Sunday, March 21, 2010

Another "I hate being right" moment.

There are times when I hate being right. One such occasion would be when I wrote here before the beginning of the NCAA basketball tournament that Northern Iowa was “a legitimate 5-seed, and they got jobbed. (So, of course, did KU, by potentially having to face a team a whole lot better than a 9-seed in the second round.)” Still, when you get only 2 fast-break points because the other team is sending only one guy to the boards with everybody else getting back on defense and you still give up 18 second-chance points, when you have a 3:5 assist to turnover ratio (and your All-American wannabe point guard is 4:5), when your two starting guards are a combined 0-for-11 from beyond the arc… well, you’re likely to lose because you stunk up the joint, not because the other team was good or even lucky (and UNI was both).

But, much as I love the Jayhawks, it bothers me considerably more that I was right, too, when I wrote this: “while the first few years of this millennium certainly demonstrated that the Republicans are horrible at governance, they did study long enough at the Karl Rove School of Outrageous Prevarication and Political Slimeballitude to get pretty good at … playing to the simmering racial animus that motivates much of their base.” Today’s headlines, coming as they do on the 45th anniversary of the third Selma to Montgomery march organized and led by Martin Luther King, are chilling. MSNBC’s description of an “Ugly build-up to House health care vote” doesn’t begin to tell the story. The New York Times comes, perhaps, a little closer: “Spitting and Slurs Directed at Lawmakers.” Disturbingly, grotesquely, horrifically, anti-health care reform activists have chanted “nigger” at Representatives Clyburn and Lewis and “faggot” at Representative Frank.

Yes, our friends in the Tea Party movement have decided that being inordinately proud of their ignorance and boorishness is no longer sufficient. Nor is it apparently any longer to their advantage to concentrate all their animosity on President Obama. I wish I could say that this is because they recognized that the President has shown precious little (apparent) leadership on the health-care debate, and that the bill that is coming up for a vote in the House reminds one of the famous saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. No, they have simply decided that it was too much trouble suppressing their hatred for anything and anyone who is the slightest bit different from them: in terms of race, religion, sexual orientation, whatever.

This is a movement encapsulated by the words of second-rate actor and first-rate moron Craig T. Nelson: “I've been on food stamps and welfare. Did anyone help me out? No.” This is the crowd that got a Democrat elected in an upstate New York district whose last non-Republican representative had been a Whig: and yet the Republican leadership embraced them, embraced their utter disregard for reason, embraced their comparison of the President of the United States to Hitler, embraced their total ignorance of and/or disregard for the most basic provisions of the reform proposals, embraced their taunting of ill or disabled citizens who just want a system that cares at least almost as much about them as about corporate profits. And now… “oh, my goodness, we certainly don’t condone that kind of behavior.” Actually, no, you don’t condone getting caught.

Even as the most loony of the right argue that nothing happened (and that if it did, it was socialist "plants" who did the deed), leading Congressional Republicans like John Boehner and Eric Cantor are tsk-tsking while, of course, denying that the actions of the few are in any way indicative of the feelings of the many. Needless to say, the party that claims to value personal responsibility denies any role in creating and perpetuating an environment in which this kind of mob-driven ugliness can thrive.

When Democratic Representative John Larson suggested that it might be time to “ratchet back just a little bit,” Cantor responded, “you know what it is time for? It's time to listen to the American people, and that is the stunning thing about this.” Would that be the American people who support the public option and think the current bill doesn’t go far enough, sir? Oh, wait, majorities don’t matter. Not the majority who elected President Obama, not the majority who elected a significant majority of Democrats to both houses of Congress. Not in this Brave New World in which corporations have personhood. The only majority you care about, Mr. Cantor, is who contributes the majority of the money to your campaign coffers. And it takes a lot of $20 contributions to match what you pull in from the health care industry: over $594,000 from insurance companies, health professionals, pharmaceutical companies, and HMOs, nearly half a million dollars ($488,700, or about 82% of the total) of which came from PACs instead of individuals, just in the last election. Mr. Cantor, if I were to guess your principal allegiances as a Congressman, the people of your district would be lucky to crack the top 10.

Just in case you cared, though—in a moment of weakness, perhaps—here are the responses to two questions posed to voters in your home state of Virginia (home of Real Americans) by the reputable pollsters Research 2000:

“What would make you more likely to vote for Democrats in the 2010 elections: If they pass health care reform that includes a public health insurance option but gets zero Republican votes OR if they pass health care reform without a public option but with some Republican votes?” 55% prefer the former, 33% the latter.

