Thursday, April 22, 2010

How not to conduct political discourse: three case studies

Three news stories have caught my attention of late, all of them tied to the notion of unintended consequences, indeed of (presumably inadvertently) undermining the cause one purports to support. I’m in political agreement with the protagonists in two of the three scenaria… so let’s start with the one I don’t.

The Republican Party has, on a national level, become remarkably adept at creating and then attacking straw men. A rational populace would regard this obviously vapid ploy for what it is: a cynical but quite possibly successful attempt to manipulate the emotions of an under-educated and frankly rather stupid base, and indeed to distract attention from the party's collective failure to generate any solutions to any real problems. The particular target of the right’s wrath in Georgia (and apparently in other states, as well) is a completely and utterly fictional provision of the recent health care bill that supposedly calls for the implanting of microchips in American citizens.

Naturally, the fact that neither the bill that was ultimately passed nor any version of the legislation that was ever under consideration includes anything like such a provision is, of course, completely irrelevant to those legislators more interested in getting their name in the paper than in doing any real good, and that would be… let me see… yep, all of them. Thus we get SB 235: Microchip Consent Act of 2009 (not voted on until 2010), which would “prohibit requiring a person to be implanted with a microchip.” (OK, am I the only one amused by the fact that the primary and secondary sponsors of this claptrap are both named Chip?) Anyway, apparently legislators in Georgia can think of no better way of spending their time than in holding hearings with an eye to criminalizing behavior that doesn’t currently exist and that literally no one has any interest in having exist. One might also note that even if so-called Obamacare actually did include a microchip implantation provision, any state law to the contrary would be trumped by the federal statute.

Oops. Sorry. Apparently I was misinformed. Because, you see, according to a column on the website of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “a hefty woman who described herself as a resident of DeKalb County” testified that, against her will, a “microchip was put in [her] vaginal-rectum area” by “researchers with the federal government,” specifically the Department of Defense.

In columnist Jim Galloway’s words, “It was not funny, and no one laughed.” Well, the illness that afflicts that poor woman is indeed anything but funny… but the legislators who solicited her testimony, who put on the little charade at which her delusions were revealed—these morons do indeed deserve to be the subject of ridicule. Governor Roy Barnes may elicit an intentional laugh with his quip that “if someone holds him down to insert a microchip in his head, ‘it should be more than a damned misdemeanor,’” but the bottom line is anything but chuckle-worthy: this transcendently silly bill passed the Senate 47-2 in February, and was favorably reported out of the Assembly last week: shortly after the graphic demonstration of just how inane this legislation truly is.

Another story that has appeared in the last couple weeks concerns an apparently liberal idiot named Jason Levin, who created a website called On it, and in subsequent interviews, he called for his supporters to infiltrate Tea Party events in order to make the TP crowd appear to be even more stupid than they already seem. Thus, he advocated, for example, having his minions in Tea Party drag claim President Obama is “an alien from outer space.”

The website now consists of nothing but an attempt to sell “tea-shirts” to raise funds: Levin, a teacher in Beaverton, OR, was placed on administrative leave until the district can determine whether he used school computers to work on his political website or did so on school time. These, not the site itself, would be violations of district policy. And I suspect that there will be a lot of folks who would like him gone: the Tea Party crowd out of vengeance, and the sane people because he’s a cretinous yahoo.

Let’s face it, this incitement is downright dumb on a number of levels. First, it advocates dishonest behavior, which I thought was something those of us who aren’t tea-partiers sought to fight against, not endorse. Second, the tea party crowd does really well at coming across as “homophobes, racists or morons” without any outside help. Any American who pays the slightest bit of attention to the news and who cares even a little bit about the relationship between rhetoric and evidence already has a pretty good idea that the average tea-partier is neither an intellectual giant nor the poster child for racial enlightenment (there’s less evidence of homophobia; that accusation seems based more on a characterization of the tea party “type” than on specific evidence). If you’re turned off by a gaggle of stupid white folks trumpeting their ignorance and paranoia, you’re probably already not a fan of the Tea Party. So leave 'em alone, Mr. Levin. To cite Paul Begala’s riff on a Napoleonic original, “never interrupt your opponent when he’s destroying himself.”

But thirdly, and by far most importantly in political terms, you have got to know that that website is going to be seen by someone who disagrees with you, and that it won’t be long before Fox News takes one jackass’s website and spins an elaborate conspiracy theory whereby any idiocy ever uttered, every misspelled accusation that Obama is a “socilist” or the “commander in theif,” every racial slur directed at the President of the country: all these instantly become the product of left-wing infiltrators. I’ve seen it happen already—a friend of mine recently put a link to the “Teabonics” page linked above on her Facebook page. Within minutes, there was a response saying—and the irony is just lovely—“thanks to the ‘Crash the Tea Party’ movement they're [sic] plans include showing up with misspelled signs, racist signs, and using other means to make the tea party look bad.”

And finally, there’s a local event: I’ve been a supporter, monetarily and otherwise, of Amnesty International for over 30 years. As a faculty member I presume I am not eligible to become a member per se of the SFA affiliate, but I did "fan" their Facebook page, so I get periodic announcements of upcoming meetings, events, etc. So it was that a couple of days ago I received an announcement for an event advertised as "SFA Waterboard a Prof." Really? This is an event sponsored by the university's chapter of Amnesty International? It turns out that this is nothing more than an old-fashioned dunking booth with proceeds benefiting a good cause.

Still, there is practically a cottage industry on the right--Sean Hannity and Dick Cheney are at the front of a very long list--to pretend that waterboarding is just an innocuous little persuasive devise instead of the method of torture that any thinking person (including John McCain back in his sane period) knows it is. Making light of waterboarding is what we might expect from the Milos Gloriosus crowd in the Young Republicans, not from an organization devoted to human rights. Waterboarding is not cute, nor is playing little word games about it cute. It is neither witty nor appealingly glib to link a simple, controlled, dunking to one of the vilest mechanisms for torture ever employed in the name of the American people. Words matter. Truth matters. And, fortunately or otherwise, perception matters. Playing along with the right's diminishment of what waterboarding really is and making jokes about it isn't clever at all. In fact, it's quite the opposite.

There are those who want everyone to agree with them. Not me. I'd just as soon the morons were on the other side, where they'd be less likely to do my point of view any harm. Some people would charge me with elitism for saying that... whereupon I call upon the full force of my rhetorical and persuasive powers and respond: Yep.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The right's love/hate relationship with empathy

Much of my scholarly work consists of comparing things. Sometimes, as in the subject of my doctoral dissertation, the grounds for comparison are readily apparent: for example, how is Brendan Kennelly’s Antigone alike or different from the Sophoclean original? But of late I’ve found considerable satisfaction in finding connections no one had ever seen before. My most recent conference paper, for example, discussed two plays I suspect had hitherto never been mentioned in the same breath: an early Renaissance Italian comedy and a 1960s Irish domestic drama which happened to share a particular motif.

The two stories I’d like to connect in this essay are the recent Federal Appeals Court ruling in favor of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church and the announcement of the imminent retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens—and the ensuing search for a successor. The thread that binds these stories together isn’t, for me, the fact that Stevens’s successor may be called upon to judge an appeal by Albert Snyder, who not only had a judge’s award of $11 million in a lawsuit against the Phelpsies first halved and then overturned, but who was then ordered to pay the Phelps’s court costs. I'll get to what it is in a moment.

