Monday, May 30, 2011

Hubris? From a millionaire coach? Who'da thunk it?

Jim Tressel resigned (a.k.a. was fired) today as head football coach at [The] Ohio State University. This was about as unexpected as the news that a number of Americans have fired up their grills over Memorial Day weekend. Tressel was allowed to survive as long as he did at Ohio State for one reason and one reason only: he won a lot of football games. That was, of course, what he was paid to do, and even if he didn’t fare as well as fans would have liked in bowl games, his overall record was outstanding: 106-22 (a better winning percentage than Woody Hayes), a national championship, seven league titles and eight BCS appearances in 10 years. Ohio State had more players (66) drafted by the NFL during Tressel’s regime than any other program. Most importantly to Buckeye fans, he was 9-1 against arch-rival Michigan.

Throughout this time, he managed to maintain a reputation for rectitude that the facts didn’t bear out. He wrote books with nauseating titles like The Winner's Manual: For the Game of Life which contained the predictable mix of Biblical quotations and homey aphorisms: “Discipline is what you do when no one else is looking” and similar treacle. As Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes, however, “Nowhere in it does Tressel suggest that withholding information on player wrongdoing from superiors, lying to the NCAA in writing, and knowingly playing ineligible players are behaviors worthy to be emulated.” Jim Tressel is a very good football coach. He is also a liar, a cheat, and a hypocrite.

The scandal that brought him down started in December when a half-dozen Buckeye players, including star quarterback Terrell Pryor, were suspended for accepting improper benefits: selling memorabilia in exchange for cash and discounted tattoos (yes, really). This, unfortunately, is the kind of thing that happens all the time. But Tressel, that presumed paragon, covered it up: he didn’t tell the school’s athletic director, compliance officer, or university president. He did tell Pryor’s hometown “mentor.” And, of course, he lied about it to the NCAA. As Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples notes, “Tressel did… make a poor choice of NCAA rules to break. An accomplished former coach once told me that the NCAA only considers two violations unforgivable: Getting caught buying a player and getting caught lying to the NCAA. Tressel is guilty of the second, and coaches who get caught lying to the NCAA rarely keep their jobs.”

When he was finally busted, Tressel started spinning his misconduct as an attempt to protect his players. Nonsense: it was an attempt to protect his winning percentage: nothing more and nothing less. Notice, also, that the suspensions were for the first few games of this season, against Ohio State’s traditional cupcake non-conference schedule (to be fair, the 2011 schedule is far tougher than usual). Couldn’t keep those players out of a bowl game just for blatantly and completely intentionally breaking NCAA rules, now could we?

But this is just the latest in a string of improprieties in Tressel’s career, as a précis on the website Bleacher Report suggests: there was the Ray Isaac story, in which the star quarterback reportedly received $10,000 in cash and access to multiple cars (this was when Tressel was at Youngstown State); there was the admission by Santonio Holmes that he was receiving money from an agent; there were the cash and loaner cars to Troy Smith and to Maurice Clarett (not to mention the fact that Clarett almost certainly wasn’t academically eligible). Then, of course, there was the single-game suspension of linebacker Robert Reynolds for choking Wisconsin quarterback Jim Sorgi. Tressel tried to make it sound like suspending Reynolds showed how tough he was on players who got out of line; in fact, of course, Reynolds should have been thrown off the team and probably arrested.

And there may be more to come: Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann, the last sportswriter to win a Pulitzer Prize, has a new piece due out today. He’s not shy, tweeting, “I'm told it is likely my SI mag story will be posted at later today/tonight. Timing of Tress dec. will make sense after you read it.” Hoo boy.

Only a couple months ago, Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee responded to a question about whether Tressel would be fired: “I hope he doesn’t fire me.” Gee, of course, is an idiot, but something clearly happened to precipitate the change of direction. Given the administration’s serial gutlessness over the past decade, it’s likely to be damning.

Perhaps the most telling quotation came from Athletic Director Gene Smith: “We look forward to refocusing the football program on doing what we do best—representing this extraordinary university and its values on the field, in the classroom, and in life.” Unfortunately, this may be the one time someone at Ohio State has told the truth in years: yes, I’m afraid the football program and its manifold transgressions do indeed represent the university’s values. More’s the pity.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Legs of steel; feet of clay.

“Faith,” wrote Mark Twain, “is believing what you know ain’t so.” And, when you think about it, that’s pretty much what guided the public’s attitude towards Lance Armstrong: faith. Or perhaps the desire to believe, which is certainly faith’s first cousin.

True, we all knew that Armstrong’s improbable story was just a step or two too far. To beat cancer (testicular cancer to be precise—can you think of a worse condition for a professional bicyclist to have?), and then even compete in the world’s most grueling sporting event is incredible. To win a stage, unbelievable. To win the race, implausible. To do so seven times in a row, well that surpasses credibility. Perhaps we should have looked more closely at the derivations of those descriptions: all of them mean precisely the same thing—that the feats described are not to be believed.

We all heard the voices in the back of our heads, the ones repeating things like “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” but we ignored them. We ignored them because we wanted to, perhaps even needed to. We ignored them because Armstrong was so, well, inspirational. He triumphed over a disease feared by all of us—especially those of us who have lost a loved one, or quite possibly more than one, to it. He didn’t come back just a little, not to even as good as he was. He came back better. There’s a message of hope for everyone feeling down for whatever reason. And it was an especially resonant message for those who needed a hero, a pathfinder, a beacon to light the way through the dark, malignant days ahead.

Not to mention all the money he raised through the LiveStrong foundation. What was it, over $400,000,000? That’s a lot of cash. True, he made damned sure that everybody knew he was the guiding force behind the organization. True, too, that he is by all accounts a ruthless self-promoter, something of a bully professionally and a jackass privately. His treatment of his first wife was rendered doubly despicable by his subsequently trotting out his children to burnish his all-American hero image. He later split with fiancée Sheryl Crow oh-so-coincidentally at the exact time she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Way to be there when your loved ones need you, dude.

And it’s true the rumors had been around for a long time. But they could always be ascribed to ulterior motives: the testimony of jealous rivals or the French press, who refused to believe that a mere American could so dominate their signature sporting event. Besides, although he was never warm or even particularly friendly, he didn’t have fits of rage like a Roger Clemens or a Lyle Alzado; he didn’t suddenly develop muscles more or less irrelevant to his sport like Ben Johnson’s biceps; his head didn’t grow to the size of a basketball like Barry Bonds’s. And he always denied using performance-enhancing drugs (protesting too much, mayhap?); he’d never tested dirty after all those years. He could be clean, we told ourselves, and we believed it although we knew it wasn’t so.

Now, with a Sports Illustrated exposé in January, a “60 Minutes” indictment this week featuring testimony from former Armstrong teammate (and Olympic gold medalist) Tyler Hamilton, and, perhaps most damaging of all, new revelations by longtime Armstrong domestique George Hincapi, who has more than a little credibility (in part, ironically enough, because of his confession about his own experiences with banned substances), Armstrong’s aura of innocent invincibility is a thing of the past. In the words of Mike Wise, Hamilton and Hincapie “aren’t bitter soldiers from Lance’s army now craving publicity; these are subpoenaed, former world-class cyclists who begrudgingly gave up the greatest champion in their sport because they did not want to go to jail themselves.”

It turns out, if Hamilton is to be believed, that Armstrong had tested positive in Switzerland in 2001, but that the Armstrongistas made that result “go away.” There’s an allegation that Armstrong made a 6-figure “contribution” to a testing center. Note that for this little conspiracy theory to work, it doesn’t even require a falsified test: just an “accidental” exclamation on the part of a technician that although they’ve found a test for X, they still can’t seem to detect Y. Here’s Wise:
Think about that. Imagine generously giving to the company responsible for your employment drug test. Now imagine trying to explain the charitable contribution to your tax guy. You know, Dave, I really thought about Habitat for Humanity, earthquake relief and of course the Homeless Animal Shelter this year. But when it came down to it, those swell folks doing the urinalysis over at Qwest—now that’s a cause I want to get behind.
Armstrong’s piety now rings more than a little false.

Oh, there will be those who still believe because they have to for their own purposes. And there will be plenty who think he shouldn’t be actually prosecuted for one of two reasons: a). he’s done all those good things, so we should forgive him the bad ones or b). his wealth and popularity coupled with a necessarily complex case would make a conviction difficult and it therefore would be a waste of resources to pursue one. It’s certainly true that convincing 12 out of 12 jurors beyond reasonable doubt that a specific crime was committed is a higher threshold than convincing 90% of us that he almost certainly cheated, and it may be that we as a society will have to settle for that.

But even if we do, we need to reject arguments that he shouldn’t be held responsible for cheating because it was all for a good cause, that he shouldn’t be responsible because “everyone else was doing it,” and that he never asked to be a role model. This latter claptrap is even endorsed by the normally perspicacious Eugene Robinson. But Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Leland Stanford didn’t stop being robber barons by endowing universities (named after themselves, of course), and Lance Armstrong didn’t cease being a cheat and a fraud by using his notoriety to a good end.

