Saturday, October 15, 2011

Stupidest Legislative “Money-Saving” Plan of the Month: The First Three Nominees

It’s true: I’ve been busy the last couple of weeks. Still, it surprises me that I apparently missed the memo announcing the contest for Stupidest Legislative “Money-Saving” Plan of the Month. Apparently there are some really cool prizes involved, as the contestants are lining up, each with a scheme a little more insane than the one before. Here are three contenders I found out about within about roughly a six-hour stretch a few days ago. (I really have been busy; that’s why I’m only now writing about it.) For the purposes of this contest, the Alabama town that demanded proof of American citizenship—indeed of Alabama citizenship—to get (and pay for) clean water, and the Let Women Die law that sailed through the US House are not eligible, as they are merely mean-spirited and depraved, and don’t even pretend to save money.

We still have some really good entrants, however:

Representing the great state of Kansas, we have the Topeka City Council’s decision to repeal the city ordinance banning domestic violence. Really. OK, so this isn’t quite as colossally cretinous as it might initially appear: this is really a petty and petulant jurisdictional dispute between the city and the county, neither of whom want to accept responsibility for misdemeanor cases (half of which involve domestic violence) because their respective budgets have been cut. So now the Shawnee County DA has in fact capitulated and agreed to do his freaking job prosecute such cases, clearly as a direct response to public outcry. This apparently includes re-visiting the cases of between 18 and 30 (sources differ) alleged criminals released because no one would take the case. Who’s right in the turf squabble? I. Don’t. Care. The council vote would be unconscionable and unsupportable under any circumstances.

Is it a coincidence that the 7-3 vote to de-criminalize such cases corresponds exactly to the ratio of men to women on the city council? I don’t know; I can’t find a record of who voted which way. But I’ll say this: I’m betting they weren’t going to de-criminalize the completely understandable crime of kicking idiot city councilmen squarely in the balls.

Next up: Camden County (Georgia) is contemplating a measure that would put two inmates—convicted of things like drug offences and theft—in each of three existing fire stations as a money-saving measure. What could go wrong, after all? Let’s see, we’re not only expecting professional firefighters to do their own highly risky jobs, but to “monitor” the inmates: a term I take to imply both supervision of their work and serving as guards. Put simply, the real firefighters would be under-trained to watch the inmates, who would not only be under-trained as firefighters, they’d also require constant scrutiny because, well, they’re inmates. The people of the area, no doubt, would be ever-so-happy to be suffering from the anxiety accompanying a fire, only to have a convicted thief wandering through their homes.

Stuart Sullivan, a firefighter, spoke to the Board of County Commissioners, urging them to drop the plan: “If you vote to bring these inmates into our working environment, you jeopardize not only the employees' well-being, but the safety of our citizens.” Well, duh. Seriously, Mr. Sullivan, when did coherent argument start becoming a legitimate way to influence government policy? True, the proposal is insulting to professional firefighters by suggesting they can be readily replaced both those Jack Marshall describes as “not just … barely-trained amateurs, but barely-trained amateurs who can’t be trusted to walk free in the community.” True, it unnecessarily endangers good citizens whose focus in a literally life-and-death situation is inherently distracted by supervisory responsibilities they shouldn’t have to perform. True, it serves to undermine the trust and camaraderie necessary for any such venture, and not for some legitimate ancillary benefit like civil rights: this isn’t eliminating DADT we’re talking about. But, Mr. Sullivan, these are county commissioners we’re talking about: you’d have a better chance of making your case to a collection of corn cobs.

After all, it might save a fair amount of money, although I’d be willing to bet that even the short-term savings are unlikely to approach, let alone equal, the $500K estimate that’s being tossed around: 20% of that would be a more plausible figure. But you can’t expect a county commissioner to have the mental capacity of a bottle of olive oil. Think I’m being too harsh? Here’s Commissioner Jimmy Starline (apparently his real name): “I've been told these inmates are very enthusiastic about being a firefighter. It's an opportunity to break that cycle. This is not like a chain gang. Life at a fire station could be a whole lot more pleasant than life in jail.” Oh, well, then. As long as the freaking prisoners like the idea, then it’s OK, right?

