically Muslim violence is anything but real.] 

With the ban now partially lifted, Curmie fervently hopes that we do indeed need to endure the future preening of Chanticleer, who may truly believe that his crowing causes the dawn instead of merely announcing it. But the fact is that the Supreme Court’s partial lifting of the injunction is actually closer to what Curmie was hoping for than to what POTUS wanted. One way to tell that is to note that Mr. Trump declared “a clear victory.” If DJT says it, you can pretty well take it to the bank that it isn’t true.

You see, the key part of what transpired this week wasn’t lifting the injunction that prevented the US government from denying entry to citizens of those half dozen countries who had no demonstrable connection to this country. Rather, it was the explicit insistence that the borders be open to all those “who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States”: students attending an American university, foreign nationals offered employment by a US company (or university, etc.), close relatives of American citizens, and so on. This level of sensibility, nuance, and restraint was (of course) altogether lacking in any proposal coming from the Trump administration.

Protestations, such as those from Justice Thomas, that such a criterion is unworkable are largely but not completely without merit. Expecting State Department officials to do their job in vetting prospective visitors to this country doesn’t seem unreasonable. Such a process already took place. One of the exchange students scheduled to be coming to Curmie’s university last fall, for example, couldn’t get a visa. Whether that denial was appropriate isn’t a matter for current concern. What’s relevant is that if that young man could be denied, there’s a mechanism already in place that might result in denial.

There are some anomalies in the SCOTUS decision, however. For example: let’s say that I have a friend of long-standing who happens to be Iranian. That person could not, under this ruling, visit his old pal Curmie while on vacation (we’re friends but not close relatives); if, on the other hand, Curmie convinced his university to invite old buddy Farooq to come give a lecture, well, that might qualify as bona fides… and if Farooq happens to spend a couple of extra days at Chez Curmie, then so be it. But SCOTUS also wants to ensure that the lecturing gig isn’t just an end run around the regulations so that Curmie and Farooq can reminisce. Exactly how that would work logistically is beyond my feeble ken.

So yes, there’s probably both too much and too little wiggle room for US government officials: entry into the country ought not to depend on which clerk reviews a file. Still, shifting the presumption from allowing a national of a country at odds with the US to enter unless there’s a specific reason not to, to denying such access unless there’s a specific reason to allow it… that’s not the end of the world, much as Curmie would have preferred the status ante quo. There’s still the rather perverse choice of targets for the ban—essentially Muslim-majority countries with whom good relations are not perceived by the Trump administration as being of sufficient geo-strategic importance to avoid pissing off potentially radicalized Muslims in those and indeed in other countries. Still, whereas the ban is bad policy, correcting executive branch stupidity that isn’t unconstitutional isn’t in SCOTUS’s brief.

Ultimately, the SCOTUS decision to grant a partial waiver of the injunction and to hear the case more formally in the fall is cowardly but tactically sound, whether or not it’s actually a good idea. Both sides of the case can (and do) claim at least partial victory, and the whole business will, one hopes, be moot by the time the fall session begins. That is, unless the short-term bans are extended, which would not surprise Curmie in the slightest, since those “temporary measures” sure look like the thin edge of the wedge. ACLU lawyer Omar Jadwat agrees, fearing the Trump administration will use this week’s order “as a back door into implementing the full-scale Muslim ban that it's been seeking to implement.”

That’s a troubling prospect, but for now, the glass appears half full.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Free Expression Matters: NJ.com Goes 2 for 2

A recent editorial on NJ.com, the on-line presence of a consortium of New Jersey newspapers including the (Newark) Star-Ledger (whose editorial board was responsible for the opinion piece in question) and the Times of Trenton, called attention to two cases of what they describe as “suppressing free speech in schools.” Both cases, Curmie was not surprised to learn, involve President Trump.

Liam Shea's graphics project.
One of the stories involves a Morristown High School student whose portrait of the President as a pig-snouted, hooved, semi-human holding a clearly very unhappy cat (“grabbing the pussy”?) in front of a burning American flag (or is that the sun?) was removed from a student art exhibit because, you know, there were complaints. In the other story, a yearbook advisor at Wall Township High School removed a quote from Mr. Trump from the profile of one student and had the photos of two other students airbrushed to remove Trump campaign logos and slogans. NJ.com gets it right: free speech trumps (ahem) other concerns. Let’s look at these stories in the order the editorial presents them.