In case you missed it, the background for this case is this: Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder was killed in Iraq four years ago. The WBC showed up at the funeral on March 10, 2006 in a small Maryland town (one source says in Finksburg, another in Westminster) waving the all-too-familiar signs about how “God hates fags,” “Thank God for dead soldiers,” and similar endearments. (Here’s a charming photograph of two of the younger members of the Phelps clan and their picket signs outside LCpl. Snyder’s funeral.) According to the Citizen Media Law Project website, the church then posted on its website that Snyder parents had “raised [Matthew] for the devil,” “RIPPED that body apart and taught Matthew to defy his Creator, to divorce, and to commit adultery,” “taught him how to support the largest pedophile machine in the history of the entire world, the Roman Catholic monstrosity,” and “taught Matthew to be an idolator.”

Albert Snyder, Matthew’s father, sued Fred Phelps, the WBC, and subsequently Phelps’s two daughters, Rebekah Phelps-Davis and Shirley Phelps-Roper, for defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. The court dismissed the first of of these charges and part of the second, declaring that “[t]hese comments — as extreme as they may be — they are taken in terms of religious expression. This is not the type of language that one is going to assume is meant as a statement of fact.” (Side note: it would be interesting in this regard to cross-examine someone from the Phelps Klan: “So, either you would like to have your ugly rhetoric perceived as purporting to be factual, in which case you can be sued for millions of dollars, or you can tell me that you’re just a gaggle of crazies looking to get your names in the paper, in which case you’re legally off the hook, but revealed as hypocritical grandstanders. You choose.”)

The remainder of the case went to trial, with Mr. Snyder ultimately winning a $10.9 million verdict, $8 million of which was in punitive damages. This was in October, 2007. In February, an appeals judge, Richard D. Bennett denied the Phelps/Westboro appeal per se, stating that “[t]here was more than sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict that Defendants’ conduct before, during, and after the funeral of Matthew Snyder was outrageous, designed to inflict emotional distress upon Plaintiff, and that the intrusion upon the seclusion of Plaintiff and his family was highly offensive to a reasonable person.” The judge also noted that “Defendants cannot by their own actions transform a private funeral into a public event and then bootstrap their position by arguing that Matthew Snyder was a public figure.” That said, he also reduced the punitive damages against the WBC from $2 million to $1 million, against Fred Phelps from $2 million to $300,000, against Rebekah Phelps-Davis from $2 million to $200,000, and against Shirley Phelps-Roper from $2 million to $600,000. That’s still a lot of money.

But we’re not done. The defendants appealed again, and in September of 2009 the 4th Circuit Court of appeals overturned the judgment altogether, basing their opinion on such observations as that the “Epic” posted on the WBC website “utilized distasteful and offensive words, atypical capitalization, and exaggerated punctuation, all of which suggest the work of a hysterical protestor rather than an objective reporter of facts. Despite referring to the Snyder family by name, the Epic is primarily concerned with the Defendants’ strongly held views on matters of public concern.” I’m not sure that hysteria or lack of facility with the language ought to qualify as a defense, nor that we ought to ignore the specifics because the document is largely general, but ultimately there is a legitimate legal argument at play here: that the Phelpsies aren’t guilty of damaging Mr. Snyder or his family if no rational person would believe them. (Of course, no rational person would believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, either, but that’s another matter…)

Given the fact that the ACLU filed an amicus brief on behalf of the WBC, a right-winger might be forgiven for thinking the lunatic left was furthering their assault on God and Country by siding with a congregation so hateful that even the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly can’t stand them. One might think that, at least, until one realizes that the 4th Circuit is widely viewed as the most conservative in the country, that two of the three judges who unanimously decided the case, Dennis Shedd and Allyson Kay Duncan, were appointed by that well-known leftist George W. Bush, and that the former, a Strom Thurmond protégé, was confirmed only narrowly (55-44) by the Senate, having been vehemently opposed by even mainstream Democrats, largely for his record on civil rights. True, the fact that a Clinton nominee and two Bush nominees agreed doesn’t mean they reached the correct conclusion, but it does suggest, at least, that choosing sides in this dispute is a bit more complicated in legal terms than on the basis of emotionality alone.

The last straw for supporters of Mr. Snyder came last month, when the 4th Circuit ruled that Snyder would be responsible for over $16,000 of the WBC’s court costs; a significantly higher amount is still in dispute. It doesn’t help that Snyder is apparently being charged 50 cents a page for photocopying charges, even for documents not directly relevant to the case. Must be the WBC won’t use Kinko’s because of the name… It does indeed seem curious that the 4th Circuit would weigh in on the issue of court costs prior to the (inevitable) appeal to the Supreme Court without a demonstration of urgency by the Phelpses.

Anyway, there was predictable outrage from all quarters: this was probably the most universally despised court ruling since the Kelo eminent domain case in 2005. No one—not the left, not the center, not the right—thinks this was a good decision. Particularly vocal has been Bill O’Reilly, who offered on his television show on March 30 to “pay Mr. Snyder’s obligation,” arguing that the Westboro protesters “should have been arrested, but our system is so screwed up… that loons are allowed to run wild.” And now the rest of us are left with an extremely difficult dilemma: when Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter are on one side of a dispute and Fred Phelps is on the other, who’s to root for? Well, how about the one who's in the right this time?

I find three things in particular interesting about O’Reilly’s commentary. First, he feels compelled to spin off his denunciation of the Westboro “loons” to close with yet another in an interminable series of whines that left-wing crazies don’t get as much notoriety as their right-wing counterparts do. In other words, O’Reilly uses the Snyder/Westboro case primarily as evidence of “hatred of America,” which, in his rhetorical construction, is code for anyone to the left of Jim Imhofe.

Second, I find it interesting that O’Reilly’s outrage came a little late in the game. I don’t recall anything similar from O’Reilly when Phelps and his gang first came to national attention by protesting at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, who was, sloppy ABC journalism to the contrary notwithstanding, murdered simply for being gay. I don’t remember it when theatre-goers attending the national tour of Angels in America (I was one of them) were screamed at by the Phelps mob. I don’t remember it when the cast, crew, and audience of a production at the University of Kansas were subjected to loud, lengthy, and offensive screeds because the undergraduate director of the play in question happened to be the son of someone Phelps couldn’t silence. I don’t remember it even when the WBC picketed a wedding on the KU campus because the ecumenical center at which the service was held had been used earlier in that week for a meeting of an LGBT and friends organization. No, Phelps and his flock are never happier than when confirmed in their self-righteousness by the disgust of everyone else, and they figured out long ago that protesting military funerals—funerals of soldiers who lived in a structure which openly discriminated against homosexuals but didn’t outright persecute them—would be a great away to attract headlines and enemies, the two things these hateful little creatures can’t exist without. And, of course, O’Reilly rose quickly to the bait, defending anything associated with the military with the fervor that only a born-again ex-draft-dodger can muster (Cf. Cheney, Richard).