As for his not wanting to be a role model: bovine feces. The whole argument that he could accomplish more good things by capitalizing on the fame that comes from winning (and that makes breaking the rules aaaaaaaaall better) is predicated on being a role model. “Don’t give up and you can be like me,” quoth he to adoring kids stricken with a horrible disease. He was lying, of course; lying to the most vulnerable audience you can imagine. But he wanted very much to be the role model. He just wanted us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

This is an especially sad case. There’s no question that Armstrong was—hell, still is—an amazing athlete. He was the undisputed champion of a sport so demanding that most of us couldn’t last twenty minutes, let alone twenty days. I don’t think I ever biked more than about 20 miles in a day. These guys do that in less than an hour. Up the Pyrenees. And then go another couple hundred miles. It shouldn’t shock us in one respect that so many of these guys cheat: Wise reports that only one man on the podium with Armstrong in the seven years he won the Tour de France was never linked to performance-enhancers. There’s considerable argument over what this means: that cycling is the dirtiest sport this side of weightlifting in terms of drugs and doping, or proof that cycling, unlike major American sports, will actually go after current stars with real penalties. Either way, there’s a problem. But, just as the fact cheating in academe is widespread doesn’t mean we should condone it, the “everyone is doing it” defense doesn’t wash here, either.

Lance Armstrong became the face of cycling in this country. He was larger than the sport, and some of the luster of the Tour de France waned, especially in the US, after his retirement. But I, personally, had become a fan of the Tour. That lasted a year. I didn’t get bored; I got disgusted. I quit on the sport when it quit on me: when, in a year decimated by the absence of a number of top stars, all of them disqualified for doping, the eventual Tour winner, Floyd Landis, was ultimately stripped of his title for using performance-enhancers. There was no real sport left, no honest competition. That’s probably still true today. I don’t know, and I don’t care. And that is part of Lance Armstrong’s legacy. His dishonesty and above all his ego have effectively killed a sport he purports to love.

Armstrong’s lesson to those struggling against cancer, too, could have been “persevere, and you will survive. I went on to lead a normal life. You can, too.” But “normal” wasn’t good enough. Not even “extraordinary” was sufficient. Not for his quest for fame and glory. And money; don’t forget money. Now the mantra, or at least the subtext of the mantra, is “conquering a killer disease is child’s play… and you, over there, who are dying: it’s your fault because you’re not cool enough, not focused enough, not tough enough. And, of course, although none of you will ever be as magnificent as I, you can try. Cheat. Lie. Become an attention whore by pretending not to be. And if you raise someone’s hopes only to dash them, so be it. They didn’t ‛live strong.’”

If, as may well happen, Lance Armstrong is not prosecuted, or if he is acquitted on the most serious charges, he and his minions will no doubt bellow in the style of Bill Clinton that he “did nothing wrong.” He might even believe it. That would be the greater tragedy. But his greatest sin, for me, was that for several years he made me believe it, too. Even though I knew it wasn’t true.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A little respect, please, for our canine heroes

We’ll quite possibly never know the identities of all the commandos who successfully raided the compound of Osama bin Laden a few weeks ago, but we do know one of their names: Cairo. Not Bob Cairo or Tony Cairo, just Cairo. Cairo, you see, is a dog—probably but not necessarily a German Shepherd—who, according to Charlotte McDonald-Gibson of the British newspaper The Independent, was “tasked with tracking anyone who tried to escape Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.”

Wearing better protection than most soldiers will ever see, and sporting tens of thousands of dollars of high-tech equipment, Cairo went into action and brought honor to his unit, the same way thousands of other Military Working Dogs (MWD’s) have done over decades of service. These dogs are highly trained: some are used, as Cairo was, to track and detain those who might escape from a merely human attack force; others detect drugs or explosives, not infrequently saving lives in the process. ABC News had a good background story on these dogs when, only a couple of days after the mission in Abbottabad, it became known that not all the personnel on that mission were of the two-legged variety. Reportedly, the canines on duty in Afghanistan have been so effective at their respective jobs that the Taliban has put a bounty on their heads.

Cairo’s fame calls attention to the service of these dogs, but it may have had an additional benefit for his fellow canine warriors: not for their time in service, but afterwards. It seems that interest in adopting retired MWD’s has skyrocketed after the death of bin Laden and the revelation of Cairo’s contribution to the mission. Julie Watson and Sue Manning of the Associated Press report that “[while] about 300 retired U.S. military dogs are put up for adoption each year, military officials say they've received more than 400 adoption applications in the three weeks since the May 2 raid.” That’s a good thing.

But Watson and Manning also point to a very disturbing fact: while Gerry Proctor, a spokesman for Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where the military's dog adoption program is based, says that no animals who could reasonably be adopted out are euthanized now (another source says “very few” are euthanized), as had once been standard procedure after the dogs had outlived their military usefulness (way to take care of your own, guys!), the military is, as ever, bound by profoundly stupid regulations.

You see, the dogs that have been transported all around the world to risk their lives to protect soldiers and civilians alike, when they retire (or become “excess,” to use the military’s charming locution) they cease to belong to the DOD. Thus, “[putting] a retired dog in a crate on a military cargo flight is against the rules.” In other words, prospective adopters (handlers get first dibs, police second, civilians third) need to pay as much as $2000 to have the animals shipped back to the US via commercial carrier from wherever they’re stationed, when it would in fact cost virtually nothing to put an extra crate on a military plane that’s already headed to the US.

How freaking stupid is that?

Well, according to Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, the DOD MWD executive, it would be “fraud, waste and abuse for the DOD to transport that pet.” Seriously. In the world of $600 toilet seat covers and multi-billion dollar weapons systems that don’t work, what passes for fraudulent, wasteful and abusive in Hertog’s world is showing a little respect for comrades-in-arms and getting them to a loving home a little sooner? Surely she can’t believe that nonsense, right? I mean, how about we ship that… erm… “equipment” back home and then retire it?

Someone who does have it absolutely right is Debbie Kandoll, head of an organization called Military Working Dog Adoptions, headquartered in Las Cruces, NM. In her words, "Uncle Sam gave the dogs a ride over. He should give them a ride back.” Madeleine (Mrs. T. Boone) Pickens, who last year adopted her own Iraq veteran MWD (Chyba, pictured above in front of the memorial for which he was the model), adds that the failure to transport the dogs home is “like leaving a soldier behind.” Yes, ma’am, it is.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

“Ethical Cheating,” Indeed!

I’m warning you in advance: this one is going to be long.

There’s an article entitled “'Ethical' Cheating in Formal Education” in the journal On the Horizon. I confess the essay has been out for about a year, but I just became aware of it when Jack Marshall wrote about it on his Ethics Alarms blog. I’m not sure whether the above link will indeed take you to the article—I was able to access it through my work computer, probably because my university library subscribes to the clearinghouse or something. But yesterday I couldn’t get the article from home without paying for it (trust me, it isn’t worth whatever price they charge). You could also “rent” the piece instead of buying it… I have no idea what that means, but the implications of prostitution are certainly apt. But now I seem to be able to get to the article from home, too. Go figure.

Anyway, I stray. So… the authors, Arthur M. Harkins and George H. Kubik, both of the University of Minnesota, argue that there are two types of cheating: Type I and (you guessed it) Type II. The former represents “obsolete educational delivery systems whose purpose is to prepare students with fixed knowledge sets for life-long careers in traditionally defined occupations…. it tends to be practiced by education systems with poor competitive prospects, regardless of their present status or prestige.” Don’t worry, I don’t know what the hell that means, either, except that it’s not intended to be very complimentary to those of us who expect our students to know something at the end of a course.

Type II cheating, or “ethical cheating,” “is reviewed in the context of digital-era learning that involves open-source collaboration and the ready sharing of ideas, knowledge, and information…. it can be proactively practiced by students–the future leaders of change and competition.” The authors then attempt to justify their support for what ethical and intelligent people would regard as an indefensible position:
This brings about two related forms of failing pedagogical practice: over-emphasis on routinized individual work, and over-use of testing and grading systems. Education continues to rely on these legacy approaches in a failing attempt to measure and compare individual student achievement within very narrow boundaries, while largely ignoring the properties and outcomes of creativity and creative collaboration. While the development of digital technologies is occurring at breathtaking speed, education continues to apply draconian restrictions that structurally restrict collaborative group performance. While education talks about the importance of collaborative innovation and social creativity to the future of global competitiveness, it continues to rely on the easy metrics of standardized testing and individual achievement.
See, it’s not really cheating, it’s… um… creative collaboration.

But wait, there’s more. For example, here’s a nifty little hypothetical text-message conversation between three students, cited with approbation because it “incorporates the 11 motivators for cheating outlined in detail by [P.] Choong and [B. S.] Brown in their article on the future of academic honesty.”
Student A: Thanks for texting me the answers to the examine questions today in biology class. It was a tough test.