Finally, there’s Pinellas County, Florida, whose County Commissioners voted to stop fluoridating the water supply. You, Gentle Reader, might have been under the impression that this battle had been fought and won by the forces of science two generations ago. Ah, but the Tea Party crowd and their enablers (I’m looking at you, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, et al.) have successfully brought us to the point at which that which has long been accepted as scientifically proven is now up for grabs, not on the basis of new evidence, but based simply, in Isaac Asimov’s words, on “the false notion that democracy means ‘my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.’” I’m pretty sure gravity is next on the hit list for the tin-foil hat crowd.

Honestly, here’s some of the reporting of David DeCamp of the St. Petersburg Times:
Some speakers Tuesday compared it to Soviet and Nazi practices and warned of cancer, reduced IQ and deteriorating bones.

“Fluoride is a toxic substance,” said tea party activist Tony Caso of Palm Harbor. “This is all part of an agenda that's being pushed forth by the so-called globalists in our government and the world government to keep the people stupid so they don't realize what's going on.” [Note: it seems to be working.]

He added: “This is the U.S. of A, not the Soviet Socialist Republic.”
The fact that the medical and dental communities are unanimous in support of such programs means nothing to the self-appointed authorities, the Tea Partiers. Lunatics on the left and the right have been part of the American political system for as long as I can remember, and I suspect for a good while before that. Up until recently, however, the mainstream politicians and commentators kept the crazies in check. True, the anti-war crowd made life a little difficult for mainstream Democrats during the Vietnam War, but that was primarily because there was little difference in either the rhetoric or the policies of the two major parties at the time. Generally, the fringe elements of both parties have been recognized as precisely that: the fringe. That changed recently, though. The mainstream GOP loathed Obama with such a passion that they sold their soul to the Tea Party to gain a majority in the House of Representatives. The result is a pandering to the rampant anti-intellectualism of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and similar shills.

The Democrats have their own populist movement, the #Occupy crowd, to deal with. But whereas there may be more of them than there are Tea Partiers, and those folks have far higher approval ratings than the Tea Party ever did—a 54-23% positive rating according to a poll just published in Time magazine—they will have far less impact on actual policy because they aren’t just a front for some left-wing equivalent of the Koch brothers or Dick Armey, and are therefore uninteresting to the pols who care far more about donors than about constituents.

Ultimately, what these stories show is an affirmation of legitimate uses of government. Punishing those who beat up women, preventing or extinguishing fires in the most efficient manner possible, providing at least base-line dental care that benefits all citizens: these are, it seems to me, undeniably good things, and appropriate uses of government resources. I bet it wouldn’t be difficult to find other available cuts, things far less self-evidently essential at the very least, in any of those jurisdictions. Or—God forbid!—there might even be additional revenue enhancements. But the country is long on stupid right now. There will be more idiotic ideas… and I’ll do what I can to give you the opportunity to laugh at them.

The really bad news: the month is still young.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Prejudice and Ignorance: The American Idiocracy

There are two kinds of polls about politics: the ones about which candidate we prefer and the ones about more fundamental underlying attitudes. The former are, at this point (relative to the 2012 election) somewhere south of useless. Want proof? Well, take a look at the Gallup poll taken on October 12-14, 2007: Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama by a 50-21 margin; Rudy Giuliani led Fred Thompson 32-18, with John McCain at 14%. Importantly, neither Clinton nor Giuliani (nor Thompson, for that matter) made any enormous gaffes that made them instantly less popular with either major donors or the electorate: no Howard Dean screech, for example. Their only problem was that they didn’t attract enough support when it counted as the other guy did. So I really don’t care who won what straw poll or who is October’s flavor of the month on the Republican side: things won’t get interesting until after Thanksgiving, at least, even if the mad rush to move the primary season earlier continues unabated.

