Friday, July 29, 2011

If it seems too [bad] to be true...

I was reminded recently of the Tawana Brawley case by Jack Marshall’s rightfully indignant response to Al Sharpton’s being hired by MSNBC. (Don’t get me started on that one.) It appears to me we’ve got another variation on the theme: a young African-American woman making false charges about race and generating far more heat than light.

One way or another, there’s something very wrong going on in McGehee, Arkansas. Courthouse News Service reports that Kymberly Wimberly (please, God, someone tell me she goes by “Kym” or “K-Dub” or something) received only a single B in her career at McGehee Secondary School while taking AP courses and similar academically-oriented fare. That academic record gave her the highest grade-point average in her school. She claims she should have been declared the school’s sole valedictorian, and alleges in lawsuit filed in federal court that the reason she wasn’t declared as such was because she is African-American.

When I first saw this story, I linked it on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, exclaiming, “Are you freaking kidding me?!?!?”. I admit it: I was drawn in by the headlines. But even at the time, there was that voice in the back of my head saying the story seemed too much. Really? Someone would prevent a young black woman from being valedictorian based on race? And (in effect) say so? It just seemed like there was something we weren’t seeing. Because, as I said in a comment, “This just COULDN'T be true... could it?”. If it seems too good (or too bad) to be true, it probably is.

Certainly the case has generated a lot of coverage in both the MSM and the blogosphere. There has been little real reporting, mostly just righteous dudgeon at the horrible abuse suffered by this young woman—a mother, no less (there’s even one commentator who suggests that it’s because she’s a mother… and black… that she’s the victim here). What’s clear here is the danger—and we’re all susceptible to it—of thinking we know the pertinent information of a dispute after hearing only half of the facts.

There’s a lot of circumstantial and hearsay evidence, much of it from her mom, who is a “certified media specialist” (whatever the hell that is) at the school. According to the suit, “school administrators and personnel treated two other white students as heir apparent to the valedictorian and salutatorian spots.” The mother was told by a counselor that Kymberly would be valedictorian. But, according to the lawsuit, although Ms. Wimberly had the best grades, “other school personnel expressed concern that [her] status as valedictorian might cause ‘a big mess.’” (It’s not clear what was meant by these alleged remarks: it’s possible that it was telling Ms. Wimberly prematurely that created the problem.)

As it happens, Principal Darrell Thompson decided to name co-valedictorians, the other one (coincidentally?) being white. Whether, as he claims in a CNN story on the case, he would have made the same decision had the roles been reversed is, of course, the crux of the controversy. The suit declares explicitly that he would not have done so. Superintendent Thomas Gathen (who is African-American himself, but, in the words of the suit, “serves at the pleasure of the predominantly Caucasian School Board”) claims, and I bet you’re shocked by this, “This is strictly an academic issue and a policy issue, not a racial issue.”

There is a policy, invoked by Thompson and subsequently supported by Gathen, that “If two or more students take the same or equivalent course work and receive the same grades of ‘A,’ a student with a greater number of courses will not be penalized.” To say that the policy is poorly written is to err rather more on the side of understatement than of hyperbole. But what I think it means is this: taking an extra course and getting a B won’t hurt you in your attempt to be valedictorian, assuming you have as many A’s as your competitor. Apparently, this clause became relevant this year.

CNN reports that “Gathen said [that] Wimberly’s co-valedictorian had half a credit more than Wimberly and the difference in the students’ GPAs was .03 or .05.” (He doesn’t know which?) A half credit isn’t a lot of difference, and no one disputes that Wimberly was taking difficult courses. But the difference of a couple hundredths of a point isn’t much, either.

Wimberly and her mother claim that the school has long discriminated against its African-American students. CNN, again: “‘Black students are meant to stay in regular course levels and mostly play sports,’ Wimberly said. ‘That’s what we’re good at that that’s what we should stick to—that’s the mentality of McGehee.’” This allegation may be true, but the evidence adduced to demonstrate the purported pattern is, I must say, pretty shaky. There hasn’t been a black valedictorian in a generation, although nearly half of the school’s students are African-American. That’s enough to make one raise an eyebrow. But really, that’s all there is.

Wimberly was the only African-American in the AP English class… of seven students. Apparently the phrase “statistically insignificant” is not part of the plaintiff’s active vocabulary. Reuters says there are 340 students in grades 9-12, so the graduating class would be about 80, figuring senior classes tend to be a little smaller than freshman classes because of dropouts. It’s a small school, but that’s still enough to give the lie to the allegation in the lawsuit that “Caucasian students had to almost opt out of being assigned to the honor’s [sic.] track.” Assuming graduating classes have roughly the same demographic profile as the widely-reported 54% white statistic, and figuring 80 graduates a year, that means 43 white students per graduating class: therefore, fewer than 14% took the AP English class, barely over 9% took AP biology. Color me unimpressed with the whole “almost opt out” line of argument.

It might also be worth pointing out that the whole reason there’s an issue here is that Ms. Wimberly got very good grades, suggesting that she was not the victim of any kind of discrimination in that regard. Oh, and she told Reuters she graduated with a 4.0, although she did have that one B. That makes her either a liar or a lot worse at math than she’d like to let on. She did, no doubt, come very close to a 4.0… just as the other student did come very close to her GPA.

More significantly, what has she lost? Exclusivity. She can still claim to have been valedictorian, still put it on her résumé, still brag about it if she wants (it’s unclear whether she does want to, but her mother sure as hell does). All she can’t say is that she was the only valedictorian at her high school. And seriously, who does that, anyway? One of the local high schools in this area named six co-valedictorians a couple years ago.

As it happens, my old high school had a controversy about who was going to be valedictorian three years after I graduated. I know with that precision because one of the principal players in the case was my best friend’s brother, who appeared to be heading for valedictorian status until another student transferred in and, on the basis of less than a year’s grades, was declared valedictorian over students who had been in the system all along. Fair? Not really. But not really unfair, either. That young woman had a right to be (or to attempt to be) valedictorian somewhere. It wasn’t her fault her father got a new job. So the presumptive valedictorian became salutatorian, and the presumptive salutatorian was dropped to third position. And you know what? It wasn’t the end of the world. (Maybe “co-valedictorians” would have been a good solution, actually.)

To be sure, McGehee Secondary School didn’t cover itself with glory, either. Ann Stobaugh, the guidance counselor who told her co-worker, Molly Bratton (Wimberly’s mother), that Wimberly would be valedictorian acted unprofessionally: that announcement, clearly, should come from the principal. If Stobaugh had shut up about information that a). wasn’t final and b). wasn’t hers to disseminate, there would probably have been no problem.

The idea that someone would be prevented from addressing the school board because she filled out a form for “public comments” instead of for “public participation” is beyond stupid—and I have little trouble believing that allegation. Further investigation may lend substantiation to claims of racial bias at that school. But frankly, I doubt it.

It’s pretty clear that Mr. Thompson didn’t do a very good job of explaining his reasoning: indeed, his claim of responsibility for the decision is itself problematic, as the policy remains objective, even if arcane. It would appear that Thompson corrected an error: the other student not only could, but—according to the school handbook—had to be named co-valedictorian. There doesn’t appear to have been a “decision” other than to follow policy. It may be a dumb rule, but it’s not outrageous or discriminatory. Not enforcing it would be grounds for a lawsuit. (Thompson does get points for accepting responsibility, however, even if he did so clumsily.)

Absent more proof than they offer, it is manifest that Ms. Wimberly, Ms. Bratton, and lawyer John W. Walker seek victimhood. In doing so, they show themselves to be boorish, petty, selfish, grand-standing whiners, willing to sacrifice the reputation of education professionals for the sake of notoriety and a few dollars. Worse, they help to de-legitimize the claims those who really are the victims of racism. Such people do exist, and it is they, not Ms. Wimberly, who have lost something in this “big mess.”

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"I'm Erick, and I'm a Pseudo-Christian Moron." "Hi, Erick."

