Sunday, April 5, 2015

IRFRAK: The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act Kerfuffle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La la how the life goes on.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Scott Walker’s Real Anti-Intellectual Agenda

It’s still up for grabs as to who the Most Dangerous Governor in the Country is. Curmie’s current and immediate former states certainly provide contenders: Greg Abbott of Texas might just make us yearn for the halcyon days of Rick Perry. Kansas’s Sam Brownback is compiling an impressive résumé of utter incompetence, prevarication, and fellating rich folk. Elsewhere, Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin scores high on the hypocritometer, and Florida’s Rick Scott is probably in the lead in the coveted “Most Corrupt” category. Let’s put it this way: if John Kasich, Rick Snyder and Jan Brewer aren’t even finalists for the award, the competition is fierce.

But whereas all of the pretenders—Brownback, Scott and Snyder in particular—have particularly odious records in the area of education, Curmie plumps for Wisconsin’s Scott Walker as the quintessential combination of hubris, misplaced priorities and general inanity. His latest ploy—to tuck a re-write of the university system’s mission into the middle of a budget proposal running just short of 2000 pages.

Actually, yes.
What such a proposal is doing in a budget document at all is a matter for some skepticism, but Walker clearly isn’t a fan of universities that do what universities are meant to do: search for truth, serve the populace, that sort of thing. Of course, Walker doesn’t actually have a college degree (he dropped out of Marquette with a passable but below average academic record), so maybe he just doesn’t get it. Anyway, here are Walker’s proposed changes to the “Wisconsin Idea,” the foundational principles of the state university system. He proposed to excise what’s crossed out below and to insert what’s underlined; regular text indicates no change:
The mission of the system is to develop human resources to meet the state’s workforce needs, to discover and disseminate knowledge, to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society by developing develop in students heightened intellectual, cultural, and humane sensitivities, scientific, professional, and technological expertise, and a sense of purpose. Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition. Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.
Apart from the elimination of the Oxford commas, thereby rendering the entire editing process extremely suspect in Curmie’s eyes before even getting to the subject matter, the amendments show that Walker and his minions believe that universities exist for the benefit of corporations, supplying cogs for today’s machines with no thought to tomorrow’s, much less to the possibility that life might be more fulfilling than mechanization.

More disturbing, of course, is what Walker saw fit to exclude from the universities’ mission—not merely to omit, mind you, but rather to excise from the existing text. That list includes extending knowledge beyond the campuses themselves, serving society (as opposed to employers per se), educating people, improving the human condition… oh, yeah, and caring about the truth. Certainly we can’t have any of that! (Given Governor Walker’s track record, a search for truth could indeed prove rather embarrassing.)

Curmie should note that the amendments in Section 1111 of the budget bill have been getting all the press, but the proposals in Section 1110 are just as terrible. (The entire budget can be found here; see pages 545-46 for the relevant sections.) Those changes—apparently made without any consultation with people who… you know… have the slightest comprehension of what universities do—include a change from recognizing the “public interest” of having a first-rate university system to merely acknowledging the “constitutional obligation” to do so, eliminates “undergraduate teaching as [the system’s] main priority,” and cuts the section on “graduate and research programs with emphasis on state and national needs.” It also eliminates the mandate to “[make] effective and efficient use of human and physical resources” and to “[function] cooperatively with other educational institutions and systems.”

Of course, the ploy was so ham-handed that people noticed PDQ, and Walker proceeded to throw some anonymous staffer under the proverbial bus… without punishment, of course. It was all a “drafting error,” you see. The explanation is that Walker wanted to add the bit about churning out appropriately competent drones for the state’s important, i.e., rich, people to underpay and underappreciate (perhaps not his exact words), and said something about “keeping it simple,” which he now alleges was misinterpreted by some (anonymous) underling (who, of course, won’t be disciplined).

Except that that’s a load of crap, and apparently literally everyone knows it. Walker is a notorious micromanager, so he knew exactly what was in that document. His condescension to faculty and apparent utter miscomprehension of what academics do provides a useful context for this kerfuffle. More importantly, it’s very clear that Walker’s top staff, if not the governor himself, knew exactly what was on page 546. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel dismantled Walker’s claims to ignorance. Even PolitiFact, which (despite right-wing wailing about liberal bias) will do about everything possible to keep from saying a GOP pol is lying (see, for example, their “Half True” ruling on an outright prevarication by Eric Cantor because, although it was obviously a lie, the statement might someday turn out to be true), trotted out their “Pants on Fire” rating for Walker’s protestations of ignorance. Finally, budget director Michael Heifetz fell on his sword.