Morristown junior Liam Shea actually had two pieces removed from his high school’s art and design show. One was the porcine presidential portrait the accompanies this blog piece; the other showed Mr. Trump on a missile, taking a selfie. The decision to remove the two items from the show was apparently made by Principal Mark Manning whom Shea quotes as saying, “I appreciate the risk you took, and it’s very well done … but other people weren’t too happy with this.” Manning, as cowards generally do, declined comment when contacted by the press.

Problem is, the Constitution doesn’t just go away when some local school official finds it inconvenient. (Here’s where Curmie notes that he is no Constitutional scholar, but, as a beloved mentor once told him in a discussion of whether Curmie had the requisite knowledge to teach a course on the periphery of his skill set, I know something, and I can read.) The “Tinker test,” named for the criteria established by the Supreme Court in their landmark Tinker v. Des Moines decision, remains the standard by which such cases must be administered. Here are a couple of snippets from that ruling:
First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate….
In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint. Certainly where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,” the prohibition cannot be sustained.
If Mr. Manning cannot maintain “appropriate discipline” because a high school kid created a graphics design that some folks don’t like, it’s time to step down.

Moreover, completely apart from the censorship being completely unexplained except as a sop to some unspecified someone’s tender sensibilities, the Trump portrait started as a class assignment to create a political cartoon! Curmie’s experience in the visual arts is somewhat limited, but he suspects that it is rather difficult to create a political cartoon that isn’t… erm… political. Shea’s mother says she thinks the image is clever rather than offensive. Curmie agrees. But here’s the key point: it doesn’t matter if Ms. Shea and Curmie are “right” or not about the aesthetic merit or indeed the intent of the work. It was chosen, presumably by an art teacher, to be included in the exhibition, and Mr. Manning capitulated to the complaints of a handful of whiners (Curmie thought it was lefties who are supposed to be the snowflakes) because he lacks an understanding of free expression, he has no backbone, or both.

The irony, of course, is that the graphic has now achieved far greater distribution and publicity than it possibly could have were it to have been treated as one hopes and trusts a similar editorial in the student newspaper would have been: essentially ignored. Young Mr. Shea himself understands that point very clearly. Interviewed by the local press, he burbled, “Me, I think it’s great. If it wasn’t taken down, I wouldn’t be talking to you!” And (of course) now that there’s some notoriety attached to the image, there’s talk of t-shirts sales and similar marketing. Ah, the entrepreneurial spirit! Donald Trump would be proud.

The politics of the Wall High case are different, of course. This time, it appears to be a left-leaning yearbook advisor who decided that supporting Donald Trump was a bridge too far in the whole “free expression” game. The key word in the preceding sentence, of course, is “appears,” as the teacher in question, Susan Parsons, has not—as far as Curmie can determine, at least—revealed her motives.

If we lived in a sane world, the fact that Ms. Parsons was suspended for her actions would tell us all we need to know about the story. We do not live in a sane world. We do know two things. First, the decision appears to have been made by the advisor, either with the tacit approval of student editors or, more likely, without their knowledge. Second, and significantly, there is nothing in the school’s policies that prohibits political expression on students’ clothing. The dress code is sexist, prudish, and a vestige of 1957, but whereas boys can’t have hair over the collar (seriously!), they can wear a t-shirt with writing on it to class, provided it meets some pretty basic standards (it isn’t lewd, doesn’t promote tobacco use, that kind of thing). Many schools would prohibit wearing a Trump campaign shirt (or a Clinton campaign shirt, or a Ragpicker for President shirt like the one Curmie’s production of The Madwoman of Chaillot used as a “show shirt” in the fall of 2012); this one doesn’t.

Wall High School junior Grant Berardo in his Trump shirt,
before and after the photo was adulterated.
Still, it’s a pretty stupid thing to wear—not because it’s a Trump shirt, but because this appears to be a semi-official school photograph, and wearing a t-shirt with writing on it (any writing on it) is really dressing down for the occasion. It would have been reasonable for Ms. Parsons, with or perhaps even without the input of upper administration, to insist (hypothetically) that for all personally submitted photographs (i.e., those taken by the yearbook staff) boys must be wearing shirt and tie, or that no legible writing appear, or whatever. 