Thirdly, and most importantly, O’Reilly followed up his initial offer of assistance two nights later, soliciting viewer donations to assist the Snyder family, presenting without comment Albert Snyder’s argument on “Good Morning America” that the WBC’s actions were “insulting,” and arguing that “the Westboro Baptist Church… does have a right to spew its hateful rhetoric, but it doesn’t have a right to be in your face.” I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that the fact that someone is “insulting” or “in your face” is insufficient legal cause to limit freedom of speech. I have studied the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, with some care… I don’t recall the “in your face” exception to the 1st Amendment (nor do I remember O'Reilly's invoking that distinction with respect to, say, the Tea Party crowd). There are complicating factors, and there’s much about the case I don’t know, but based on the law and only the law, the WBC's case seems pretty solid.

Of course, what O’Reilly and his brethren on the right are appealing to isn’t a legal argument at all. It’s, well, based on an empathetic response to Mr. Snyder. Certainly we all like him more than we like anyone associated with the Phelps clan, who are among the vilest creatures ever to slither across the planet since the dawn of time. The fact that the jury is still out (literally) on the legality of what the WBC did in Maryland is, to many, irrelevant. What matters is that we feel sorry for the unjust suffering endured by Mr. Snyder at the hands of an evil assemblage of people who intentionally made one of the worst days of his life even worse, and for what? To further their own psychotic socio-political purposes? To attract attention to themselves? Surely not to demonstrate anything that looks like the love embodied in the God described in the Bible they claim to have read. Legalisms and legalities be damned; we just want to whup the hate-mongers up ‘side the head with a 2x4. All of our empathy is reserved for Mr. Snyder.

“Empathy.” Hmm… now, where have I heard that word before? Oh, yeah… it was when the right wing went apoplectic at President Obama’s description of then-nominee Sonia Sotomayor as “empathetic.” “We don’t want an empathetic judge” cried the right. “We want a judge who will (only) interpret the law.” This Wall Street Journal editorial will serve as well as most to illustrate the point. Notice that empathy has migrated in the writer’s mind (interesting that the piece is unattributed) from being a credential, as it was described in the President’s introduction of his nominee, to being “as much or more than reason” a part of judging, in the characterization of the WSJ editorial-writer. I suppose there’s a point there, but it’s kind of a shaky one: that if empathy and reason are both essential attributes of anyone making any kind of decision about anything affecting others (and who would really argue otherwise?), that reason is no more essential than empathy. (N.B., to be fair, Mr. O’Reilly didn’t go down this particular path, confining his opposition to Judge Sotomayor’s candidacy to an active misinterpretation of non-judicial remarks made a decade ago and a little of his signature brand of latent racism and sexism.)

As Dr. Leon F. Seltzer wrote in Psychology Today “as a therapist, I'd always seen empathy as one of the most valuable things I had to offer my clients.” Dr. Seltzer continues, “There's nothing inherent about empathy that dictates a condoning response to that which is clearly wrong, villainous, or evil.” A little later, writing specifically about Judge Sotomayor, he writes, “Certainly to date there's nothing about her capacity for empathy that has been demonstrated to interfere with her ability to carry out her professional obligations. All that might be said is that given certain extenuating circumstances her empathy might incline her to consider making a more 'measured' decision than otherwise. And doing so would, I believe, promote a judgment not simply just, but merciful as well.” And I confess that this sounds to me like a pretty reasonable (Get it? Reasonable?) endorsement of the Sotomayor nomination.

But now the empathy, as it were, is on the other foot. President Obama’s nominee to fill the vacancy created by Justice Stevens’s well-earned retirement will no doubt be criticized for his/her empathy: here’s Tom Fitton posting today on Right Side News: “Obama's statement on the retirement of the arch-liberal Justice Stevens restates the empathy standard without actually using the word ‘empathy.’” Yep, that empathy thing sure sounds problematic. Unless, of course, we’re the ones appealing to it to over-ride the Constitution. Then, it’s a good thing.

La la, how the life goes on.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

And now for what we DID see on a video

If my last post was about what wasn’t seen in a video, this one is about what is. This Monday, an organization called WikiLeaks released footage of an attack on July 12, 2007, by two US Army Apache helicopters on a group of Iraqi civilians, killing about a dozen people and wounding two children. The incident would no doubt have attracted little attention except for the single and utterly random fact that two of the dead were employees of Reuters News Service: driver/assistant Saeed Chmagh and photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen. Reuters, apparently, doesn’t take kindly to losing its people in unprovoked fits of arrogance by the US military. Moreover, they know how to negotiate the vagaries of the Freedom of Information Act, and both have and are willing to employ the resources to get to the truth. After nearly three years, the video shot from the lead helicopter has apparently come to light.

The footage shows the American helicopters opening fire on a group of Iraqis who have committed no apparent offense other than being in the vicinity of each other. One of the Americans talks about seeing a weapon… but there is no evidence of one: one suspects that he was misidentifying Noor-Eldeen’s camera equipment. I’m not trained in this stuff, so maybe there’s a weapon there somewhere that I don’t see. But I do earn my living, in part, by knowing what gestural patterns are plausible manifestations of what psychological impulses: in the terms of Konstantin Stanislavsky, the relationship between the action (psychological) and the activity (physical). And I’m here to tell you that there’s no way that those men in those pictures were engaged in any sort of belligerent activity. They are relaxed, paying no attention whatsoever to the attack helicopter a couple hundred yards away from them—they had to have both seen it and heard it—until, of course, it opened fire on them.

The report back to the base, that the pilots can see “five to six individuals with AK47s” is at best an obvious exaggeration—even counting the camera equipment, they have identified precisely two even possible weapons. But even if we take them at their word on that, they aren’t satisfied until they have slaughtered everyone in the area, well over half of whom, by their own numbers, are unarmed. They subsequently claim that “we had a guy shooting”; the tape doesn’t confirm that assertion, but, again, it might be true. Of course, it might be true that Rush Limbaugh will honor his pledge to leave the country since health care reform passed, but I’m not holding my breath.

Our Beloved Boys in Uniform then gloat about “those dead bastards.” A short while later a van approaches and some men emerge, obviously with the intent of coming to the aid of a wounded man (who turns out to be one of the Reuters men) who has managed to crawl up onto the sidewalk. The guys in the helicopter start sounding like three-year-olds in the candy store, impatiently demanding of the base, “C’mon, let us shoot.” Permission is granted: apparently such basic human decency as caring for the wounded—any wounded—is now a capital offense. Anyway, the helicopters proceed to blast the crap out of the van, killing most of those inside but—miraculously—only wounding the two children.

A few minutes later, ground forces arrive, and the helicopter guys get a good chuckle when their comrades appear to drive over one of the bodies. When the soldiers find the wounded children, there’s a brief moment when it almost seems like there’s someone human there, but then we get this exchange: “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” “That’s right.” This has got to be one of the most disturbing moments of a very disturbing piece of video. The implication is that although we shot these kids, it wasn’t our fault… they were brought into a “battle.” No, actually, they were brought into a massacre. And apparently when attempting to rescue an unarmed man who has been seriously wounded, it's protocol to drop your kids off first: to do otherwise is reckless. No one in this sequence did anything even remotely deserving of being slaughtered by a gaggle of trigger-happy goons: not the wounded man, not those who tried to help him, certainly not the children themselves.