“Would you favor or oppose the national government offering everyone the choice of buying into a government administered health insurance plan -- something like the Medicare coverage that people 65 and older get -- that would compete with private health insurance plans?” 61% approve, 32% disapprove. Oh, by the way, it’s a little more emphatic still (62-30) among independents. “Listen to the American people,” indeed.

Like most of Congress (both parties), no doubt, I haven’t read the legislation in its entirety. Assuming the news media are doing their job even a little bit, however, I have a pretty good idea what is and isn’t there. To be honest, I fear the bill may have been so eviscerated that it might end up as a net loss. But I’m guided by two things: the conversion of Dennis Kucinich, and the rhetoric of the opposition. If the Republicans can’t muster a better argument against this bill than that it’s socialist (it clearly isn’t) or that the American people think it goes too far (they clearly don’t), then my temptation would be to hold my nose and vote for it.

But, if nothing else, this debate has taught us a lot. Unfortunately, one thing we’ve learned is that overt, pervasive, racism in this country didn’t disappear when some of us imagined that it did. The election of an African-American President wasn’t, as we hoped, the signal of a new era, but the catalyst for a trip back in time to a darker age. The wound we thought was healed had merely scabbed over, and there was some nasty, gangrenous pus underneath. I say that “we” were fooled. I should clarify: the Republican leadership and their corporate masters knew all along. That’s what they’ve been counting on.

Friday, March 19, 2010

"Scholar-Athletes" Ought to Graduate

My political/cultural blog over on Livejournal—the one that has apparently decided it doesn’t want to let me post there any more—was subtitled “From the Radical Middle.” The point was (and is) that few people who actually think have what others would regard as a consistent ideology. I’m liberal on this issue, conservative on that one, libertarian here, socialist there. And while others may regard my politics as consistently liberal, I don’t. I hasten to add here that I don’t run away from the label the way, say, John Kerry did in the ’04 election; I just don’t think it applies. But I’ve been accused of worse.

One way in which I am a “liberal,” or a “progressive,” or whatever those folks are calling themselves now, is that I see the Obama administration not as the conservative talking heads do, as socialistic hegemon unwilling to grant the opposition the right to sit at the table, but rather as the precise opposite: my problem with the President is that I perceive him as too willing to listen, too interested in getting bi-partisan support, too reticent about metaphorically breaking a few legs. My approach: “You want to filibuster? Go ahead, but you’re going to have to do it like Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mister Smith Goes to Washington’: we’re not going to pull legislation because you threaten. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure the television cameras are there so the whole country can see what a pompous, hypocritical, puerile little jackass you are.” “Senator Lieberman, you were re-elected on a platform that included a health care package that looks a whole lot like what you’re now opposing. You can vote against it if you want, but if you vote against cloture, kiss that committee chairmanship good-bye. Oh, and if you say word one about this conversation to anyone you’re out of the caucus altogether.” “As for you, Representative Stupak, would you rather receive the endorsement of the DNC, or would you rather we actively solicit an actual Democrat to run against you in a primary? If the former, then become persuaded that the safeguards already present in the bill actually exist, STFU, and vote for the damned thing, because your 15 minutes of fame has expired.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of bi-partisanship. There have been occasions when, in those elections between two generally equally mediocre candidates, I’ve voted for “gridlock.” (I may not be the libertarian I once was, but those roots run deep.) But it became very clear very early in this administration that the Republicans—all of them, not just the pre-existing frothing-at-the-mouth brigade—made a collective decision to do everything in their power to obstruct any initiative generated by this President, whether such a measure would help the country or not, whether their constituents would benefit or not, even whether they themselves were already on record supporting the idea or not. And while the first few years of this millennium certainly demonstrated that the Republicans are horrible at governance, they did study long enough at the Karl Rove School of Outrageous Prevarication and Political Slimeballitude to get pretty good at ululating that the minority didn’t get absolutely everything they wanted at a negotiation, at playing to the simmering racial animus that motivates much of their base, at whining about the (corporatist) media when those so-called journalists actually do their job (by accident, no doubt), and at creating Astroturf events which get lots of press coverage but actually demonstrate the failures of the American educational system that anyone could believe the crap being spewed out there. It’s all about their power, and if there’s no country left at the end of their disingenuous and petulant outbreaks, well, that’s a risk they’re apparently willing to take.

