Saturday, December 31, 2011

Farewell, Fighting Sioux

I open by quoting myself, over six years ago:
Quick: what's the biggest crisis facing the NCAA? Graduation rates? Steroids? Illicit payments to players? Coaches trying to strong-arm faculty into changing grades for athletes who can't be bothered to go to class? The repercussions of the NBA's decision to impose a minimum age requirement? The fact that some programs produce more convicted felons than they do graduates? Tutors actually writing papers and even taking tests for athletes? The fact that an undefeated Division I football team has been denied the right to play for the national championship two of the last three years... or that a team whose only regular-season loss was to the #1 team in the country lost its BCS bid after beating a bowl team on the road in a rainstorm by “only” ten points (it would have been more except that 1) there was an outrageously bad referee's call and 2) they chose not to run up the score at the end of the game)? No, apparently the big crisis is Native American mascots.
The details have changed, but the NCAA’s absurd priorities haven’t.

I listened via computer today to the radio broadcast of today Kansas-North Dakota basketball game. It was, according to the KU announcers, at least, the last game UND will be allowed to play as the “Fighting Sioux,” because the NCAA still has nothing better to do with their time and resources than to impose Political Correctness on colleges and universities.

Certainly the disaster that is the BCS isn’t a problem. Nor is the considerable evidence that last year’s Heisman Trophy winner was bought and paid for by the eventual national champion. Nor are the proposals to expand the basketball tournament to a ridiculous number of teams, requiring players to spend yet more time out of the classroom for the sole purpose of lining the coffers of the NCAA, the networks, and the athletic departments. Nor is the confusion about eligibility, nor the underhanded attempts to circumvent the rules. Only the specifics of the real issues have changed, in other words, but at least this year’s BCS fiasco is different than the one I wrote about in that earlier post. The NCAA’s go-to choice for avoiding real issues, however, remains absolutely unaltered.

What makes this even more preposterous than the quotidian stupidity of the NCAA and apparently everyone with any position of authority in it is that virtually no one with a legitimate stake in the matter wants the change. The university and its fans like the symbol. Moreover, the Sioux mascot is, unlike, say, the grinning buffoon that is the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo (or the Notre Dame Fighting Irish’s pugnacious leprechaun, for that matter), a simple and respectful emblem.

According to Time’s Sean Gregory,
Spirit Lake, the Sioux reservation closest to the University of North Dakota's campus in Grand Forks, overwhelmingly backs the name. The tribe argues, and evidence seems to support the case, that Spirit Lake and another local Sioux reservation, Standing Rock, actually gave UND its blessing to use the nickname in a religious ceremony over 40 years ago.
In other words, the people who are supposedly insulted by the mascot… aren’t. In fact, they’re suing the NCAA for violation of religious rights.

Here’s Gregory again:
Fighting Sioux supporters argue that the NCAA is violating their religious rights. The Grand Forks Herald reported on July 21, 1969, that “a band of Standing Rock Sioux formally gave UND teams the right to use the name of ‘Fighting Sioux’ for their athletic teams.” [Spirit Lake member Frank] Black Cloud insists that Spirit Lake members also took part in this ritual blessing. (UND recognizes that a ceremony took place but says the intent of it remains unclear.) So why should a current tribal council, the NCAA or anyone else reverse the wishes of the elders who are so respected in Native American culture? “If we let an outside entity dictate to us how we should feel about our sacred ceremonies,” says Black Cloud, “what does that say about us?”
True, when the university sued the NCAA over the latter’s interventionist nannyism, the settlement gave UND three years to secure the blessing of the two Sioux tribes closest to the Grand Forks campus: Spirit Lake and Standing Rock. Of course, the latter had already done so in 1969, and even if Black Cloud is wrong about Spirit Lake joining in, a full tribal vote overwhelmingly supported maintaining the Fight Sioux symbol for the university. “‘UND has allowed us to participate and have input on some of the Indian programs they have developed,’ says John Chaske, a Spirit Lake member. ‘The school deserves to use our name. We should take pride in that. There's nothing wrong with that.’”

Ah, but despite that religious ceremony four decades ago, the Standing Rock tribal council voted against the name, and apparently refuse to put the issue to a full tribal vote, where the results might be different: “‘Aw, man, it's not right for people not to have a say,’ says Archie D. Fool Bear, a member of Standing Rock. Fool Bear says he has petition signatures from 1,000 Standing Rock residents opposing the nickname change, and he is confident his side would prevail in a full vote.”

Of course, other people who have no particular interest have weighed in. The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, for example, has voiced its objection. If I remember my history correctly, this is rather like the British Prime Minister condemning a depiction of Frenchmen that the folks in Paris, Calais, and Marseilles think is fine. Black Cloud’s response: “We, as tribal members and Sioux, we don't tell other tribes what to do. We would expect that same respect from them as well.” Good luck with that.

I’d quote myself again:
I come at this issue from three perspectives which some people don't have. I have some Native American heritage: I'm two generations removed from having enough Algonquin to qualify for tribal membership; I've always been at least as proud of that part of my bloodline as I am of any of the rest of the hodge-podge of English, Irish, Welsh, Dutch, Scots, and whatever else which comprises my ancestry. As an undergrad I attended a college which, because it started as a school for the Native American population of western New Hampshire, was for many years represented by an Indian symbol, although its official use stopped a year or two before I matriculated.

I am a former resident of Lawrence, Kansas, where there are two universities with sports teams: the University of Kansas Jayhawks and the Haskell Indian Nations University Indians. That's right, at a school that might reasonably be expected to be as sensitive as any to portrayals of Native American populations, they're not the Haskell Indigenous Peoples Thunderstorms or the Haskell Native American Rottweilers: the word “Indian” appears in the school name, and it is the symbol of the university.
But, of course, the NCAA adopts a profoundly racist attitude in its attempt to be inclusive (or whatever the pet phrase is these days). Essentially it is this: actual members of the Sioux nation aren’t intelligent or worldly enough to know they’re being insulted. That linkage—unlike, say, the Fighting Scots of Monmouth College—is “hostile” and “abusive” because a bunch of people who have never come closer to Sioux culture than buying a cassette tape of Siouxsie and the Banshees (anybody but me remember them?) say so.

One more snippet from days gone by:
Of course, only Native American imagery is affected. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a representation which really does perpetuate a negative stereo, is unaffected. So is the oxymoronic Fighting Quaker of the University of Pennsylvania. “Warriors” are OK if they're not Native Americans: apparently Anglo-Saxon Warriors are fine. So are Spartans, Trojans, Vikings, Aztecs, and other no-doubt caricatured representations of real civilizations.

But give the NCAA time. They’ll start coming after parodies of professions next: the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Purdue Boilermakers, Santa Barbara Gauchos, and Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Sooners of Oklahoma will be forced to adopt a less euphemistic mascot and become the Land Thieves. Anyway who lost a loved one to the UDF will be offended by the Syracuse Orangemen. Then, perhaps, the NCAA will start arguing that real people's lives have been disrupted by natural phenomena, so the Miami Hurricanes, Tulane Green Wave, and Iowa State Cyclones will have to go. And just wait ‘til the feminists really start thinking about the implications of the Kennesaw State Hooters or the Oregon State Beavers.
Yeah, what that guy said.

Happy New Year, everyone. And if you haven’t done so already, please vote for the Curmie. Details here.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Junk and the Junk


A recent decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals simultaneously engenders legitimate debate about the 4th amendment and releases my inner 12-year-old. “The Case of the Rock on the Rod”… “The Stash on the Staff”… “What’s That Sack by Your Sac?”… There, I’m done. For now.

In January 2009, Joseph Edwards was arrested by Baltimore police on a complaint by his ex-girlfriend, who claims he had threatened her with a gun. Quite reasonably, the police patted him down to make sure he wasn’t carrying a weapon at the time of his arrest. He wasn’t.

But, after Edwards had been handcuffed and before he was transported to the police station, officers decided to check one more time. This time, the officers surrounded him and pulled the top of his sweatpants and underwear away from his body, shining a flashlight at his privates. When what to their wondering eyes should appear… not a gun, of course, but a baggie containing 43 smaller plastic bags, which in turn contained just short of three grams of crack cocaine.

But, as you have no doubt already determined from the puerile display in my introductory paragraph, the baggie was tied around Edwards’s penis. Detective Dennis Bailey “put on gloves, took a knife that he had in his possession, and cut the sandwich baggie off Edwards’ penis with the knife.” Edwards was not hurt in the incident. That’s pretty much the entirety of the relevant information: there is much strutting about with respect to whether this constituted a strip search and similar triviata. But the essential facts are noted above.

“So, what’s the problem?,” you might well ask. Well, after a conditional guilty plea to possession with intent to distribute cocaine base, Edwards appealed, arguing that the search was unreasonable. And the 4th Circuit not only agreed, but vacated the conviction.