The other kind of poll, however, always interests me in that it gives us a glimpse of who we are. If the polling sample is broad-based enough, and most of the prominent pollsters know what they’re doing in that regard, at least, then any specific incident that would affect the results would be known by everyone and could be factored into the analysis. In other words, our collective view of Muslims changed significantly the second week of September, 2001, but everyone knew why. Some individual’s view may have been changed by a more local incident a couple of weeks earlier or later, but that single re-evaluation wouldn’t affect the overall poll numbers much.

So, let’s look at two polls I read about this week. The first was actually taken this summer, but I hadn’t seen it until reading about it in a piece by David Kopel at the Volokh Conspiracy. A Gallup poll taken in June shows attitudes towards hypothetical candidates. Here’s the question:
Between now and the 2012 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates—their education, age, religion, race, and so on. If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [black, a woman, etc.], would you vote for that person?
Lydia Saad, who wrote up the results, seems most interested in whether people would vote for a Mormon: reasonable enough, given the fact that Mitt Romney is a front-runner for the GOP nomination. I confess that I’m a little more intrigued by the remarkably low numbers, even now, for gays/lesbians and atheists. True, the trend line for those groups is heading in the right direction, but that 49% wouldn’t support a well-qualified atheist candidate of their own party is kind of scary. Of course, there is a not insignificant contingent in the Republican party in particular which clings to a pseudo-Christian dogma—justifying prejudice in the name of the Bible, declaring a desire to help the poor as “socialist”—so one suspects those numbers are skewed. Unfortunately, I can’t find any further break-outs of that information, although Saad does provide some with respect to Mormons… more on that in a moment.

The linked pdf file (alas, I can’t seem to link to it directly) shows trend lines—atheists were opposed 18-77 in 1958, and are 49-49 now; blacks were opposed 37-53 in 1958, and are 94-5 now; gays/lesbians weren’t part of the discussion until 1978, when they were opposed 26-66 as compared to 67-32 today. The trends are interesting. If we look at the numbers in plus-minus terms (50-40 is +10, 30-70 is -40, and so on), we see a more or less steady increase in acceptability for some groups. Blacks, for example, are -16 in 1958, +25 in 1965, +46 in 1971, +66 in 1987, +89 today. Women are at -31 in 1937, +8 in 1955, +50 in 1975, +70 in 1987, and +87 today.

Not all the trends look that way, however. Whereas gays/lesbians were at -40 in 1978 and are at +35 today, there was a huge jump from 1983 (-35) to 1999 (+22) and actual back-sliding from then until 2007 (+15) before another surge to the present. Atheists made good progress from 1958 (-57) to 1983 (-9), but then stalled, making it to +1 in 1999 and actually losing that margin-of-error point since then.

Of course, there are also glitches caused by individual candidates: a Democrat asked about female or African-American candidates in the last election cycle or a Republican asked about a Mormon would have been forgiven for transposing the question from the general to the specific: would you vote for Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, or Mitt Romney if that person were nominated by your party? Hence the trend line for Mormons goes a little berserk four years ago. And, of course, the John Kennedy phenomenon with respect to Catholics causes its own set of ripples. Today, interestingly, although all of these groups tend to lean more to the Democrats than to the Republicans, there’s at least some chance that a woman (Michele Bachmann) or an African-American (Herman Cain) could be the GOP nominee, and of course Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, is likely to become a contender in years to come. We’ll see if people are lying, because, you know… they do, sometimes.

Anyway, revenons aux nos moutons. Attitudes towards Mormons are broken out further than for other groups in the article. Unsurprisingly, increased education also leads to increased tolerance for the Other, however that Other is defined. Thus, college graduates are at +74, those with some college are at +59, those with no college are at only +35. Significantly, there seems to be little if any difference between men and women, or among age groups or geographical locations. Everything is either within the margin of error or pretty close to it. It might be worth mentioning that Catholics give Mormons a +64 vs. a +51 from “Protestants and other Christians” [whatever that means]. Then again, it might not.