The point is, the President tried bipartisanship, even repeatedly sent his minion Rahm Emanuel out to chastise his own left wing (this from the guy the right-wing media keeps calling a socialist) when they resisted the dilution beyond recognition of the fundamental points of what we—those millions more of us who voted for him than for the other guy—thought was his agenda. And yet he has been labeled by the right as being somehow an extreme partisan (compared to his predecessor? really?). The correct response is the one we’ve all been tempted to make when accused of something of which we’re completely innocent: “You call that [fill-in-the-blank]? Here (with demonstration) is [fill-in-the-blank].

But this entry isn’t really about politics. It’s about college sports; specifically, it’s about men’s basketball and the NCAA tournament which some of you may have noticed is currently transpiring. You see, a couple months ago, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the first person in that job to actually care about education in a very long time indeed, made headlines by walking into the lion’s den of the NCAA meeting in Atlanta and pointing out, if I might mix my metaphors here, that the emperor has no clothes. He argued, for example, that the cozy little one-and-done rule worked out by the NBA and the NCAA is pretty much a fraud. It has considerable potential to hurt the game, hurt (some of) the athletes, hurt the fans… but the NBA gets to use college ball as its unpaid minor league, the NCAA gets to profit from the labors of athletes already good enough, at 18, to play professionally, and both get to continue the pretense that they give a damn about anything or anyone but themselves.

Still, there’s little chance of changing that stupid rule. A rule that could be changed, however, from outside the NCAA if need be (although I wouldn't recommend that approach), is tied to graduation rates. Duncan talked about this two months ago, and repeated it this week. Mike Celizic, one of the more thoughtful sportswriters around these days, has picked up the cue. You see, Duncan suggested that for a team to be eligible to compete in the NCAA basketball tournament, they’d have to actually graduate (gasp) 40% of their players within six years (and those who leave early to pursue an NBA career, who transfer to another school, or even who leave in good academic standing wouldn’t count against them!). With all those caveats, with all the assistance available to jocks (and often unavailable to other students), with tuition and fees paid (don’t even start with that nonsense about all their other expenses, as if kids without jump-shots don’t have the same problems without the pampering), requiring a 40% graduation rate to go to the tournament is roughly equivalent to saying you can’t get a driver’s license unless you can identify the brake pedal.

But the whining from the NCAA, coaches, and other hypocrites has been, well, reminiscent of the Boehner Brigade’s mendacity. Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl, who is very, very, good at rationalization and even better at recruiting kids who, in Celizic’s words, “have less interest in going to class than a cat has in taking swimming lessons,” whimpers that all he wants to do is provide “the opportunity to students that aren’t prepared.” Celizic rightly calls “BS” (and I don't mean Bachelor of Science) on that. Pearl and many (most?) of his brethren don’t give a crap about under-prepared kids in general, just the 6’8” ones with post-up skills. And when they’ve served the only purpose Pearl has for them, namely winning basketball games and thereby inflating his salary, he’s perfectly willing to toss them, 70% of them, sans degree or NBA contract, on the scrap heap. But, compared to Gary Williams of Maryland, who manages to graduate only 1 in 12 of his players (despite a contract which rewards him for his players’ academic success), Pearl is a pedagogical poster-child. Similarly, the NCAA, whose College Republican-style automata drone on about “student-athletes” or even “scholar-athletes” instead of “players,” is, as usual, a lot longer on sanctimony than on substance.

It’s important at this point to explode the canard that “everybody else is doing it, and we can’t compete unless we do, too.” Horse puckey. No program is without its skeletons, and I adopt something of the attitude of Restoration comedy that the ones who trumpet their righteousness the loudest probably have the most to hide. That said, there are many programs that recruit young men (and women—but there’s less, not to say no, hypocrisy on the women’s side) who actually want to get an education, and who ultimately earn a degree. The folks at, for example, have set up their own bracket, with teams advancing based on their success at achieving the NCAA’s Progress Rate. Last year’s winner: North Carolina, who won the real tournament, too. This year’s winner: Kansas, who defeats fellow #1 seed Duke in the finals… a scenario which could very easily play out in the actual tournament, too. The website also, incidentally, chuckles at itself a little for, picking, say, Ohio over Georgetown. Oh, wait…