Such a policy would be legitimate if and only if it was applied evenly (no Trump shirts means no Hillary shirts) and students had appropriate warnings that a specific submitted photograph would be altered (so that they’d have a chance to choose a different photo). This same strategy could have been employed by that Utah school a couple of years ago when school officials unilaterally and without warning covered those lust-inducing adolescent shoulders in a sloppy Photoshop job to protect us all from… well… something. The details here are different, but the essence is the same: most people will go along with even a stupid policy if you tell them what you’re doing and you give them the chance to make the problem at least a little less bad in their eyes.

None of that appears to have happened here. What’s worse is that the doctored photos aren’t even the most problematic element at play here. That dubious distinction would go to the decision to eliminate a Trump quote from the photo accompanying the freshman class president. Assuming that including such quotations is standard procedure for the yearbook, then striking the words of the President of the United States, no matter how wrong you think they are, no matter how insincere you think they are, no matter your opinion of the source: this is remarkably stupid behavior, and a suspension is indeed warranted.

The distinction is that whereas a Trump t-shirt could be considered inappropriate even if it didn’t violate the dress code, quotations abound in virtually every high school yearbook ever published, and eliminating one and only one such bromide without rationale or warning is just dumb.

The NJ.com editorial concludes thus: “Free expression for one requires free expression for all. That's true of the student in Wall, and the student in Morristown. And students everywhere must carefully weigh the lessons being taught in both places.” Well done, lads and lasses at NJ.com. Well done.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Idiots Threaten Shakespeare Companies Across the Country

Corey Stoll as Brutus in the Public Theater's Julius Caesar.
There really are other stories worthy of comment out there, but the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar seems to be the gift that keeps on giving. Even after the play's closing, the controversy surrounding the Caesar-as-Trump schtik has engendered some of the best discussions of Shakespeare we’re likely to encounter as a larger population. Curmie, as a theatre historian and critic, has access to, and an interest in, more purely scholarly investigations on an ongoing basis, but the average American, even the average theatre-goer, has seldom had the opportunity he or she has had over the last few weeks to read some very high-level and yet eminently readable stuff.

Among these commentaries are those from practitioners like Corey Stoll, who played Brutus (the lead, in other words) at the Public, and Rob Melrose, who directed the 2012 Guthrie Theatre/Acting Company co-production in which an Obama-like Caesar was assassinated on stage in Act III. Most telling about Melrose’s commentary is this three-paragraph passage describing why he thinks his production avoided controversy whereas Oskar Eustis’s did not:
I think one key difference in the corporate response to the two productions is simply that most people who wrote about and talked about our production — the one with an Obama-inspired Caesar — actually saw the show, where it is clear that most of those outraged by The Public Theater’s Trumpian emperor either didn’t see the play or didn’t stay to the end. [emphasis Curmie’s] 
The Breitbart article that started the controversy is — I kid you not — a review by someone who talked to someone who saw the show. This second-order correspondent also thinks the play ends with the death of Caesar, as if they are killing the bad guy at the end of a superhero movie. In fact, the assassination takes place in the middle of the play, the rest of which deals with the terrible consequences of this action. Shakespeare built the outrage into the text. Mark Antony is so outraged — for himself, and on our behalf — that outrage suffuses the play’s entire second half. If you see a production, you get outraged with the play, not against it.
Our Obama-inspired production also didn’t have any gestures that tipped our hand to say “this is definitely Obama.” We wanted to make sure audiences could make the Obama connection if they wanted to — or could ignore the connections if they only wanted to live inside in the circumstances of Shakespeare’s play. In Eustis’s production, the Trump connections are more overt : Caesar wears an overly long red tie, Calpurnia speaks with a Slovenian accent (or “Slavic” if you are writing for Breitbart). There is also much more humor and satire in the Public Theater production. Caesar usually is not a very funny play, and I tip my hat to Oskar Eustis for finding so many genuinely funny moments. That may have bristled some people as well, but Eustis is hardly the first person to make fun of the president.
In other words, much if not all of the furor over the Public’s production was born of ignorance, and a rather proud and self-righteous ignorance, at that.