There’s a wonderfully instructive post by the reliably stupid Erick Erickson over on

Erickson was certainly not alone in buying into the easy narrative coming out of Norway that the terroristic attacks there were perpetrated by Islamic radicals. The New York Times, the BBC, and other allegedly reputable outlets all signed on without bothering to do any… you know… fact-checking or real reporting. (There’s a good chronicle of how what is now pretty clearly a false report spread here.) The sloth of the mainstream media is, of course, a running theme on this blog: a couple of the more recent examples are here, here, and—perhaps most relevantly—here.

But Erickson is a special case: he’s stupid enough to try to be clever: he tweeted “Terrorist bombing in Oslo. I bet you it was not Lutherans who did it.” Well, Erick, ol’ boy, I bet you lost that bet.

Still, most of us have confidently, even smugly, made a prediction that didn’t turn out to be accurate. The difference between you and me on the one hand, Gentle Reader, and wastes of potentially useful protoplasm like Erick Erickson on the other is precisely this: when we screw up, we admit it, apologize, and move on. He, on the other hand, while admitting he has a fair amount of egg on his face, wants to blame everyone else for his lapse. In this, of course, he is not unlike a lot of self-styled pundits, mostly but by no means exclusively on the right, who simply cannot admit that they got one wrong.

You see, it’s not that his prejudice blinded him to the possibility that an act of terrorism might be perpetrated by the quintessential Aryan (after all, Europe has never had any trouble with that lot, right?). It’s those wild-eyed leftie pinkos in the media who are always making excuses for Muslims. After all,
In the Arkansas army shootings and the Ft. Hood shooting and a host of others, the media and the left have sought to downplay any possible connection to Islam the attackers or would be attackers have had. And when those of us on the right have pointed it out, we’ve been accused of racism and those on the left have demanded to know why it even mattered.
Really, because all I heard for days was about how Nidal Hassan was Islamic, and the New York Times article, for example, (I just picked one at random from the list of allegedly left-leaning media sources) on the Arkansas shootings includes this: “In a lengthy interview with the police, Mr. Muhammad said he was angry about the killing of Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chief Thomas said. Previously known as Carlos Bledsoe, Mr. Muhammad told investigators that he had converted to Islam as a teenager, Chief Thomas said.” By the way, that was in paragraph 6 (see below). Sounds to me like there’s no cover-up there.

Ah, but Erick the Oblivious isn’t done yet: “Contrast that with the coverage of the Oslo shooter and already the New York Times is making sure in its first few paragraphs everyone knows the guy described himself on Facebook as a ‘conservative Christian.’” Might that be because he’s a conservative Christian? Oh, and confessed culprit Anders Behring Brevik isn’t identified as “right-wing” in the first Times article to identify him until paragraph 11 or as a Christian until paragraph 16 (see above). He was in fact described as a “right-wing fundamentalist Christian” in a follow-up report, only after what the Times describes as “a detailed manifesto calling for a Christian war to defend Europe against the threat of Muslim domination” came to light. (OK, that one was in paragraph 5: you got me, there.)

In fact, if a perspicacious reader were to be troubled by the Times’s reporting, the distress would more likely be founded on sentences like the following, taken from a since-removed article: “Terrorism specialists said that even if the authorities ultimately ruled out terrorism as the cause of Friday's assaults, other kinds of groups or individuals were mimicking al-Qaida's signature brutality and multiple attacks.” You catch that? The clear implication is two-fold: 1). it isn’t terrorism unless it’s Islamic terrorism, and 2). it’s still al-Qaida’s fault. This is the allegedly pro-Islamic, anti-Christian coverage that has Erickson’s skivvies in a twist.

In fact, Glenn Greenwald has a point when he argues:
Thus: if it turns out that the perpetrators weren’t Muslim (but rather “someone with more political motivations”—whatever that means: it presumably rests on the inane notion that Islamic radicals are motivated by religion, not political grievances), then it means that Terrorism, by definition, would be “ruled out” (one might think that the more politically-motivated an act of violence is, the more deserving it is of the Terrorism label, but this just proves that the defining feature of the word Terrorism is Muslim violence). The final version of the NYT article inserted the word “Islamic” before “terrorism” (“even if the authorities ultimately ruled out Islamic terrorism as the cause”), but—as demonstrated above—still preserved the necessary inference that only Muslims can be Terrorists. Meanwhile, in the world of reality, of 294 Terrorist attacks attempted or executed on European soil in 2009 as counted by the EU, a grand total of one—1 out of 294—was perpetrated by “Islamists.”
Of course, minor details like facts never get in the way of Erickson’s narrative. Ultimately, however, this part of Erickson’s baseless screed isn’t really the troublesome part. Idiot conservative commentators’ lying about the facts is hardly news. Then we get this: “The fact of the matter is violence and Islam may not be very common among American muslims, but internationally it is extremely common and can fairly well be considered mainstream within much of Islam.” Once again, of course, the accusation is unmitigated bullshit (see Greenwald’s numbers, for example, which come not from some random guy with a Twitter account, but from the European Union’s Terrorism Situation and Trend Report for 2010). Ultimately, Erickson’s argument boils down to an allegation that wacko Christians aren’t really Christian, but wacko Muslims are really Muslims. Just because Erickson says so. The really outrage is yet to come, however:
Secular leftists and Islamists are both of this world. Christians may be traveling through, but we are most definitely not of the world. In fact, Christ commands us to throw off our ties to this world. But the things of this world love this world and hate the things of God. That’s why secular leftism can embrace both activist homosexuals and activist muslims when the latter would, when true to their faith, be happy to kill the former.
In fact, Mr. Erickson, you bigoted asshat, Christ tells us to love one another. That’s why “secular left[ists]” like me can embrace homosexuals and Muslims: because they are God’s creatures, made in His image. Because we, not pseudo-Christian pietists like yourself, who read only the parts of the Bible that conform to your manifold prejudices, actually try to emulate the compassion embodied in Jesus. We might not do it for that reason, but that’s what a belief in social programs, in Welfare and Social Security, in health care for all is—that’s what we believe in. And I’m here to tell you, you mendacious Mammon-worshipper, that Jesus is a lot more likely to be on our side than on yours.

I will grant you one thing, though: you are “most definitely not of this world.” We don’t mind your visiting our planet, and we hope you enjoy your stay. Just don’t try to pretend you live here.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

My Kingdom for a Grown-Up

There are strange developments in Boston. I suppose that’s nothing new, but bear with me. The US Attorney’s office has indicted Aaron Swartz, erstwhile Fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics (could I make this up?), for multiple offenses stemming from his downloading of some 4.8 million academic articles from JSTOR, a non-profit clearinghouse which allows libraries and researchers access to digitized copies of over 1000 academic journals.

I should perhaps mention here that JSTOR, a project of the Ithaka organization, provides a wonderful service to academic libraries—the annual fee, though substantial, is far less than the subscription price to all those journals. Moreover, the scholar himself or herself can access the database directly, saving the time of librarians at both ends of an Inter-Library Loan transaction without costing the scholar anything: filling out a form is filling out a form, and I know from personal experience that there’s actually less busy-work involved in downloading an article from JSTOR than there is in executing an ILL request. Furthermore, the articles appear on the researcher’s computer screen in a matter of seconds, not days. Finally, of course, libraries needn’t worry about finding shelf-space for all those journals or hiring people to put the volumes on those shelves: a savings of both time and money.

Anyway, I found out about this case from a professional colleague: a Dean at a reputable west-coast university, and a man not given to fits of temperament. And yet, he posted a link on his Facebook page to a petition site run by Swartz’s organization, Demand Progress, with the comment “This is what we choose to prosecute? If you are not outraged, you haven't been paying attention.” Demand Progress, whose mission is “to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing, lobbying, and elections in the United States,” is perhaps the principal opponent of Senator Patrick Leahy’s PROTECT IP Act.

That organization provides a handful of juicy comments about the over-reaching government. Here are a few:
James Jacobs, the Government Documents Librarian at Stanford University: "Aaron's prosecution undermines academic inquiry and democratic principles. It's incredible that the government would try to lock someone up for allegedly looking up articles at a library."

John Schwartz of the New York Times: “A respected Harvard researcher who also is an Internet folk hero has been arrested in Boston on charges related to computer hacking, which are based on allegations that he downloaded articles that he was entitled to get free.”