In other words, don’t sing me a long sad song about how you can’t compete and educate at the same time—not if the likes of North Carolina, Kansas, and Duke can manage especially high graduation rates. And don’t complain about Mr. Duncan’s proposal, ‘cuz when they make me Tsar, it’s gonna look like this. First off, we start at 40%, but that number goes up by 5% every year until it reaches 75%. Yes, 75%. If the departure of a player in good academic standing doesn’t count against a team, that’s not an unreasonable standard. The first time a team falls below a standard within a five-year period, they get a warning, and all players in good academic standing are free to transfer to another school without a waiting period. Second time in a five-year period: no post-season play of any kind, students in good standing can transfer without penalty, and the coach is summarily fired and barred from working in any capacity at any NCAA school for three years. See if you can make $2.4 million a year working at the carwash, Bruce. Third time in a five-year period: same punishment for the Athletic Director. You want “scholar-athletes”? I’ll show you “scholar-athletes.”

Of course, this will increase the pressure on people like me to be kind to lazy idiots who take up a disproportionate amount of our time with no care, let alone hope, for success in the classroom. I was once asked by my boss (not here) to give an independent study to the starting power forward and, regardless of how he performed, to give him a C or better. I said no. I once failed a star athlete who easily exceeded the maximum number of allowable absences (he did claim that one of them should have been excused because he was in court… being convicted of an E felony), never wrote either of the required papers, missed a test and a couple of quizzes altogether, and got something like a 37 on the final. But I had an assistant coach badger me for days, pleading this little punk’s case. I said no. Repeatedly. And if I can do it, so can (and likely will) a lot of other faculty around the country. But, just to make sure, we’ll make any interference with the grading process (including advocacy) by any coach a violation of NCAA rules. There are also a handful of extremely good basketball players who are just, well, stupid. That’s why they can go to the NBA at any time, and the NBA will also be obligated to underwrite a legitimate minor-league system for players who have no interest in college. It works in baseball; it can work in basketball.

Oh, and this column wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t enumerate the entire Wall of Shame of this year’s NCAA tournament participants who don’t graduate 40% of their players. In order of increasing ineptitude/amorality: Louisville. Georgia Tech. Clemson. New Mexico State. Missouri. Baylor. Kentucky. Tennessee. Washington. Arkansas—Pine Bluff. California. Maryland. There are some very good universities on that list… maybe even some that could be shamed into doing the right thing if they got enough bad press. Just doing my part…

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fulminations of the Season

It’s the time of year when, over a three-week period, the sports world concentrates its attention on college basketball. Even the most casual observer enters the office pool, often picking winners based on such thoroughly rational evidence as how cool the star player’s name is, or what the school colors are. We actually filled out a bracket for our cats this year: they picked the Kansas Jayhawks to win (because they know who buys the food and they like to eat), but otherwise picked all schools with cat mascots (Panthers, Tigers, Cougars…) to win, schools with dog mascots (Bulldogs, Lobos…) to lose, and, in the case of both/neither, played the chalk. If, as could happen, the Vermont Catamounts go on a tear, our girls are winning that big-screen TV. They probably stand as good a chance as anyone.

So this isn’t about who’s going to win. It’s a one-and-out tournament, fueled by emotion and momentum that no other tournament can match. Really, who can stay awake through the NBA tournament or the Stanley Cup playoffs, with their multiple levels of best-four-of-seven series? If your team is playing, sure, but it takes a hardier soul than I to sit through game two of a potentially seven-game quarterfinal series between Chicago and Detroit if you’re a New York fan. Wake me up when this game matters. And, at March Madness time, upsets are always the order of the day. The University of Northern South Dakota at Hoople probably knows they’ve got about as much chance of winning the tournament as Sarah Palin does of becoming president of the Sierra Club. But if they play the game of their lives, just once, and beat Perennial Power University, well, that’s a memory that isn’t ever going to fade. Anyone who has paid even passing attention to recent tournaments knows that some shooting guard from Spider Breath State can drain six or seven threes in a row, and all of a sudden that prohibitive favorite team they’re playing had better change their nickname to the Piñatas or be accused of false advertising. So no, I offer no predictions here, beyond the presumably obvious fact that I’m picking my doctoral alma mater to win it all.