But Stoll’s article is, of course, more relevant to the current kerfuffle. Here’s the most important paragraph in Curmie’s mind:
When Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater and our show’s director, first assembled our cast for rehearsals, my anxieties centered on my desire to hold my own in such a strong company. After four weeks in the rehearsal room, we moved to the theater and I saw Caesar’s Trump-like costume and wig for the first time. I was disappointed by the literal design choice. I had little fear of offending people, but I worried that the nuanced character work we had done in the rehearsal room would get lost in what could seem like a Saturday Night Live skit. I was right and wrong. Audiences did laugh at Caesar, in an explosive, hungry way that shocked us with its intensity, but when it came time for the assassination scene, they lost their nerve. In early previews, isolated audience members would scoff or even applaud during the bloody, awkward, and ugly assassination scene. Two weeks in, once we refined our performances to neutralize the laughter, you could hear a pin drop. By then, I better understood Eustis’s decision to be so literal in making Caesar Trump. A nontrivial percentage of our liberal audience had fantasized about undemocratic regime change in Washington. Acted out to its logical conclusion, that fantasy was hideous, shameful, and self-defeating.
Notice that even Stoll himself had trouble getting past the literalization of the Caesar/Trump linkage, but ultimately he realized that it was the anti-democratic impulses of the left, not the authoritarianism of the right, that presents the greater danger in the play, and quite possibly to 21st-century America. Curmie is pretty certain that a significant percentage of both sides failed to make that connection. Perhaps this can be attributed to a failure in the production; more likely, it’s a failure in the spectators.

Speaking of the public’s (as opposed to the Public’s) failures: one of the most disturbing elements of the largely Astroturf outrage at Eustis’s production is that Shakespeare companies around the country started getting death threats. Getting riled to violence because of a play is not exactly a new phenomenon—one thinks of the first run of The Playboy of the Western World or the Astor Place Riots, for example—but if those events were spawned by hypersensitivity or hyperbolic nationalism, this round can only be attributed to utter stupidity. It’s repulsive enough that members of the Public Theater experienced death threats. It’s another step towards outrageousness that those threats extended to Oskar Eustis’s wife and daughter. “I want to grab you by the p---y,” one caller allegedly said. “Your husband wants Trump to die. I want him to die.” But for full-blown, terrifying lunacy, there’s the fact that other Shakespeare companies around the country—people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Public’s production—are also under threat.

The two theatres most often mentioned in press coverage of this phenomenon are Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, and Shakespeare Dallas. The Washington Post (linked above) and Salon, neither of them exactly bastions of conservative thought, both ran stories talking about how “Trumpsters” (Salon’s term) were sending death threats to “the wrong [theatres].” Serious question: is Curmie alone in thinking there’s no such place as a “correct theatre” to which to send death threats?

But there’s something else at play here for Curmie. Yes, it takes a special kind of stupid to make death threats at all. And yes, sending hate mail to Massachusetts or Texas because of a New York production secures an even more exalted place in the annals of history’s greatest morons. But, for Curmie, things just got personal. I have a friend and former student who’s acting at Shakespeare and Company this summer; three others that I can think of off the top of my head have worked at Shakespeare Dallas in recent years, and it’s only chance that they aren’t there now. I have a colleague at Arkansas Shakespeare, and seven present or former students at the Texas Shakespeare Festival. I know of at least three other summer companies with “Shakespeare” in the title where personal friends have worked in the past. One of them qualifies as “Shakespeare in the Park,” which seems to be the designated Google search term for assholes who might be violent if they weren’t so imbecilic and so craven. Curmie doesn’t like it when his friends get threatened, especially when they haven’t done anything that any sane person could construe as even remotely deserving of such treatment.

This episode serves to underscore some unpleasant truths about our country. Foremost among these is the political schism, the product of an arrogant buffoon of a President and a press corps interested only in spinning their partisan rhetoric, and the truth be damned. We are reminded that there are a lot of idiots out there (like we didn’t know that from who got elected President, right?). A more fundamental concern is attack on the arts in general. Any kind of commentary, any nuance, any perceived threat to the Hegemonic Legion of Doom, however miniscule, is increasingly likely to draw the wrath of the propagandists at Breitbart or Fox News: and the proudly anti-intellectual denizen of the White House will give them cover, even as they shill for his disastrous policies.