Ah, you think, that’s because there was no legitimate reason to search inside Mr. Edwards’s underwear: the pat-down, coupled with the fact that Mr. Edwards’s hands were handcuffed behind his back, were surely enough to ensure the officers’ safety. There was no indication that Edwards was in possession of crack, therefore no probable cause for the search. Nope, not it.

Oh, so it was the public nature of what is called a “sexually invasive search.” There was no reason to subject Edwards to search of what’s inside his underwear in public: take him back to the station and do it there. Nope, not it.

What, then? The conviction was vacated because Bailey used a knife to secure the evidence. The finding is based primarily if not solely on the argument that “the drugs were removed from Edwards’ person in an unnecessarily dangerous, and thus unreasonable, manner.” There’s more:
Moreover, assuming, without deciding, that the government’s rationale supports the reasonableness of the decision to search inside Edwards’ underwear, this rationale does not justify the dangerous manner in which the contraband was retrieved from his genital area once the contraband was discovered. In fact, the government provides no reason whatsoever why the concealed contraband, once the police had determined that it clearly was not a handgun, could not have been removed under circumstances less dangerous to Edwards.
Buh?

OK, Gentle Reader, here’s where I remind you that I’m neither a lawyer not a Constitutional scholar, merely a more-interested-than-the-average-person layman. I can’t tell you if, or how, U.S. v. Robinson or Bell v. Wolfish pertain, legally. I’m confused by why the government can’t claim inevitable discovery on the appeal because they didn’t make that point earlier, but Edwards can actually win the case with an argument he doesn’t seem to have made at all. (His argument was that the search was illegal, not that it was inappropriately conducted.)

I am, in other words, just a grumpy old guy arguing on the basis of what makes sense. And what makes sense might conceivably result in what actually happened in this case, but not for the reasons articulated by Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, who wrote the majority opinion.

The Court never made a ruling on the justification for the search per se, which seems to me to be the strongest case Edwards had. The only reasonable criterion to justify a search, even of a known drug dealer (in the absence of specific evidence that he carrying right now) is officer safety. That’s a pretty shaky argument, frankly. The suspect was handcuffed and had been patted down, we presume thoroughly (and, if not, whose fault was that?). This is Joseph Edwards we’re talking about, not Harry Houdini. But apparently there’s legal precedent, so maybe…

There is no doubt that the police could have handled this situation better. Having found something… erm… interesting that clearly wasn’t a weapon, they could easily have transported Edwards to the station and removed the baggie there: this would provide for greater privacy, better light (apparently Bailey didn’t even use a flashlight for better vision during the baggie-echtomy), and probably a safer environment all around. There’s a significant difference, however, between saying that a different course of action would have been preferable and saying the one actually enacted was unconstitutional. And I confess myself unmoved by the suggestion that the use of the knife (as opposed to being arrested in a public venue) “could only cause fear and humiliation.”

After all, who was responsible for the situation? The cops? No, it was Mr. Edwards who decided to attach his stuff to his stuff. I can think of only two motivations. One would be that he knew he might be stopped by the police and suspected (with reason) that cops aren’t exactly thrilled about conducting the kind of search that ultimately uncovered his drugs. The other is a sort of burlesque routine we can see the likes of Benny Hill enacting: “Hmm… I’ve got to carry this baggie full of illicit drugs around and I don’t have any pockets. [loosens drawstring of sweatpants, looks within] Ooooh… what’s that thing? [smirking take to audience] Let’s tie it to that!”

Either way, there’s inevitably a tradeoff between safety and propriety, as dissenting Judge Alberto Diaz notes. He writes that the options proposed by the majority,
… untying, removing, or tearing the baggie—would require that officers physically touch Edwards’ penis. In my view, however, a rule that directs officers to place their hands on a defendant’s genitals as a first option for seizing contraband in a baggie that the defendant has chosen to strap to his penis seems no more attractive than the careful use of a knife.
Let’s face it, I’m guessing the founding fathers didn’t envision a constitutional crisis about the correct means by which to remove baggies of drugs from penii. Is it relevant, by the way, that the two female judges suggested means which, though arguably safer, would involve more physical contact with Mr. Edwards’s genitalia, and the male judge didn’t like those suggestions?

It’s also worth mentioning, as Diaz does, that “The district court, moreover, made no mention of the knife in its ruling. This omission was not an oversight, but rather reflected the fact that the knife was not the focus of the parties’ evidentiary presentations.”

More to the point, if we grant the legitimacy of the search itself, irrespective of the means by which it was conducted, the drugs had already been discovered, legally, by the time the allegedly inappropriate removal. It therefore makes no sense to suppress the evidence. Mr. Edwards might have grounds for a complaint or even a civil suit, but that’s another matter altogether.

Quoting Judge Diaz’s dissent, again:
had the officers not used what the majority perceives to be an unreasonable method to remove the drug baggie, they nevertheless would have discovered the contraband and (at some point) seized it in some other manner. Put simply, the plainly visible contraband was already discovered before the officers determined to use a knife to remove it. Thus, I question whether the record supports the causal connection that Hudson [v. Michigan] requires before resorting “to the massive remedy of suppressing evidence of guilt.”
The bottom line is that I’m willing to grant suppression of the evidence because the search itself was illegal. But if we’re going to grant the legitimacy of the search, then we need to keep the evidence. The majority decision may be legally sound. If so, it’s a bad law.

But we did get an opportunity to snicker at stupid dick jokes because of this case. At least that’s something.

[Two side notes, completely off topic.]

1). Despite not writing here until February, and taking over a month off in October and November, I’ve managed to crank out 100 blog pieces in 2011. That’s small potatoes for many people, of course, but for me it’s something of an accomplishment. I thank you, Gentle Reader, for your support, your commentary and for your “likes” on the Facebook page. I don’t know if I’ll write anything else before Sunday. If not (or even if so, obviously), Happy New Year, one and all.

2). A reminder to vote, if you haven’t already done so, for the 1st Annual (Maybe) Curmie Award, presented to whoever most embarrasses the profession of education. You must vote on the electronic ballot in the upper-right corner of this page; comments with indications of preferences will not be counted. Descriptions of the nominees are found here.]

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Announcing the Nominees for the 2011 Curmie Award!

As 2011 winds down, virtually everyone is compiling end-of-year lists, polls, and the like. Ever the pack-follower, Curmie can’t resist getting in on the act. Inspired by the Censorious Asshat of the Year voting over at Popehat, I have decided to award the 1st Annual (Maybe) Curmie Award.

Here are the rules. Unlike the folks at PolitiFact, I agree to present the coveted honor to whomever my readership selects. Of course, I choose the nominees, so I do have more say in the process than any other individual does. And I also get to decide the category. Being a professor, I have a natural interest in all things related to education.

So: The Curmie is awarded to the person or institution who most embarrasses the profession of education.

There are two further stipulations. First, the nominees will all be people I’ve written about in the past year and the events in question must also have occurred in 2011 (this leaves out, therefore, the Silsbee High brain trust who saw fit to throw a cheerleader off the squad for refusing to cheer her rapist by name, as the actual events happened prior to this year; the lawsuit made news this year, but the case is a couple years old). I also acknowledge that some folks will have slipped through the cracks while I was in rehearsal or whatnot.

Second, the transgressions in question must be directly related to the profession, to someone acting in an official capacity: junior high teachers who sleep with their students are abhorrent, but there’s nothing about that act that links directly to education. That there are unethical teachers is not news, and the same person might initiate a similar relationship with a child s/he knows through church, Little League, or the neighborhood.

I have narrowed the field to the eight candidates I consider most outstanding. There are no write-ins. If you wish to comment, please do so here rather than at the Facebook page. You may vote for as many nominees as you choose, although I ask that you not vote for the same candidate more than once. (I suspect the poll app at Blogger isn’t able to shut down multiple submissions from the same person. Please don’t try to find out.) The poll will be up for a week, with a winner to be announced in early January. So: there are the rules. Don’t like ‘em? Fine. Write your own damned blog.

I compiled a list of well over a dozen perfectly reasonable nominees. It was quite difficult narrowing the field, and I do apologize if your (no doubt worthy) favorite got left out. But after some thought, I present the nominees for the 2011 Curmie, in the order I wrote about them:

Dean Linda Ammons and Widener Law School, for threatening the job of law professor Lawrence Connell because he had constructed an obviously hypothetical story about killing the dean, accusing him of racism and sexism because the dean happens to be black and female.

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld and the rest of the Trustees of New York University, for overstepping the largely ceremonial function of Trustees in such matters and overturning the selection of Tony Kushner for an honorary degree on the grounds that the Pultizer Prize-winning playwright was insufficiently supportive of Israel.