No, this is about the selection process, and the manifold problems thereunto appertaining. There’s the silly and insulting play-in game, added because the power conferences couldn’t possibly survive without one more mediocre team in the field. True, no 16-seed has ever won a game in the NCAA tournament, but to win your conference tournament and then not even get to play that #1 seed is really pretty crappy. And now there’s a rumor that the field is going to be expanded to 96 teams … or even to everybody. (Anybody wanna guess why this guy works for NPR instead of The Sporting News?) The NCAA can be counted on for few things, but doing stupid things in the pursuit of fuzzily-defined or utterly venal goals is a real long suit for them. Note to the nanny-staters: if your special little snowflakes want to make the NCAA tournament, have them win their conference tournament. Win and you advance, lose and go home: same as in the tournament itself. As of this writing, an unscientific MSNBC poll is running against expansion by 87-13%. Of course, the NCAA couldn’t care less about the integrity of the tournament, fans’ wishes, or anything that doesn’t get them short-term profits.

There is indeed part of me that just wants the teams that didn’t make the field to try playing better instead of complaining. True, Mississippi State was unlucky to lose the SEC tournament after Kentucky sent the game to overtime with .1 of a second left, then won on an off-balance 3-pointer that was by any reasonable assessment more luck than skill. That said, when you know their guy is going to try to intentionally miss his free throw, how about if you box out… and if not then, then on the ensuing brick of a jump shot? No? OK, enjoy the NIT.

Still, the selection process is at least as much a function of politics as of analysis: there was even a rationalization on national television the other night for Duke's extraordinarily favorable bracket because this is, after all, entertainment, and the NCAA “needs Duke to do well.” Really. He said that. Like the rest of us should shut up about it instead of becoming angrier still because of this. (Sorry, can’t tell you which particular idiot talking head on which network…)

Anyway, I thought I’d try a little experiment. I worked out a formula to include every game played all season long—where and when it was played, who won, and by how much. This generates two numbers: who’s played the best over the course of the season, and who’s playing the best right now. It might not be the most accurate system imaginable, but it has the advantage of objectivity: the closest it comes to being subjective is in judgment calls about, for example, how much of a home-court advantage Kansas has when they play in the Sprint Center in Kansas City. (For the record, I’m calling that a 3-point advantage, vs. 5 for games in Allen Fieldhouse on the KU campus.) Then there are the RPI and Pomeroy ratings, and finally the AP and ESPN polls. (For the polls, all teams who received no votes at all were ranked as 50th.) Take those six numbers, add ‘em up, and see what you’ve got.

My Sweet Sixteen then, in order (their actual seeds are in parentheses): Kansas (1.1), Duke (1.3), Kentucky (1.2), West Virginia (2), Syracuse (1.4), Ohio State (2), Kansas State (2), Georgetown (3), Baylor (3), Brigham Young (7), Purdue (4), Villanova (2), Temple (5), Maryland (4), Butler (5), Wisconsin (4). So, in general terms, we agree. Of my Top 16, the committee put all but one in a 5-seed or better; of their Top 16, I had all but one as a 5-seed or better. At the bottom of the bracket, I’d have included Virginia Tech and Mississippi State instead of Wake Forest and Florida—and, indeed, I had five other schools ranked ahead of the Demon Deacons: Dayton, Seton Hall, Illinois, Memphis, and VCU. (Of course, it’s a complete coincidence that Wake’s Athletic Director is on the selection committee. Yes, it is.) Notably, I don’t think all the whining on Syracuse’s behalf has a lot of legitimacy: I had not only Duke but also West Virginia ahead of them. And the kvetching that they’ll have to play their second-weekend games in Salt Lake City instead of Houston: really? That matters when you’re Utah or the UofH, not when you’re coming from Syracuse or Durham. Also, of course, their first weekend is in Buffalo, which is closer to Syracuse than Oklahoma City is to Lawrence, or New Orleans is to Lexington.

In addition to the two teams I don’t think should have been in the tournament at all (who got 9 and 10 seeds), there were nine teams seeded at least two seeds higher than I think they deserve. In order of their ranking: New Mexico, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Minnesota, UNLV, Gonzaga, Louisville, Missouri. And there were nine teams seeded at least two seeds lower than they deserve: Brigham Young, California, Northern Iowa, Georgia Tech, Washington, San Diego State, Cornell, UTEP, Utah State. From this list, let’s throw out Louisville, Georgia Tech, and New Mexico, all of whom have had seasons that have been all over the place: impressive wins and incomprehensible losses. Ranking them is tough. Beyond that, it’s pretty predictable.