Student B: It was a boring test anyway. There's no sense in everyone wasting their time memorizing useless materials that no one will remember next week. Besides, everyone's doing it, and we need the grade.

Student A: Well I didn't study last night. No time at all. I got excited about a blog on cloning, and got involved with some neat people – including a real-life biologist that works with cloning at a research company. He actually listened to my ideas on the subject. How cool is that?

Student B: Just don't tell anyone that I gave you the answers. I got some of them from others in the class and I don't want them to get into trouble.

Student A: No problem. I just wish the teacher would listen to us, rather than droning on from his lecture notes. My sister told me that those are the exact same notes he used six years ago when she had to take his class. What a joke!

Student C: I wish we could tell him that he's boring. I kind-of-like him – he's really smart; but I am afraid he would get mad at me if I said anything.

Student B: How about joining us tonight? We're getting together on the internet to do some quick cutting and pasting for our papers that are due tomorrow. With six of us working together, we should have more than enough for everyone to complete their papers and get an “A.”

Student C: Great! By sharing our search results we can fool the teacher into thinking that we each spent the last two weeks working on it. Actually, we found some interesting stuff on the subject, but we'll need to disguise how much we learned so we don't get caught!
What’s abhorrent here isn’t the reasonably accurate description of the reasons students cheat: they’re not interesting in working, would rather be doing something else, don’t seem to understand that meiosis might not have changed much over the past couple of years, and besides… “everyone’s doing it.”

What’s really problematic, of course, is the completely nonsensical argument that “students cannot compete globally within the current strictures of academic integrity, and that they cannot employ networking, collaborating, knowledge producing, and innovation actions in timely ways without cheating.” Moreover, because “[many] of these students have no serious ethical problems with the matter,” everything is apparently just peachy. Ultimately, the argument is two-fold: cheating is rampant, and many students don’t think that obvious cheating is, well, cheating. The solution? Certainly not to train teachers how to better recognize cheating when it happens, nor to instill a moral and ethical sensibility in students. No, the solution is not merely to accept the status quo as a Sisyphusian reality, but indeed to try to spin this crap into some sort of exemplary situation in which students who cheat are somehow better prepared than those who don’t.


Apart from manifesting a cynicism too virulent even for me, this argument collapses in manifold ways. Let me briefly sketch out five of those failures, any one of which ought to be enough to reject this particularly specious brand of codswallop.

1). It endorses unethical behavior. This is, of course, the most compelling argument against this policy. The notion of “ethical cheating” is as euphemistic as it is oxymoronic. There’s nothing ethical about giving or receiving unauthorized assistance, and pretending otherwise doesn’t change that ontological verity. I think I may have mentioned at some point in the past that one of my favorite riddles goes like this:
Q: How many legs does a dog have if you call a tail a leg?
A: Four. Calling something a leg doesn’t make it one.
Similarly, justifying that which is prima facie unethical doesn’t change anything.

Importantly, we’re not talking here about the sort of oxymoron made popular by the late, great George Carlin: “jumbo shrimp,” “military intelligence,” and the like. These word pairings become “oxymoronic” and hence comical only because of a pun on one of the terms: a shrimp is no longer a crustacean, but a term for someone or something very small. Here, however, we have terms that really are in opposition, more like the “mandatory options” car makers tried to foist on us a few years ago: the base sticker price was low, but they literally didn’t make the car without several hundred dollars’ worth of “options.” No, “ethical” and “cheating” will never go together in any coherent way.

2). The argument itself is dishonest. It suggests a disjunctive dichotomy which doesn’t exist. You don’t have to cheat, or to condone it, to have a classroom which is well-distanced from memorization and standardized testing. But those classes, emphasizing guided discussion and a variety of communication modes and media, still have a need for structure and for assessment (not in the nonsensical terms that state legislators and accrediting agencies employ that term, but rather as a means of determining a given student’s progress). Moreover, memorization is often legitimate. If you fail to memorize what to do at a red light, I don’t want to be on the roads with you; if you fail to memorize (a.k.a., learn), who David Garrick was, I’m not going to think you know anything about theatre history.

3). Its projections are pragmatically ridiculous. The idea that students who cheat are somehow better prepared for the workplace is risible. Who’s going to hire them, after all? If you think it’s OK to cheat on a test because you had more interesting things to do than study last night, it’s a fairly short step to thinking it’s fine to take a few dollars out of the till because you’re a little short on cash, to sell the company’s secret formula to the competition because they offered you a job with a big raise, or to compromise the missile defense system because the spy who asked you to do so is kind of cute. In this economy, try arguing that you ought to be hired because you cheated (ethically, of course).

4). It creates considerable socio-cultural damage. This is two-fold (at least). First, it de-values actual intellect, actual talent, and actual work ethic. It might not seem so to some post-adolescents, or to idiots like Harkins and Kubik, but these really are the raw materials of success as an individual and, at least as importantly, as a member of a larger community. It is in all our interests, for example, that a doctor actually knows how to diagnose an illness, not merely to plug the symptoms into a search engine and hope for the best. In crisis situations, it is imperative that confidence be placed in people who know the answer, not just where to find it. Ultimately, de-valuing the work of the people who really do have those essential Wizard of Oz qualities of a brain, a heart, and courage by granting equal status to those who succeeded only by co-opting the efforts of others will destroy our society. And no, this isn’t an Ayn Rand argument. It is, however, an unabashed endorsement of the notion of a meritocracy.

Of course, tied up with this analysis is a fundamental truth, one lost on Harkins and Kubik: both left-brain and right-brain activity matter. There are plenty of courses at the high school level and above on which creativity is indeed valued. But that doesn’t mean creativity employed towards a fundamentally dishonest end. And the only way I can catalyze or assess a student’s creative impulses is to have confidence that the creativity in question is the student’s, not that of his friend in an earlier section. Of course, in the arts it’s a little easier to recognize skill levels, too: you can’t cheat when it comes to hitting that high note—you either do or you don’t, and no smuggled-in cell phone is going to help.

Associated with this is the notion of standards, both in the classroom and in the wider society. Don’t tell me today’s students can’t or won’t do good work. I know better. When I came to my current position, I was skeptical about how well the students here would do in my classes. The first theatre history test I gave wasn’t pretty. I had a choice to make: lower the standards, or do what I could to raise the students. I chose the latter course, and the overwhelming majority of students for the last decade have risen to the challenge. Not all excelled, but some did, and it would be asking too much to have expected them to do so if they could get an “A” without breaking a sweat. I’ve had more than a few students over the years who have thanked me for making them work, even thanked me for busting them for academic dishonesty: “a lesson learned,” said one. (The first student I failed for plagiarism at my current university invited me to her wedding two years later.) That doesn’t make me special. It makes me a teacher. Mssrs Harkins and Kubik might like to try it sometime.

Of course, the lowering of standards is endemic. There’s a movement afoot to address the perceived shortage of college graduates by reducing the graduation requirements. You see, then it would cost less in time and money to get a degree. More people would get them, and our problems would be solved. The logical extension of this argument, of course, is that the best possible solution would be to give everyone a Bachelor’s degree at birth. Then we’d truly have an educated work force, right? No. As I said recently in a different context, the Taoist concept of the yin and the yang resonates in the modern world. Educated employees are a legitimate taxonomy if and only if there’s such a thing as an uneducated employee. Moreover, it is no doubt true that there are a lot of people in college who shouldn’t be there: they lack the intellectual rigor, the work ethic, or the interest to prosper. It’s fine that they don’t have a BA or a BS: I really don’t care if the person who fixes my car has a PhD in engineering or dropped out of high school—did my car get fixed right and at a fair price? If so, I’m happy. If not, not.

5). It devalues real creative collaboration. This is one I’m passionate about, largely but not exclusively because I’m a practicing theatre artist as well as an educator. How dare these yahoos from Minnesota suggest that “creative collaboration” is little if anything more than a euphemism for a conspiracy of deception? No, that’s a term that’s precious to me, and these smarmy little pseudo-educators can’t have it. Creative collaboration is what happens every time out of the gate in what I do. When it’s functioning at its best, no one can remember after the fact whose idea it was that got kept; the only thing that matters is that it worked. Mine is a profession in which everyone contributes but everyone has a specific job to do. Ideas fly, are pounced on, massaged, tweaked, or rejected. But everyone knows if someone—an actor, director, designer, choreographer, whatever—isn’t pulling his/her own weight. And because none of us wants to be the one responsible for something not being right, we tend to obsess. This is a hard business. News flash: they all are.

If you want to survive, you’d better have real problem-solving skills, not just the ability to glance at your iPhone when the prof isn’t looking. You’d better be able to create and shape an idea truly collaboratively, not just cobble together a report that you and your buddies worked on together, culling from other people’s work. Above all, if you want to pass my course, you’d better not try any of that crap in my classroom.