So we’re left with only one question: what the hell was Walker thinking?

Look, the guy is an idiot in the sense that he pays no attention to facts that run counter to his ideology. He has less credibility than the average politician, and that’s saying rather a lot. But he’s got a fair amount of political acumen (being completely devoid of integrity helps in that regard), and—even as stupid as he is—he can’t really have believed either than no one would read the budget proposal or that there wouldn’t be profound objections from both university officials and legislators with an interest in higher education (alas, this latter designation now translates into “a few Democrats”).

All of which means the strategy was deliberate. On the one hand, he threw a little more red meat to the howling wolves of ignorance—those who hope for it in others (people named Koch, for example) and those who manifest it in themselves (e.g., anyone not a millionaire who would vote for an ass like Scott Walker). More importantly, it is a Wag the Dog moment, deflecting attention away from the real centerpiece of Walker’s plans for higher education in his state: a $300,000,000 cut in state support in “exchange” for a level of autonomy which should have already existed. Walker’s is a dangerous game, sacrificing what few shreds of his own credibility may have remained, but, then again, he’s a dangerous man. (Anyone whose prospective Presidential bid is being so ardently pitched by Matt Drudge is by definition both potentially powerful and nuttier than squirrel turds.)

But people aren’t talking about how f*cking stupid it is to make cuts of that size to what used to be the state’s crown jewel, its university system. No, we’re talking about the arrogance of trying to get away with those changes to the mission statement. He never thought he’d get the mission statement revisions, but the more we talk about them, the less we examine the idiocy of the actual budget items in the budget package. Chances he’ll get away with it: given the partisanship and sloth of contemporary journalism and the short memories of too much of the citizenry, probably pretty good.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015


Usually, when someone does something Curmie-worthy, we can at least understand what was going through their minds, even if the reasoning leaves something to be desired. The first two Curmies were won by teachers who couldn’t cope with the ongoing pressures of dealing with special needs kids—they got frustrated and snapped; the third went to a principal who thought her school needed to prepare itself for the possibility of an armed intruder similar to the one who had just shot up Sandy Hook Elementary; the most recent winner needs team players in the classroom and more funding from the powers-that-be. That’s how they’ll justify their actions, at least.

But every once in a while, we bump into a story where somebody’s actions just make no damned sense at all. Such a story Curmie has decided to call Turdgate, because, well… In the tiny town of Gustine, Texas, an hour and a half or so southwest of Fort Worth, there was a problem: apparently someone had been leaving feces on the school’s gym floor. So, of course, the principal and the girls basketball coach herded the 4th and 5th grade boys and girls into separate rooms and made them drop their pants.

Wait. WHAT???

Eliza Medina: Pretty Clearly the Best Qualified Person
In Gustine, Texas to Be Superintendent of Schools
Alas, ‘tis true. There are quibbles about how far the kids were asked to drop their pants—“just a little” according to the district superintendent Ken Baugh, “Like... to where your butt is” according to 11-year-old Eliza Medina, one of the students subjected to this humiliation, and the loudest voice in protest of the outrageousness of the administration’s actions— but no dispute over the fact of the poopquest. Curmie confesses he doesn’t see a lot of difference between a creepy and illegal search and a really creepy and illegal search, but acknowledges that others—those with the intellectual acumen of a broken doorknob, for example—might see a distinction in that difference.

OK… we can agree that leaving excrement on the gym floor is somewhat less than cool, and that the custodial staff shouldn’t have to, well, clean that shit up. But we can all agree, too, that phrases like “probable cause” have meaning in our society, and that these mental midgets certainly didn’t have it about the entire two dozen kids… not that an even marginally invasive search without the presence of a parent would be justified even the authorities were pretty sure who the culprit was.

There are, in fact, significant philosophical objections to making any kid anywhere drop his/her pants for any reason, let alone one as flimsy as a 4 or 5% chance of being the culprit in a case of hit and run pooping. But I’ll let others make that case further than I already have.

Let’s talk pragmatics. Even assuming invading the privacy of a couple dozen pre-adolescents in the fond hope of capturing the legendary Crap Vandal is somehow justifiable in legal and ethical terms, what is to be gained by an exercise that is inevitably as ineffective as it is silly. Seriously, what were they looking for? Baggies of fecal contraband? Stains? (Ew.) A conspicuous lack of stains? What? What might constitute the “anything” sought by the school administration? Curmie literally has no idea (and Curmie is a grammar Nazi, so “literally” is meant… um… literally).