Look at the teams the committee loved: six teams from the middle of power conferences, three perennial mid-major powers. The most egregious cases are Vanderbilt and Notre Dame. Vandy somehow got a 4-seed despite not being in the top sixteen teams in any of the six different ranking systems: their best performance is in the AP poll, in which they were 21st. That’s a 6-seed. Their RPI gives them a 7-seed, their Pomeroy a 9-seed. And based on who’s hot right now, they’d be out of the tournament altogether. They deserve a 9. But the committee loves the SEC. Oh, yes, they love the SEC.

Then there’s Notre Dame. They are hot right now. But their RPI is 49 and their Pomeroy is 38. What I find interesting is that not a single one of the 31 voters in the ESPN coaches poll (and those are people who know the game pretty well, right?) listed them in their Top 25 (38 teams got at least some mention), but the committee in their wisdom gave the Irish a 6-seed, making them one of the top 24 teams in the country. Someone explain that to me, please, without using the phrase, “well, they’re Notre Dame.”

Of those under-rated by the committee, gee, you notice a trend? Two very good teams who won their under-respected conferences but aren’t traditional powers, and a bevy of teams from the Mountain and Pacific time zones. There are several particularly outrageous rankings here. Let’s start with Brigham Young. Whereas Vanderbilt got a 4-seed without any ranking of 16 or better, BYU was relegated to a 7-seed (making them somewhere between 25th and 28th overall) without any ranking below their RPI of 23. Their Pomeroy is 7 (a 2-seed!), and they’re tied for 16th in one poll and 17th in the other. But they’re not from a power conference, and they’re, you know, Mormon.

California and Washington are particularly interesting cases. Normally, the Pac-10 gets more respect than they deserve. Not so this year. Cal is in the top 20 in both the RPI and the Pomeroy rankings; I had them 19th overall and 13th at the end of the season. Despite the fact that none of the voters in either poll gave them a single vote (the voters probably have to go to bed early, poor babies), Cal still works out to a 6-seed instead of the 8 they got. Yet, the idiots at CBS (apologies for the redundancy) couldn’t figure out how the Bears made the field at all. Similarly, Washington was #9 on my list of hot teams at the end of the year, and #18 for the year as a whole. Their RPI was 41; their Pomeroy 29; they won their conference tournament. I think they deserved a 7 seed; they got an 11.

And then there’s Northern Iowa. They won both the regular season and the conference tournament in the Missouri Valley, which has consistently been the most under-rated conference in the country for years—or has the committee forgotten the recent exploits of Southern Illinois, Bradley, et al.? Their Pomeroy of 32 (an 8-seed) is their worst ranking; their RPI is 17, and I had them at 16. For this they get a 9-seed, and, if they win their first game, they meet Kansas in the second round. They’re a legitimate 5-seed, and they got jobbed. (So, of course, did KU, by potentially having to face a team a whole lot better than a 9-seed in the second round.)

There’s also UTEP, whose worst ranking is an RPI of 37 (9-seed), but they got a 12-seed. They were ranked 25th in one poll, 27th in the other. They earned an 8-seed. So did Utah State, who also got a 12. Their lowest ranking in any of the six systems was also a 37; their Pomeroy and RPI rankings were 20 and 30, respectively. The crimes of these two teams? They’re from mid-major conferences, they aren’t Gonzaga or UNLV, and they don’t even have the decency to be from the Eastern or Central time zones. What do they expect?

All told, the committee’s performance this year was pretty much incompetent and possibly corrupt. In other words, a little above average for them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One does not disagree about the empirical...

The 1976 election wasn’t my first, but it was the first for which my own political sensibility had developed enough that I felt confident voting for someone other than the candidate my parents liked. So it was that, in the contest for Senator from New York, I chose not to go with the incumbent, James Buckley, but rather with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Buckley, like his better-known younger brother William, was an intelligent, principled conservative (they existed back then), and although I disagreed with him on many issues, I would have been perfectly content had he won re-election. Indeed, I would cheerfully have voted for him over either of the major-party presidential candidates that year: Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

But there was something very appealing to me about Moynihan. He was widely respected from across the political spectrum: there was no doubt that he was a Democrat, and a rather liberal one at that, but he had served in three significant positions in the Nixon administration, most notably as Ambassador to the United Nations. More to the point, there was a sort of swaggering intellectualism about the man, a character trait that was darned near intoxicating to this 21-year-old wannabe intellectual. Pat Moynihan was, more often than not, the smartest person in the room… and he wasn’t afraid to let everyone else know it. How cool is that?