David W. Rasmussen of Florida State University, for allowing Charles Koch’s foundation to have veto power over faculty hires in exchange for a grant, then claiming there are no repercussions to his program’s academic integrity as a result.

Dwight Probasco, Principal of Wasilla (AK) High School, for caving to pressure “from at least one parent” and (initially) suppressing the Symphonic Jazz Choir’s rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” because it was written by a gay man. He… erm… changed his tune when the ACLU got involved.

The administration of the University of Missouri for censuring two faculty members and pressuring one into writing a letter of resignation based solely on an obviously edited video compiled by serial prevaricator Andrew Breitbart: a tape which was (of course) subsequently proven to have been maliciously edited to show something quite the opposite of what actually happened. (By the way, even if the tape were accurate, the administration should have backed the faculty.)

Thomas Fleming, Superintendent of Schools in the Richland School District in Pennsylvania, for shutting down an upcoming high school production of Kismet (of all things!) because the characters are Muslims.

Police Chief Lisa A. Walter, Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen, and the rest of the gang at the University of Wisconsin-Stout for threatening to arrest (!) theatre professor James Miller for having an utterly inoffensive poster on his door, then lying about whether they’d censored him or not.

The unnamed teacher at Mercer County (KY) Intermediate School who thought that cramming an autistic 9-year-old into a bag intended for gym balls was an appropriate form of punishment.

So there you have it, Gentle Reader. Make your voice heard! The poll box is in the upper right-hand corner of this page. Polls close at 2:10 pm CST on January 5.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

“Firefly” and “Fosh”: Around Every Silver Lining, There's a Dark Cloud

You may recall that I wrote in September about theatre prof James Miller at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, who was threatened with a charge of disorderly conduct by university police chief Lisa Walter because he had a “Firefly” poster on his office door. No one with the intellect of a rather dim-witted chipmunk would think that the poster was a threat to anyone (in fact, it is precisely the opposite of a threat), but Chief Walter apparently doesn’t clear that heady threshold. What’s worse, even as the situation escalated, the administration—Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen and his stooges provost, vice-chancellor, and general counsel—backed the stupid and hubristic Walter over the stubborn but justified Miller.

Eventually, of course, they backed down to a tumult of public pressure and, frankly, well-deserved humiliation. Of course, there was no real apology, and the Idiot Sorensen continued to babble nonsensically about how the censorship he had tried to impose wasn’t really censorship, but rather sensitivity. Here was my response to that argument:
True, technically this was not an act of censorship. That would imply that the state qua state was prohibiting free expression. No, you gaggle of dimwits are acting not as the state but as employer, thereby possibly rendering your inanity legal, although still ethically unsupportable and professionally incompetent. And puh-leeze, spare me your sanctimony, your sensitivity, and your caring. Give me instead, please, an institution that values reason, personal liberties, and the free exchange of ideas… because this ain’t it, and an out-of-the-closet intellectual such as myself does not feel the slightest bit “welcome, safe, [or] secure” in this “shared community.” Indeed, you three, the chief of police, and the general counsel all terrify me.
I was rightly challenged by reader James, who pointed out that the threats to Prof. Miller were legal (criminal charges) rather than job-related (loss of job, pay cut, new assignment, etc.). So it really was censorship.

The snarkier of my readers might appreciate a new tidbit of information I only recently discovered. The whole force of the Walter/Sorensen argument relies on the notion that “it is unacceptable to have postings that refer to killing,” which, they assert, inherently involve a threat. Except that, as Ed Morrissey at Hot Air points out, “during the debate over the Scott Walker bill that limited collective bargaining for most public employee unions to wages only, this poster was seen on campus without any attempt to consider it a specific threat.”

Oops.

Anyway, two separate posts I encountered in the last couple of days have reminded me of the case. The first was Popehat’s Censorious Asshat of the Year contest, for which Chancellor Sorensen is a nominee:
...for defending the censorship of obviously satirical and non-threatening posters on a college campus and disrespecting Firefly. In Aggravation: even when he caved, could not resist justifying his clearly unlawful actions. In Mitigation: did eventually, belatedly, do the right thing. Also, Chancellor job market is awful right now, so unable to get other work.
The second prompt was a Facebook post by a friend of a video about the case created by FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). In the video, FIRE president Greg Lukianoff says that the case had a special appeal to him because he is “a huge fan of “Firefly.” In the intro, popular author Neil Gaiman warns (tongue in cheek, but not altogether inaccurately) that among “the people you do not want to upset,” that “out on the edges, beyond any of those [revolutionaries] are science fiction and fantasy fans whose favorite show has been cancelled in an untimely way.” Indeed, Lukianoff adds that after Chancellor Sorensen’s defense of the indefensible policy, “I knew that they were utterly underestimating the power of the friends of ‘Firefly’.” Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin got on board, but “when Neil Gaiman tweeted about this case to his 1.6 million Twitter followers, it was a game-changer.” It turns out that Gaiman actually knows Prof. Miller, but his tweet preceded that realization.

Gaiman makes the salient point: “what’s disappointing is that the university administration backed their police officer rather than quietly taking her aside and pointing out that she had done something that was stupid, wrong, and that would embarrass all of them.”

Finally, the university backed down, but without giving any assurance that a similar case won’t arise next year… or next week. Sorensen is either too stupid to realize the enormity of his blunder or too arrogant to admit it. Neither is a good sign for the future of UW-S.

Unfortunately, the most significant point is made by Lukianoff at the end of the video:
Something that really strikes me about this case is that one of the reasons we why won it is because the case has a built-in constituency of fans of the show “Firefly.” But what’s heartbreaking about this is that we deal with hundreds and hundreds of cases like this that don’t have a constituency. And you’d think and you’d hope that there was a constituency out there just for free speech.
This is sobering because it is true: petty morons like Walter and Sorensen can endure a little criticism; they just can’t stand up to the onslaught of celebrity. A few letters of protest: no problem. Nationwide humiliation in front of literally millions of people: that’s different.

I was thinking about this phenomenon in relation to a hot story in my own hometown (links here, here, and here). Farshid Nourimand has been soccer coach at Nacogdoches (TX) High School for three decades. He built the program from scratch, and it has been a consistent winner when bigger-name sports, to be polite, have been less successful. His former players include Clint Dempsey, now of Fulham in the English Premier League, quite possibly the best American-born soccer player now active, arguably the best ever. More importantly, Nourimand is, according to literally everyone I’ve talked to, the quintessence of “tough but fair.” He is loved in this community with a depth of sincerity and real admiration that coaches who merely win will never achieve.

One of his rules was that if you are arrested or caught with alcohol or drugs, you’re off the team for a year. Along comes a new superintendent, Fred Hayes, who thinks that’s too unforgiving a policy, and there’s a crisis… especially when three kids show up drunk at the Homecoming dance, at least one of whom had been at a party at the home of School Board President Matt Rocco. But there was no alcohol there. Nope. I believe him. My eyebrows are like that naturally.

Importantly, Nourimand’s policy had to do with athletes and athletics. He wasn’t proposing throwing kids out of school, merely saying you can’t be on my team if you don’t obey the rules. Needless to say, Board President Rocco radically misinterpreted that stance (intentionally, because he knew he’d been busted and was desperate? or unintentionally, because he has the IQ of a corn dog?): “Throwing them in DAP [NISD correctional facility] where they do nothing is not placing kids in a chance where they can win. The new policy allows students to return to school after a suspension, be monitored for drug use and undergo a rehabilitation program.”

This is, of course, classic misdirection. No one is saying the students can’t return to school after a short suspension. They just can’t play for “Coach Fosh.”
We have a similar policy in the theatre program in which I work. True, most programs require only that students merely not be on probation to be eligible for productions work. But our standards are unquestionably, unabashedly, higher. We understand that stuff happens, so there’s an appeal process, but the bottom line is that if you don’t have a really good reason why you aren’t making progress towards your degree, you’re going to sit out a semester to get your priorities straight.

Do I agree that athletes should have to sit out a full year for an arrest or a drug/alcohol related offense? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is whether it’s reasonable, and it is. If Coach Nourimand wants to hold his troops to a higher standard, so be it, as long as the rules are applied equally across the board.

Now, the lightened sanctions imposed against these (white, well-connected) students may or may not be a case of favoritism, because a new policy may or may not have already been railroaded into place over “Coach Fosh’s” objections. Anyway, there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by the superintendent Hayes’s decision to re-assign Nourimand from his position as Director of Athletics. Here’s Hayes’s rationale: “The challenges I had with him had to deal with the management of people, specifically coaches that work with him and then the issue of response of consequences.” Gentle Reader, if you understand that nightmare of edu-speak, I pity you. Seriously, this is a university town. One would think that after several tries just in the eleven years I’ve lived here, we could find a superintendent who isn’t too stupid to pour piss out of a boot.