Nancy Scola of The American Prospect: “…it's easy to forget that there's something at all controversial or oppositional about accessing information, or that some people really, really want data to be free -- and others don't. Open data has been mainstreamed. Whatever hacker-culture roots the free information movement might have are subsumed by the idea that simply everyone agrees that data is meant to be free, and the struggle is over the mechanics of freeing it. That's never really been true, as Swartz's case makes plain.”
Then, we can throw in the comments of David Segal, who succeeded Swartz as Executive Director of Demand Progress: “This makes no sense. It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library. It’s even more strange because the alleged victim has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they’ve suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute.”

All told, it’s a pretty scathing indictment of the indictment, right? Well, if I might steal a schtik from Johnny Carson: not so fast, bibliography breath. True, what Swartz did doesn’t match up with any commonly-accepted definition of “hacking.” True, he “stole” only items which, taken individually, he had every right to take. True, the threat of a 35-year prison sentence and a $1 million fine is absurd. (The maximum penalty in Massachusetts for Rape of a Child with Force, for example, is 25 ½ years; for larceny of over $50,000, it’s 90 months, or precisely a quarter of what Mr. Swartz faces, not counting the fine.) True, while Mr. Segal’s claim that JSTOR asked the government not to prosecute may be exaggerated, it wasn’t an outright prevarication. JSTOR’s official statement includes this paragraph:
The criminal investigation and today’s indictment of Mr. Swartz has been directed by the United States Attorney’s Office. It was the government’s decision whether to prosecute, not JSTOR’s. As noted previously, our interest was in securing the content. Once this was achieved, we had no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter.
Is the DOJ making waaaayyyy too big a deal out of this? Of course. Is Mr. Swartz a grandstanding prick? Yep.

Lost in the bluster of Swartz’s defenders are the facts. He purposefully created a series of dummy accounts to evade identification, purposefully broke into a computer wiring closet and hid a laptop there to avoid detection at MIT, created such a load on the JSTOR servers that they crashed several times, apparently claimed that he was going to disseminate the articles free, etc. It may be true that JSTOR didn’t push for a criminal indictment, but they are hardly the only injured party. Scholars who couldn’t access the site’s inventory were affected on multiple occasions; those at MIT were inconvenienced longer, while JSTOR and university officials sought to deny access to someone they specifically kicked off the site.

More importantly—to me, at least—are some basics that might not be considered by those who aren’t academics. First, JSTOR provides a very valuable service. They can do so by charging libraries for access and then spending that money on distribution rights to the journals in question. The journals, whether they are sponsored by a university or a professional organization, need subscription revenue, however that is achieved, to survive. Allowing Swartz and his ilk to short-circuit the process may seem like a good idea in the short term, but ultimately it disrupts an efficient and largely just system.

The fact is, most legitimate scholars already have access to JSTOR: my university is hardly research-oriented, but our library has a subscription. An independent scholar can usually get guest passes through a local institution or by way of his/her alma mater. More to the point: what JSTOR charges for is, essentially, convenience. If a journal is in the JSTOR inventory, I can get an article published in it quickly and without charge. If not, I can still get that article without charge via Inter-Library Loan: it just takes longer. Like other scholars, I try to leave myself enough lead time to be able to access articles not housed in my university library or on the JSTOR network this way. But there are times when I discover the existence of an article only a couple of days before I need to finish a final draft of, say, a conference paper.

Most significantly, the whole “information wants to be free” argument needs to be exposed for the claptrap it is. The most egregious articulation of this pseudo-argument is buried at the bottom of a post on the Huffington Post site: After the subhead, “Reddit Cofounder, Progressive Activist Arrested for Some Bullshit,” we get this: “JSTOR's the one that should be in prison, man, for locking up knowledge.” Unfreakingbelievable. JSTOR is in the knowledge dissemination business, as anyone a). with a modicum of understanding of the way scholarship works, or b). who bothers to do a little homework, would know. They have no monopoly: you can get that information through other means. It isn’t JSTOR who is pressing charges. In short, it’s the HuffPo blogger’s indignation, not the arrest of Mr. Swartz, that is founded on copious quantities of bovine excrement.

Let’s review: Swartz is a brat who deserves to be spanked and sent to bed without his dinner. The US Attorney’s office needs more bran in its cumulative diet. Most of the commentators have no idea what they’re talking about. MIT’s security system apparently was slightly less effective than the Maginot Line. Meanwhile, the folks at JSTOR issued what amounts to a “cease and desist” order, got what they wanted, and went back to making scholars’ lives a little easier. It’s nice to know there are still a few grown-ups out there, even if they’re in the minority.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

These Truths Won't Set You Free.

There has been a spate of honesty from the right in the last few days—no, not anything really substantive, like an admission that tax breaks for millionaires don’t really create jobs, or that the only reason to support literally negative taxation on oil companies is that they’re really good campaign contributors.

But still, the revelation that Teri Adams, the head of the Independence Hall Tea Party, really does want to destroy public education is pretty significant. So is the overt cynicism of Mitch McConnell, who really isn’t having a good week. McConnell has a habit—an annoying one, no doubt, to his brethren on the right—of saying out loud what most of us already know: that nothing is more important to him than getting control of the government back from the Democrats. That would include, of course, getting the economy going… because if that were to happen, President Obama might get the credit.

And, just as he burbled after the 2010 elections that the centerpiece of his legislative agenda would be to prevent the re-election of Mr. Obama, now he’s abdicating any role in the negotiations about raising the debt ceiling:
I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy. It didn't work in 1995. What will happen is the administration will send out notices to 80 million Social Security recipients and to military families and they will all start attacking members of Congress. That is not a useful place to take us. And the president will have the bully pulpit to blame Republicans for all this disruption.

If we go into default he will say Republicans are making the economy worse. And all of a sudden we have co-ownership of a bad economy. That is a very bad position going into an election. My first choice was to do something important for the country. But my second obligation is to my party and my conference to prevent them from being sucked into a horrible position politically that would allow the president, probably, to get reelected because we didn't handle this difficult situation correctly.
Senator McConnell is an ass, of course, but that’s not exactly a revelation. Nor is it exactly shocking that a politician—any politician of any political stripe—would choose policy decisions based on politics rather than on a good-faith consideration of the consequences. What’s different is that McConnell is so forthright in his utter disdain for anything that might actually help solve problems. His objective now is what it has been all along: to put a Republican in the White House. And the best way to do that is to make sure the economy doesn’t get better in the next 16 months.

Interestingly, the McConnell plan in all its crassness is despised by one and all. Democrats think it’s a trap; Republicans think it’s a surrender. What is universally accepted, however, is that it is all about politics and not even a little bit about policy.

Here’s Kevin Drum of Mother Jones:
This is possibly the most juvenile, most buck passing, most transparently mendacious proposal I can recall from any party leader in recent memory. The bright idea here is to force Democrats to repeatedly vote to raise the debt ceiling during campaign season, and to repeatedly force Obama to lay out enormous budget cuts that have no purpose except to piss off interest groups. The whole thing is so patently, ridiculously political that it's breathtaking. It ought to be named the “Gratuitous Embarrassment of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party Act of 2011.”
OK, but that’s from the left, from a journal not likely to be favorable to Senator McConnell’s cause. What about the right? Well, R.M. of The Economist cites Drum approvingly, then adds:
The idea, from a Republican perspective, is to saddle the president with full responsibility for the unpopular move of raising the debt limit and back away from fomenting a new economic crisis (always a smart move). It was likely that the debt ceiling would be raised, but under [Mr.] McConnell's plan Republicans would be able to avoid casting an embarrassing vote to that effect. They could then vote against increasing the ceiling with the comfort of knowing it will rise anyway.
It is, in short, universally acknowledged that McConnell’s plan is cynical, just as GOP votes against TARP were cynical (or, to be fair, then-Senator Obama’s vote against increasing the debt ceiling was cynical). Politicians do that stuff, in between calling each other “the honorable” and “the gentlelady from…” and then describing them as Sharia-loving atheist communist Nazis ten minutes later. It’s McConnell’s blithe dismissal of anything but politics as a motive for apparently anything that’s troubling. Drum compares it to The Lord of the Flies, complete with shameless Machiavellianism and overtones of early adolescence. I think he’s being kind.