Curmie has come to expect school administrators—a minority, perhaps, but far too many—to be arrogant, to extend their clutches well beyond their legitimate jurisdictions, to adopt a condescending attitude towards the mere mortals who dare to question their right to fart in the general direction of constitutional rights and indeed of ethical values in general. But this level of outright stupidity really did take me aback. Violating the law in a fit of pernicious do-gooding is one thing, doing so for no identifiable purpose is another.

But no matter from what direction we approach the school’s actions, they’re ridiculous, hubristic, unconstitutional, irrational, and downright creepy. Maria Medina (Eliza’s mom) gets it right: “If you can't do your job or you don't know what you're doing, you need to be fired. You shouldn't be here.” We can start with Principal Alan Luker and follow up with Superintendent Baugh. (The former is apparently “on leave” now.) And then we divert a river or two through the Augean stables that are the Gustine schools. There’s a lot of manure there to be cleaned up in a hurry, after all.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

“The First Amendment Doesn’t Apply If I Actively Misread It”

Occasionally, a public official—a superintendent of schools, perhaps—says something that makes him look like a grown-up. Until you understand the circumstances or read further, that is.

Chip McGee: Not a Constitutional Scholar
Here’s Bedford, New Hampshire school superintendent Chip McGee, commenting on a flurry (get it, flurry?) of tweets from Bedford High students who, shall we say, took issue with his decision to re-open school a day earlier than they’d expected following a major snowstorm: “Kids said some very funny, clever things. And some kids stood up and said, ‘Hey, watch your manners.’ That was great. And some kids—a few—said some really inappropriate things.” So far, so good, yes? A perfectly reasonable commentary on the fact that sometimes high school kids act like adolescents. I know, crazy, right?

And he even starts the next paragraph intelligently: “It’s been a really good exercise in issues of students’ right to speech, on the one hand, and students’ and teachers’ rights to an educational environment that’s conducive to learning. Kids have the right to say whatever they want about me.”

Why yes, yes they do. Ah, but ol’ Chip is a school superintendent, so we can’t expect a full two consecutive paragraphs of sanity. And the old Frank and Nancy Sinatra song, “Something Stupid” wafts through Curmie’s mind: “and then [he] had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like…” Well, not “I love you,” as the song would have it, but this drivel:
However, this does not mean students should expect to be able to make inappropriate comments on social media without consequences [even though the tweets were sent outside of school].
The First Amendment right means you can say what you want, (but) it doesn’t mean that you are free of repercussion. It can’t disrupt what we’re doing in school ... If something disrupts school, and it (occurs) outside school, we not only can take action, we have to.
Once again, Curmie, ever a fan of brevity, contemplates a single word rejoinder. Something to do with equine poop would seem most appropriate. But there may be those who don’t quite understand why, as Patrick at Popehat observes, “Actually, the First Amendment means that students do have the right to say that Chip McGee is an appalling dildo-bat from the privacy of their homes, even on social media, without governmentally-imposed consequences. [Obvious typo corrected; emphasis in original.] 

And, like it or not, a school superintendent is a government official. What that means is that Mr. McGee has the right to be butt-hurt if he wants to be, and he is within his rights to respond in any otherwise legal manner as a private citizen. He could, for example, choose not to hire one of the offending students to babysit or to leave a crappy tip for another at the Pizza Hut; he might even omit a superlative in that letter of recommendation he was writing for another kid. What he cannot do, by any reasonable interpretation of the First Amendment, is to impose penalties on students in his capacity as superintendent for off-campus activity that is in itself not illegal. And that, of course, is precisely what he did. (Exactly what penalties were imposed in unclear—possibly suspension of up to four days, but the school is hiding behind legalisms, as if it really cares about either student privacy or the law.)