I freely admit that the odds are very high that someone out of the literally thousands of students I’ve seen over the years has successfully cheated in one of my classes. I can’t stop them all. But what I can do is to make the likelihood of getting caught and the severity of the punishment for it sufficiently high that the cost-effective thing to do is simply to do your own damned work. Here’s what appeared on one of my most recent syllabi. First, the most important paragraph of the School of Theatre policy (which I wrote):
The School of Theatre expects students to maintain the highest standards of academic conduct. Misrepresenting someone else's work as your own or knowingly allowing someone else to represent your work as his/hers constitutes academic dishonesty. Such behavior is antithetical to our work as scholars, as artists, and as members of a community founded on trust and mutual respect. It is an insult to faculty and an affront to honest students.
Then, my addendum:
I am going to trust you not to cheat. That means I won’t be hovering over your shoulder during tests, etc., but it doesn’t mean I won’t be vigilant. It also means that if you do get caught cheating or plagiarizing, I will treat it as a violation of personal trust. You won’t like the result. If innate honesty isn’t enough to keep you from plagiarizing, let my reputation for detecting and prosecuting plagiarists fill you with dread.
I have a gradebook and I’m not afraid to use it.

This, by the way, is what creative collaboration actually looks like. Adam Blain, Jonathan Garcia, Hannah Peaker and Lamar Jefferson in The Breasts of Tiresias by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated and directed by Rick Jones. Choreography by Juanita Finkenberg, scenery by Dana Gloege, costumes by Angela Bacarisse, hair and makeup by Tori Fields, lighting by Nikki Johnson, original music by John Konderla, sound by CC Conn. Assistant director: Katrina Tarson; Stage manager: Janette Bauer; dramaturg: Marissa Harding. (And that leaves out the contributions of about 30 other people...)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Is Paul Ryan Running in the New York 26th?

There’s a special election in the New York 26th today to replace the disgraced Chris Lee (he was the shirtless Craigslist guy, for those of you struggling to remember which slimebag Republican hypocrite is which). Such events often garner considerably more attention than they’re worth, and this one is certainly no exception: it’s not like there’s going to be a shift in the balance of power, after all.

And both sides have already audience-tested their talking points in the event of a defeat. Should Jane Corwin hold the seat for the Republicans, expect to hear the Dems crow about how close they made an election in what should have been a safe seat for the GOP, despite a massive amount of cash from both the RNC and a host of PACs, ranging from Karl Rove’s American Crossroads to various Tea Party affiliates. (Corwin has also “loaned” her campaign more than $2 million of her own money.)

Speaking of the Tea Party, there’s actually a Tea Party candidate in the race, Jack Davis. And his presence will be blamed for a Republican defeat, should there be one. This is especially galling to the GOP because Davis is simply a rich and largely self-funded political opportunist who doesn’t really believe in Tea Party ideals. He’s run for Congress three times before, always as a Democrat, and he’s been denounced by the Tea Party hierarchy. (Oh, wait. The Tea Party is an entirely grass-roots organization; they don’t have a hierarchy. Well, you know what I mean.) What Davis is doing is precisely what many other “third-party” candidates have done in the past: find a spot on the ballot because some small party doesn’t really have a candidate of their own (does anyone really believe Ralph Nader was a Green, or Bob Barr a Libertarian?). And it’s certainly true that such candidacies can affect elections: many on the right blame Ross Perot for Bill Clinton’s victory over George H. W. Bush; many on the left blame Nader for George W. Bush’s win over Al Gore.

Yes, it’s certainly Davis’s presence on the ballot that is making things tough for Corwin. It couldn’t be that Democrat Kathy Hochul has been hammering at Corwin’s support for Paul Ryan’s budgetary fantasies to the extent that the AP article describes the race as “a referendum on the Republican plan to transform Medicare.” No, it couldn’t be that. It’s all about Davis. After all, Eric Cantor said so, so you know it’s true.

Well, actually, it’s both, and anyone honest about what this election means will tell you so… which means that we won’t hear it from any party leaders on either side. The Ryan plan is hugely unpopular with just about everyone who isn’t a GOP Representative. Even Tea Party supporters oppose cutting Medicare and Medicaid by a 70-28 margin. If Hochul can tap into that opposition to radical libertarianism, and it appears she has been fairly effective at doing so, she could stand a chance even in a very conservative district that voted for Chris Lee by 51 points(!). But no, she would have no chance of more than a moral victory without Davis.

Another point needs making. My guess is that Davis will attract three kinds of voters. The first, the smallest group, will know him and/or his policies (he apparently has better name recognition than either of his major-party opponents), and will vote for him on that basis. A somewhat larger cohort, I suspect, are completely fed up with both parties and are looking to lodge a protest vote, to express displeasure actively rather than passively sitting out the election. I’ve used this tactic myself on numerous occasions over the years. Finally, there’s the part of the Davis voting bloc that the GOP is rightfully worried about: those who will vote for him not because he isn’t running as a major-party candidate, but specifically because he is running as a Tea Partier. That may draw votes from Corwin, and might just turn the election.

Of course, we have no real way of knowing why people vote the way they do. What they tell pollsters is probably some indication, but it isn’t entirely accurate for one simple reason: people lie. What is really important here is this: Davis is indeed the largely liberal “fraud” the national Tea Party claims him to be. But let’s look at the ramifications of that statement. In an informed electorate, that would mean that his third-party candidacy would draw votes from Hochul, not Corwin. That the GOP is screaming foul can be taken as proof that the Republicans (rightly) regard a significant percentage of Tea Partiers as completely uninformed and/or stupid. Only someone who didn’t know the candidates would vote for Davis over Corwin thinking he was the more conservative choice. Of course, only someone hubristically ignorant or dumber than the proverbial sack of hammers would vote for a Tea Party candidate at all, ever.

I should note that this kind of implicit recognition of the political incompetence of many of one’s supporters is not a specifically Republican phenomenon. Remember the 2000 Presidential election, when many on the left pointed to exit polling to suggest that more people in Florida had intended to vote for Gore rather than Bush? Those “butterfly” ballots were a real problem (after the fact, of course) to Gore supporters. But when you really break down their argument, it looked like this: “voters too stupid to figure out a ballot would have voted disproportionately for our guy.” Probably true, in this case, but hardly the stuff of bumper sticker aphorisms.

So what will tonight’s results mean? Not much. There’s no way the GOP can make even a reasonably comfortable victory look good. For the Republicans to come up as real winners, they’d have to limit Hochul to less than the 26.2% achieved by Philip Fedele against Lee last November. In other words, even if we grant that every vote for Davis would have gone to Corwin in a two-way race, those two candidates combined would have to total over 73% of the vote or the GOP is losing ground. I can’t imagine that Hochul won’t close that gap appreciably, even if she doesn’t win. Indeed, a “blowout” win for Corwin right now would be maybe 6 points. For those of you who aren’t math majors, 6 is considerably less than 51. And that dramatic decline happened a). in less than seven months, and b). when the Democratic candidate focused on what the national GOP is saying.

Conversely, I don’t see Hochul taking 50% of the vote, either. Even were she to be elected, and even if national trends tip towards the Democrats (or, more accurately, away from the Republicans), as I expect them to do, she’ll face a tough re-election fight in that district. But the Democrats have already won, even if they don’t end up electing Ms. Hochul. This should have been a safe hold for the GOP, and it wasn’t. That may have to be enough for the Dems, but it really is rather a lot.

What does all this mean nationally? Well, if Corwin wins, not much. The national GOP already knows they’ve got to figure out a way to disavow Ryan’s budget plan without appearing to do so: a perilous balancing act, but one which they’re likely to get away with, thanks to the usual sloth of the corporate media. And a win is a win. The fact that it was considerably narrower than it should have been will be gone from the news cycle in days if not hours. If Hochul pulls off what would still rank as a significant upset, however, there’s a chance of energizing the base, attracting candidates who want to run as Democrats rather than as GOP-Lite, and suggesting the kinds of strategies and ground games that might lead to a very different 2012 election than happened in 2010.

One other consideration, of course, is that Paul Ryan’s name is being tossed around by the likes of Eric Cantor and Dick Armey as a presidential candidate. Such a run would be significantly damaged by a Hochul victory, as it wouldn’t be just the Democrats who would natter on about how unpopular Ryan’s economic plan is, but rather the rest of the Republican field would have their knives sharpened and at the ready, too. The fact that many of these same folks supported those policies… erm… yesterday is, of course, irrelevant in the world of politics.

Yes, a Hochul victory would hurt Ryan a fair bit. Decisively? Possibly, but remember that four years ago all the pundits were gearing up for the seemingly inevitable presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Oops.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Diction Question: Is Calling a High School Principal an Idiot Redundant?

I’m beginning to think that the world holds more unicorns, hippogriffs, and yeti than high school principals with IQs above room temperature. It seems like every place you look, there’s another story about another principal doing something colossally stupid: suspending a girl for getting highlights in her hair, throwing a cheerleader off the team for refusing to cheer by name for her rapist, censoring a song the school choir had been working on for months because (gasp!) it was written by a gay guy.