Note: I am not being facetious in the above sentence. Yes, McConnell is being crassly partisan, placing the fortunes of his party above those of his nation. Yes, he’s strutting his amorality like some sort of perverse talisman: the red state badge of honor, perhaps. And yes, he’s probably a lot smarter, politically, than he appears. But there’s more to it than that. He has also (skillfully? accidentally?) diverted attention away from anything that might prompt even the sloths in the mainstream media to talk about what’s really important in these deliberations: the virtually unchallenged assertion (by Speaker Boehner, among others) that Congressional Republicans are simply doing the will of the people.

Thankfully, there’s Nate Silver, now of the New York Times, to supply some cogent analysis. He points out that the various deals proposed by President Obama (who may not be a great President, but is pretty clearly the only grown-up in the room) range from about 17-25% tax increases (often achieved simply by closing loopholes rather than changing the marginal rate even a smidge). This puts Mr. Obama not merely in synch with, but to the right of, Republican voters. By contrast,
If we do take the Republicans’ no-new-taxes position literally, it isn’t surprising that the negotiations have broken down. Consider that, according to the Gallup poll, Republican voters want the deal to consist of 26 percent tax increases, and Democratic voters 46 percent—a gap of 20 percentage points. If Republicans in the House insist upon zero tax increases, there is a larger ideological gap between House Republicans and Republican voters than there is between Republican voters and Democratic ones.
And that’s the dirty secret away from which McConnell’s ploy was consciously intended to distract us: Congressional Republicans have no interest in doing what’s best for the country or even what the people want (which, obviously, isn’t necessarily the same thing). Their only real constituency is the big-money Wall Street cabal: not the American people, not the voters in their respective districts, not even the rank and file GOP base. We knew that, of course. But this reminder was a little more blatant than others.

A similar phenomenon is readily observable with respect to the Tea Party and public education. On the one hand, it’s not much of a surprise that a TP spokesperson would think that public schools ought to “go away”:
Our ultimate goal is to shut down public schools and have private schools only, eventually returning responsibility for payment to parents and private charities. It’s going to happen piecemeal and not overnight. It took us years to get into this mess and it’s going to take years to get out of it.
On the other hand, the proclamation does mark a sea change to the extent that anyone would be so brazen about it. Whether this openness is a function of hubris or naïveté, I’m not sure, but there is clearly no longer a felt need to disguise such a contempt for public education (I’d say for education in general, but they’re not admitting that… yet) that the rhetoric has shifted from “reform” to destruction.

James Kovalcin, a retired teacher interviewed by Bob Braun, the (Newark) Star-Ledger columnist linked above, suggests that the initial impetus for this antagonism came from the religious right’s anger at the removal of prayer from public schools; James Harris, head of the New Jersey NAACP, traces it all the way back to Brown v. Topeka in 1954. The more perspicacious among you might notice that neither of those rationales have anything to do with the Tea Party’s stated purpose. Which, frankly, makes them fairly likely to be accurate.

Certainly the opposition to public education of the right in general and of the Tea Party in particular is manifest. Part of the problem may be the kinds of social history mentioned above: please take note that the public schools themselves had nothing to do with ending either school prayer or segregation—they were simply the site where those battles were fought. The schools are responsible for having the audacity to teach actual science in science classes, for insisting that James Madison really is worth of study (and really did argue against “an alliance or coalition between Government and religion”), and for suggesting that slavery was the principal cause of the Civil War War between the States Struggle for Southern Autonomy. Oh, and a lot of teachers are in a union.

I happen to have a job at the nexus of two of the professions that everyone else thinks they could do better: theatre and education. Everybody’s a better actor (or director) than people who actually have to do it; everyone can home-school their kids better than certified teachers can. I have no doubt that there are those people who are quite competent to home-school their kids, and for whom doing so is an appropriate decision. I also have no doubt that the majority of students who are home-schooled are ignorant, socially inept, chauvinistic asses.

Of course, the voucher systems espoused as yet another litmus test of true Republicanism (although a sizeable percentage of them couldn’t tell you what a litmus test is, either literally or figuratively) purport to offer “choice.” They in fact offer state-subsidized religion (I seem to remember some document saying that was a bad idea…) or teaching by people hopelessly unqualified in intellect, training and temperament for the job at hand. Secular or non-sectarian private schools often offer an excellent education, but it comes at a price: well above the amount many families could afford on an ongoing basis, even after vouchers.

I have a good friend who is “head of school” at such an institution. There is no doubt that the education offered there is excellent, but even with considerable support from alumni and other donors, they still charge over $11,500 a year in tuition and fees (and that doesn’t count the cost of meeting the dress code). Financial aid is available, but “only rarely will awards exceed 50% of tuition.” In other words, even after a voucher ($3000 per student per year seems to be the standard sought by proponents) and maximum financial aid, a family with two kids would still be looking at an annual cost of $6000 or more.

The voucher plan would in fact make access to such stellar prep schools more affordable for some people, and that’s a good thing. But we also need to make two important points. First, not every private school is “better” than public education. Secondly, and more objectively, there are many students whose families simply can’t afford the cost. If you can afford a Civic and somebody offers you a Lamborghini for the price of a BMW, you’re still going to drive a Civic. These people, the most vulnerable in the society, need a thriving, excellent public school system: and every dollar that gets diverted from that system hurts not merely those students affected directly, but all of us.

Public education, good public education, is one of the irreplaceable stanchions which support a free society. The Tea Party either doesn’t know that or doesn’t care. That’s not news. Their admitting it is news, or ought to be. But the Democrats have been their traditional craven selves, no one in the Republican leadership is willing to differentiate themselves from the most pathetically ignorant elements of their party, and the media have, as usual, been deafeningly quiet.

Both of these stories are troubling, not because this or that political figure is a cynical charlatan, but because there no longer seems to be any shame associated with appearing to be so. This says more about us than about them. While it’s true that there is a certain refreshing quality to hearing any politician, especially a Republican, actually tell the truth, I almost wish they’d keep lying to us about some things: it would certainly make convincing myself of their sanity and their good intentions a little easier.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Casey Anthony Trial Rorschach Test

I seem to have been the only reasonably news-conscious person in the country who paid extremely little attention to the Casey Anthony trial. It struck me at the time that this was simply another media-created sideshow that matters little to the common weal except for providing a little diversion for people for whom such slop is the ultimate reality TV show, and for news agencies that wanted an excuse not to have to put in the actual work to cover something that matters. My opinion hasn’t changed in the last few days.

Except for one thing. The not guilty verdict on the most serious of the charges has made a lot of folks, spurred on by the insufferable Nancy Grace, apoplectic. “Of course, she was guilty,” bellow these Judge Roy Bean wannabes. “That whole ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ thing is all well and good, but I’ve got a strong feeling [not to be confused with a thought process] she dunnit.” The trouble is, “beyond a reasonable doubt” does matter. It is the foundation of our system of criminal law: the belief that it is better to allow the guilty to go free that to condemn the innocent. (Lawyer and ethicist Jack Marshall has made this point persuasively and repeatedly, most relevantly here.)

It doesn’t take any great acumen or a particular skill set to be a good juror. It requires only a willingness to pay attention, a respect for the system, and a fundamental sense of honesty and fair play. In my admittedly limited and by definition anecdotal experience, juries take their work seriously. I’ve written in the past about the importance of authority, of expertise, and I’ve got a piece simmering on the back burner in which that concept is especially foregrounded. And the experts on this case are the people who were there.

I do mean that quite literally. I happen to make my living in part by determining what behaviors are likely to make an audience believe in the truth of a moment, but that doesn’t mean other people don’t have that same facility. On a good day, I can help an actor become more believable; John Doe in the audience might not be able to do that, but he can tell you whether a performance was convincing or not. And trials are, to use the word I trot out in the Advanced Play Analysis class, performative.

One of the advantages (and disadvantages) of live theatre relative to, say, movies, is that the spectators can watch whatever they choose rather than what the director chooses to show them; jurors can not only hear the nuance in a witness’s voice, they can watch the defendant while the cameras (if a judge is silly enough to allow them) are pointing at the witness or vice versa. In my only experience as a juror, I happened to catch a glance from the junior policeman to his senior partner. It spoke to me of a desire to please a superior rather than an imperative to tell the truth. You can be sure it didn’t show up in the transcript, and even a courtroom camera, had there been one, wouldn’t have followed the line of his gaze.