Ultimately, however, this isn’t about the soldiers. I was fortunate enough to have been just a little too young to have been drafted into the Vietnam War, but I’ve done enough reading on the subject and have known enough veterans to understand that it is a different world there. Protestations that “none of the soldiers I know are like that” are as hollow as the claims that all soldiers are monsters. The fact is, we don’t know how any individual will respond until he’s there. Indeed, we don’t know how behavior will change (or won’t) from minute to minute. If what it takes to cling to a shred of sanity in that environment is to dehumanize anyone who isn’t one of us, to reduce the human carnage below us to a sort of video game, I understand. I don’t like it, but it’s one of life’s little contradictions. I don’t want to hang out at the slaughterhouse, either, but I do like those steaks and chops.

So I am perfectly willing to believe that the men we saw and heard behave so callously and indeed ghoulishly on this footage are actually quite wonderful fellows when removed from this environment: they were before they got there, and they are/will be again. The Army brass, on the other hand, are, to coin a phrase, liars. Here’s the report in the New York Times the next day: “Clashes in a southeastern neighborhood here between the American military and Shiite militias on Thursday left at least 16 people dead, including two Reuters journalists who had driven to the area to cover the turbulence, according to an official at the Interior Ministry…. The American military said in a statement late Thursday that 11 people had been killed: nine insurgents and two civilians. According to the statement, American troops were conducting a raid when they were hit by small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. The American troops called in reinforcements and attack helicopters. In the ensuing fight, the statement said, the two Reuters employees and nine insurgents were killed.”

Now, whether there were any Shiite militiamen in the area may be open for debate, but those two journalists sure as hell didn’t die in any “fight.” They were simply attacked. Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl is quoted as asserting that ''There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force.” This is, of course, an outright lie. There’s plenty to question about Bleichwehl's assertion—the military just wanted to sweep another “oops” moment under their very large rug. They’d have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling journalists. (Any resemblance to Scooby Doo dialogue in the previous sentence is entirely coincidental.)

On July 16, some four days after the attack, Reuters editor-in-chief David Schlesinger, citing a preliminary police report of a “random American bombardment” and Reuters’s own preliminary investigation which “raise[d] real questions about whether there was fighting at the time the two men were killed,” demanded a “thorough and objective investigation” of the circumstances of the two Reuters employees’ deaths. (It would be nice if alleged news organizations cared about the truth all the time, not just when one of their people has been killed, but I guess we take what we can get.)

Gentle Reader, you may have noticed that I equivocated at the end of my first paragraph. You know, when I said “the video shot from the lead helicopter has apparently come to light”? That’s because the tape has not been confirmed as authentic because… wait for it… the military can’t find their copy. According to the Associated Press, “Military officials said they believed the video was authentic, but that they had to compare the images and audio with their own video before confirming it publicly. When pressed Tuesday on why the military had not released the video when other documents related to the investigation were made public, officials said they were still looking for it and weren't entirely sure where it was.” Yep, really. If nothing else, this makes me feel a little better about the stuff that disappears into the abyss I call my desk. Seriously, though, I suspect that copy will somehow never be found, thereby making that rather damning tape unconfirmed. Hate it when that happens. Wikileaks says they are scrupulous about authentication, but John McCain said he vetted his running mate. And Wikileaks, to the extent that they have a reputation at all, are known for protecting their sources. So I’m guessing that we’re just going to have to assume the footage is real.

If we do that, then, there’s only one question. Not whether the helicopter guys got a testosterone overdose and started shooting up the place just because they could: they did. Not whether the Army brass consciously, brazenly, lied about what had happened: they did. Not whether Reuters gave a damn about only two of the dozen or so dead: they did. The only question is whether Glenn Greenwald is accurate in his assertion that “what is shown is completely common. That includes not only the initial killing of a group of men, the vast majority of whom are clearly unarmed, but also the plainly unjustified killing of a group of unarmed men (with their children) carrying away an unarmed, seriously wounded man to safety--as though there's something nefarious about human beings in an urban area trying to take an unarmed, wounded photographer to a hospital” [emphasis his]. Based on the testimony of the necessarily anonymous reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog who wrote “90% of what occurs in that video has been commonplace in Iraq for the last 7 years, and the 10% that differs is entirely based on the fact that two of the gentlemen killed were journalists,” I’d have to say yes. Based on what I’ve been reading (or re-reading) to prep for my course on the American Theatre and the Vietnam War, yes. Based on over a half-century of observing human nature, yes. But you’re free to disagree. As long as you share whatever you've got in that pipe…

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

How to prostitute yourself by pretending to be a prostitute

Today's Paul Simon lyric du jour is from "The Boxer":

All lies and jest,
Still, a man hears what he wants to hear,
And disregards the rest.

California Attorney General, erstwhile Governor Moonbeam, Jerry Brown announced last Thursday that his office would not prosecute anyone at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) for any activities allegedly caught on tape by an undercover operation by a pair of conservative activists. James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles claimed to have dressed themselves up in some fetishistic nightmare version of pimp and prostitute, and supposedly caught ACORN employees helping them import under-age girls from Latin America for a prostitution ring. The whole ploy seemed a bridge too far at the time—underage girls and prostitution, maybe; smuggling illegals across the border, maybe; both at once? Hmmm…

Now, what O’Keefe and Giles did was illegal under California privacy law, but the Sean Hannitys and Glenn Becks of the world—and much of the rest of the country—were willing to overlook that little technicality because these were such upright “journalists.” And indeed the duo will not be prosecuted: but only because they were granted immunity in exchange for access to the unedited versions of their tapes… which, oh so coincidentally, show that O’Keefe and Giles really were engaged in prostitution, but of a different sort than they pretended. Because they sure as hell prostituted anything that bore any resemblance to the truth. A month after the Brooklyn DA found “no criminality” by ACORN workers when O’Keefe and Giles tried the same stunt in New York, Brown’s investigation showed "that things are not always as partisan zealots portray them through highly selective editing of reality. Sometimes a fuller truth is found on the cutting room floor."

An examination of the unedited California tapes—from San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles—reveals that, for example, that what O’Keefe and Giles represented on their edited version as an ACORN worker guiding them towards means of bilking money from the government really shows that staffer only offering encouragement in obtaining affordable housing. And Rachel Maddow suggests that a different employee, Juan Carlos Vera, who seems to be helping the couple import underage prostitutes is in fact setting them up. Maddow quotes from the Attorney General’s report: “Immediately after the couple left, Vera telephoned his cousin, Detective Alejandro Hernandez, at the National City Police Department… [and said] that a self-admitted prostitute had been to the office and was discussing human smuggling…. Detective Hernandez contacted Detective Mark Haas at the San Diego Police Department. Detective Haas works with cases involving human smuggling.” So, argues Maddow, “that ACORN employee… did the responsible thing. He elicited as much information as he could get out of this supposed pimp and prostitute in his office, and he immediately reported it to the police. For that he ended up getting fired…” after Fox News aired what Maddow quite reasonably describes as “fantastical interpretations of his actions.”

What to make of all this? First, as both Attorney General Brown and commentator Maddow concede, the fact that some ACORN employees were clearly unjustly accused doesn’t change the fact that others were guilty as charged: those tapes from Baltimore, for example, edited or not, seem pretty damning, and ACORN didn’t exactly help its pretensions to legitimacy by suing the pair—not for misrepresentation (which certainly could have been charged in, say, San Diego), but with the purely legalistic argument the tapes were acquired illegally, in violation of Maryland’s privacy laws: “yeah, we’re a gaggle of felons, but you cheated when you tried to prove it, so we should get off.”