I was intrigued, however, by the fact that Republicans are a little more open-minded towards Mormons than Democrats are. That wouldn’t have been what I predicted, but it makes sense when I think about it. First off, with two prominent Republicans—Romney and Jon Huntsman—both in Presidential bids, anyone who supports either, and they are the two most mainstream candidates, is reminded that maybe they could support a Mormon. Conversely, name a prominent Mormon Democrat. (Yes, I know, Harry Reid, but that connection isn't made very often.) Mormons tend to be Republicans (see, for example, this poll in which President Obama’s approval ratings are shown to be about 20 points lower, in good times and bad, among Mormons than among the general population). And, of course, the LDS Church has figured prominently in the campaign against gay marriage, dumping literally millions of dollars (directly and indirectly) and thousands of volunteer hours on Proposition 8 in California, for example: enough so that a New York Times headline says that “Mormons Tipped Scale in Ban on Gay Marriage.” That might not be enough to win them friends among Republicans, but it isn’t difficult for a Democrat to be rather more disinclined to support a Mormon after that bitter (if transient) defeat.

Anyway, bottom line: I don’t think Mitt Romney (or, rather more hypothetically, John Huntsman) would be hurt significantly by religion. Only 18% of Republicans and 19% of Independents show reluctance to vote for a Mormon, and one suspects those numbers will drop, just as the numbers for a host of other groups have dropped with greater visibility and knowledge: especially for the not terribly well educated, it’s easier to fear the unknown than to fear Mitt Romney.

Besides, a fair number of voters won’t know he’s Mormon, anyway. The ignorance of the American electorate is terrifying. There’s a statement virtually everyone will agree with, as precious few folks voted for the winner in both of the last two Presidential elections… presumably somebody did, but Democrats are even more convinced that George W. Bush was the worst President in American history than Republicans are that Barack Obama is.

But it’s probably even worse than you thought. A recent Pew Research poll reveals that nearly half of Americans and fully a third of Republicans can’t name, unprompted, a single GOP candidate for President. Only three—Romney (27%), Rick Perry (28%), and Michele Bachmann (15%)—reached double-digits in the general population. Even among Republicans (and Independents who lean Republican), only Perry and Romney were named by 1 in 5 respondents. I guess the good news is that the magical 10% mark was passed by all the candidates currently given any real chance to win the nomination: the two front-runners, Bachmann, Cain, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich (not that anyone currently considers Gingrich a legitimate contender for the nomination). All of which makes for a bad day for the likes of Rick Santorum, who could be named by only 4% of Republicans as even being a candidate; Jon Huntsman did only half that well, despite a well-publicized roll-out. Even more frighteningly, if you add up all the numbers, you get an average of less than one candidate recognition per respondent among the general population: all the numbers add up to exactly 100%, but that figure includes Chris Christie and Sarah Palin, both of whom have said they’re not in the race.

Think about that. 46% can’t name anyone. That means the remaining 54% average (if we drop Palin and Christie) average less than 1.8 apiece. Let’s say there’s 1 in 100 who are the same kind of political junkie that I am (and I’m not exactly a fanatic) and could name eight candidates (I’m kicking myself that I had to be reminded of Gary Johnson’s name). And let’s say that another 5% can name the two front-runners and the three others who have won a straw poll already. That leaves only 64 identifications to split among 48 people. In other words, if another 8% of the population can name only Perry, Romney and Bachmann, then we get this:
1% can name 8 candidates.
5% can name 5 candidates
8% can name 3 candidates
40% can name 1 candidate
46% can’t name any candidates
This strikes me as a reasonable breakdown, given the numbers we have to work with… which means that 86% of the American population can’t name more than a single Republican Presidential candidate. Wow.

Republicans, of course, do a little better—it’s their party’s candidates we’re talking about, after all. They came up with 132 identifications per 100 respondents, with “only” (shudder) 34% who couldn’t name anyone. That works out to exactly two identifications per Republican who could name a candidate. Again, figure 1% at 8, 5% at 5, and we’re still at only about 13% at 3, and another 13% at 2, leaving 34% at 1. In other words, roughly two-thirds of Republicans can’t name more than one GOP contender.