I didn’t base my opinion on that split second alone, but I did look at the purported evidence against the defendant from a slightly different angle. And that led me to “reasonable doubt” about the most serious of the charges. Make no mistake, the guy was what my grandmother would call a “wrong ‘un.” He was almost certainly guilty of a fair number of crimes with which he hadn’t been charged, and probably of the ones for which he was being tried. But “probably” isn’t good enough in a criminal trial. We convicted him of the one count we were sure of and acquitted him of two others.

I am not ever—I promise—going to condemn a jury for acquitting someone. There’s a point at which we have to trust the system. (Of course, guilty verdicts when there is a clear demonstration of doubt are another matter.) Was the case a little less airtight than the moronic punditocracy would have us believe? I don’t know, and neither do you. The jury thought so. They examined all the actual evidence—you know, including the stuff that didn’t make it onto the three-minute-long “in-depth” reports on the nightly news shows—and found enough holes in the prosecution’s case to make for—here’s that phrase, again—reasonable doubt. As one juror put it, “When the prosecution rested ... I was stunned. I thought there would be more. I really did. And I was waiting for more. ... A lot of us felt that way, that there was not enough evidence to fill in the gray area that we needed to be filled in.”

But no one, apparently, told the chattering class that an acquittal when the jury is not entirely convinced by the prosecution’s case is a good thing. Instead, not only do we get death threats against jurors from the usual morons, but also the mockery of… well, whoever wants to make a point.

If you’re Alan Caruba of Tea Party Nation, the case is symptomatic of the decline in American values and tells us that President Obama is a liar in large part because he grew up in a single-parent family. It makes us wonder, moreover,
Do we have time to turn around a wounded society that allows sexual deviants to parade in our streets and preach their lifestyle in our schoolrooms?

Do we have time to end the practice of same-sex marriages?

Do we have time to put an end to all the calls that any symbol of the Christian and Jewish faiths be removed from public display, any mention of God or any prayer in public meetings be silenced?
If you’re Bill Maher, an average person's voting for the Republicans “is as stupid as voting not guilty for the mom who lost her baby for a month and went looking at a wet t-shirt contest.” It’s a clever line, I suppose, but more problematic than useful. Those jurors didn’t ask to be in the limelight; they simply did their duty to the best of their ability—or at least we have no evidence to the contrary.

The most disturbing of these Casey-Anthony-was-guilty-but-got-away-with-murder-and-that’s-just-like-fillintheblank riffs, however, comes not from a fringy right-wing pundit wannabe nor from a professional comedian whose forays into politics are often more cringe-inducing than actually humorous. No, the worst of the offenders (that I know about) was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who decided that the Anthony case was evidence for why Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame shouldn’t be tried in a civilian court: “We just found in the Cayley Anthony case how difficult it is to get a conviction in a US court.”

There are two responses to this drivel. The first: I challenge you, Senator McConnell, to cite a single case, one, in which a suspected terrorist was tried in civilian court and allowed to walk. You say that Senator Schumer opposed trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York. Fine, he’s an idiot, too, but at least his concerns were based on things like security issues and cost, not because we might not get a conviction.

Because, of course, we can. And have. There were, depending on how you count, either 150 or 390 such cases a year ago. (The smaller number counts only those convicted of terrorism-related charges; the larger number, to those with presumed terrorist links convicted of other charges, such as obstruction or perjury.) Since then, there have been numerous others: Tahawwur Hussain Rana, Amen Ahmed Ali and Ahmed Ghailani, to name but three. True, Ghailani was acquitted of most of the charges against him, meaning he will receive only life imprisonment instead of… erm… life imprisonment.

Ah, if only this were the more compelling reason to be alarmed at Senator McConnell’s comments. At least the possibility, even perhaps probability, exists that the chances of conviction are greater in a military tribunal. And it is not an outrageous assertion that foreigners ought not necessarily expect the same rights as US citizens in dealing with our government. The more fundamental problem with McConnell’s argument is in its implicit—damned close to explicit, actually—assumption that convictions equal justice. If there really is a suspect at Gitmo whose fingerprints are on IED’s, I’m betting a civilian court would convict the SOB (just like they have in every other such case). But if there isn’t really a case, then yes, a civilian court might be more likely to acquit. And that is precisely what should happen.

But as a Los Angeles Times editorial points out, military courts require the same degree of proof as their civilian counterparts:
Before a vote is taken on the findings, the military judge must instruct the commission members “that the accused must be presumed to be innocent until his guilt is established by legal and competent evidence beyond reasonable doubt.”
There’s that phrase again. Dammit, where can a red-blooded fear-mongering demagogue go for a good, old-fashioned kangaroo court, with guilty verdicts whether the evidence supports them or not? Well, says that editorial, there’s always Saudi Arabia.

I really don’t care about Casey Anthony, her lifestyle, or even, in any real sense, whether she did it. The trial was instructive, however, as a sort of Rorschach test not on the American judicial system itself but on our responses to it. I don’t particularly like what I’m seeing in those inkblots.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

My attempt to be suitably perspicacious.

Definitions appear to be all the rage, as two sets of boneheads feel the need to define (and misdefine) words that have long been part of my active vocabulary. Those who know me beyond my CC persona will testify to the fact that I enjoy words—everything about them, actually: derivations, definitions, and all manner of word play. So it troubles me to no small degree when others, especially those who should, by virtue of their jobs, be expected to know better, fail miserably.

First up: the apparent need of the “This Week” editors/producers to define “perspicacious,” a perfectly useful, not at all pretentious, adjective. In an Independence Day weekend discussion about the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution, host Christiane Amanpour said of Benjamin Franklin that he “was amazingly perspicacious when this Constitution was signed.” For reasons that boggle the mind, the cretins in the booth (I do apologize for the apparent redundancy) decided that the audience watching a Sunday morning news show—an audience watching not only the articulate Amanpour, but columnist George Will (himself armed with an impressive vocabulary), Harvard professor Jill Lepore, Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, and Time editor-in-chief Richard Stengel—wouldn’t know that awful, multi-syllabic p-word, so they slapped a definition up on the screen. Yes, really.

OK, several points need to be made. First, at least on the video shown on Raw Replay, the definition actually appears on screen (at 6:21 of that tape) before Amanpour even says it (at 6:24). That little editing feat, were it not so stupid at its core, might be regarded as prescient, even (dare I say it?) perspicacious.

Secondly, I’m not sure that “perspicacious” is actually the word Amanpour was searching for (unless, as is possible, she was quoting Lepore): the context suggested she might have been better off with “contemplative,” “visionary,” or even “whimsical.”

Thirdly, the screened definition, “Having keen vision; clear-sighted,” isn’t really quite right: the word means “perceptive” or “discerning”; references to sight, except metaphorically, are deemed archaic or obsolete by every source I’ve consulted.

Finally, it’s difficult to tell whether some of the media accounts are tongue in cheek, but I suspect, alas, that they are not. Thus I must be a little concerned by Raw Replay’s Kase Wickman’s description of “a serious $10 word” or Mediaite’s Matt Schneider’s laundry list of appellations—“fancy word,” “showcasing an SAT-worthy word” [doesn’t the SAT purport to measure students’ readiness for college, not for Mensa?], “such a big word…,” “‘elite’ language.” Schneider closes with an admonition not to the idiots in the booth but to Amanpour for “using such fancy language so that viewers in the future don’t mistake her show for a Rosetta Stone class teaching the English language.” (Side note: adults who don’t know the meaning of “perspicacious” also won’t know “Rosetta Stone,” at least not as anything but a brand name.)

I despair.

The other case was at first glance just another squabble between a homeowner who stretches the rules a little and a city planner who needs more fiber in his diet. In this case, the battle is in Oak Park, Michigan, where Jason and Julie Bass made a decision in the spring when their lawn was torn up to replace a sewage pipe. Rather than replanting grass, they decided to set out five vegetable planter boxes filled with herbs, cabbages, tomatoes and the like. Interviewed by a local Fox News affiliate, Ms. Bass cited several reasons for starting their vegetable garden: “the price of organic food is sort of through the roof,” “we thought it would be really cool to do it so the neighbors could see; the kids love it. The kids from the neighborhood all come and help.” She says her plants “are fine, they’re pretty, they’re well-maintained.”