I’ve been thinking about Pat Moynihan lately, not so much for his manifold accomplishments per se, or indeed for the fact that today is St. Patrick’s Day and Moynihan was a quintessential Irish-American politician, as for a particular quotation often attributed to him, although it is pretty clear that he wasn’t the first to say it. The preceding caveat is especially important, given the aphorism itself: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” That sentence, or a variant of it, was probably first used by the financier Bernie Baruch, who apparently argued that no man “has a right to be wrong in his facts.” Defense Secretary James Schlesinger supposedly introduced the concept of having one’s own facts. Either way, the saying came to be associated with Moynihan, for whom it became something of a motto. Facts do matter—including facts about the provenance of the quotation, which accounts for the nuanced (some might say “equivocating”) inclusion of such words as “attributed,” “probably,” “apparently,” and “supposedly” earlier in this paragraph.

Facts apparently don’t matter to today’s right wing. It used to be (you know, in that antediluvian era before the W administration) that there was a distinction between the facts themselves and our interpretation of them. As a recipient of a PhD in the humanities in the 1990s, I can assure you, gentle reader, that I am familiar with the critical theories (advanced, I note sardonically, almost exclusively by Marxists) that everything is an act of interpretation… to which I reply, because this essay may be read by those of tender sensibilities, “Bovine feces.” Empirical evidence is different from opinion, even from analysis. True, that line has been blurred a lot of late. To pick one of literally dozens of examples, take the Supreme Court’s assertion of the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution to justify federal interference in states’ medical marijuana laws for activity which is neither interstate nor commerce. But there’s a reason that Supreme Court rulings are called “opinions,” and most of us can wrap our respective heads around that concept.

We have long known, too, that there are those on the right who dispute evolution or climate change, or who recklessly toss around incendiary rhetoric about “death panels” and the like. But while such arguments may involve what an old grad school professor of mine called “active misreading,” the fact remains (if I may use such a phrase) that evolution, for example, is indeed a theory: a theory which answers far more questions than any competing explanation, but a theory all the same. And the lies about death panels are just that: lies. No one saner than Virginia Foxx or our own Louis Gohmert, and that’s about everybody but Glenn Beck (or, rather, the wingnut character played by Glenn Beck to the tune of millions of dollars), who has looked at the evidence believes any of that crap.

Ah, but that’s the key: looking at the evidence. The last week has provided us with a couple of stories which I find relevant to this discussion. One is this assertion by JD Hayworth, the talk-show host for whom John McCain is far too liberal: “the Massachusetts Supreme Court, when it started this… move toward same-sex marriage, actually defined marriage—now, get this—they defined marriage as simply, quote, ‘the establishment of intimacy.’ Now, how dangerous is that? …. I guess that would mean, if you really had affection for your horse, I guess you could marry your horse.” Let’s leave aside the offensiveness of his commentary, its equation of homosexuality and bestiality, and the implicit argument that in Hayworth’s world horses can enter into contracts and sign all the requisite papers. And let us grant that Mr. Hayworth is entitled to an opinion—one with which I passionately disagree, but one to which he has every right—that gay marriage is/would be an abomination. But now the Baruch/Schlesinger/Moynihan observation becomes relevant: he is not entitled to his own facts. Here’s Rachel Maddow having a very good day even by her standards, dismantling Hayworth the other night, after Hayworth repeated his claim on her program: “’The establishment of intimacy’ as the definition of marriage: it’s just not there, let alone the horse thing…”

Maddow explains that she has spent the afternoon word-searching the relevant documents and can’t find anything like the definition Hayworth uses as the cornerstone of his argument.

Then we get this:

Maddow: What you said about the establishment of intimacy being the definition of marriage in Massachusetts: I don’t think it’s true, sir.
Hayworth: Well, that’s fine. You and I can have a disagreement about that.
Maddow: Well, it either is true or it isn’t; it’s empirical.
Hayworth: OK. Well, I appreciate the fact that we have a disagreement on that…


A disagreement? If some student says on a theatre history test that Adolphe Appia was a German playwright when in fact he was a Swiss designer, are we “hav[ing] a disagreement on that”? Nope. That student is wrong. Period. End of discussion. And, Mr. Hayworth, you’re wrong. There are three possibilities: you’re sloppy, you’re insane, or you’re lying. Pick one (or more).