So before anyone in any of the candidates’ camps starts crowing about leading in this or that poll, or winning this or that straw poll, or scoring points in this or that debate, there’s this to consider: the American electorate’s ignorance of the field is mind-boggling in its scope. If they can’t even name a couple of options, how can they hope to know whose policies they like (or don’t)? The answer is obvious: they can’t. The manifold failures of the media are partially responsible for all this, of course, but, in the words of the great sage Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us.

I have a fond hope that the situation may change by the time votes actually count for something in the primary season, or at least by the general election. I get that way sometimes… it’s probably indigestion.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Because the DOJ has nothing better to do...

One of the truisms of American politics is that no politician is as interested in libertarianism (civil or otherwise) as (s)he pretends to be. Otherwise they wouldn’t be interested in being part of the government, right? And I’m not talking here about the garden-variety Republican hypocrisy of claiming to want smaller government while sticking the elephant’s nose into health care decisions and underwriting certain forms of religious expression while seeking to prohibit others. Nor is this about the equally preposterous Democratic claims to personal liberties while pushing for a national ID card or cranking up the silliness required to board a flight. No, this is about the betrayal of what really are the tattered remains of core values in both parties.

Thus, the Crown Prince of Small Government, Ronald Reagan, not merely (almost) tripled the national debt, but did so largely by having federal spending reach as high as 23.5% of GDP (Jimmy Carter never reached 22%; wild-eyed spendthrift Obama in 2010: 23.8%). That’s also how Barack Obama’s Justice Department is being even more stupid than their predecessors with respect to medical marijuana.

I am not a lawyer, so I’m not going to try to interpret the intricacies of the law, but I’ve been told by a really smart man that I “know something and can read.” I know, if nothing else, that justifying the federal ban on medical marijuana, even when states allow it, based on the interstate commerce clause is insane. It was when I wrote about it in 2005, and it is today. Whether there are other legal grounds for upholding federal jurisdiction, I don’t know. But I do know that in a time of scarce resources, a program which alleviates pain for some of the citizenry, generates tax revenues, and would cost a bunch of money to shut down ought to stay around because of inertia if nothing else.

This is not the time to re-visit the old arguments about whether medical marijuana is a good idea or not. But it may be time for a reminder that proponents of states’ rights generally mean that Alabama ought to be able to discriminate against minorities despite the US Constitution, not that Californians ought to be allowed to have medical marijuana when that same Constitution (as read by anyone with an IQ above their shoe size) specifically tells the feds to butt out.

More importantly, the time is definitely ripe to look at the arguments being made in favor of this stupid and wasteful initiative. Here’s a good chunk of the announcement by Melinda Haag, the US Attorney for the Northern District of California.
More than 40 years ago our elected federal representatives determined that various substances have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use in the United States. Based on these findings, Congress passed laws making it unlawful for people in this country to manufacture, cultivate or distribute various drugs, including heroine, MDA, LSD, and marijuana, among others.
In other words, the fact that there now is an “accepted medical use” is irrelevant, at least until the Congress does something about it. I’d comment further, but I can’t improve on the wisdom of the great Mark Twain: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”
Many in the marijuana industry have portrayed the Oct 2009 Department of Justice guidance as giving a free pass to any marijuana business that invokes state law or calls its customers patients. That was frankly never correct.
Precisely. If it is a violation of California law, prosecute it… or, rather, assist California in prosecuting it. But Californian authorities, not a US Attorney, get to decide what violates California law.
In the Northern District of California marijuana cultivators are converting our public lands and pristine forests into large-scale clandestine marijuana grow operations. They are cutting down trees and plants; they are diverting streams, polluting the water table, and the land with toxic pesticides. They are starting wildfires, bringing in undocumented workers from Mexico, some of whom may be the victims of human trafficking. Many of these workers who guard the grow operations do so with firearms, thereby endangering hikers who might unwittingly stumble in.