The case all boils down to a regulation requiring that “all unpaved portions of the site shall be planted with grass or ground cover or shrubbery or other suitable live plant material.” (You see where this is going, don’t you, Gentle Reader? That’s because you’re perspicacious.) Bass says her vegetable patch “is definitely live, it’s definitely plant, it’s definitely material, and we think it’s suitable.”

City Planner Kevin Rulkowsky demurs: “That's not what we want to see in a front yard. If you look at the definition of what ‘suitable’ is in Webster's dictionary, it will say ‘common.’ So, if you look around and you look in any other community, what's common to a front yard is a nice, grass yard with beautiful trees and bushes and flowers.” Bass counters on her blog (newly created for the occasion) that Oak Park’s official position seems to be, among other things, “ugly flowers and overgrown weeds- good. vegetable plants -bad…. tacky lawn plant arrays -good. neat, tidy, food-producing plants- very bad.” Certainly the yards shown on the television news feed seem a lot worse than the Bass’s, and apparently those owners aren’t being harassed by the city.

OK… whereas I side with the Basses on the central issue—a possible 93-day jail sentence for pepper propagation? Really?—I do understand the objections of the apparently small but extant cohort of neighbors who aren’t impressed by the garden and who point out that back yards are equally capable of growing vegetables. And Bass’s “why shouldn’t I” argument rings hollow, especially if (and it’s by no means a given) Rulkowsky is telling the truth to a different local news team, this one the ABC affiliate, when he claims Ms. Bass contacted him in April: “I told her don't do it, and she went ahead and did it anyway.“

All that said, let’s go back to that claim about the definition of “suitable” in Webster’s Dictionary. Having a pretty good idea Mr. Rulkowsky was full of crap, I looked the word up. There is no mention of “common,” although the obsolete meaning of “similar, matching” is certainly close. The contemporary definition, however, the one that can be approximated by any reasonably intelligent 10-year-old, has nothing to do with ubiquity. What is clearly intended by the city ordinance’s use of the word “suitable” is, in Merriam-Webster’s terms, “satisfying propriety: proper.” Duh.

In other words, whether the Basses’ vegetable garden is a “suitable” use of the front yard is subject to personal interpretation. That Kevin Rulkowsky is a moron, on the other hand, is simply tautological.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Creep Who Shouldn't Have Been Fired

A decision by the Regents of the University of Texas system has spawned a lawsuit by a former associate professor of economics at the University of Texas – San Antonio. Ronald Ayers was fired four years ago from a tenured position at UTSA for viewing pornographic material on his office computer. He appealed to a five-member faculty panel, who ruled that whereas Dr. Ayers had indeed accessed “sexually explicit” material, the sites he visited were not “obscene,” which was the standard set by university policy (the university has subsequently changed its standard to “sexually explicit”). The tribunal voted, apparently unanimously, that Ayers had exercised poor judgment but should not have been fired.

Ultimately, however, it fell to the Regents to make the final decision—or, given the lawsuit, the penultimate decision. They argued that Ayers’s visiting of porn websites was neither job-related nor incidental; Regent John Barnhill declared that Ayers had been “dishonest and demonstrated a lack of integrity in responding to the charges.” The Regents voted to overturn the findings of the faculty panel and to support the initial decision of UTSA President Ricardo Romo.

A point of clarification before I continue: whereas I teach at a non-flagship state university in Texas—a place very similar in many ways to UTSA (who is in our athletic conference, for example)—my institution is not affiliated with the University of Texas system. I am not, therefore, answerable to them in any way. So I am neither risking anything in criticizing them nor sucking up in supporting them.

This case is a lot more complicated than it might first appear to be. Whereas Ayers was an award-winning teacher, and was described by his department chair as “one of our prime teaching assets,” he was apparently a real slob: his office was not merely strewn with books and papers (as, I freely admit, is mine), but it smelled of rotting fruit to the point that it was described as “an office that no student should be asked to enter.” Some the details were spelled out in 2008 by Melissa Ludwig of the San Antonio Express-News, who also did the follow-up reporting linked above. [Note: I have been unable to find this article on the Express-News site; it is, however, quoted in its entirety by two separate blogs, so I’m pretty confident of its provenance.]

This whole brouhaha started when a graduate student reported the sound of a woman moaning behind Ayers’s closed office door; “Then she heard Ayers say, ‘Oh, my God. ... Oh, my God!’ The door opened and footsteps made their way toward the bathroom. When Ayers returned, she heard him muttering ‘Bad, bad, you're so bad.’” She contacted the police “a couple weeks later,” suggesting that Ayers had been masturbating in his office. Ayers says the incident never happened.

University officials investigated, however, and a scrub of Ayers’s office computer revealed “‘a number of images and video of explicit sexual material,’ according to the police report. Cached files showed he had been accessing pornography for at least several months, and some of the Internet addresses included the word ‘teen.’” Of course, the implication is that Ayers had accessed child pornography, which is by definition illegal. There appears to be no evidence that he actually committed any crime, however.

Ayers also sent e-mails to a colleague at another university, describing sexual fantasies about students, recounting his ogling of the “huge chest puppies” of one, saying he plans to “get together with” another, declaring yet another an exhibitionist who flashed her thong underwear at him while he was teaching—but “I have sort of ignored her since she stopped the provocative mode of dress.” These may be, as Ayers’s lawyer claims, “boy-talk,” but they’re certainly suggestive of a potential problem if he was in fact granting or withholding extra help to female students based on the way they looked or dressed.

Unlike the other allegations against him, these would seem likely to have a direct bearing on Dr. Ayers’s ability to do his job. Curiously—or perhaps not—these e-mails seem to have played no role in the Regents’ decision. And the fact that there appear to have been literally no complaints by students—even in an environment that would seem to encourage such candidness—does in fact suggest an ability to separate his fantasy world from his life as a professor.

The whole mess is ultimately centered on Ayers’s use of a university computer and their network to engage in clearly personal activity. If there were evidence of child pornography, I’m pretty sure we’d have heard it by now; the distinction between “pornographic” and “obscene” is not merely semantic, and I strongly suspect that the sites visited by Prof. Ayers fell short of the latter description. Which means that the only legitimacy to the university’s case is a violation of a rule against using a “government-owned” computer for his forays into netporn.

You can’t even boot up a computer connected to our university’s system without agreeing to abide by a rule prohibiting the personal use of that computer. This is, to be sure, a regulation more honored in the breach than in the observance. (And yes, I do know that Hamlet meant something different by that phrase.) One should always be suspicious of “everyone is doing it” arguments. Not everyone cheats on their taxes. Not everyone drives 60 in a 55 zone. Not everyone calls in sick when they just want a day off. But everyone, and I do mean everyone, uses a work computer to send personal e-mails, check Facebook, watch movies on Netflix, play solitaire, or see what the weather is going to be like tomorrow. The prohibition exists for one reason only: to have a violation of institutional policy to wave at someone the university wants to get rid of for whatever reason.

Ayers and his lawyer are no doubt correct in claiming that other members of the faculty use university computers, many of them more than “incidentally,” for personal activities, whether or not there’s any legitimacy to the assertion that university officials know (or should know) that other UTSA faculty access porn but Dr. Ayers along has been singled out for prosecution. It is indeed unfair to fire one faculty member for the same thing other are allowed to do without interference. Note: I am not saying that other faculty are watching porn, but I see no compelling evidence that Dr. Ayers did anything illegal. In that sense, his recreational activities “at the end of a long day” are no different from those of his colleague down the hall who watches the replay of last night’s Jon Stewart show.

Let’s review the bidding. Ronald Ayers lied about accessing porn on his office computer. His subsequent claims to have been engaged in a research project, even if true, are irrelevant, given a provision that such use of university computers requires specific advance permission. He has boasted to a friend about behavior that, if he actually did what he says he did, ought to get him fired.