The coach didn’t feel he could continue under the proposed circumstances, so he announced he’d be leaving, although he hadn’t yet decided whether to resign or to retire. On to more posturing on all sides (except by Coach Nourimand, whose gentle grace stands in glaring contradistinction to the whirlwind around him). A petition garnered over 1900 signatures; a Facebook group, over 2700 likes: this in a city of 30,000. A logo (seen here) was plastered all over town.

Ultimately, Hayes backed down, even making public a letter of apology. So it all came down to a school board meeting. The meeting was moved to the high school auditorium to accommodate the expected crowd, but even that facility proved too small for the throng of Fosh fans. Two things happened: Farshid Nourimand stayed, his announcement meeting with a standing ovation from literally hundreds of people. And Matt Rocco, who had expressed a desire to have two board members communicate with him only through his attorney, was given the boot. And there was much rejoicing.

This wasn’t Penn State fans upset at the firing of Joe Paterno, despite both declining ability and clear evidence of ethical failings resulting in the ongoing abuse of perhaps dozens of boys. No, this was a community standing up for ethics, for a coach whose won-loss record is impressive, but whose positive influence in the lives of the young men he coaches is paramount.

But we’re back at the fame thing. Just as Mr. Lukianoff, though happy for the victory, frets that the next case won’t have a “constituency” of “Firefly” fans or a famous author publicly supporting one’s cause, we can fear that the next victim of a superintendent and a school board president run amok won’t have thousands of supporters, won’t have dozens of on-field victories, won’t get a public, trans-Atlantic, call of support from one of the world’s best-known athletes.

What if the next coach to run afoul of the power-hungry and boorish (why must those two characteristics so often go together?) is new and unknown to the community? What if Coach Fosh had been just as good a role model but only a good, as opposed to great, coach? What if Clint Dempsey had lived a few miles thataway, and had played his high school ball for someone else? What if the best player Fosh had ever produced got a scholarship to play Division I soccer, and used that educational advantage to become a librarian or a social worker or an optometrist? What if it isn’t a coach, but a choir director or a history teacher?

The lessons that monomaniacs like Walter, Sorensen, Hayes and Rocco will take away from this isn’t that thinking before acting is a good thing. Alas, it’s political, not ethical: that one has to pick one’s fights. Don’t go after someone who’ll call FIRE or who can get a couple million people agitated; don’t mess with a local legend. Other than that, though…

And that makes all of us a little poorer.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Do you really need special training to know not to cram an autistic 9-year-old into a duffel bag?

Every once in a while, I come across a story so mind-meltingly unbelievable I think I’m reading something from the Onion. This is one such case. I sincerely hope that this is a false allegation (which would be troubling enough in its own right) and not what it appears to be.

Anyway… there’s a story coming out of Mercer County, Kentucky about a 9-year-old boy—an autistic child—named Chris Baker who appears to have been punished for some transgression at school by being crammed into a bag intended for gym balls. Yes, really.

This much of the story seems not to be in doubt: The boy is enrolled in a program for children with special needs at Mercer County Intermediate School. He was apparently misbehaving at school to the extent that two things happened: 1). he was restrained in the bag and 2). his mother, Sandra, was called to the school.

Here’s her description of what happened next, pieced together from a number of news reports (the one linked above, plus here, here, and here):

“When I walked in, I went down his hallway, and I saw this big green bag laying in the floor beside the aide that was sitting beside the bag. And I saw it moving.” As she approached, a familiar voice from within the bag asked “Momma, is that you?”

The bag had “a drawstring at the top and it had a hole about this big around left in the top of it,” (she made a motion with her hands.) “There was no way he could get out of it, could not get his head through if he needed to.” Ms. Baker expressed concern about what would have happened in the case of an emergency: if, for example, there were a fire: “The comment I got on that was, well, we would have drug the bag out of the school. Okay. It's okay. Just drag my son down some steps and break his bones.”

A teacher’s aide was present when Ms. Baker arrived. “I told her, I said you need to get him out of the bag and you need to get him out of the bag now.” At first, the aide struggled with the drawstring, but Chris was eventually pulled out of the bag, which also had some small balls in it. “When I got him out of the bag, his poor little eyes were as big as half dollars and he was sweating. I tried to talk to him and get his side of the reason they put him in there, and he said it was because he wouldn't do his work.” Ms. Baker says that the school subsequently alleged that Chris had smirked at the teacher when she asked him to put down a basketball and threw it across the room; he was “jumping off the walls.” This was apparently not the first time he had been punished by being put in the bag as punishment.

Afterwards, Chris “was to himself, went to his room, was in there all night, didn't communicate with anybody,” and has been especially taciturn since then: “It's to the point that I don't even know he's here. That's how quiet he is.”

I yield here to Landon Bryce, a San Jose-based teacher and tutor to students with Aspergers and autism, who describes young Baker’s treatment as “careless and disrespectful.” His website, thAutcast, is subtitled “A Blogazine for the Aspergers and Autism Community.” He cites reporting from April Ellis of the Harrodsburg Herald (sorry, I can’t link it directly):
The next day, Baker said she met with MCIS principal Dana Cobb and District Special Education Director Emma Jean Tamme to discuss the incident and told them her son was not to be put back in the bag. “No matter what my son did, he did not deserve to be put in a bag and set out in the hallway like trash, and I feel like that's what they did,” Baker said.

She added she knew the bag and balls were being used as part of her son's sensory therapy, but said she did not know he was being placed inside the bag. “I think they should have made themselves more clear, and I do not approve of it,” she said. “It disturbs me and makes me mad. I want other parents to know this is going on in the school system, because they may be like me and not fully understand what's going on.”
Superintendent Dennis Davis responded to Bryce’s signing of an online petition with an apparently pro forma e-mail (but a response of any kind is welcome). Mr. Davis may or may not be engaging in lawyerly disingenuousness: his hint that there is more to the case than meets the eye (“I am not empowered to correct misinformation and misconception”) does make a certain amount of sense.

On the other hand, the missive is rife with platitudes about “qualified professionals who treat students with respect and dignity while providing a safe and nurturing learning environment” and similar slop. More to the point, the confidentiality concerns cited by Mr. Davis are relevant only with respect to student behavior. The fact that there is no denial of the salient pieces of evidence is not legitimately attributable to confidentiality. The only reasonable interpretation of Davis’s remarks that doesn’t make him simply an accomplice is that the essential facts are true, but we may not be getting the full context.

Interestingly, none of the players here—not Ms. Baker, not Mr. Bryce, not petition-creator Lydia Brown—are out for blood. Here’s the first demand of the petition, for example:
That the teacher(s) responsible for confining and restraining Christopher Baker inside the Abilitations BagOBalls bag be dismissed from position for abusing a vulnerable person (a person with a disability) OR be required to successfully complete extensive continuing education professional training in interacting with and educating Autistic students and students with other disabilities, not to be fewer than at least the equivalent of a semester-long graduate level course developed using existing standards and best practices in model state systems, and which shall specifically include techniques for appropriate de-escalation and crisis intervention.
And here’s (most of) Mr. Bryce’s response to Davis’s e-mail:
Without discussing the specifics of this case, I think it is reasonable to ask you to do the following:

1) Assure us that equipment not intended to be used for restraining students will be not be used in that manner in your district in the future, regardless of whether or not it has been used in that way in the past.

2) Provide a copy of your district policy on the use of restraint with students who have disabilities.

3) Describe the training that your district has done with staff, or required staff to do elsewhere, regarding the appropriate use of restraint with students.

4) Describe any training that your district plans to do in the future on the appropriate use of restraint.

I understand that you cannot discuss the specifics of the allegations. However, you can provide us with information that will tell us about how seriously you have previously taken the issue of ensuring that students are only restrained appropriately. Certainly you can tell us that nothing like what is alleged to have occurred will happen again, and let us know about your plans for making sure of that.
And Ms. Baker is described as having “stopped short of calling for the dismissal of school employees, but she said they should be suspended. They also need more training, she said.”

I guess I’m sort of at a loss here. I couldn’t possibly handle being a special ed teacher. I have a couple of friends who do those jobs, and I marvel at their patience and fortitude. But what kind of special training does it require to figure out that acting like a junior high bully is not appropriate behavior for any teacher with any student, special needs or not? How is this not self-evident? There may well be something else that we don’t know to this story, but I can envision no justification for what is alleged to have happened. That means either the facts as we know them are wildly distorted and Ms. Baker is flat-out lying, or firing is too easy on the (unnamed, curiously) teacher. Assuming the facts are pretty much as we have them, in a just universe, she’d be dragged off campus crammed into a duffel bag, preferably going down as many stairs as possible.

Facebook Follies

As I write this, I am partially banned from Facebook. Sort of. I tried to access the site this afternoon, and got a message that I needed to log in again. Then, I couldn’t. I got a message that my computer is infected with malware. OK, so if it really is, I’ve got no problem with a little security. Buuuuuuut… (You knew this was coming, didn’t you, Gentle Reader?)