The newest entrant in the World’s Most Incompetent Principal sweepstakes is Stacey Pullen of Bastrop, LA. Here’s the story: on Tuesday of this week, Ms. Pullen received an e-mail from a student who identified himself as an atheist. The student, who turns out to be graduating senior Damon Fowler, threatened to call the ACLU if the traditional prayer was included in the commencement ceremony. [Note: Fowler says in his Reddit account that he contacted the superintendent rather than (in addition to?) the principal.] After consulting with the school’s attorneys, Pullen decided to change the program. Speaking of programs, in the other sense of that term, the late decision also required re-printing the written documents describing the evening’s events at an “undetermined” cost.

So far, with the exception of having had a quite likely unconstitutional prayer as part of the graduation proceedings for rather a long time, no doubt, Principal Pullen had done nothing wrong. Jack Marshall is a lawyer and I’m not, so I’m going to believe him that prayer per se is not inherently unconstitutional. But here’s where our commentaries diverge: Marshall argues that the prayer might well have been legal, and that Fowler acted legally but unethically in insisting that his wishes not to have a prayer ought to trump those of the overwhelming majority who wanted one, and that, after all, a two-minute prayer is unlikely to do him lasting harm.

I, on the other hand, would point to the ready capitulation of the school after consulting with their lawyers, suggesting that there’s not only a really good chance that this particular manifestation of prayer not only is illegal now, but has been for some time. Laws, especially those dealing with rights defined by the Bill of Rights, need to be enforced even when no one complains: relegating African-Americans to the back of the bus wasn’t ethically supportable the day before Rosa Parks refused to move any more than it was the day after. If the school felt its actions were legal, of course, the correct course of action would have been to tell young Fowler that he was free to call the ACLU or anyone else, but there was going to be a prayer as part of graduation.

Moreover, I have a little experience with this sort of thing. I’ve never spoken at a graduation, but I was asked to deliver the invocation at the Honor Banquet my senior year. I was given strict instructions, however, not to privilege a particular religion over another, or indeed over no religion at all. That was 38 years ago; I might have hoped we’d have moved forward rather than backwards as a nation in terms of diversity in the intervening years.

But here’s the real kicker. It was the world’s worst-kept secret that a crowd of loud pseudo-Christians were conspiring to co-opt the moment of silence that had been substituted for the prayer and to turn it right back, not only into a prayer, but frankly into a rather nasty, divisive, one masquerading as something remotely inclusive. Note: prayers offered in humility to invoke God’s blessing are not greeted with whoops and cheers. I should mention that the video linked above is actually from what appears to have been the best-attended graduation rehearsal in history. But the graduation ceremony itself also included a senior girl, Laci Mae Mattice, detouring from the prescribed moment of silence to offer up the Lord’s Prayer, leading the audience in its recitation “if they wanted to,” presumably with Pullen standing mutely by. They might not be good at much at Bastrop High, but whoever teaches their course in Disingenuous is remarkably proficient.

As noted, the plans to carry out this little religious insurgency were public knowledge. Fowler had written about them: “they're talking about organizing a large vocal prayer during the moment of silence despite what I've done.” No, Damon, because, not despite. So Pullen had to have known, too. And rather than take over the moment of silence herself, or to take the microphone away from the girl who so smugly disobeyed the principal’s decision, Stacey Pullen did bupkes. Twice! Once at the rehearsal and again at the actual ceremony. Or, rather, she facilitated the whole charade by giving the floor over to the sanctimonious little brat who proceeded to do what everyone knew she was going to do.

Pullen, in other words, was either so incompetent she didn’t know what was going to happen, based on what student was given charge over the “moment of silence,” or she actively participated in undermining the intent, if not the letter, of the law. This latter possibility, which I suspect is the more likely scenario, consists of a smirky nudge-nudge-wink-wink born out of petulance towards Fowler and a seething contempt for real American—or Christian—values.

In the words of Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Marjorie S. Esman,
Public school officials must remember that they have a duty to uphold the law, to protect the rights of all of their students, and that any failure to do so costs money that should be spent in the classroom. Religious freedom has flourished in this country because we do not allow the government to promote one faith over others.
That sure sounds reasonable to me.

People who know me know that one of my favorite compliments is that a given individual is “good at his/her job.” I apply this to everyone from actors to veterinarians to waitresses, and it is an expression of great respect, whatever the job in question. It may be, as Jack Marshall writes, that Damon Fowler might grow up to be a jerk. He might even be one now. But Stacey Pullen is far worse: she is either colossally ignorant of her own students or a contemptible co-conspirator in a coordinated effort to embarrass one of her own seniors at his own graduation. Either way, she’s not good at her job.

Friday, May 20, 2011

It Was a Bad Week for the 4th Amendment

On Saturday, I wrote about an astounding case in the Indiana Supreme Court, in which the majority found that, 796 years of legal precedent notwithstanding, citizens do not have right to resist even an unlawful entry into their homes by police.

Not to be outdone in authoritarianism, the US Supreme Court on Monday issued its own mind-boggling decision to move us one step closer to a police state. While their ruling was not as transcendently stupid as the one in Indiana, it did have the advantage of having an 8-1 supermajority. No wimpy-assed little 3-2 margin here, no siree Bob.

Can we take as a starting place that if you’re seriously asserting that the Supreme Court of Kentucky sided too much with the civil libertarians, you’ve got a pretty damned reactionary SCOTUS? But that’s exactly what happened in Kentucky v. King, in which the nation’s highest court ruled overwhelmingly that a warrantless search can be justified by smelling marijuana and hearing unspecified noises which might be interpreted to suggest the destruction of evidence, even in the obvious absence of any attempt to do that.

Lexington police pursued a suspected drug dealer into a hallway in an apartment building. Faced with two possible doors through which the suspect might have exited, they smelled what they thought was marijuana smoke coming through one door, banged on the door, announced their presence, heard whatever they heard, kicked the door in, and found three people, one of whom was in fact smoking marijuana, plus “marijuana and powder cocaine in plain view.” By the way, the suspect wasn’t there.

The details are significant: for the initial search to be legal without a warrant: 1). the police must had a legitimate reason to believe the people in the apartment were doing something illegal, 2). they must have had cause to believe that evidence was about to be destroyed (not merely hidden--see below), 3). they must not have created that exigency themselves, 4). and it must have been impractical to secure the premises and get a warrant. For the subsequent search to have been legal in the absence of a warrant, there must have been other evidence already in plain sight.

Of those four criteria necessary to legitimize the arrest of the people in the apartment, then, (remember, all of which must be met in order for the search to be legal), I’ll give them maybe one and a half. That this is nonetheless enough for an authoritarian idiot like Samuel Alito does not shock me. That it’s enough for Elena Kagan is a little more troubling.

About the best the majority can offer is that there was the smell of marijuana, after all. True, I doubt that any of the cops in question could differentiate between the odor of marijuana and that of, say, the herbal cigarettes sometimes used in theatre productions to approximate dope-smoking, but I’ll give them that one. Is that enough to kick down a door without a warrant? For the Stasi, sure. For the Lexington Police, not so much.

Because, after all, we’re supposedly a nation of laws: so when policemen “[bang]” on your door “as loud as [they] could,” they are not “demanding” entry, because that, you see, would be illegal without a warrant, and our fine men in blue wouldn’t do that. No, pounding on a door screaming “This is the police” or “Police, Police, Police!” is little more than a polite request for conversation, tantamount to wanting to borrow a cup of sugar or wondering if the apartment's residents thought the Bengals were going to suck again this year. Notice that the cops can’t remember exactly what they said, but they remember that it was loud (because it has to be to fulfill one set of guidelines), and they definitely didn’t, for example, use the words “Open up,” because that would be unconstitutional. Uh huh.

The response to this conversation-opener was apparently “people inside moving.” OMG, NO! They might, of course, been moving toward the door to open it. They might have been walking away, since Justice Alito makes a big deal out of their right to do so:
… even if an occupant chooses to open the door and speak with the officers, the occupant need not allow the officers to enter the premises and may refuse to answer any questions at any time. Occupants who choose not to stand on their constitutional rights but instead elect to attempt to destroy evidence have only themselves to blame for the warrantless exigent-circumstances search that may ensue.
They will let just about anybody be on the Supreme Court, won’t they? The one thing we can pretty much conclude didn’t happen was an attempt to destroy evidence. How do we know? Because all the evidence remained in plain sight. The people in the apartment would have had to have been even more incompetent than the police to have that theory fit the evidence.

Here’s the necessary time-line: the suspected dealer (remember him?) runs down the hallway and presumably enters the apartment across the hall, quite possibly slamming the door behind him. The police follow, probably not silently. Deciding to follow the wisdom of the great criminologist Toucan Sam and follow their nose, the police pounded on the apartment door, announced their identity, heard noises, decided what those noises were, “explained” (love that word choice) their intention to enter the apartment, and kicked the door in. During this time, all three people in the apartment remained in the front room, the marijuana and cocaine stayed in plain sight, and the “guest” didn’t even bother to put out his doobie. Interestingly enough, while I find this the most compelling argument to believe that the cops did some ex post facto consultation about what might conceivably get them a conviction, the Kentucky Supreme Court didn’t wish to pursue the matter, allowing the exigency argument to be assumed for the sake of argument, thereby allowing the US court to do so, as well.