But it is also very clear that O’Keefe, Giles, and their employer/shill Andrew Breitbart—not to mention the propagandists at Fox News—didn’t really care whether they had actually uncovered an organization willing to engage in criminal conspiracy. The couple lied consistently, and provably, about what they were wearing, how they represented themselves, and who said what: Giles has admitted to at least the first of these charges, all the while claiming the demonstrable falsehood that they “never claimed that he went in with a pimp costume.” Too bad O’Keefe shows up here, introduced by a fawning Fox pseudo-journalist as “dressed exactly in the same outfit that he wore in these ACORN offices.” This is a standard ploy among the prevarication set: admit to what you can’t possibly deny any more, but continue to deny everything else. Lather, rinse, repeat. (Hey, it worked for Bill Clinton!) And these zealots’ utter disregard for the reputations of completely innocent victims they had so savagely defamed is nauseating at best.

Be it noted that there is no clear evidence that Fox News was an active co-conspirator in the O'Keefe/Giles prevarication. More likely, at least at first, they were presented with something so tantalizing to their prejudices that they simply didn't bother to act like journalists and check out the story before airing it. It's pretty clear the New York Times behaved with precisely that laziness on this pseudo-story. An incompetent press is little better than an actively dishonest one: their only contribution is to make the liars work a little harder. They'll still get away with their chicanery for at least a while, they'll still have a profound effect on public opinion with their lies, the (perhaps inevitable) revelation of their fraud will still attract less attention than the initial drumbeat of falsehoods did... but the bad guys will have to do their own editing.

Still, apart from the apparent demise of journalistic integrity across the board, there’s something else very disturbing here. Remember Juan Carlos Vera, the guy who got fired for appearing on that tape from San Diego, even though he immediately called the cops on O’Keefe and Giles? Why, exactly, did he get fired? Here is one version of the story as it happened last September. Remember that Mr. Vera’s English is not the best, so there may be some confusion, but he was dismissed despite the fact that ACORN had apparently confirmed the phone call to the National City police. Presumably, assuming the Attorney General’s report to be accurate, it would have been an easy matter to confirm the time and purpose of Mr. Vera’s call to Detective Hernandez, or the latter’s call to Detective Haas.

An organization that purported to fight for the poor (I use the past tense because ACORN is now apparently defunct) , then, failed to protect one of its own employees even when there was clear exculpatory evidence, even when releasing that evidence would get the yapping hounds away from their doorstep for a while. That makes ACORN either sufficiently corrupt that it was willing to sacrifice an innocent man to prevent (or at least delay) further investigation, or sufficiently craven that it wasn’t willing to go toe-to-toe with lightweight liars like O’Keefe and Giles. I’m guessing it was the latter… I confess it’s getting a little old watching anyone even vaguely liberal run scurrying for cover the first time some idiot like Sean Hannity shakes a teabag at them. I wish Mr. Vera the best. ACORN? Good riddance.

Monday, April 5, 2010

I'm all in favor of art, but...

It hardly qualifies as news that public art is often controversial. The Eiffel Tower was regarded as an eyesore by many, and a petition signed by the likes of Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas (fils) and Émile Zola protested its construction. The untitled Picasso sculpture in Chicago may be a landmark now, but it met with considerable controversy when it was first unveiled: according to a Time magazine article written the week after the unveiling in 1967, the Chicago Tribune initially described it as “Picasso’s predatory grasshopper” before later reversing course, and one alderman actually introduced legislation to replace it with a statue of Cubs’ first baseman Ernie Banks. I remember the furor among many of my classmates when my alma mater installed X-Delta on the lawn in front of the library, just as previous generations had objected to the display of the Orozco murals, one panel of which is shown here, in the reserve room of that selfsame library. (I must say, that was a pretty creepy place in which to try to study!) And on and on. Virtually every city, every college or university, has experienced pretty much the same phenomenon somewhere along the line.

So I suppose no one should be surprised that Dakar, Senegal now has a controversial sculpture, the African Renaissance Monument, which was unveiled this weekend. But this brouhaha seems a little different in that the statue is being criticized from a wide variety of angles. “It’s ugly” and “it’s a waste of money” arguments are nothing new. But this piece is being described as obscene and even sacrilegious. These latter terms are common enough with respect to private pieces (remember the brouhaha over Piss Christ?), but they’re relatively rare in reference to public art.

That said, this enormous sculpture—slightly taller than the Statue of Liberty—has come under fire for a wide range of perceived grievances. The pet project of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, the statue depicts an African family looking westward across the Atlantic Ocean towards the New World. Built in part to commemorate Senegal’s 50th anniversary as an independent state, the enormous monument has run afoul of Christians (when Wade compared it to Jesus) and of Islamic Imams, who issued a fatwa against it, proclaiming it “ungodly” and “a mockery of Islam.” Given that about 90% of the country’s population is Muslim and most of the remainder is Christian, that’s a problem.

Artists and Africanist intellectuals object to the aesthetics, more evocative of Soviet era propaganda statuary than of anything vaguely African. Gender activists complain that the woman is objectified and portrayed as subservient to the man, contrary to West African tradition. There are complaints that the woman is insufficiently clothed, and that the child is naked. Wade’s political opponents describe the massive monument as an example of the president’s misplaced priorities, self-aggrandizement, and greed. In the words of Ndey Tabara Seck, a widow who lives less than a kilometer away, “What income? The president said he would personally take 35% of the revenue generated from the statue because it was his idea. He assigned his daughter to manage the statue. Now he is talking about income for Senegal. Maybe he was talking about income for himself and his family but not for poor people like us who live in this area. No matter how many tourists visit this thing, it will never make a difference to our lives here.”

And that, of course, is the biggest objection. Perhaps this view of the monument during the construction process gives a more accurate view of the total reality. There’s the impressive-looking monument taking shape in the background. But in the foreground? Debris, unfinished homes, destitution. The project, depending on the source one uses, cost $27-28 million. That’s a lot of money in my neighborhood, but let’s look at it in terms of the Senegalese economy, which may be in better shape than it once was, but can hardly be described as robust. Senegalese GDP, needless to say, is considerably smaller than that of the USA (comparative graph here). For an American venture to cost the national economy as much as Mr. Wade’s narcissistic little enterprise in terms of percentage of GDP, it would have to cost over $30 billion, or enough to fund the entire National Endowment for the Arts at current levels for 177 years. That, my friends, is a lot of cash.

To make matters worse, Wade hired North Koreans rather than Senegalese workers to complete the project, despite a national unemployment rate of 48%. No, that’s not a typo. The grand unveiling attracted such notables as Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe and the ubiquitous Jesse Jackson, who sure does like to get his name in the paper.

Clearly, the Senegalese people are hurting, and many are livid about this latest extravagance. But we Americans have a right to be a little grumpy, too. After all, we recently forked over what one website describes as a $540 million “grant from U.S. taxpayers for good governance” to the Wade regime. Is it worth $2 to me personally to create, if not a path to prosperity, then at least an escape from squalor, for the people of Senegal? Of course. But it would be nice to be reassured that our collective largess was in fact being used for the interior infrastructure projects described in the agreement rather than to line the pockets of a venal President and his apparently even more acquisitive son. While I would love to be proved wrong, I’m afraid I’m not optimistic.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Defense of Sarah Palin. Really.