OK, there are two problems here. Problem #1: My computer is not infected with malware. Or so says my Norton Anti-Virus package, after a full-system scan totaling about 1.2 million individual items. What got turned up was a few dozen tracking cookies: another day online, in other words. Malware? Not a bit. Perhaps the problem is related in some way to my inability to post links to this blog on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, a problem I’ve been experiencing for a couple of days. Perhaps not. Anyway, given the choice between believing what Norton tells me (good or bad) and what Facebook tells me (good or bad) about whether I have a problem with my computer, guess how many times out a 100 I’m going to believe the latter. Hint: it’s an integer, and it’s less than 1.

Problem #2: After running the aforementioned scan, I tried to sign back into my Facebook account. Having dutifully checked the box swearing I had indeed checked and my computer was malware-free, I could then check into my account… with the proviso that I can’t post anything (status updates, comments, messages) for 24 hours. This means both as myself and as the admin of the Curmudgeon Central site (and of a couple of others about which most of you rightly couldn’t care less). Of course, I had to test this proposition… on line it says “for a few days.” So, we’ll see.

In any case, we’re back at two problems. Problem #1: if your super-whingy-dingy program doesn’t detect any malware now, then what is accomplished by keeping me from posting? (If it does show malware, then f*cking fix it!) Problem #2: if my computer has a problem, then shut off the IP address, not my account in general. Actually, it turns out that this is what really happened, an eventuality I discovered by taking the rather reasonable precaution of not believing anything Facebook tells me. Which brings us to Problem #2A: shouldn’t FB provide accurate information to its clientele?

All of this would pre-suppose, however, that Facebook actually cares about getting things right. They never did before, why should they now that Google+ has turned out to be so little competition? More to the point, getting it right would require a higher degree of technical sophistication than arrogance: a hierarchy of priorities with which they have little if any experience. Needless to say, Facebook provides no means of contacting whatever moron made the erroneous call or programmed the software or whatever. They’re invincible, you see. No one can survive without them, so they can do whatever they damned please. Just like MySpace. Or LiveJournal. Or VHS tapes.

So here’s the deal. Not being able to post from my laptop is not an enormous deal: I can use my phone or the desktop in the next room. And really, no one particularly cares whether I had a good Christmas, nor will they experience severe distress at missing out on some wry comment I might otherwise have made. My friends will even bear up under the strain of not seeing photographs of my cats being adorable. It’s a bigger pain in the ass that I still can’t seem to post links to this page on the CC FB page. Still haven’t figured out how or why that happened. But the annoyance, however mild, does serve to remind us all of how much Facebook has taken over many of our lives.

I get a good share of my news via Facebook posts: between my personal account and the CC page, I “like,” meaning in effect that I subscribe to newsfeeds from, literally dozens sites dealing with news and/or news analysis and commentary: The Guardian, a couple of Huffington Post pages, AlterNet, Media Matters for America, Talking Points Memo, Rachel Maddow, and a lot more. Plus, I also get news feeds from a host of other Facebook pages much like my own (although most have more subscribers than I do): Being Liberal, The Athena Tree, Proud to Be a Filthy Liberal Scum, Carlinist, Don’t Invite Anyone Who Thinks Ayn Rand Makes Sense to Your Next Party… you get the idea.

These sources provide me with not only the raw materials for most of my own blog-writing, but also with a sizeable percentage of the information that shapes my world view. Not all, of course: I still access the websites of MSNBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, etc., with some regularity. Hell, I even look at the Fox News site on occasion, though more often than not I end up in disbelief that anyone would regard them as more credible than the National Enquirer. But I’m lazy. When news comes to me, it’s easier. Presumably most readers of this blog also “like” the CC Facebook page, meaning you’re even further down the food chain than I am: if you read the stuff I link to, it’s because you haven’t already seen it elsewhere.

So what we need to do—or at least be prepared to do—is to go to Plan B in a not-so-hypothetical scenario in which Facebook screws up. This might be an appropriate time to suggest that if you are a regular reader of this blog, you might glance to the right side of your screen and fill in your e-mail address where it says to do so. You won’t get an immediate notification when new material goes up, but you’ll at least get an e-mail once a day if there’s a new piece.

More importantly, we need to begin to prioritize differently. That’s been true for a long time, of course. But we need to go to news sites proactively, to talk to our friends live and in person when possible, to be a little more self-reliant and a little more truly social rather than to fritter away time on a “social network.” You and I will both readily survive my reduced Facebook presence for a day or two. Take the few minutes you might have been reading my stuff to track down an article on your own, to pet your dog, to kiss your sig-o, to play with your kids.

Thanks, Facebook. I’m most appreciative of you when you’re not working properly. As luck would have it, that’s not infrequently.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Standardized Testing and the Myth of the Meritocracy

Curmie is a little behind on his reading, or at least at writing about his reading, so it’s only now we discuss an article that appeared some three weeks ago in the Washington Post (or at least on their website). The original post, by Marion Berry (no, not the crooked DC mayor, that was Marion Barry), provides a single anecdote which, he claims, provides “A concise summary of what’s wrong with present corporately driven education change: Decisions are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

Well, as I became notorious for saying to my Asian Theatre class a few years ago, yes and no.

Let’s start with Berry’s credentials. According to Valerie Strauss at WashPo, he’s a “veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author.” According to his own website, he began his teaching career in 1952. That would make him roughly 80 years old. The last time he was actually in a classroom? Can’t say, but I’m willing to bet it wasn’t in this millennium. So while Strauss may see Berry as an authority, I see—at first glance, at least—an old guy who wants to sell more books and collect more speaking fees.

I really don’t want to denigrate Mr. Berry’s credentials, especially since I think he has a lot that’s good to say. But, much as I agree with his general assessment of standardized testing, it’s important to realize that a lot of his argument here is sheer crap.

Berry’s friend, Rick Roach, oh-so-courageously (Gasp!!!) took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. The version Roach took was administered to sophomores. (Roach’s identity and the test in question are revealed here.) Miraculously, Roach lived to tell the tale. Of course, Berry reveals a lot about himself in his description of what makes Roach “successful”: “His now-grown kids are well-educated. He has a big house in a good part of town. Paid-for condo in the Caribbean. Influential friends. Lots of frequent flyer miles.” Ooooohh… I’m impressed.

Anyway, here’s Roach’s commentary:
I won’t beat around the bush. The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%. In our system, that’s a ‘D,’ and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities....

It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.
At first blush, this would seem a pretty damning indictment of the test.

Trouble is, some of those questions were revealed in a subsequent post: the reading test here and the math test here. OK, we can, perhaps, criticize these questions for relevance, but not for difficulty. We’re encouraged to see how we’d do. So I checked them out. Needless to say, I got them all right. That means I’m sufficiently well-educated to survive as an above-average high school sophomore. Somehow I don’t feel the urge to add that line to my CV. I do confess that I actually had to think about one of the math questions a little, but I ask you, Gentle Reader, to remember that I haven’t been in a math class at any level in almost 37 years.

Here’s the point: if those reading questions are in fact indicative of the difficulty of the test, then Mr. Roach’s score is indeed appalling. His claim not to have known any of the math questions reveals one of two things: he is—multiple Masters degrees, well-educated children, and Caribbean condo notwithstanding—a blithering idiot, or he’s a mendacious dirtbag, willing to say anything to advance an agenda. Either way, the fact that the likes of Mr. Roach occupy any sort of leadership role in the education establishment certainly dispels any myth of a meritocracy in these matters.

Roach’s comments also include this:
If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t “college material,” would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.
From what I’ve seen of Mr. Roach, I kinda wish that had happened.

I’m also impressed (not!) by this quotation from a piece by Michael Winerip in the New York Times, cited with approbation by Mr. Berry: “As of last night, 658 principals around the state [New York] had signed a letter—488 of them from Long Island, where the insurrection began—protesting the use of students’ test scores to evaluate teachers’ and principals’ performance.” I am, in fact, disturbed by using standardized testing as the sole criterion to measure, well, anything or anyone: teachers, principals, schools, and students alike. But I’m more distressed by the fact that someone writing in the NYT would employ such an egregiously misplaced modifier, and that such a preposterous grammatical error would be quoted without comment by someone who purports to have solutions to all that ails American education. Irony abounds, to say the least.

Berry and Roach are absolutely correct in two areas. First, the tests are indeed designed by educationists (often Education majors who couldn't get an actual teaching job) who are granted virtual free reign, accountable to no one. Secondly, performance on a standardized test should never completely override a student’s achievements (or lack of them) for the academic year as a whole. I’ve been thinking about both these issues for a while—here’s a blog post I wrote six and a half years ago on the subject; my views haven’t changed in the interim.