Conversely, the university can’t really prove a violation of university policy (there is indeed a difference between “sexually explicit” and “obscene”), and an ex post facto change in wording doesn’t change that. They smeared one of their own faculty with insinuations of viewing kiddie porn, and probably rendered him unhireable by anyone else. They, meaning the Regents, overturned the findings of a faculty tribunal, which is normally the last step in the process. I’m not suggesting (contrary to, say, the Tony Kushner honorary degree case at CUNY) that the Regents over-reached in doing so. I’m saying they made the wrong call, basing their decision on the “ick” factor rather than on the policies they themselves enacted. There is, in short, enough evidence against Dr. Ayers to deny him tenure, but not to revoke it.

Ronald Ayers is a liar, a slob, and a creep. I wouldn’t vote for him for elective office, and I have no desire to share a pitcher of beer with him. Irrespective of his skill in the classroom, I wouldn’t advise any student, especially an attractive young woman, to enroll in any of his courses. He is indeed an embarrassment in many ways to UTSA.

And he ought to still have a job.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Mark Halperin's Calculated Naughtiness

One of the most thriving spectator sports in the country seems to be pundit-watching: waiting for the next mouthpiece of the left or the right to say something outrageous about either a political leader or a fellow member of the chattering class. This week, the culprit is Mark Halperin, an editor-at-large at Time and frequent contributor to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show. Asked to comment on President Obama’s performance at Wednesday’s press conference, Halperin smirked, asked if there was a seven-second delay on the broadcast, and proceeded to say he thought the President “was kind of a dick yesterday.” But the delay didn’t happen, and Halperin’s comment was broadcast.

Oh, the humanity! The incident has attracted far more attention than it deserves: Halperin issued a very strange on-air apology including the words “I became part of the joke, but that’s no excuse,” and followed it up with a tweet that seems to imply that the unfunniness rather than the offensiveness of his remark was what merited an apology. Joe Scarborough, having promised to “catch” Halperin if he “fell” proceeded not to do so. Presidential press secretary Jay Carney, apparently having nothing better to do, was quickly on the phone to the MSNBC muckety-mucks, demanding… well, whatever it was he demanded. And the cable network execs promptly suspended Halperin indefinitely, as if an editor-at-large at Time really needs the gig to make ends meet.

All this, frankly, was pretty predictable, except for the details of Halperin’s measured and evasive apologies. Nor were there any surprises that, say, the Daily Kos crew went apoplectic, or that Rush Limbaugh, conflating propinquity with causality (which is actually more honest than usual for him), declared the Dow Jones average went up 145 points because of Halperin’s comment.

It is, moreover, certainly true that Halperin isn’t the only one to look bad in this incident, and I understand the arguments that Scarborough and Alex Korson, the producer who couldn’t figure out the intricacies of the bleep button for the seven-second delay (only a staple of every live broadcast for generations), bear as much or more of the responsibility for the kerfuffle. I even get it that Carney looks bad, although without knowing the details of his conversation with MSNBC execs, I’m not ready to condemn him overmuch: clearly, if he demanded that Halperin be fired (or else…), that would be inappropriate. But I’d object far less had he said, simply, “c’mon, guys, really? Criticism is fine, but let’s keep the tone and the vocabulary above 10-year-old level, OK?”

But I confess myself intrigued at a motif in the defenses—or, more accurately, partial defenses of Halperin. These come from the left, the right, and the non-partisan; from those I respect, those I don’t, and those I’ve never heard of; from professional journalists and amateur bloggers. Here’s a sampling from a multitude of options:
Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune: “I think we need to avoid banishing him or anyone else from the airwaves forever for a minor slip—especially after he was specifically told that he would be bleeped by censors.”

Judith Miller and Douglas Schoen at NewsMax (quick, name someone less qualified to judge journalistic ethics than Judith Miller… no, Jayson Blair doesn’t count): “Halperin prefaced his remarks that morning by warning his colleagues that NBC might need a seven-second edit button after he said what he was thinking about how President Obama had handled his press conference the day before. A veteran ABC television reporter, Halperin knew enough to warn the network that he was going to be, at best, more irreverent than usual and probably profane.”

Brian Stelter and Jeremy W. Peters on the Media Decoder blog at the New York Times: “Before Mr. Halperin made the quip on ‘Morning Joe,’ he had asked if there was a seven-second delay available, a feature of television control rooms that can be used to bleep out stray curse words on live TV.”

Gloria Goodale of the Christian Science Monitor: “Mr. Halperin asked if the seven-second delay was available, and the cohosts urged him to ‘go for it.’”

Leah Lax on “Halperin's gaffe came on Thursday, when he was commenting on Obama's Wednesday press conference. He first asked host Joe Scarborough, ‘Are we on the seven-second delay?’ implying that he wanted to speak freely but not have his comments broadcast.”
Trouble is, that request makes Halperin’s behavior worse, not more excusable, because it shows premeditation. You don’t go on national television as a pundit and expect not to have your words broadcast. You don’t pre-figure your remarks with cutesy talk about seven-second delays unless you are so enamored with the delicious naughtiness of what you are about to utter that you have made a conscious decision to be outré. This is emphatically not a situation like that described by Robert Thompson of the Bleir Center of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University (he’s quoted in the Goodale piece linked above). Thompson says that “Halperin’s use of the word was tasteless, but he was just reaching for a word where language is more exciting.” Bullshit. He wasn’t “reaching for a word.” He had decided, probably before even going on the air, that he was going to call President Obama a dick. Such a clever boy.

I do understand that occasionally a word will slip out in a moment of anxiety or lowered guard. I’ve been guilty of this myself. But, as in the case of my use of the word “bullshit” a moment ago, the overwhelming majority of incidents like this one are quite intentional. Halperin wanted to be edgy or whatever. And, significantly, he rather skillfully built anticipation for his use of the… erm… penile noun by announcing his purported need to be bleeped. [Side note to Judith Miller and Douglas Schoen: “dick” is indeed a noun, not an adjective, as you described it. You’d know the difference if you came to my colleague’s production of Schoolhouse Rock Live!.] His entire presence on “Morning Joe,” then, was designed with the primary if not sole attention to calling attention to Mark Halperin. Curiously, few observers—the only exceptions I’ve found being being Jon Stewart and Salon’s Alex Pareene—have caught on to what to me is a rather transparent ploy.

Indeed, Pareene’s description of Thursday’s carefully staged event is pretty much perfect:
When you have a wacky “cocktail party” morning show where “anything can happen,” sometimes what will happen—especially if your guest list features a lot of useless tools like Mark Halperin—is that someone will call the president a “dick” because he thinks it's endearingly naughty. There was even a big, smirky buildup to Halperin calling the president a “dick.” It didn't just slip out. Everyone got really excited that Halperin was about to use a bad word, because these people are children, and Halperin looked very pleased with himself after he said the bad word on the TV. Chuckle chuckle chuckle! Faux-outrage! Fun and high jinks! High-quality political analysis, everyone.
In other words, Halperin told everyone watching the show that he was about to be ever-so-trendy: nothing says “street” like a guy in a charcoal grey pin-stripe suit and a Tom DeLay haircut, after all. He knew that the cameras would be pointed at him, knew that the audience was primed for him to say something outrageous, knew they could lip-read that much. In other words, he wanted to become the guy whose “honest” assessment of the dickitude of the President of the United States was “censored.” Only the incompetence of the show’s executive producer prevented Halperin’s little wet dream from coming to full fruition.

Or was it incompetence? Are you seriously telling me that someone producing a show at a major cable network can’t handle a delay button, especially when he’s forewarned? That kind of failure would have gotten you fired from my college radio station 35 years ago. So perhaps there was more collusion than ineptness. Certainly that would explain the curious “I was part of the joke” comment. If Korson still has a job next week, we’ll know.

But the centerpiece of this little pseudo-tempest is, must be, Mark Halperin’s self-promotion. Seriously, Gentle Reader, if you’re not a devotee of “Morning Joe” (I watched about five minutes of it once and have so far kept my vow not to make that mistake again), could you have told me a week ago who Mark Halperin was? I confess that hearing his name conjured only vague recollections of the guy who co-authored a best-selling book, Game Change, on the 2008 election. I also dimly recall his being the guy who repeated a mischaracterization of then-candidate Obama’s statement about Henry Kissinger during a debate, and who has certainly often been quite critical of the Obama administration (The Media Matters rebuttal, which of course must be filtered through its own less-than-nonpartisan lens, is here).