Sarah Palin has been in the news of late, mostly for the wrong reasons. Her much-ballyhooed special on Fox News (where else?), “Real American Stories,” played to what most describe as mixed reviews—the remarkably dim-witted Greta Van Susteren (is there anyone in the business more over-rated than she?) described them as “nasty,” although we must remember that Van Susteren’s husband is (or was) a Palin consultant/handler, and Van Susteren herself has a remarkably shallow understanding of any of the criticism.

But the Quitter-in-Chief attracted even more negative press for what many regard as an incendiary quality associated with her attempts to elect Republicans in 2010 to Congressional seats currently held by Democrats who voted for health care reform but who represent districts won by the McCain/Palin ticket in the last presidential election. Her well-publicized ad featuring the crosshairs of a gunsight on those districts and her follow-up tweet urging her followers “don’t retreat… reload” drew more than a little criticism, and not merely from the usual suspects—Rachel Maddow, Joan Walsh, the folks at Huffington Post and Daily Kos, et al. No, even Elisabeth Hasselbeck, hitherto reliable Palin supporter and possibly the only person I can think of less qualified for national office than the Wassila Hillbilly, describes Republican responses in general (and certainly Palin’s by clear implication) as “fairly despicable.”

I don’t feel the need to demonstrate my anti-Palin credentials. I think she’s an idiot, a liar, a fraud, and probably a felon. She is unquestionably the worst vice presidential candidate for any party drawing 10% of the vote since Admiral James “Who am I? Why am I here” Stockdale sucked any glimmer of credibility out of Ross Perot’s presidential bid in 1992. I think she’s reckless, amoral, self-important, and proud of her own staggering ignorance: and that’s a very nasty combination. She seeks the spotlight more than Jesse Jackson, and she’s not above being incendiary for its own sake. And… this time… she’s being attacked unfairly.

It’s true that neither Sister Sarah nor virtually any other well-known Republican has done much to stop the hateful rhetoric (and worse) spewing from the Tea Party crowd. And it’s true that her response to criticism was more than a little juvenile: her Facebook note about the NCAA basketball tournament, employing (and often italicizing) such words and phrases as “battle,” “set your sights,” “target,” “Big Guns,” etc., was titled “Warning: Subject to New Politically Correct Language Police Censorship.” OK, so she never faced anything like censorship, but she’s hardly the only politician, on either side of the aisle, to misuse the term. It’s true, too, that her commentary was obviously intended to tweak her opponents rather than to re-consider her own position. But her response was also clever in demonstrating the ubiquity of war and firearms imagery in the way we talk about sports… and, by extension, about other topics as well. I, for one, am tired of hearing athletes described as “warriors” who “go into battle” “guns blazing” and similar nonsense. There’s a difference between war and a football game.

And sportscasters as a breed are particularly tone-deaf when it comes to the appropriateness of their metaphors. (Note to idiot NBC Olympics luge/bobsled commentator: when a man has recently died in a practice run on that course, maybe you could find a term other than “stop the bleeding” to repeat incessantly about drivers who are losing a little time to the competition.) On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of sanitizing language for its own sake: any athletic contest between the Universities of Kansas and Missouri will always be, in my mind, a new manifestation of the Border War, no matter how often the PC-pabulum version, “Showdown,” is shoved down my throat by the hand-wringers.

More to the point, Palin didn’t do anything that hosts of other politicians don’t do all the time. John McCain’s defense of his former running-mate may have been inspired as much by gratitude as anything else—she’s his only hope to fend off a primarily challenge from the even more truth-impaired JD Hayworth—or it may have been simply the sort of knee-jerk any-Republican-being-criticized-for-anything-is-obviously-completely-innocent nonsense that has characterized most of McCain’s recent political rhetoric. I need hardly add that Senator Straight-talk's commentary is pompous and condescending. But it’s also accurate.

“Battleground states.” “Targeting [the opposition’s weakest links].” “In the crosshairs.” “War chest.” These are the terms of everyday American political discourse. Perhaps they shouldn’t be, but they are. Certainly folks from my generation will remember the “Buchanan Brigade” of another self-described right-wing populist; most of us recall, too, the battle cry (if you will) of Pat Buchanan’s 1996 campaign: “Lock and load.” Campaigning in Philadelphia in June of 2008, then-Senator Obama said about Republican attacks on him, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.” Need I continue? All Palin did was to change words into an image—the crosshairs poster. Importantly, while the incumbent Democrats’ names are all listed on that ad, the “targets” aren’t the politicians themselves, but their districts. That’s a distinction that gets lost in the foam-flecked rhetoric of the left. I have trouble looking at that image and thinking it’s in any way an incitement to violence, even to the sketchier side of the GOP base.

It may be true that these are especially tense times, with “a significant number, meaning more than 10” Democrats receiving threats and at least three reported incidents of vandalism directed against Representatives, their offices, or their families. But whereas the GOP may have been slow to accept responsibility for creating an environment in which violence is allowed to bubble towards the surface, there does seem to be a pretty clear line in the sand when the violence or the threat thereof actually crosses over from the metaphorical to the literal. Thus, Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking Republican on the House oversight committee, recently asked for a hearing to investigate those threats. (It's also worth noting that Republicans have been similarly threatened, and that Democrats are unanimous in their condemnation of those threats.) And that’s the point. As I discussed last time, there’s a difference between venting and actually being homicidal. And there’s a difference between targeting a political opponent for defeat and targeting that person as a prospective crime victim. The left, which is quick to flaunt its intellectual (or at least academic) superiority, would do well to understand those distinctions… because the political middle, where elections are won and lost, has a pretty keen nose for outrageous exaggeration, and what they’re smelling right now is better suited as fertilizer than as argumentation.

What’s at stake here isn’t what Paul Jenkins describes in an editorial piece in the Anchorage Daily News under the provocative headline “Left’s lynching of Palin’s cross hairs is sadly typical.” (“Lynching”? Really? Talk about hyberbole getting in the way of sense!) No, Mr. Jenkins, it’s not about “quash[ing] dissent.” That analysis is paranoid and downright stupid, even if I agree with much of the rest of your column. It’s much more about nanny-statism, the idea that everything will be better if we all sit around and sing “Kumbaya.” I’m reminded of Beneatha Younger’s wonderfully sardonic line in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun about “[hating] each other in good Christian fellowship.”

The danger for the left here is not that Sarah Palin will emerge from this little scuffle unscathed—of course she will. Rather—and here’s where Jenkins is right—they risk trivializing their own discourse. It’s a variation on the “crying wolf” phenomenon: it’s easy enough for a casual observer to believe that if the best Palin’s opposition can offer is quibbling over niceties, then she must be winning on content. Sarah Palin would come in third place in a battle of wits with a barstool and a corndog. Let her prove it, and don’t let her claim victimhood… especially if she’s got a point.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

How Not to Be a Good University Administrator: Two Case Studies

I promised two more stories that touch on education… here they are.