Moreover, to say that cheating on these exams is endemic is rather like saying Tim Tebow is annoying. A couple of reports on recent cases are here and here.

But this doesn’t mean that standardized tests ought to disappear. At their best, they do distinguish between students from different schools, different backgrounds, different priorities. As I said recently, “there is [a] wide disparity between schools and their populations—being at the top of a weak class might be better or worse than being in the middle of a strong one. It’s useful to have some means of comparing such students.” Yes, it would be nice if the questions were devised by actual educators, if the scorers for these exams had real credentials, if there were legitimate oversight. But it’s not the test’s problem if Mr. Roach can’t handle algebra problems I was doing in 7th grade.

For all this, thanks are due to Mssrs. Roach and Berry for calling attention to some of the inadequacies in the system. Even though I strongly suspect that both of these guys are charlatans.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ebenezer Scrooge and the Battle Against Ignorance and Want

The first character with an actual name I ever played was Ebenezer Scrooge. I was in the 5th grade, and I got the role (without anything that resembled auditions) probably because my teacher, Mrs. Hamilton, figured I could learn the lines. She was right about that part, at least. I won’t say that Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been an annual ritual for the subsequent 46 years, but if you add up all the times I’ve read it, seen it staged, or watched any of six or eight different film versions, the total has to be a couple dozen or more. (And that doesn’t count the brilliant Blackadder version, which has indeed become a Yuletide tradition at Chez Curmie.)

Last night, my wife and I watched, for the first time I can recall, the Guthrie Theatre version from 1982, directed by Paul Miller. There were a lot of things I didn’t like: I thought the framing device of Dickens trying to finish writing the story while being interrupted by Christmas celebrants was too cute by half; found it a little creepy that the same actress (Keliher Walsh) played Scrooge’s lost love, Belle, and also his nephew Fred’s wife; got more than a little bored at the overly-extended Fezziwig scene.

Still, it is an effective adaptation, with a strong performance from Richard Hilger in the leading role. What works particularly well in this version is Dickens’s undercurrent of social commentary: it is not exactly a revelation that he was a keen observer of his culture, and that from Bleak House to Oliver Twist to Great Expectations, he showed a profound understanding of the effects of poverty.

Virtually any version of A Christmas Carol will play up the notion that Scrooge, prompted by visitations from the ghost of his partner Jacob Marley and of the three apparitions representing Christmases past, present and future, comes to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas. But this version is simultaneously more and less “Christian” than the norm. References to Jesus per se, for example Tiny Tim’s famous declaration (quoted by his father) that he hoped people had seen him in church that day because it “might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see,” are relatively speaking downplayed. But the implicit message that Christian behavior is antithetical to the Scrooge of the prologue could not be clearer. It struck me that there’s a universality to this Scrooge that is often lacking. Maybe it’s just my mood, or that I’m particularly attuned to discussions of poverty and its manifestations in the wake of the recent squabble over the extension of the payroll tax cut, the manifold demonstrations of income inequality, the #Occupy movement, and so on.

But it sure seemed to me that we find Hilger’s Scrooge rather charmingly curmudgeonly early on. He is an eccentric, but a person, not a gross caricature of a miserly 1%-er. We have sympathy if not empathy for him when he is terrified by Marley’s warnings.

There is a melancholy feel to the visit of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and a cautionary tone to Christmas Yet to Come’s revelations. But what happens with Christmas Present, in the scenes at Bob Cratchit’s and at Fred’s, but perhaps even more so subsequent to those moments, with Scrooge alone with the Spirit, defines this production.

At the Cratchits’ house, the goose, says the Narrator (Charles Dickens himself, played by Marshall Borden), “Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family… everyone had had enough.” The notion of “enough” is twice admired in this version; although such discussion isn’t in the book, per se, the original story does indeed make the same point in a different way.

One other change is the shortening of Mrs. Cratchit’s denunciation of Scrooge. In the book, she calls him an “odious, stingy, hard, unfeeling man”; Dickens tells us “Scrooge was the Ogre of the family. The mention of his name cast a dark shadow on the party, which was not dispelled for full five minutes.” Here, she makes her point, is mildly admonished for being uncharitable at Christmas, and she and everyone else move on. Similarly, there is teasing of Scrooge (in absentia) at Fred’s party, but Scrooge is an object of pity more than contempt. Fred says, “I am sorry for him; I couldn't be angry with him if I tried. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always.” Later, he adds, “He may rail at Christmas till he dies, but he can't help thinking better of it—I defy him—if he finds me going there, in good temper, year after year, and saying Uncle Scrooge, how are you? If it only puts him in the vein to leave his poor clerk fifty pounds, that's something; and I think I shook him yesterday.” Against all odds, apparently, Fred turns out to be correct.

Most dramatized versions of this story, whether play or movie, show the arc of Scrooge’s character in a more or less linear progression from “humbug”-ing misanthrope to munificent benefactor. Not here. The visit of Christmas Future is nothing more than a coda; the heavy lifting has already been done by his brethren. There is little doubt that the climactic moment here is in a scene which is actually dropped in many adaptations. Here’s the text of the original—this production shortens it but also calls attention to it:
“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man's,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.
From here on, it’s all coda. Scrooge’s transformation is complete; the scene with Christmas Yet to Come merely confirms it.

Like any great artwork, and A Christmas Carol is no less, this novella/play/film resonates in different ways at different times to different people. But this time, in this place, it speaks of the terrors associated with Ignorance and Want. We need to beware them both, that Doom might be erased. The essence of Christmas—the real stuff, not the commercialized nightmare in which trips to Walmart will outnumber those to Church by a factor of… what?... 10? 100?—is in love and compassion: qualities not unique to Christians, nor, alas, universally practiced by those claiming religious authority.

Dickens knew that, of course. The Religious Right has always been with us: “There are some upon this earth of yours,” says Christmas Present, speaking for his fellow Spirits, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” Words to live by.

Whatever seasonal holiday you celebrate, Gentle Reader, may it be filled with love, peace, joy, and charity. And as we enter a New Year, let us re-double our efforts to put an end to Ignorance and Want.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

PolitiFact Earns Its Own "Pants on Fire"

There was a time not long ago that PolitiFact, the fact-checking project initiated by the St. Petersburg Times, was widely and universally acclaimed. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, and might well have deserved it. But that was back in those halcyon days when politicians of both parties at least pretended to care about the truth.

Since then, three things have happened. I suspect they’re not unrelated, although teasing out the causal links is a little more than my feeble brain can handle, at least at present.

• 1. News sources have become increasingly polarized—not partisan, necessarily, but locked into a narrative that is seldom shaken even with facts. The corollary to this point is that an increasing number of Americans get their news from sources that make only token attempts at objectivity (cough… FoxNews… cough).

• 2. Largely because of the Tea Party—the largest ever assemblage of misinformed knuckle-draggers—the lunatic fringe of the Right has become mainstream in the GOP. This isn’t to say that the left is devoid of loonies, but they still tend to be thought of as outsiders. There is no liberal counterpart to Glenn Beck, to Michele Bachmann, to Louis Gohmert. Are there progressives that stupid and that crazy? Sure. But they don’t get the platforms of their right-wing brethren.

• 3. It’s become Amateur Hour at PolitiFact. Despite great bluster and pseudo-solemnity from the PF muckety-mucks, it is certainly true that they apply different standards to different claims. I talked about this phenomenon in June, wondering “when PolitiFact got into the implications business. They sometimes consider a statement based on its literal truth, sometimes (apparently) on what someone might think it implies. Sometimes they give a speaker the benefit of the doubt as to what s/he might have meant….”

In April, I somewhat presciently called attention to what I called a “particularly inept” analysis of claims that the Paul Ryan budget plan would “eliminate Medicare.”

Why “prescient,” you ask? Well, the incompetent, misleading, illogical pronouncement that Democratic claims about the Ryan plan merited a “Pants on Fire” rating (to be fair, the ads weren’t exactly above reproach) served as the foundation for declaring those Democratic assertions the “Lie of the Year” for 2011. I call Bullshit.

There are several parts to this story. Let’s start with the original analysis itself. PolitiFact “rulings” (yes, that’s their term for it—they take themselves, if not their work, very seriously) tend to be anonymous. This one is. The author, whoever he or she may be, grants that the Ryan plan would be “a huge change” and “a dramatic change of course,” and that “seniors would have to pay more for their health plans if it becomes law.” But s/he takes issue with the characterization of “ending” Medicare, calling it “a major exaggeration.” This is interesting terminology, by the way, because even if true this wouldn’t qualify for “Pants on Fire” status, let alone “Lie of the Year.”