All of which brings us to the recent preliminary decisions by the Texas Board of Education regarding social studies curricula. There are serious repercussions here, spawned by the outsized national influence of decisions made by a collection of political hacks in Texas. Texas, you see, buys a lot of books, and authors and publishers more interested in making a buck than in accurate portrayal of events pander to the whims of whatever zealots happen to be in charge in Texas at a precise moment in time. So, textbooks written and distributed by these intellectual whores people get a massive order up front, bringing down per-copy production costs and thereby lowering the cost of the book everywhere, making it more likely to be adopted in districts outside Texas, and, of course, by evangelical home-schoolers. This example of capitalism (excuse me, the “free-enterprise system”) in action, by the way, does not seem to be highlighted in the new curricular guidelines.

Certainly, speaking as someone who will have to deal directly with the consequences of this initiative, I’m not pleased. Well over 90% of my students come from Texas public high schools, and there are already problems, especially in the general university population. Whether because of the reputation of our theatre program or because theatre students are by nature more curious and/or anti-authoritarian, I am actually (with notable exceptions) very pleased with the analytical skills of the majority of theatre students I see in our introductory (100-level, for majors and minors) Play Analysis class. And, to be sure, there are always good students in the (non-major) Theatre Appreciation class… but their numbers are small, and apparently dropping. I always begin my lecture on the modern theatre in that class, for example, by discussing the social, economic, and intellectual climate of the 19th century. I talk about the Industrial Revolution. Blank stares. I ask for examples of seminal thinkers. Deer-caught-in-the-headlights stares. I prompt them to talk about Freud or Nietzsche or Marx. Few students can utter a single intelligent comment about any of them. There’s always a sociology major who has never heard of Comte or a philosophy major who has never encountered the word “dialectic” or a biology major who can’t articulate the most basic principles of natural selection.

And now we’re getting a degrading of the importance of perhaps the single most significant (and influential) American political thinker ever, the man primarily responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence, because he was a Deist instead of a Christian per se and advocated the separation of church and state (a term he coined, by the way)? We’re placing Jefferson Davis’s inaugural speech alongside Abraham Lincoln’s? Phyllis Schlafly is now a significant historical figure? The Heritage Foundation is worthy of study in a high school history course? All this from a board which not only doesn’t include anyone with actual credentials in the social sciences, but which is so arrogant it can’t be bothered even to consult actual experts? Oy.

To be fair, some of the arguments from the left aren’t exactly intellectually rigorous, either. I don’t want history classes to “include more Latino figures as role models for the state’s large Hispanic population.” I want them to include discussions of such people because they did something significant. Nor do I object to the inclusion of the Black Panthers (for example) alongside the nonviolent philosophies of Martin Luther King, nor of Milton Friedman on the list of prominent economic theorists. And it is true, for example, that the release of the Venona papers does confirm the guilt of some people long regarded by the left as falsely accused. But context is all. To suggest that the excesses of Joseph McCarthy were in any way legitimized by the fact that there were indeed Soviet spies in America at the time (did anyone ever really doubt this?) is roughly equivalent to vilifying anyone who has ever been to a gun show or taken a handgun to a firing range on the grounds that gun-related murders take place every day. Sooner or later, you’ll probably catch an actual murderer. That doesn’t mean it’s worth the cost.

The trouble with the social sciences and humanities is that those disciplines don’t exist without analysis. We can state as fact that Shakespeare has long been regarded as the most important English-language playwright; we can’t say that he’s the best—or, rather, to say so would be to express an opinion, not a fact. Similarly, we can argue over the extent to which the Founding Fathers were or were not influenced by a specifically Christian theology: even the innocuous suggestion that some were more than others is probably a matter for debate. But we cannot argue that the concept of separation of church and state does not exist, that it was not propounded by the author of the Declaration of Independence, that it did not reverberate throughout the Western world, or indeed that generations of Supreme Court Justices haven’t continually re-affirmed that distinction. Any attempt to deny, suppress, or distort this simple truth by whatever means, direct or indirect, is inevitably an attempt to advance a religio-political agenda rather than to achieve a balanced pedagogy.

That last sentence is an opinion. You’re going to have to trust me on this one.