The Kentucky court centered its argument that the search was illegal on the idea that the police created their own exigency: that by pounding on the door and announcing their presence, they precipitated the (phantom) attempt to destroy evidence. In other words, had they simply applied for a warrant, they would have received one, as the smell of smoke would provide probable cause. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, echoing the Kentucky decision, wonders in her minority opinion
May police, who could pause to gain the approval of a neutral magistrate, dispense with the need to get a warrant by themselves creating exigent circumstances? I would answer no, as did the Kentucky Supreme Court. The urgency must exist, I would rule, when the police come on the scene, not subsequent to their arrival, prompted by their own conduct.
Justice Ginsburg argues further:
There was little risk that drug-related evidence would have been destroyed had the police delayed the search pending a magistrate’s authorization. As the Court recognizes, “[persons] in possession of valuable drugs are unlikely to destroy them unless they fear discovery by the police.” Nothing in the record shows that, prior to the knock at the apartment door, the occupants were apprehensive about police proximity.

The target of the investigation’s entry into the building, and the smell of marijuana seeping under the apartment door into the hallway, the Kentucky Supreme Court rightly determined, gave the police “probable cause . . . sufficient . . . to obtain a warrant to search the . . . apartment.” As that court observed, nothing made it impracticable for the police to post officers on the premises while proceeding to obtain a warrant authorizing their entry.
Remember, for the search to be legal, it’s got to be not just plausible, but likely, that things transpired the way I described above. Moreover, the exigency argument applies only to the destruction of evidence. If the people in the apartment were merely hiding that evidence, there is no legitimacy to breaking the door down. Ironically, if they had in fact successfully hidden the drugs just to the point that they were not in plain sight, there would be no question than a warrantless search would have been illegal.

Even the SCOTUS majority agrees that for “a warrantless search to stand, law enforcement officers must be responding to an unanticipated exigency rather than simply creating the exigency for themselves.” More importantly, they also grant that it is “a basic principle of Fourth Amendment law… that searches and seizures inside a home without a warrant are presumptively unreasonable.” In other words, it is not the apartment-dwellers’ responsibility to prove that the search violated 4th Amendment protections, but the state’s responsibility to prove that it did not.

Despite this, in large part because they simply assumed that the weakest part of the state’s case was true “for the sake of argument” (apparently because, and perhaps only because the Kentucky Supreme Court did so because they didn’t need that argument to decide against the police), a huge majority of the SCOTUS ruled the search was legal. Interestingly, had the police been competent enough to have chosen the right door on which to pound, it is much more certain they’d have needed a search warrant to enter the apartment of (apparently) a couple of small-time druggies. Police who know what the hell they’re doing need to follow the rules. It’s only the caricatures of the dumb and arrogant cop who, by virtue of their very unfitness to serve, are granted the privilege of ignoring the US Constitution.

This is serious. No, just as I don’t anticipate serial abuses of Indianans’ civil liberties as a result of that state’s absurd ruling last week, neither do I expect wholesale home invasions to stem from this SCOTUS decision. It is troubling, however, to consider the possibility that this case might be used to justify the unwarranted search of even a single citizen: a petty doper and coke-head now; perhaps just someone the police have a grudge against in the future. Some blogger who tends to disbelieve police stories without corroboration, for example.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Academic Freedom: What It Is and Isn't

One of the essential tenets of philosophical Taoism is the notion of the yin and the yang: that idea that opposites define each other. There can be no light without a concept of dark, no male without female, no strength without weakness, and so on. Indeed, a room, for example, is defined both by its boundaries rather than itself, and by the relative size of the nothingness it contains. I have, of course, been reminded of this concept this spring in teaching a course in Asian theatre, but recent events have called it to the forefront of my mind.

Specifically, I’ve been contemplating the concept of academic freedom in these terms: that is, for it to exist, it must also not exist. In other words, there must be activities which it covers and, importantly, activities it does not—I can discuss ideas and even express opinions without fear of losing my job over it (or at least I can do so since having been tenured), but that doesn’t mean I can do whatever the hell I want in my classroom. For one thing, as the Renaissance humanists as well as the Taoist sages made clear, there is no freedom without restraint: it is ontologically impossible for me to have freedom to punch you in the nose and simultaneously for you to be free from being thus punched. Moreover, in the specific context of academic freedom, since my freedom would be mere chaos without some boundaries, the imposition of those boundaries does not inherently abridge my rights, even if I disagree with the regulations in question.

Stanley Fish has an interesting opinion piece in today’s New York Times in which he looks at three recent cases in which the term “academic freedom” has been tossed around. As it happens, I’ve written about two of them, and come to pretty much the same conclusions as Fish (I should note that I seldom agree with Dr. Fish, at least to this extent): the brouhaha at the City University of New York about whether Tony Kushner would receive an honorary degree, and the Koch-funded gift to Florida State with a few too many strings attached.

On the former, here’s me:
I’ve been following the excellent coverage of George Hunka on this story, [who] makes the excellent point that “It is not a case of censorship or suppression…. Nor is it an attempt to render Kushner, his work and opinions invisible”…. the CUNY trustees generated their own personal tempest by being remarkably bone-headed.
And here’s Fish:
It was just the board screwing up with the predictable public-relations disaster as the result. No one’s freedom was curtailed, no one’s speech was censored, no harm, except to the board’s reputation and by extension to CUNY’s, was done.
On the Florida State case, me:
… the real blame attaches to David W. Rasmussen, the dean of the College of Social Sciences, who sees nothing wrong with selling out his program’s integrity: “it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it.” No, sir, what is irresponsible is chasing after dollars, even a lot of them, at the expense of the university’s control over its own curriculum.
And Fish:
Rasmussen says he is “sure some faculty will say this is not exactly consistent with their view of academic freedom.” The implication is that “their view” is a minority view or an over-fastidious view, but the view that university hiring and firing procedures shouldn’t dance to the tune of an external constituency is absolutely mainstream and is the core of what academic freedom stands for.
There are two more cases, one of which I hadn’t heard about, but which Fish references. Quoting here:
In early March, Professor John Michael Bailey of Northwestern University invited a couple to perform a live sex-act in front of the students in his course on Human Sexuality. (Attendance at the presentation was optional.) The man brought the (naked) woman to orgasm with the help of a device with a name this newspaper will not print.

Bailey defended himself by saying that such “events” provide “useful examples and extensions of concepts students learn about in traditional academic ways.” This statement amounts to acknowledging that the live-sex demonstration was outside the boundaries of academic practice (Bailey might respond that he was stretching the envelope) and it’s an easy step to conclude that it is not protected by academic freedom, by an instructor’s freedom to bring into a class whatever materials he thinks appropriate so long as they serve a legitimate pedagogical end. Bailey claims the live-sex demo did serve such an end because it was an extension of one of his course’s main themes, the diversity of sexual experience.
OK, give me a fucking break. (Or, same words, different order: Give me a break! Fucking?) You cannot convince me that this little escapade had anything whatsoever to do with a legitimate course function. It was voyeurism in the cause of professorial popularity/edginess/whatever, and nothing else. Therefore, as Professor Fish points out, it’s not covered by academic freedom, because “academic freedom is for academic activities and not for everything that happens to go on in a university building.”

No, re-assigning this prof to other courses is not a suppression of free speech, a violation of academic freedom, or anything like that. It is, in fact, a gift. He should simply have been fired. And whereas it is silly not to offer the course in the upcoming year based on the fact that it was once taught by a charlatan, putting the class on hold for a year neither disrespects the subject matter nor violates any tenets of appropriate academic conduct. Those who say otherwise, in Fish’s words, “are behaving as so many in the Kushner controversy did; they are crying academic freedom whenever a university does something they don’t like, and by doing so, they cheapen the concept.”

Finally, we come to a case Fish doesn’t mention. This is the episode at two University of Missouri campuses at which Judy Ancel (Kansas City) and Don Giljum (St. Louis) team-teach via electronic interaction a course in labor studies. The ever-despicable Andrew Breitbart (guess what?) deceptively edited some tapes he had no right to have access to in the first place, and smeared the two faculty members as advocates of violence. (There’s a good demonstration of the specifics here.) But, as I said in linking to the just-mentioned video clip on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page,
This isn't about Andrew Breitbart being a pathological liar. We knew that. It's about a university system believing in a thoroughly discredited, ultra-partisan, utterly immoral dirtbag like Breitbart over their own faculty until it was proved AGAIN that Breitbart would have to evolve to be pond scum, and that they were innocent of his accusations.
Given the fact that it appears Mr. Giljum was pressured into offering his resignation ("conditionally," whatever that means), it certainly appears that the Mizzou hierarchy panicked first and asked questions later.