The PF Pundit (let’s call him/her something non-gender specific, like “Moe,” which could be short for Maurice or Maureen, and has the advantage of identifying the writer as a Stooge… no offense to my friend Mo—no “e”—who is anything but stupid) sniffs that “Democrats, including Obama, have said the plan would end Medicare ‘as we know it,’ a critical qualifier. But the 30-second ad from the DCCC makes a sweeping claim without that important qualifier.” So we’re basing the decision for Lie of the Year not on an actual lie repeated ad nauseum (e.g., “The economic stimulus created ‘zero jobs.’”).

No, Moe—and Moe’s masters—decided that a single, arguably accurate, statement in a single web ad ought to be the centerpiece for our collective indignation. (Be it noted, other Democrats have echoed the claim, but nowhere near to the extent of all the “failed stimulus” crap that passes for objective analysis in the corporate media. And the original article takes issue only with a single web ad.) Let’s face it, if the concession that Democrats in general aren’t really making the “exaggerated” claim isn’t enough, then the fact that under the Ryan plan Medicare would pay for only 32% of seniors’ health-care costs by 2030 (and get worse from there) isn’t going to matter to ol’ Moe. By the way, the link I provided here isn’t to some commie pinko website; it’s to the official report of the Congressional Budget Office.

Moe then whinges that the DCCC ad in question “claims that participants would have to find $12,500 to pay for Medicare.” Two points. First, Moe, if you’re going to get all pissy about minor details of accuracy, you might notice that the ad says “health care,” not Medicare. The Dems are saying the GOP is ending Medicare, remember? Really, Moe, try to keep up. Secondly, the claim is absolutely, unequivocally, factually true. Nowhere in the ad is there any claim that seniors will have to spend $12,500 more. If I’m contemplating buying a new house and tell my friend that I’m worried about finding $1700 a month in mortgage payments, I shouldn’t have to footnote my remarks by saying that I’m already paying half of that. Moe’s argument is unadulterated bovine feces.

Ah, but Moe isn’t done: “Still another problem with the ad involves who’s immediately affected by the Republican proposal. In one scene, the ad shows a senior citizen pushing a walker behind a lawn mower. A teenager looking on eats an apple and says, ‘You missed a spot.’ In reality, people 55 and older won’t see changes under the Ryan plan.” Seriously, Moe? That’s what you’ve got? Perhaps, just perhaps, the scene in the ad is intended to take place in a (thank God) fictional future… when people a couple of years younger than I (my wife, for example) are trying to figure out how to stay alive because Paul Ryan won’t tax his fatcat friends at the rate they paid under the sainted Reagan. Indeed, the entire ad can be taken as representing a “what would happen if…” scenario. No one believes the spot represents a literal representation of the present. I understand, Moe, that you can’t comprehend that line of reasoning. It requires the barest sliver of imagination, a quality that you and your masters evidently lack. Sorry, hallucinations don’t count.

Finally, there’s the utterly ridiculous claim that when the Republicans voted to end Medicare (as we know it), they didn’t really vote to end Medicare because it was a non-binding resolution. Moe, you crack me up. Seriously, that one idiot pseudo-journalist can go through this many contortions to justify an utterly absurd conclusion is really amusing. Or at least it would be if your organization didn’t have a little residual credibility: enough so that someone somewhere might think you have the integrity of snake-oil salesmen and/or intellectual superiority to a watermelon. We get it, they didn’t end Medicare. But that little dog and pony show they staged sure as hell included a vote on “a budget” (your description, Moe, not mine), and they sure as hell did vote as pretty little lockstep drones to radically reduce medical coverage for people who have been paying taxes for years.

Had it been a “real vote,” and been shot down in the Senate or vetoed by a President who’s pretty inept but not that brain-meltingly stupid, the pragmatic effect would have been precisely the same. Not sure if that would have satisfied Moe, however. And this, of course, is only the first salvo in the Republicans’ attacks on everyone not rich enough, scared enough, or stupid enough to sign on to their greed- and paranoia-induced assault on every social program that doesn’t benefit primarily those who don’t need the help.

Fast forward a few months. PolitiFact, as usual, announces its “Lie of the Year” voting. For at least two years in a row, the site’s viewers and editors/staff selected the same contender. In 2009, it was “Death panels,” capturing an impressive 61% of the vote against some pretty good competition (the birthers, for example). Last year, the readers and editors alike selected “A government takeover of health care,” with 44% of the readers’ votes, again against some pretty good whoppers (my personal favorite, that “94 percent of small businesses will face higher taxes under the Democrats' plan”—the actual number is under 3%—came in fourth).

This year’s finalists, in addition to the eventual winner:
• “President Obama ‘went around the world and apologized for America.’”

• “The Obama administration's review of obsolete regulations was ‘unprecedented.’”

• “The vaccine to prevent HPV can cause mental retardation.”

• “Abortion services are ‘well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.’” [this absurd claim by Jon Kyl was the actual subject of my April piece, linked above; this one, by the way, got my vote]

• “Because of more restrictive voting laws, Republicans ‘want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws.’”

• “Scientists are ‘questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. … (It is) more and more being put into question.’”

• “Congressional Republicans have introduced dozens of bills on social issues and other topics, but ‘zero on job creation.’”

• “The economic stimulus created ‘zero jobs.’” [You didn’t think I’d pulled that example I used earlier out of thin air, did you, Gentle Reader?]

• “I didn't raise taxes once.” (President Obama)
A decent enough list, although some are merely poor choices of phrasing, others are pretty much insignificant, and others are so preposterous that no rational person would believe them (which after all, is what keeps Michele Bachmann at least marginally amusing instead of terrifying).

Two things out of the ordinary happened when the finalists were announced. First, the leftie blogosphere lit up about the stupidity of including a “100% True” statement as a contender for “Lie of the Year.” CrooksandLiars’ Susie Madrak wrote, “Capping costs to beneficiaries, closing the traditional fee-for-service program, and forcing seniors to enroll in new private coverage, ends Medicare by eliminating everything that has defined the program for the last 46 years.” In other words, “ending Medicare” isn’t far off the mark. At the very least, it falls under the category of unexceptional political hyperbole which, for example, declares the current President a socialist.

Secondly, Paul Ryan started soliciting supporters to stuff the ballot box, as it were, encouraging them to “Help me fight the lies, falsehoods, and attacks of the Left by casting a vote to show the Democrat’s lie that Republicans voted to ‘end Medicare’ is the worst political lie of 2011.”

Despite this anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) maneuver, however, the actual readers of PolitiFact prevailed, and the “killing Medicare” claim came in only third, behind the “zero jobs” claim and the ridiculous distortion of Planned Parenthood’s priorities. So far, so good.

But, as you know, the editors over-rode the readers. This is troubling for a variety of reasons, not least because Bill Adair and Angie Drobnic Holan (they have names!) admit that even conservative think-tankers like Norman Ornstein agree that a slight tweak to the language of a handful of progressives would satisfy even him. Adair and Holan proceed to note that
At times, Democrats and liberal groups were careful to characterize the Republican plan more accurately. Another claim in the ad from the Agenda Project said the plan would “privatize” Medicare, which received a Mostly True rating from PolitiFact. President Barack Obama was also more precise with his words, saying the Medicare proposal “would voucherize the program and you potentially have senior citizens paying $6,000 more.”
In other words, even though more incendiary language has been employed, the de facto leader of Democrats wasn’t the one to do so.

Ah, but, quoth the PF morons, “more often, Democrats and liberals overreached.” More often? Evidence, please. You’re supposed to be freaking journalists. If your claim is true, back it up. If it isn’t, then, to steal a line I saw posted on Facebook today, off is the general direction in which I wish you would fuck. Adair and Holan then proceed to run through the same tired and unconvincing litany employed by our friend Moe in the original post. Oh, and they point out that other self-appointed incompetents “fact checkers” agree with them. Trouble is, they’re still wrong.

Steve Benen sums up the argument this way:
I’ve been trying to think of the best analogy for this. How about this one: imagine someone owns a Ferrari. It’s expensive and drives beautifully, and the owner desperately wants to keep his car intact. Now imagine I took the car away, removed the metallic badge off the trunk that says “Ferrari,” I stuck it on a golf cart, and I handed the owner the keys.

“Where’s my Ferrari?” the owner would ask.

“It’s right here,” I’d respond. “This has four wheels, a steering wheel, and pedals, and it says ‘Ferrari’ right there on the back.”

By PolitiFact’s reasoning, I haven’t actually replaced the car — and if you disagree, you’re a pants-on-fire liar.
Not bad. Medicare is more of a Toyota, and the Ryan plan a Yugo for the price of a Cadillac, but the point is still pretty clear.