[And when the growers are through] they harvest their crops and leave behind literally tons of trash, unused pesticides, hundreds of miles of plastic piping, camping equipment and human waste…
Then maybe you ought to… you know… go after them for: unauthorized use of public lands, pollution, vandalism, littering, reckless endangerment, smuggling, immigration violations, hiring violations, weapons charges… and maybe, just maybe, you could just go ahead and do that without making a speech about it.
Even under California law, marijuana cultivation is supposed to be not for profit. What we are finding is that people are using the cover of medical marijuana to make extraordinary amounts of money, in short to engage in drug trafficking. And many of these drug trafficking operations are in plain sight. In many communities, like mine, you can't walk a mile without seeing multiple retail marijuana stores, sometimes surrounded by fences and patrolled by security guards. If you sit and watch for a moment, you see cars pulling over, seemingly young healthy people jumping out of the cars, running into the store, and emerging with paper bags full of marijuana.

Some of these operations allow their customers to smoke marijuana while on the premises. Presumably at least some of them get back into their cars and drive away impaired. There’s a reason for the security guards and fences; where there's marijuana there's money and lots of it. These places are prime targets for robberies and violence...
Again, prosecute, or help California to prosecute, these people. If they’re actually “drug trafficking,” arrest them. The fact that I think marijuana probably ought to be de-criminalized (at least) doesn’t change the fact that people are currently breaking the law and endangering other people. So do something about the real law-breakers. But don’t do this:
[Because of limited resources] I have decided to focus initially on stores that sell marijuana and allow people to smoke marijuana very close to schools, parks and other places where children learn and play.
Would someone please knock it off with this utterly phony concern for children? There are lots of things wrong in the lives of America’s kids, but being in the proximity of a medical marijuana dispensary doesn’t make the Top 100 list. I presume the California law authorizing medicinal use of marijuana says something about proximity to schools and parks. If it doesn’t (and an article in the not-exactly-leftist Wall Street Journal suggests precisely that), then you, Ms. Haag, are a moron of the first order. Even if it does, I shudder to think about what some over-zealous cop (there’s another kind?) will make of “other places where children learn and play.” This fuzzy-mindedness isn’t merely an example of perverse priorities, it veritably begs to be abused.
Last week we sent letters to the landlords and lien holders of these stores, putting them on notice that marijuana is being sold and used on their property in close proximity to children and that the operations must cease. I understand that there are people in California who believe that marijuana stores should be allowed to exist. But I trust these same people would all agree we don't need marijuana retail outlets across the street from playgrounds and schools and little league fields.
Actually, no, I wouldn’t agree, for the reasons just noted. And I sure as hell wouldn’t agree that landlords and lien holders ought to be threatened with prison sentences of up to 40 years. Those are goon tactics, throwing your weight around simply because you can. If someone is doing something really illegal, or really likely to undermine the safety and stability of a community, stop them. But unless your goal is to make the Obama administration look like right-wing caricatures of it, you need to stop with the absurd threats against those who have done nothing wrong. And that would include all the other stupid stuff your colleagues across the country are doing. Quoting the MSNBC article:
•In Colorado, which also allowed medical marijuana, the Treasury Department is requiring that banks close accounts of legal medical marijuana businesses.
•The IRS says dispensaries may not deduct standard business expenses such as payroll, security or rent. “The result will be closure of the most well regulated dispensaries and loss of millions of dollars in tax revenue for local governments,” the group stated.
•The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives last month ruled that medical marijuana patients sanctioned by states cannot legally possess firearms.
Seriously, are you people insane? You can’t come up with a higher priority than hassling people who are obeying state laws, especially when you’ve pretty much indicated that you weren’t going to be doing anything drastic.

Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance puts the situation this way: “Barack Obama is betraying promises made when he ran for president and turning his back on the sensible policies announced during his first year in office.” The extent to which Mr. Obama is personally responsible for this misguided policy initiative is unclear. That it reflects poorly on his administration is not.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tennessee's State Bird Is Apparently the Homophobe (no offense intended to our avian friends)

DADT is gone and DOMA may follow, but no one will be surprised to learn that the country is still well-populated with homophobic idiots. Nor do I suspect that many will be shocked to hear that Tennessee has more than its share of this particular variety of vermin. But I confess that I was a little taken aback to encounter these two stories within about an hour of each other a couple of days ago.