More importantly, there are a host of legitimate scenaria whereby a professor might advocate (or pretend to advocate) violence, just as there are a host of legitimate scenaria whereby a law school professor might construct a hypothetical story about killing his dean. There might be a comparison to the perceived need for violence among some members of the civil rights movement, or the Irish Republican Army, or even the colonial militias of the American Revolution. Or maybe the prof just wants someone in that class to argue that violence isn’t the answer: a little engagement in an issue can go a long way.

But even if a professor really was arguing that violence is “just another tactic,” as it was for someone quoted by Professor Ancel (hence the “matter-of-factness” complained about by right-wing bloggers), I’d argue that such an assertion is precisely what academic freedom is designed to protect: provided, of course, that the course instructors do not require their students to agree with their conclusions. I offer my opinions all the time in class; most of the time, I reiterate that opinions are different than facts. Sometimes I don’t. But, significantly, I know where the weak points of my own point of view are: I often tell students that agreeing with me for all the right reasons is probably good for a B+. If you want an A, you’d better disagree with me for the right reasons.

But what I do in my classroom isn’t completely relevant, although I suspect that I’m not the only faculty member in the country who wonders whether today is the day that some student will show up in my class with a grudge, a recording device, and access to editing equipment. What matters here is that MU officials did backflips to accommodate Andrew freaking Breitbart, whose ethical transgressions on case after case after case are so egregious that Glenn Beck’s website feels compelled to point out his deceptive editing. An administration with the courage of a particularly nervous rabbit would tell him and his minions to take a long walk on a short pier. But, of course, they’re as craven as high school principals.

So: even if Ancel and Giljum did what they were accused of doing, their administration should have backed them up. But, given the source, it would be a reasonable surmise that Breitbart was lying (roughly as reasonable a surmise as that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow). The university, however, investigated them anyway, and dangled at least Mr. Giljum out to dry in the process. Now that’s a violation of academic freedom.

Today’s scoreboard, then:
Number of universities looking stupid: 4
Number of violations of academic freedom: 2

(EDIT: An interesting and provocative piece by Jack Marshall on the Northwestern case in particular, posted within an hour of this one, can be seen here.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

More on Budgets... and Moron Budgets

If you’ve been paying even a little attention lately, you’ve been hearing a lot about the federal deficit, which is ongoing, potentially crippling, and the subject of the rankest of hypocrisies from both sides of the aisle. Is raising the debt ceiling the first horseman of the apocalypse, as the Rush Limbaughs of the world would have us believe? Of course not. But the deficit is a serious issue, and one that won’t be solved without making some difficult choices.

And we’re going to continue to have a problem until and unless the Democrats decide to spend less and the Republicans decide to collect more. That’s an oversimplification, of course—the GOP certainly likes its military budget (well, except for actually paying the troops appropriately during and after their service: that part, the Republicans aren’t so good at), and the Democrats don’t want to raise taxes on anybody except the insanely wealthy, buying into the specious argument that with taxes the lowest they’ve been in two generations, it’s a struggle to survive on a mere $180K a year, even as the Dems try to claim they are the true representatives of families making a quarter of that.

But there some things we can agree on, and we ought to start there. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq need to be wound down sooner rather than later—or, alternatively, we need a coherent and well-documented rationale for staying. New weapons systems even the Pentagon says it doesn’t need get the axe. Subsidizing oil companies that are making record profits has got to stop. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed gutting of Social Security and Medicare is indeed “radical” and “right-wing social engineering,” as Newt Gingrich said it was before he started the ever-so-predictable walkback, but something really does have to be done (e.g. making FICA less regressive?). Finally, when we say we’re cutting the budget, we need to… you know… cut the budget, not actually increase spending, as the last so-called “cut” did.

On the income side, we could start by collecting what the BPs and Transoceans owe us, and above all to stop making excuses for their perfidy. More significantly, of course, as I’ve said before, we also need to raise taxes: a lot on the richest folks, some on most of us. The supply-side canard that the “rich create jobs” and are therefore to be exempt from feeling any of the pain suffered by teachers, cops, and similar leeches must be revealed as the daft and/or insidious dogma it is. The weeping and wailing about how the richest among us are paying a greater share of the taxes than at the beginning of the Reagan administration has got to stop, too, even though it’s technically true.

Here’s why: according to the Tax Policy Center, the top 1%’s share of the total tax burden in fact doubled from 1980-2007, from 14.2% to 28%. The top 10%’s share went from 40% to 55%. So the GOP has a point, right? Of course not. Because the wealth in this country has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands over that period. Figures from the the Tax Foundation demonstrate this shift. With the proviso that the definition of Adjusted Gross Income changed with the Tax Reform Act of 1986, so comparisons on opposite sides of that date aren’t strictly apples to apples, we see that in 1980 the top 1% made 8.46% of the income; in 2007, that was 20.81%. The figures for the 10%: 32.13% and 48.05%. (Note: the Tax Foundation has different numbers than those cited above. That’s because the Tax Policy Center includes Social Security and the Tax Foundation doesn’t.)

Let’s see how the math works out here. Between 1980 and 2007, the last year for which these statistics are available, the top 1%’s income as a percentage of the whole went up 146% and their tax burden went up 97%. The top 10%’s income went up just under 50%; their taxes, under 38%. What I’ve tried to create here are real statistics which, of course, can be read in multiple ways. Those on the left will see that the richest 1% of the population has seen their incomes rise once and a half as fast as their tax burden over the last generation or so; for the top 10%, it’s about once and a third as fast. So shut up, already, with the “rich pay more than before” arguments. They’re crap, and either you know it and you’re being disingenuous, or you’re transcendently ignorant and fit only to be a Vice Presidential candidate for the GOP.

Those on the right, however, will compare different statistics: they’ll concentrate on the fact that the rich are indeed being taxed at a higher rate than the rest of us. The top 1% pays 28% of the taxes on 21% of the income; the top 10% pays 55% of the taxes on 48% of the income. So the screams on the left that the wealthiest are paying virtually nothing are also so much fertilizer. (That claim is true about corporations, but that’s a rant for another day.)

There are lots of ways of either saving money or bringing more in. How about not sending difference checks for federal financial aid until courses have been completed successfully? This would also have the further benefit of incentivizing academic success. It would mean that students would need a little more of their own money up front; in exchange, we’d be subsidizing tens of thousands fewer lazy little bastards whose job it is to sign up for classes, get a difference check, and never go to class again until doing the same thing at a different school next time. Or how about raising the gasoline tax, bringing in about $1.4 billion a year per 1¢ increase? This would also incentivize fuel efficient vehicles, improve air quality, and provide a number of other advantages.

But we also need to be willing to say that saving a few million dollars actually matters. That aircraft engine that John Boehner wanted only because it would be built in southwestern Ohio? $450,000,000 is a lot of money in my neighborhood, even if represents only a fraction of one per cent of the deficit, let alone of the entire budget. The amount of money to be saved by eliminating energy company subsidies? About $20 billion a year: a little over 1% of the deficit. I actually just read an article (alas, I can’t find it to link) that suggested that it isn’t worth the bother to save a mere $20,000,000,000. Seriously, where do they find these people?

But even smaller wastes of money matter. How about this one: $2 million for cameras so that parents can see what their kids are eating for lunch at school. Really. Dr. Lloyd Werk, Chief of Consultative Pediatrics at Nemours Children's Clinic in Orlando, says this is a way to fight childhood obesity. Dr. Lloyd Werk is an idiot. Does he really think that a parent who can’t see that Junior is as wide as he is tall is going to suddenly start taking an interest in a healthy diet just because of some Junior Spy-Cam photographs? Or that what a kid eats at lunch, as opposed to between classes, after school, etc., is the problem? Or that asking the kid what he had for lunch wouldn’t generate the same results for a shitpile less money? Seriously, I can’t decide whether I’m most appalled by this project as a civil libertarian, as a taxpayer, or simply as a thinking adult. I’m leaning towards this last option.

This is an Agriculture Department project, but you know as well as I do that supporters and especially critics will tag it to Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. The Obamas—both of them—ought to run, not walk, away from this inanity. For one thing, it’s really bad politics. $2 million may be a drop in the federal government’s very large bucket, but it sure sounds like a lot of money to the average taxpayer. Of course, there’s going to be an interview with some Tea Party guru in every city in the country when this story finds its way to the local news, all of them suggesting that this is precisely the kind of wasteful spending they seek to eliminate. Trouble is, this time, with the surety of a stopped clock, they’re right. And that’s the real reason to ditch this program: not because it’s a political nightmare waiting to happen (although it is), but because it’s, well, stupid.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

On the Perils of Humorlessness

Sometimes, even when you might technically have a case, the smart thing to do is to STFU. This would have been the advice I’d have offered Peabody Coal had they asked me how to respond to a parodic “ad” for free inhalers for kids sickened by coal-related pollution, posted online by the Yes Men on their snarky and (of course) totally fake website,, and circulated widely via social media.