Interestingly, Mark Hemingway at The Weekly Standard agrees:
Truthfully, the notion that Paul Ryan's plan will “end Medicare as we know it” is a fair assessment. The idea it flatly “ends Medicare” might be a bit too reductive, as there will still obviously be a federal program to help seniors get medical coverage and those currently over a certain age will be guaranteed to get Medicare as we know it. But broadly, I don't think it's a lie. In fact, “ending Medicare as we know it” is a good thing. The program is over $30 trillion in debt. Any politician who tells you that that they can preserve the program as it is and still get costs under control is probably lying to you. And I think Paul Ryan has basically been open about the fact that the status quo in Medicare must change.
See what he did, there? He calls the Dems’ claim “a bit too reductive,” then argues why Medicare as we know it should end. We can agree or disagree with his opinion (I personally think there should be some tightening of the belt in Medicare, but it is hardly the first place I’d go to reduce the federal deficit), but it is honest and thoughtful: two things PolitiFact is not.

The howling on the left, therefore, may be a trifle overwrought, but it is not without legitimacy. Paul Krugman, who I venture to say knows more about economic structures than Adair, Holan, Moe and me combined, agrees. He also writes that:
... the people at Politifact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other. So they’ve bent over backwards to appear ‘balanced’—and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.
I’m not as ready as Mr. Krugman to ascribe motives to PolitiFact’s inane choice. There’s nothing inherently political about their decision—utterly unjustified, yes, but not necessarily political. Fact is, they’re just inept. An earlier piece by Hemingway, written just before instead of just after PolitiFact’s big announcement, demonstrates pretty clearly that they’re just as inept at criticizing the right as they are the left.

PolitiFact’s problem is that they started to believe their own press clippings. They got lazy, smug, and arrogant. They substituted sloth for research, acquiescence for skepticism, petulant defensiveness for argumentation. They aren’t fact-checkers at all—fact-checkers would understand that the denotative and connotative accuracy of a statement are often radically different. They would understand that an argument can be literally true but ultimately irrelevant: but that doesn’t make it anything less than true. They would understand that there’s a continuum between fact and opinion, and that the latter is almost always going to come into play: and the way to deal with that is to acknowledge it rather than pretend to a fallacious pseudo-objectivity. They would, in short, not be PolitiFact.

Did PolitiFact render themselves “useless and irrelevant”? Yes. But that, of course, is only my opinion.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

NDAA, Take 2. What's Really In It?

The day after I posted my most recent piece, on the National Defense Authorization Act, I received a Facebook message from a reader who also happens to be a personal friend. He didn’t want to get into a public debate, he said, but he encouraged me to check out this article by Adam Serwer in Mother Jones. My friend continued, “And it's not as if Mother Jones is some right-wing outlet, either. If this was a Constitutional tragedy, MJ would be howling about it.” As it happened, I’d seen it, and, shortly thereafter, a similar essay by Wendy Gittleson on AddictingInfo and a rant by Milt Shook on AngryBlackLady.

Minor point first: I’m not convinced. Given a choice between Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian on the one hand and a couple of bloggers I’ve never heard of on the other, I find it difficult to come down hard on the side of the latter.

More importantly, as I fancy myself more interested in the ideas than in their proponents, even those who aren’t as appalled by the NDAA as I am are hardly enthusiastic. Serwer writes that the language of the bill “allows people who think the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks gives the president the authority to detain US citizens without charge or trial to say that.” Later he adds that “Codifying indefinite detention on American soil is a very dangerous step, and politicians who believe the military should have an even larger domestic counterterrorism role simply aren't going to be satisfied with this.” Gittleson calls the legislation “a stab to basic civil liberties, and possibly unconstitutional.” On PoliticsUSA, Jason Easley and Sarah Jones, arguing that the legislation does not apply to Americans, nonetheless write, “Yes, NDAA was poorly written originally and even after the changes is a crappy bill.” These are the people, mind you, who argue that it isn’t as bad as some of us worry.

Moreover, whatever else may or may not be true, Serwer’s argument that the bill is more or less benign because “A last minute compromise amendment adopted in the Senate, whose language was retained in the final bill, leaves it up to the courts to decide if the president has that power [to indefinitely detain without trial an American citizen suspected of terrorism who is captured in the US], should a future president try to exercise it” is flat-out inane. The courts will always decide on the constitutionality of a law, but 1). to argue, as Serwer does, that this bill won’t provide current or future Presidents cover to over-reach is naïve to the point of absurdity, and 2). do you really want to entrust your civil rights to the Roberts court?

All that said, I might well be wrong; I certainly hope I am. And that, more than the specifics of the case, is what I want to talk about this time around: the fact that we’re about to get another piece of legislation about which intelligent people disagree. That contention, however, is not so much about whether the policies are appropriate: I’ve yet to see any positive commentary about the NDAA that isn’t either bellicose blathering or a milquetoast assertion that it isn’t as bad as it might have been (“the version the President is going to sign is better than the version he was going to veto,” in Gittleson’s words).

No, the question here isn’t whether this is a good bill—it isn’t—but, rather, what it actually says. Serwer is right that the provision to exempt American citizens, that “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities,” is “cop-out language.” It allows itself, presumably intentionally, to be a Rorschach test for policy-makers: megalomanical Presidents (apologies for the redundancy) can see what they want; those capable in both intellectual and ethical terms of reading the Constitution will see it differently. All bets are off when the goobers that gave us Citizens United are making the call.

But it seems clear that at some level the legislators themselves can’t agree on what the legislation means. I’m not talking here about some purely active and 100% volitional misreading (cf. “death panels”). Nor am I talking about the all-too-common practice of voting on a bill without actually having, you know, read it. (Rep. John Conyers took a lot of heat a while back for admitting he didn’t actually read 1000-page documents crammed full of legalese. Neither do his colleagues, of course, presenting us with the dilemma of whether to condemn Conyers for his lack of shame at not doing his damned job or to grudgingly admire him for confessing to a sin we’re pretty damned certain he shares with literally every other member of Congress on either side of the aisle.)

Rather, in this case, the debate isn’t about whether it’s a good idea to allow potentially dangerous American citizens arrested in this country to be detained indefinitely without trial based on suspicion of terroristic affiliations: it’s whether this bill does that or not. Senators Franken and Paul think so; Senators Feinstein and Kirk don’t.

Senator Carl Levin, who co-authored the bill and therefore ought to know what was intended, said that although some changes were not made to the bill’s language after consultation with the Administration, these discrepancies are “relatively modest because the provision already excludes all U.S. citizens. It also excludes all lawful residents of the United States, except to the extent permitted by the Constitution.” But that, of course, isn’t necessarily what the bill says. And to say that Sen. Levin is pretty much a buffoon (just not quite as scary as his GOP counterpart, John McCain) is to engage in understatement rather than hyperbole.

Moreover, that same session in the Senate produced this exchange:
Senator Durbin: Section 1031, as I understand it, would be a departure from current law and would say that those who are American citizens can be detained indefinitely if they are suspected of certain terrorist conduct. I ask the Senator from Colorado: Is that the point the Senator made in his statement?

Senator Udall: The Senator from Illinois is correct. Mr. President, 1031 would do just that, and it would come directly at a piece of law, posse comitatus, which dates back to the Civil War, that is held dear by all of us in America because it distinguishes between the military used to protect us against foreign foes and how we manage our own civil affairs here at home. Also, as the Senator alludes to, it causes questions to be raised about something that is very sacred in our system of law, which is the writ of habeas corpus. You have to prove why you hold someone. You cannot detain an American citizen indefinitely in any other circumstance.
So where does that leave us? Damned if I know.

The media, useless as always, have generally avoided the issue altogether. Here’s the entirety of Charlie Savage’s discussion of the subject in the New York Times about President Obama’s decision to remove the veto threat:
…the bill includes a narrower provision, drafted by the Senate, authorizing the government to detain, without trial, suspected members of Al Qaeda or its allies—or those who “substantially supported” them—bolstering the authorization it enacted a decade ago against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Notice anything missing? Like any mention of a). the temporal parameters of this detention, b). who determines (without a trial) what constitutes “substantial support,” c). whether this provision does or does not pertain to U.S. citizens (not the same thing as whether it changes existing law with respect to citizens), or d). whether the location of the arrest is relevant.

There’s a difference between arresting a Saudi national in Cairo and shipping him off to Gitmo for indefinite detention (not that I approve of that, either) and picking up an American citizen in Peoria based on the pretense of terroristic sympathies. The possibilities for abuse in the latter case are manifold. Seriously, if Newt Gingrich wants to arrest judges who don’t rule the way he wants them to, can you imagine what he or some like-minded lunatic might do to someone named Abdul Mohammed (or Bob Smith, for that matter, if ol’ Bob pissed him off enough), evidence or no evidence?

If you’re reading this blog, chances are pretty good you’re not a fan of the civil liberties implications that might be at play here. But are they at play? Neither the United States Senate nor the press seems to know. Perhaps, just perhaps, that’s not such a good thing.