That is, if students were to plan a riot, to organize the sale of illicit drugs, or indeed actually to defame Mr. McGee (as opposed to calling him a poopoohead), then he’s within his rights to punish the students involved. Otherwise, no. Here’s Curmie netpal Jack Marshall, lawyer and ethics blogger, on the subject:
The students are absolutely guaranteed of speech without “repercussion,” if the speech is off school grounds and the repercussion is from a school official who takes offense. The school has no authority to punish students for what they post on Twitter, from their homes, none at all, unless it relates directly to action at school itself, such as organizing a school disruption. A student opinion of the superintendent or his decisions? That’s 100% protected speech….
No merely insulting or uncivil tweet is going to disrupt school, and if that’s Chip’s claim, he has a rather tough burden of proof to demonstrate it. Nor does a public school—that’s the state, you know— have the right to effectively censor speech by punishing content. If the speech isn’t libelous or a credible threat, Chip McGee’s remedy consists of asking to speak with the Tweeter and express his hurt and disappointment, or perhaps consulting with the student’s parents, who do have a right to limit online speech when their children are the speakers. As an educator, he might explain to the student that insulting authority figures you must relate to on mass social media is neither wise, civil, nor a good habit, and suggest that an apology is in order. He may not, however, abuse his power and position to constrain the free speech of those students and others by inflicting punishment. [Minor typos corrected; emphasis in original.]
The more perspicacious Curmiphiles will note, perhaps, that Curmie’s favorite blog sites—Popehat, Ethics Alarms, Instapundit—got that way by being always interesting and usually right (“right” in this context means “agreeing with Curmie,” of course: we all have a bit of the Humpty Dumpty about us). They may also notice that Curmie doesn’t really have a lot to add, especially since he’s written about precisely this kind of overreach on numerous occasions in the past: here, here, here, and here, for example.

But we do indeed need to be reminded that the superintendent of schools is likely to be an idiot, that the First Amendment really does apply to high school kids, and that the merely inappropriate is different from the legitimately censorable. There are limits to free speech: incitement, slander/libel, and the like. But there is not constitutional right to warm fuzzies, and Chip McGee is no more or less entitled to freedom from butthurtitude than everyone else.

Curmie is a native of New Hampshire, and knows first-hand that it can get cold there in the winter. Maybe Curmie Award contention will keep Superintendent McGee a little warmer at night. Nah, probably not.

What the Hell Is It with Utah High Schools and Shoulders?

When Curmie took a Costume Design course forty years or so ago, he read an already iconic short treatise by James Laver entitled “The Shifting Erogenous Zone.” The idea was that each era creates a new site for our prurient gaze, with fashion choices (the bustle, the miniskirt, etc.) simultaneously catalyzing and underscoring that change in popular perception. In terms of how this concept plays out in the fashion choices of today’s young women, most of us have pretty well acknowledged the shift of attention from the breasts and midriffs of only a few years ago to the yoga pants-clad backsides of today. That’s because most of us don’t live in Utah, where the source of all adolescent male lasciviousness is girls’ shoulders. Yes, shoulders.

Last year, the idiots in charge of Wasatch High School copped a Curmie nomination for Photoshopping yearbook pictures of high school girls without as much as informing them they were doing so. As Curmie wrote last August:
…a lot of girls’ photos were altered by the administration, probably illegally and certainly unethically. Equally importantly, a fair number of photos showing precisely the same kind of clothing weren’t altered. What that means, if nothing else, is that a lot of girls violated the policy as it could be interpreted by voyeuristic idiots like Wasatch County School District superintendent Terry E. Shoemaker. Seriously, if the examples that have been made available to the public are anything to go by—if they are even accurate but isolated examples—then the problem isn’t with the girls, it’s with the drooling middle-aged men like Shoemaker who get turned on a little too easily by the sight of a little adolescent skin….

….what got the old boys’ hearts a-palpitating wasn’t cleavage (there’s only the slightest hint of that in any of the allegedly offending photos) or a tattoo; it wasn’t a bare midriff or the glimpse of an undergarment… it was <gasp> shoulders. Yes, shoulders. That’s what got awkwardly covered up by the censorious asshats who dropped out of the Photoshop workshop after the first lesson and couldn’t even make their absurd editing look competent.
This year, we get a variation on the theme of perceived shoulderly sensuousness at Lone Peak High School, about 45 minutes’ drive to the southwest of Wasatch.

This dress is just a little too risqué
for the good folks at Lone Peak High School. 
I mean… shoulders!!!

There, 15-year-old student Gabi Finlayson was humiliated by being made to wear a coat over the beautiful dress she had chosen to wear to the Preference Dance earlier this month. The dance, by the way, seems to be a major event in the school’s social calendar, and the dress had been purchased on a family trip to Paris for precisely this occasion. The offense? It’s those damned sexy shoulders again.

Curmie need hardly point out that the Principal in the case, one Rhonda Bromley, makes an utter fool of herself in several discrete ways:

First, there’s the all-too-predictable whining to the press that students knew the rules, which of course were shipped via FedEx directly from Mount Sinai and accompanied by an autographed 8”x10” color glossy photograph of Moses himself. Gentle Reader, that’s a photo of the allegedly offending dress a little higher up this page. No serious person of the 21st century thinks there’s anything wrong with it; anyone with decent eyesight and an IQ above room temperature would be proud of a daughter, a niece, a student, who selected that dress for the dance. It’s well-styled and conservative, and Ms. Finlayson looks great in it. Indeed, anyone who suggests any impropriety on her part has the brains of a speed bump and is fit for no other career than high school principal (or, to be fair, state legislator); the apprentice fry cook at Big Bubba’s Burger Barn has to meet higher intellectual standards.