But, curiously enough, they didn’t ask me, and I’m pretty certain wouldn’t have listened if they had done so. No, humorless corporations whose record of poisoning adults and children alike is well-documented by folks like, say, the American Lung Association tend to have a little bit of an arrogant streak.

So when the Yes Men launched their phony inhaler campaign (“Baby’s First Inhaler: My First Breath,” “Batman: Breathe Deep with the Dark Knight,” “Diamond: Diamonds are an Asthmatic’s Best Friend,” etc.), Peabody decided to counter-attack. They trotted out their legal department and sent a cease and desist letter to the Yes Men, threatening DIRE CONSEQUENCES if the “ad” didn’t stop referring to Peabody within 24 hours. The Yes Men, of course, laughed at them, and posted their response for all to see. They have apparently seen the light, and have decided to “[change] every instance of the word ‘Peabody’ on to a rotating selection of the names of other large U.S. coal producers who, like Peabody, also need to be stopped from killing kids.” They did, however, seem contrite that they had “falsely suggest[ed] that Peabody cares about kids made sick by coal.” And, in a post-script, they suggest that they would be “grateful” if Peabody “would stop misquoting the [World Resources Institute] and issue a corrective statement within the next 24 hours.” Uh, Peabody think-tankers: that didn’t go well.

First off, as suggested above, the public is reminded of the fact that “clean coal technology” is little (if anything) more than a catch phrase trotted out by politicians (including candidate Obama) when they want to get votes in places like Kentucky and West Virginia. It has little if any present-tense resemblance to any universe actually inhabited by people. So whatever legal standing Peabody may have had pales in comparison to the presumably unwanted publicity about just how dangerous to the public health their industry actually is. I can certainly tell you that had they not responded to the Yes Men’s gag (which I had seen, smiled about, and pretty much forgotten), I wouldn’t have been prompted to dig up this neat little map compiled by the Clean Air Task Force, showing death and disease attributable to power plants.

I keep skirting the issue of whether Peabody actually has a legal case. That’s because this is iffy territory. They don’t (and they acknowledged that they don’t) have the right to shut down the website in question. They might have a copyright claim, if and only if they can demonstrate that reasonable people believed the gag to be, well, not a gag. I confess that the joke was not immediately obvious to me, although I did catch on before getting to the part about making inhalers “cool.” Part of the problem, of course, is that satire relies for its effect on some semblance of truth: this does, at first glance, look like the stupid PR campaign of some multi-billion dollar corporation.

This incident is both similar to and different from the furor over the most famous fake ad ever—or at least the first one I think of: National Lampoon’s 1972 spoof of a Volkswagen ad, showing a VW bug floating on a river and proclaiming “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” I still talk about this fake ad today, as an example of the ephemerality of satire. I tell students what the fake ad shows, acknowledge their blank stares, and then explain. Everyone in 1972 got the joke, but today’s undergraduates are unlikely to know either, let alone both, key ingredients to the humor: the Volkswagen ad campaign suggesting the beetle was so well-made it floats, and the circumstances surrounding the death of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts; Ms. Kopechne apparently drowned when a car driven by Senator Kennedy ended up in the river.

The gag, of course, was funny because it might well have been true. Subsequently, the fake ad may well have had the presumably unintended consequence of keeping Senator Kennedy from running for the presidency in 1976. By the time he actually tested those waters in 1980, he ran against a sitting President of his own party, and his primary campaign, inevitably negative about the incumbent, probably contributed to the electoral annihilation of Jimmy Carter in November (not that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have won, anyway, but probably not quite so resoundingly). But one wonders what would have happened had Volkswagen (not Kennedy) not kept the story going by suing the National Lampoon for, you guessed it, copyright infringement. National Lampoon ultimately withdrew the ad (by razor blade, according to some accounts) from all unsold copies of the issue in question, destroyed the master, and issued the world’s greatest-ever retraction: “Even if Ted Kennedy had driven a Volkswagen he wouldn’t be President today.”

Apparently Volkswagen was getting irate letters from (stupid) customers, carrying on about how the ad is in bad taste (ya think?) and—here’s the important part—how they’re so shocked and outraged that they’ll never buy another VW. So whereas there is nothing at all defamatory to Volkswagen in the fake National Lampoon ad, it may have been that they made the right call in suing the magazine. Senator Kennedy, who obviously couldn’t have been pleased, didn’t sue, but he nonetheless suffered the consequences of the fact that VW’s suit kept the “ad,” and hence Chappaquiddick, in the public consciousness.

Peabody, on the other hand, really is being humiliated—rightly so, in my opinion, but that part doesn’t figure into this analysis—and they’ve apparently had a fair number of phone calls about the free inhalers, but they still would have been wise to let this one just fade out of the public consciousness. As I said earlier, I’d honestly forgotten about the fake ad already, and it first appeared… maybe a week ago? Not now. No, the smart guys at Peabody had to get all snotty and indignant. So I got reminded of their greed, their pomposity, and their total disregard for the health issues the fake ad highlights. And now… you’ve been reminded, too.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What's 800 (OK, 796) Years Among Friends?

You know when, as a judge, you might want to think twice about a decision you’re about to make? How about when that ruling can lead to a news story that can legitimately open with the words, “Overturning a common law dating back to the English Magna Carta of 1215…”? But that’s precisely how Dan Carden of the Northwest Indiana Times (and began his story about the most recent action of the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled that citizens do not have the right to resist unlawful police entry into their homes.

The case in question involved a domestic dispute which took place outside a couple’s apartment. As Carden tells it, “When the couple went back inside their apartment, the husband told police they were not needed and blocked the doorway so they could not enter. When an officer entered anyway, the husband shoved the officer against a wall. A second officer then used a stun gun on the husband and arrested him.”

I’m not going to pretend to know more about the law than a bunch of judges, but I do have a reasonable layman’s understanding of the Bill of Rights, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at the 4th Amendment in particular. I also remember basic history courses, and that one of the most significant provisions of the Magna Carta was the right to resist the unwarranted (literally!) intrusion of the state and its minions into a private residence. And now, in Indiana, at least, that most basic right of citizenship is being abandoned in the name of utilitarian cleanliness: someone might get hurt, we can’t “beat the hell out of the officer” (who, exactly, was claiming that right?), the citizen can still sue, it’s against “public policy” (whatever that means), and is “incompatible with modern Fourth Amendment jurisprudence” (Bullshit.).

OK. There will be readers of this piece who know the law better than I do, and I’m asking them to correct me if I’m wrong in any of this. But it seems to me that if we acknowledge that the police entry was unlawful, then the officer(s) in question lacked a warrant, consent, or exigent circumstances. That means that the policeman has, legally, ceased to be functioning as a policeman, and his actions become those of a private citizen. In pushing his way past someone blocking the door, he has committed assault and trespassing—maybe they’re called something different, but that’s the idea.

These are criminal acts, not (only) the stuff of civil suits, regardless of what Justice Steven David says. I don’t want to sue the cop tomorrow; I want him the hell out of my house today, and if his entry is unlawful, then it is he, not (or at least more than) I, who is escalating the potential of violence. If the government wants to reduce that threat, it can provide better training, tougher sanctions, or indeed whatever else it might take to keep that policeman out of a private residence, without cause, to begin with. Casually dismissing the basic rights of the individual as inconvenient doesn’t seem to be the way to go.

It may be that in the particular case under question that the ruling is the correct one. We don’t know the exact meaning of “shoved,” for example (there’s certainly a possibility that the apartment-dweller did something criminal, too), and the two justices voting in the minority both said they’d have supported the decision had it been narrower in scope: limiting the permission to domestic violence situations, for example. Of course, then there would be a legitimate claim of exigent circumstances, and the entry wouldn’t be unlawful to begin with.

I have to agree with both dissenting justices:

Robert Rucker: “…the majority sweeps with far too broad a brush by essentially telling Indiana citizens that government agents may now enter their homes illegally -- that is, without the necessity of a warrant, consent or exigent circumstances.”

Brent Dickson: “The wholesale abrogation of the historic right of a person to reasonably resist unlawful police entry into his dwelling is unwarranted and unnecessarily broad.”

This is not, by the way, a partisan matter: there are both Republican and Democratic appointees on both sides of the issue (at least if you call Evan Bayh a Democrat, which of course technically he was, even if he didn’t govern like one). Of course, this is a case in which left/right taxonomies are less useful than distinctions between the authoritarian and the libertarian. It will be interesting to see where the Tea Party comes down on this one: their rhetoric suggests that this might be the sort of case that propagates strange bedfellows, much like the Kelo case at the national level a few years ago. We shall see, as I strongly suspect the SCOTUS will be weighing in on this one.

In the meantime, I don’t anticipate that jackbooted thugs will crash through my door without any reasonable cause in the foreseeable future. But it seems to me that eight centuries of precedent ought to mean a little more than it just did in Indianapolis.