We turn first to an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website about Gloria Y. Gadsden, an associate professor of sociology at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, who is now returning to the classroom after having been suspended for (OBVIOUSLY!!!) joking on Facebook about killing students. The offending status updates are as follows: "Had a good day today, didn't want to kill even one student.:-) Now Friday was a different story ..." and "Does anyone know where I can find a very discrete [sic] hitman, it's been that kind of day." Really. She got suspended for that. Or at least that was the story being spun at the time by one Marilyn Wells, interim provost and VPAA at East Stroudsburg.

My initial thought was that Dr. Wells, whose background is somewhere in the health/phys ed/recreation area, is either a). a drone or b). a moron: this response is prompted either by paranoia (“ooh… what if she really means it…[and she kills somebody and we get sued],” even though no rational human being could possibly interpret her remarks that way) or raging stupidity, the inability to tell the difference between a woman who’s had a bad day and one who is legitimately homicidal. Hmm… I suppose “c). possessed of an autistic inability to discern irony or hyperbole” would be another possibility. But I strongly suspect that “d). none of the above” is the correct answer to today’s little multiple-choice quiz.

I have an inkling that about midnight at some tech rehearsal somewhere along the line, I’ve probably told my stage manager not that I’d like to kill some actor or designer or props person, but that I was going to do so. I never followed through, though, curiously enough. I don’t recall ever posting on Facebook that I’d like to kill a student, a colleague, or a boss, but I might have… if I did I, like Prof. Gadsden, would have been careful to ensure that anyone with an IQ over room temperature would know I was joking. And I’m certain that I’ve volunteered to be the “discreet hitman” (I’d have spelled it correctly) for a friend. I was, however, never actually engaged to perform such duties. One of my favorite people, a former student, now a teacher, posted a Facebook status not long ago that suggested her desire to “beat someone to a pulp.” I even endorsed that sentiment because… wait for it… I’m not a moron, and I know—not just think, know--that she didn’t plan, literally, to commit assault. But that whole “not a moron” bit doesn’t apply as well, apparently, to Dr. Wells. I should note here that the overwhelming majority of comments on the first Chronicle article—the one after the suspension, not the one after the return—seem to think Prof. Gadsden is the guilty party. This, I must say, makes me fear for academe. Honestly, I can't decide which these people need more: a whoopee cushion or a laxative.

Here’s the official statement: “Given the climate of security concerns in academia, the university has an obligation to take all threats seriously and act accordingly.” This is, of course, symptomatic of the mindless adherence to silly policies that plagues much of society, with academia certainly at or near the top of the list. It’s the same mentality that gets high school girls suspended from school for giving a Midol to a friend, or kept a high school boy from graduating with his class a couple of years ago for wearing a bolo instead of a standard necktie under his robe. It’s easier for the lazy and feeble-minded, whether they be TSA agents or university provosts, to blindly adhere to some regulation than to think. No, I’m not suggesting that prudence isn’t a good idea, and no, gentle reader, I’m not going to go all Ayn Rand/Friedrich Nietzsche on you. But the official response to an obvious case of venting was remarkably, audaciously, cretinous. Or was it?

It turns out that Prof. Gadsden is unpopular… apparently with students and colleagues alike. And she’s bounced around from job to job a fair amount: that’s a red flag to search committees, but one which the folks at East Stroudsburg apparently ignored. She didn’t help her cause in being perceived as a good colleague by publishing an op-ed in the Chronicle that is, well, pretty whiny. In her world, confrontational students or assertions that she is “intimidating,” or “cannot teach” are unequivocally racist. While I have (obviously) never been called the n-word by a student, I’ve experienced all the rest of the allegedly racially-tinged problems she describes. Still, I have no basis for knowing whether she has a point or not… beyond my mantra that “if you have to tell me, it ain’t so.” And Prof. Gadsden sure does want to tell us about her qualifications and (implicitly) her teaching. Being brilliant—as she may be—doesn’t make one a good teacher or a good colleague. The fact that fellow faculty are telling her that she’s "too sensitive" or "a little paranoid" might mean, as she suggests, that they “fail — or refuse — to understand the complexity of retaining faculty members from underrepresented groups.” Or it might mean that she’s too sensitive and a little paranoid (just like her boss…).

What I’m not saying outright (because I don’t know) but strongly suspect is that Prof. Gadsden is a thorn in the side of all and sundry at East Stroudsburg. The USA Today article suggests that she fears the incident may hurt her chances for tenure (interesting that the Chronicle piece doesn’t mention her tenure status, leaving the reader to assume—falsely, apparently—that, as an associate professor, she’s already tenured). Gee, you suppose there’s a link, there? Tell me that some little gnome isn’t whispering in the provost’s ear, “maybe if we humiliate her, she’ll just go away, because you know she’s going to sue us for racial discrimination if she doesn’t get tenure.” Ultimately, I’m reminded that Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion. If I had to guess, I’d say that proving someone can’t teach—even with reams of supporting evidence—is harder than claiming recklessness and ginning up a little fear-mongering. From where I sit, I’m glad she’s not a colleague, and I’m even happier that my provost has a brain.

The other story was released on April 1, and it’s silly enough that, if comments on the Chronicle of Higher Education article are to be believed, both the reporters and/or editors at the Chronicle and at least one person their reporter called for comment thought it was an April Fools’ joke. Alas, apparently it isn’t. No, it actually seems to be true that Loyola Law School Los Angeles has decided to retroactively raise the grades of current students and recent graduates by 1/3 of a point: a plus or minus, in other words (a B becomes a B+, a B+ becomes an A-). In the words of Elie Mystal on the Above the Law blog, “That’s not just inflation; that’s a rewriting of history.” Perhaps someone there is running for a slot on the Texas Board of Education?

You see, Loyola’s average students were being treated in the workplace as if they were average, and Dean Victor J. Gold just couldn’t stand for that: “We concluded that the grading curve was sending incorrect information about our students, and, frankly, it was putting them at an unfair competitive disadvantage in a pretty tough job market." In other words, “We have very, very special snowflakes here at Loyola. This isn’t Lake Woebegone, where all of the children are merely above average; this is Loyola, where they’re all brilliant.” The support for this absurdity comes from one Stuart Rojstaczer, a retired associate professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke, who argues that “There are employers that have GPA cutoffs, and by inflating grades, you increase the number of students who meet those GPA cutoffs." Can’t argue with that, can we? The most rational solution by this logic, of course, it to give everyone an A+ in everything, thereby ensuring that even the most dim-witted and lazy of our brood can move directly into senior partner positions with high-powered firms. Because the reason some of our students can't find work isn’t a tight economy or the fact that our average students really are average, it’s that we didn’t have enough grade inflation.

Give me a damn break. First off, the Dean’s claim that class rank will be unaffected is true only because—and this is so laughable I can barely type—“While most grades of A+ will receive 4.333 grade points, those A+ grades that earn 4.667 grade points will be accompanied by an asterisk. The asterisk will lead the reader to an explanation on the transcript making clear that, as a result of the change in the curve we have now implemented, there are two possible grade point values for an A+.” This phenomenon is aptly described by Mystal as “a ‘double’ A+; an A+ with a bright, shiny, happy star — just so that employers all know that these kids are the super-most-awesome kids in the bunch!” [Note: If nothing else comes of this, Mr. Mystal has a new fan.]