Perhaps Halperin is over-rated as both a journalist and a pundit. But if we took everybody who fit that description off pseudo-news talk shows, then the so-called “news networks”—CNN, Fox, and MSNBC alike—would have to do some actual reporting or face huge chunks of dead air: clearly unacceptable options as far as they’re concerned. What’s important to me—both because it gives an all-too-chilling view of the state of contemporary journalism and because it is so clearly of primary importance to Halperin himself—is that he went from a relatively but not completely unknown journalist to a 15-minutes-of-fame variety celebrity by speaking a single word. It bothers me not a whit what that word was. But just as I won’t watch a college basketball game announced by Dick Vitale (he would be named “Dick,” wouldn’t he?) because he thinks he’s more important than the game, I also won’t pay any attention to Mark Halperin because he wants the story to be about him.

But he doesn’t need me. He called the President a dick. He’s a made man. The offer from Fox News is no doubt being negotiated as we speak.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Azdak Doesn't Live Here Any More

My favorite scene in my favorite Bertolt Brecht play occurs late in The Caucasian Chalk Circle, when a lecherous, venal drunk named Azdak who has somehow become a judge administers a justice more whimsical than rough. The play gets its title from this moment, when, in a moment reminiscent of the Biblical story of Solomon, Azdak determines that the true mother of a baby boy is the woman who can pull the lad out of, well, the chalk circle.

One of the contenders is the child’s despicable biological mother, who abandoned her infant when forced to flee an insurgency so she’d be able to take more of her clothes. The other woman is our heroine, Grusha, who had already risked her own safety more than once to protect her young charge. Needless to say, Grusha releases her hold on the boy lest he be hurt, revealing, in the play’s radically utilitarian terms, that whatever the legal arguments might be, she is unquestionably the more motherly of the women and ought to be awarded custody on that basis. And, indeed, that is precisely what Azdak does.

I’ve been thinking about that scene when reading about what’s been going on in Minnesota, with the shut-down of so-called “non-essential” governmental services. In what might be an opening act for a similar showdown at the federal level, complete with a Republican-led legislature and a Democratic chief executive, the budget battle came down to intransigence on both sides about whether or not to finance some of the impending budget deficit by imposing a slight tax increase on incomes over a million dollars a year. Yes, really. The GOP—and their members are in rather frightening lock-step on this point—are willing to shut down the state government rather than ask the people who can afford it most to contribute a little to solving the fiscal crisis.

Of course, ideology and pride on both sides have long since trumped both pragmatism and empathy. Governor Mark Dayton was elected in large part because of a pledge to raise taxes on the upper 2% (the final proposal rejected by Republican legislators would have applied to only about 0.3% of taxpayers); the GOP, meanwhile, took control of the legislature for the first time in decades on a pledge not to raise taxes. It’s probably true that the tiny fraction of Minnesotans who would be affected by the proposed tax hike were largely responsible for the GOP’s success last November: their financial support was no doubt critical. But they didn’t directly account for the victory—that came because everyday people like the idea of reduced spending in theory: it’s just the specifics they can’t stand.

No sane person who has spent even a couple of hours looking seriously at the last thirty years of fiscal policy really believes the supply-side silliness being proposed by the present-day GOP. Even Reagan budget director David Stockman describes the 21st-century Republican mantra of tax-cutting as:
… a religion… something that can't be questioned, something that's gospel, something that's sort of embedded into the catechism and so scratch the average Republican today and he'll say ‘Tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts’…. It's rank demagoguery.
Stockman goes on to advocate the thoroughly sensible (and politically suicidal) position that the Bush tax cuts should be repealed not simply for the richest 2%, but indeed for all of us.

Still, while virtually every Republican politician you can name has drunk deep of the neo-Reaganomic Kool-Aid, or at least purports to have done so, lest s/he be branded heretical, even stupid economic policies are at least economic policies. The same can’t be said for what GOP legislators presented to Dayton as conditions to negotiate: abortion restrictions, school vouchers, requiring photo ID’s at polling places, the elimination of stem-cell research, tuition caps on state universities (while, of course, cutting state funding to those institutions)… the list is nothing if not expansive, and completely irrelevant to any considerations of the budget.

About the best that can be said about these machinations is that they are not playing out behind closed doors in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. On the contrary, GOP legislators like Steve Gottwalt want to crow about their lack of seriousness about the issue at hand: “In a negotiation it is common for you to bring things forward and say let’s talk about these things, these are things that are important to our side.” This statement is true, of course, but pertains—or ought to pertain—only to that which is relevant. Honest and sensible people can disagree about whether prospective voters ought to need photo ID’s; there can be no disagreement about whether such considerations belong in budget negotiations.

It’s been a while since there was anyone in the Republican hierarchy could legitimately be considered a moderate—some, like John McCain, John Huntsman, and Mitt Romney were, but haven’t been so for years (of course, they’ve all been convicted of apostasy by the Rush Limbaughs of the world). These days, the terms “honest” and “not bat-shit crazy” are hard enough to apply to anyone who matters in the GOP. But the fanaticism is troubling not simply for the potentially catastrophic legislation that might be enacted.

More importantly, it is terrifying in its own terms. The only thing worse than True Believers is that (sizable, no doubt) cadre of politicians too craven to think for themselves: those who don’t really believe the stupidity being spouted by Tea Party ignoramuses and right-wing pundits, but who feel compelled to act as if they do, and actually end up taking more extreme positions than the TBs. The other variation on this theme is blind adherence to extreme ideologies, often with complete disregard for facts. If you want to repeal the healthcare bill, that’s fine. If you want to do so because of “death panels,” you’ve got your choice of self-descriptors: profoundly ignorant, moronic, and/or mendacious.

But the current GOP’s quest for ideological purity manifests itself also in a puerile resistance to anything that even looks like compromise: witness the skepticism of the ring-wing punditry at the candidacy of John Huntsman, who is almost certainly the most electable Republican currently in the field (not that he’d necessarily win or that someone else would necessarily lose). In the rarefied atmosphere of Republicania, compromise and cooperation are signs of weakness, and creating a system that works fairly and efficiently is far less important than creating a system that helps “important” people (hint: not the 99.7% of Minnesotans whose taxes would not increase in Governor Dayton’s plan), whether they need the assistance or not.

The situation in Minnesota is being described as a showdown, as a game of chicken, as a test of who will blink first. In any truly democratic (note the lower-case “d”) society, Governor Dayton would have a political winner: arguing in favor of the tens of thousands of workers laid off by the impasse, in favor of the 16-year-olds who can’t get driver’s licenses, in favor of the holiday vacationers who can’t use state parks or even highway rest areas, and opposed to a cadre of the super-rich being protected by their minions, the Republicans in the legislature. (Note: the foregoing refers only to politics, not necessarily to policy.)

But Governor Dayton, like Azdak (and Solomon), will see the whole picture. He’ll see the unemployment, the lack of services, the fact that the shut-down actually does nothing to solve the problem… in short, the serious harm to the state if there’s no resolution in the near future. More importantly, he’ll care. For him, accepting a political defeat is better than destroying the state.

The GOP doesn’t see it that way. Barring a huge groundswell of popular resentment (possible, but probably not on a significant enough scale to matter), they’re likely to stand their ground. You can’t be a good extortionist—and the Republicans in this case are no more than that—if ethics or morality cloud your Machiavellian (or Randian) weltanschauung. Let’s face it, once the GOP drew that line in the sand, they’d already lost any chance of support from that segment of the electorate likely to try to punish them for their support of the ultra-rich at the expense of everyone else. Moreover, the services being cut aren’t anything they or their financial backers care about (when was the last time you saw a millionaire at a state park?). So there’s no political benefit to being grown-ups.

Sooner or later, Governor Dayton is going to act like a true custodian of his state. He’s going to let the child go rather than allow the GOP to rip its arm off. And when he does, there will be no Azdak to put things right. Dayton’s compassion will be seen by his political opponents as vulnerability, and it will be exploited again and again. And we’ll all be one step closer to the abyss.