It ain’t pretty out there, y’all.

Academic Freedom and Reasonable Doubt: The Johnny Eric Williams Case

Professor Johnny Eric Williams
This started out as a comment to a post by Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall over at Ethics Alarms, entitled “Sought: An Ethical Reason Why This Professor Should Not Be Fired Immediately, And Never Hired For A Teaching Position Again, Anywhere.” Soon, however, my reply took on a life of its own, extending well past the length of a mere comment on someone else’s post, sort of demanding multiple links, and, well, putting my lengthy commentary on current events in higher education on someone else’s blog instead of my own.

The background is this: on the evening of Sunday, June 18, Trinity College (CT) associate professor of sociology Johnny Eric Williams took to social media to re-post an article from Medium by “Son of Baldwin” with the shall we say provocative title of “Let Them Fucking Die.” There’s a preface there now: “NOTE: This essay is in the context of bigotry and is speaking about bigots. If you aren’t a bigot, then it doesn’t apply to you. But, if you happen to feel hit, then holler, dog.” One suspects that was a later add-on, but in the absence of a screenshot of the post as it first appeared (maybe there’s one out there?), Curmie can’t say for sure.

What is clear is that Son of Baldwin is less than pleased with the state of race relations in the country right now. His prose is more fiery than most, but ultimately he presents a rather familiar argument:
In a battle between the moral and the immoral, the immoral will always win because they have no qualms about not abiding by the rules. Whereas those of us who imagine ourselves as moral gladly die at the immorals’ hands because we think better glories await us in some other, unseen realm. We, the moral, are terrible at memory. We never remember who created these rules and for what purpose. The immoral created morality so that we would accept their abuse and never even dream of retaliation. Like any drug white/cisgender/heterosexual people have ever given us, we get high on this notion that forgiving them after they slaughter our grandparents in churches, obliterate our siblings in the streets, and mangle our children in playgrounds makes us better people than they.
His screed concludes:
Saving the life of those that would kill you is the opposite of virtuous.
Let. Them. Fucking. Die.
And smile a bit when you do.
For you have done the universe a great service.
Ashes to ashes.
Dust to bigots. [emphasis in original]
Williams was subsequently to claim that his re-posting of Son of Baldwin’s piece was a response to the police shooting of Charleena Lyles in Seattle on Sunday morning. That would make sense in terms of timing, but given the fact that the article on Medium opens with a photo of recent shooting victim Rep. Steve Scalise and an accusation of racism and homophobia against him, commentators who argue that Williams seems to be endorsing Son of Baldwin’s implicit claim that Rep. Scalise somehow deserved to die can be forgiven their misinterpretation… if indeed it is such.

Screen capture of the posts that led to the controversy.
Anyway, Williams re-posted Son of Baldwin’s essay with the comment, “It is past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put an end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.” And he added the hashtag “#LetThemFuckingDie.” A few minutes later, he added, “I’m fed the fuck up with self-identified ‘white’s’ daily violence directed at immigrants, Muslim, and sexually and racially oppressed people. The time is now to confront these inhuman assholes and end this now.”

Needless to say, this set off a firestorm in right-wing echo chamber circles. Calls for Williams’s firing were immediate, and (of course) there were threats of violence against him and even his family—you know, the kind that mouthpieces of the right claim never happen to leftist firebrands. Let’s be clear: Prof. Williams, contrary to the assertion in an otherwise thoughtful editorial in the Hartford Courant, did not “[create] an unsafe atmosphere at the college.” Other people did. Just as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are not responsible (short of actual incitement) for the violence their mere presence on a college campus might engender, neither is Prof. Williams to blame for the fact that people who disagree with him threaten violence. It is important to note here that neither Williams nor indeed Son of Baldwin advocate violence. The latter’s advocacy for selective non-intervention and the former’s condoning of, if not actual support for, that position may be abhorrent and unethical (Curmie thinks so), but it falls far short of incitement.