Secondly, if employers (including government agencies) are using a GPA limit instead of a class percentile limit, they’re idiots and you don’t want to work for them. Moreover, those limits are minimums: in this economy—hell, in any economy—you’d better exceed, not merely meet, the minimum criteria if you want to get hired, and those criteria are more than likely to include skill sets not measured by grades. Note also the lawyerly cherry-picking of statistics by Mr. Gold: a B- is what the old first-year average was. Those grades inflate over the ensuing two years, so a Loyola student with a B average isn’t even average: by Gold’s own argument, a Loyola student with a 3.17 GPA (a little closer to a B+ than to a B) is in the 25th percentile. In other words, that B average required by some agencies is already being achieved (if that’s the word) by well over three-quarters of Loyola students. Speaking as someone whose life might conceivably be affected by one of those government agencies, I really don’t think that it imposes an incredible hardship on a prospective employee to be, well, within hailing distance of mediocre.

Thirdly, any rational prospective employer is going to know something about the reputation of the various institutions from which it might draw its new employees. These are lawyers, after all: the people hiring them are likely to be lawyers, too. It’s the job of someone in charge of hiring new people into a firm or an agency to keep abreast with what programs are good where. When I was applying to PhD programs, I was looking at one school that said something like “generally, we require a 3.5 GPA in your undergraduate work.” My undergrad GPA was 3.46 or something like that; it was considerably better in my major, but I didn’t meet the stated criteria. Still, there was that word “generally” in their statement. So I called them up. Their response, paraphrased, was “You have a 3.46 from Dartmouth? Of course we’re interested in you!” That’s what Loyola students used to have going for them: the reputation that a Loyola grad, relative to alums from a different school, was better than his/her GPA. Now the entire place is—or at least ought to be—a laughing stock. Oh, what a brave new world.

Friday, April 2, 2010

In the Supreme Hypocrisy Sweepstakes, the NCAA Has Opened a Slight Lead on University Administrators

No fewer than four headlines about topics touching on education have caught my eye in the last 24 hours. Two of them have to do with collegiate sports, two with other issues. Sports today; other topics tomorrow (I hope).

We start with the apparent inevitability that the whores brain trust at the NCAA will, sooner rather than later, announce that the field for the men’s national basketball tournament will be expanded from 65 teams to 96. The same NCAA that crows incessantly about “student-athletes” but won’t actually require programs to take some responsibility for the academic progress of their players (my screed here) now sends forth its VP Greg Shaheen to proclaim with a disingenuousness that would make Sarah Palin proud that, in the expanded format, “the amount of time student-athletes would be out of school would be roughly the same as the current model” and there’d be “a reduction in travel time.” Yeah, right. A team that would earn a 9-seed in the current arrangement would have to play on, say, Thursday against a 24-seed (!), meaning they’d miss class for a minimum of three days (Wednesday through Friday). If they win, they play again on Saturday (against an 8-seed). But at the end of the weekend, we’re only down to 32 teams, not the current 16. So there needs to be another game, probably against a 1-seed, on Tuesday, meaning those players would miss another three days (Monday through Wednesday). And if they keep winning, they’d be expected to play again on Thursday and Saturday. Then they could go home for two whole days of classes before having to show up, by NCAA dictum, at the Final Four site by Wednesday, with games Saturday and Monday. In other words, if a 9-seed or lower made it to the national championship game, they’d miss 8 of a series of 9 classes that meet MWF. Think that can’t happen? Given the stupidity with which the exalted selection committee under-values any team that isn’t from a so-called power conference, I don’t.

Let’s leave aside the dilution of the tournament with even more mediocre teams from big conferences: if NCAA lapdog Minnesota coach Tubby Smith really “[doesn’t] see any watering down at all,” then he’s even stupider than I thought. Let’s duck, too, the thorny issue of what to do with regular-season champions from smaller conferences: include them and their conference tournament is de-valued, exclude them and the regular season is de-valued (these teams are currently guaranteed a spot in the NIT, which would presumably disappear). Let’s just concentrate on the fact that the NCAA chooses to actively disprove its own pretensions of “student-athletes.” That formulation sort of loses something if you won’t even allow these kids to go to class, don’t you think? By the way, I endorse John Feinstein’s analysis, which I read after having already come to virtually the same conclusions. This decision is about one thing only: short-term profits for the NCAA and its water-carriers the athletic departments. The fans, players, and long-term good of the game? Are you kidding?

In other sports news, it seems that some of my brethren and sistern in the academic field are getting a little disgruntled that in an era of shrinking budgets, athletics departments don’t seem to be being asked to tighten their extra-large belts even a little bit. While it is true that the football and men’s basketball programs at some universities make money, athletic departments as a whole don’t. Indeed, there are precisely two major public universities in the country—Nebraska and LSU—in which the athletics departments receive no subsidies from their respective universities. So it is, for example, that the Faculty Senate at the University of Memphis has proposed that the university eliminate its $2 million underwriting of the Athletic Department (this measure would still leave untouched the $7+ million per year the department gets from student fees). The $7.7 million subsidy by the University of California at Berkeley is similarly under fire. All told, as described in this January article from USA Today, while the rest of us have been trying to find ways of cutting back, in athletics departments at the 99 public universities in the power conferences, subsidies from the general fund grew “about 20% in four years, from $685 million in 2005 to $826 million in 2008, after adjusting for inflation. At more than a third of those schools, the percentage of athletic department revenue coming from subsidies grew during the four-year period studied.” That would be an average of over $8.3 million per school per year. That's well over 100 faculty who could have been hired or retained, or more than 300 full-ride scholarships to students who, you know, have something to offer in the classroom.

It may or may not be true that successful, big-time, athletics programs lead to alumni giving and student satisfaction: the fact that it's Conventional Wisdom doesn't make it true. All I know is that a win over Harvard in my undergrad days was as much fun as a win over Mizzou in my grad school days. As for funding, well, according to the most recent figures in the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are ten institutions with an endowment of over $1 million per student: of these, precisely one, Stanford, is in a major athletic conference. Even when we eliminate the per-student component, we’re left with the simple fact that only four of the schools with the twelve largest university endowments, and only about 46% of all universities with $1 billion endowments, have big-time athletics, and several of those that do (Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Virginia…) aren’t perennial powers in any major sport. [Note: the tables are password-protected: if you don’t have a Chronicle subscription, you’re going to have to trust me on the numbers.] So I’m thinking that there isn’t exactly a one-to-one correlation between attracting donors and going to a BCS bowl game.

On the one hand, the faculty protests at Memphis and Berkeley and wherever else are more symbolic than pragmatic. No university president has the courage to suggest that their sainted football or basketball coach isn’t worth $1 million a year, or that a bunch of functional illiterates shouldn’t take up space in classrooms, lower the level of discussion, and generally be coddled and cooed over. N.B., I am fully aware that there are a great many people about whom the term “student athlete” isn’t an oxymoron. I’ve had them in my classes. But I’ve also had the others—the ones who think they’re entitled to a good grade in my class because they can catch a football well enough to start for a team that went 4-8 in Division I-AA. No, expecting anyone in a university administration or on a Board of Trustees to care more about real student achievement than about whether the team goes to the Petunia Bowl—that would be asking far too much. But maybe some good will come of the outcry, anyway: if nothing else, I suspect at least a few more people now know that it’s the universities who subsidize athletics, not the other way around.