Second, there’s the hollow protestation that “students were not embarrassed when their dresses were deemed inappropriate.” There is a single-word response to this claim, one that is redolent of bovine feces. Of course teenaged girls were being quite intentionally humiliated for insufficient frumpiness. I said in the previous paragraph that young Gabi looked great. Alas, that seems to have been precisely the problem.

Next, we might notice the text of the policy itself: “Formals, backless dresses and/or tops may not extend beyond the bottom of the shoulder blades. Girls’ dresses and tops must have a 2″ minimum strap on each shoulder. Shawls, boleros and other shrugs are acceptable if worn over the dress at all times. Cleavage covered.” Um… don’t look now, but that dress sure looks to me like it very well might meet even those ridiculous standards. Because there’s no cleavage visible at all, and those straps sure do look to be pretty damned close to 2”. You’d certainly need a personal grudge and a micrometer to argue otherwise. Gabi says her dress is compliant, and I see no reason to dispute her claim. Nor does anyone at the school rebut her observation that “There were a lot of dresses that were very short, very tight, a lot more exposing or revealing than mine.”

Finally, there’s the whole matter of why such a stupidly restrictive policy exists to begin with. Gabi’s mom, Kristi Kimball, wonders, “How have we gotten to the point that we look at shoulders as if they're somehow pornographic? As if they are this shameful thing?”. That’s a really good question, Ms. Kimball. The answer certainly has something to do with an administration too stolid, too craven, and/or too imperious to stand up to the puritanical and ragingly sexist demands of a community that hasn’t yet decided whether “Father Knows Best” meets their standards of decency.

The school unquestionably (and unquestioningly) seeks to define male irresponsibility as an inevitable derivative of female allure. Remember the kerfuffle at Wasatch last year, when sleeves were inexpertly Photoshopped onto girls’ photos, but the same yearbook included shots of open-shirted boys with cutlines like “studs doing what studs do best”? Curmie is not normally a slippery-slope kind of guy, but this hypermasculinist phenomenon really is only a couple steps away from “I’m sorry I punched you in the face, but you know I don’t like my underwear folded that way.”

None of this is intended to suggest that girls are always innocent victims. Some of them do indeed dress or behave inappropriately for the occasion, and some reasonable standards of propriety do not come amiss. But this girl on this occasion doesn’t come close to crossing that line. School officials are terrified of adolescent sexuality, and in their tiny minds, it’s not occasionally, but always the girl’s fault. Boys can’t be expected to control their primal urges when glimpsing… you know… (whisper) shoulders, after all.

Gabi herself is right, if perhaps reductive: “Maybe instead of teaching girls they should cover themselves up, we should be teaching boys that we’re not just sex objects that you can look at and derive pleasure.” Curmie suspects that the real problem here, as far as the school was concerned, is that one of their students could think, let alone articulate, such a thing. They couldn’t allow one of theirs to enter that scary new (i.e. 15-year-old) millennium, and they felt an overwhelming desire to humiliate her publicly… she needed to be taught a lesson, after all.

So, let’s review the bidding, shall we? There’s a stupid dress code which exists primarily to blame adolescent male hormonal overload on girls, thereby insulting boys and condescending to girls, but other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…. The policy was then enforced inconsistently and indeed capriciously. Teenaged girls were quite blatantly shamed in front of their friends: the only question is whether this was intentional (probably), or whether the school officials in question are simply stupider than snake spit and couldn’t predict the inevitable outcome of their actions (conceivably). Oh, and despite the fact that the dress code seems to have been written in 1962 by middle-aged cloistered nuns with insufficient dietary fiber, the dress was compliant, anyway, just as many of the outfits shown in the original, undoctored, photographs submitted to the Wasatch yearbook last year were clearly dress-code complaint. (And just as yet another Utah teenager was almost certainly compliant in Tooele the first time Curmie wrote about stupidly-enforced dress codes in Utah.)

I suspect Curmie will have to speak reeeeeeeeeeally slowly to Principal Bromley about this, as she seems to be a little slow on the uptake, but even if you’re going to have a repressive dress code, you’re still only allowed to enforce its provisions, not whatever your most prudish employee decides the standards ought to be.

Gabi looked marvelous. You look moronic.

The good news is that I promise not to complain about what you choose to wear to accept your quite likely Curmie nomination.