Just yesterday, I wrote in a comment on another of Jack’s posts (one in which Curmie’s insistence that the higher education classroom is not, in fact, a site of leftist propaganda was honored as “Comment of the Day”) that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education generally supports conservatives, but not because they’re conservatives. This statement is an ideal example of what I meant. Whereas as FIRE release concentrates more on the threats that Professor Williams has received (and that other faculty who have taken controversial positions in recent times have received), they do explicitly endorse a statement by the chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure:
There is only one option consistent with academic freedom. Professor Williams is entitled to his right to express his personal views on social media and the university has the right to differ with those views. But Trinity College must defend the professor’s right to express them without fear of retaliation by the institution. Trinity College should refuse to let the sort of threats and intimidation directed against Professor Williams and the entire campus achieve their insidious aims.
Despite literally dozens of false media reports to the contrary, Professor Williams did not write the screed that generated the current brouhaha. Nor did he explicitly endorse it, although his re-post of someone else's blog piece could be interpreted that way. What he said himself is angry and vulgar, but Curmie sees it as well within the realm of protected speech that ought not inspire more than a raised eyebrow from university officials... except, of course, for the hashtag, which on the one hand merely references the article’s title and on the other seems to approve of the content.

And that’s the key. Does Professor Williams’s post actually advocate what the right-wing media storm says it does? Or was it merely an example of a moment’s sloppiness, worthy of an apology and nothing more? Does Professor Williams conflate whiteness and bigotry, or did he merely re-post an article which appears to do so? Does it matter that Professor Williams was not acting as a representative of the university when he made the offending remarks? I know of a case in my own experience in which a common colloquial expression was interpreted literally and led to accusations of advocating violence. Is this a variation on that disturbing theme? 

The answer to all these questions, to me, is unclear, meaning that those of us who don’t know Prof. Williams, haven’t read his scholarly work (which presumably is of a standard that a respected institution like Trinity considers worthy of a senior faculty member), haven’t sat in on his classes, aren’t equipped to make such decisions.

The person who is in the best position to make those determinations is Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, who seems to be handling the situation with finesse: she shut down the campus for the safety of all and re-opened it when it appeared there was no imminent threat. She issued an official response which states that Son of Baldwin’s call for “indifference to the lives of bigots” is “abhorrent and wholly contrary to Trinity’s values.” She argues that the use of the offensive hashtag was “reprehensible and, at the very least, in poor judgment. No matter its intent, it goes against our fundamental values as an institution, and I believe its effect is to close minds rather than open them.” But she also insists that Trinity “[continues] to uphold our fundamental belief in academic freedom and support our community members’ constitutional right to free speech,” and deplored the threats to Professor Williams. She forwarded the case to the Dean of the Faculty, who will advise her on “whether college procedures or policies were broken.” This strikes Curmie as absolutely the right path to take. Let’s see what the actual facts are, if this case is an anomaly or fits a pattern, if Professor Williams can muster a more persuasive apology than simply arguing that he did not intend to incite violence (well, of course he didn’t, but that’s not the point).

There is also a petition of support for Professor Williams. Like many such documents, it started off locally (it opens “We the undersigned faculty at Trinity College”) but has expanded to include signatories from well outside the college. Importantly, it stands alongside the FIRE statement in affirming academic freedom and, specifically, the use of social media as subject to its protections. The drafters of the petition are correct that many of the attacks on Professor Williams are founded on distortion and misrepresentation. That doesn’t mean they all are, of course, but the use of intimidation and fear-mongering is an all-too-familiar tactic of what one of Curmie’s favorite professors used to call the “foam-flecked brigade” of any ideology. This time, it’s the easily-incited right. Next time, it will be the equally malleable left.

Like virtually everyone else who has opined on this matter, Curmie is ignorant of a lot of the details of the situation. What I do know is that revoking tenure without absolute certainty of the legitimacy of doing so is at least as great a threat to higher education as allowing a single renegade professor (assuming he even fits into that category) to remain employed would be. Tenure is not a guarantee of a job for life. It is, rather, a nominal assurance of academic freedom. In terms of a situation like this one, it merely shifts the standards for dismissing a professor from, loosely speaking, “preponderance of evidence” to “beyond reasonable doubt.” 

I have reasonable doubt. I'm not sure this qualifies as the ethical defense of not firing Prof. Williams Jack rhetorically seeks, but Curmie kind of thinks it does.