The first story I read concerned a gay couple, Jerry Pittman Jr. and Dustin Lee, attacked as they arrived at a worship service by deacons of the Grace Fellowship Church in Fruitland, TN. (Seriously, what self-respecting violent anti-gay moron would live in a place called Fruitland?) Did I mention that the instigator was the minister, Jerry Pittman Sr.?

Having been assaulted by three deacons (including his uncle), the younger Pittman called the cops, for all the good that did. According to a story on the AddictingInfo site:
The attackers also verbally assaulted the couple continually with anti-gay verbiage which continued even after a Sheriff’s Deputy arrived on the scene. Bystanders and other congregants made no effort to stop the assault. For that matter, neither did the Deputy Sheriff. Once the barrage of punches ended, the Deputy refused to let the two victims press charges.
The young men eventually filed charges the next day. But the case gets weirder: one of the attackers (and yes, I’m calling him an attacker before “all the facts are in”) apparently filed charges of his own a few days later, claiming it was Pittman Jr. who initiated the incident. Uh huh. No, really, this is my “I believe you” face; it just looks like my “you’re full of shit” face. Another attacker was allegedly stabbed in his own garage. Then the first guy packed up and moved, only to have his house burned down the next day. This is getting creepy.

And, of course, the two young men are finding it difficult to secure legal representation, the local lawyers being too homophobic themselves chicken-shit concerned with their image in the community to take on a “gay case.”

There’s more to the story, too. Apparently the elder Pittman had been arrested earlier in the day for the theft of $10,000 related to his imminent divorce from the woman whose presence in his life was the primary reason he hadn’t given in to the raving lunatic side of his personality earlier. This is the preacher, remember. OK… I’ll grant that you can use a selective reading of Leviticus and Deuteronomy to justify your homophobia. But I’m pretty sure I recall something about stone-casting, and I’m virtually certain that stealing and bearing false witness show up among the “shalt nots.” Those Old Testament dudes weren’t very liberal about divorce, either, if I recall correctly.

The failures of Pittman senior as father, minister, (apparently husband)—indeed as person are too manifold to enumerate. I’m not optimistic, of course, but there’s an outside chance he might yet turn out to be someone who could be mentioned in the same breath as Jesus without incurring laughter. Nah, who am I kidding?

Meanwhile, to the east, students at Sequoyah High School in Madisonville, tired of bullying and gay-bashing, attempted to form a Gay-Straight Alliance. According to student Zachary Piccione, he spent all spring semester “trying to find a sponsor, someone who would be willing to start one with me. And everyone's thing was that they didn't have time.” If this is true, then Sequoyah High School has a lot of craven and stupid teachers. They certainly have a bone-headed bully for a principal.

One Maurice Moser seems never to have outgrown his schoolyard bully phase. Trouble is, he’s the principal now. Nathan Carroll, a student who says he’s been bullied since the 6th grade for his sexual orientation and for “acting gay,” met with Moser twice this fall to try again to start an apparently much-needed GSA. He got nowhere, so he started a petition drive, collecting some 150 signatures, a fair number for a school of barely over 1000 students.

If you go to the school’s website, the first thing you see is the mission statement: “Our mission is to provide a safe, educational environment with academic and technical programs that will prepare each student to enter post-secondary institutions and/or the work force upon graduation.” The more perspicacious among you, Gentle Readers, will note the prominence of the word “safe” in the school’s mission. If you’re a little curious, you might also check out the Academics/Faculty page, where you’ll find this: “Every student should have an environment that is safe and conducive to learning.” Trouble is, apparently nobody at the school really believes that. (Given the fact that the Academics/Faculty page also says that “Faculty, students, and community support is necessary to accomplish the school's mission,” I’m guessing their mission doesn’t have much to do with teaching English grammar, either.)

Anyway, there was apparently an anti-gay group that wanted to stop the formation of the GSA. (As if they had any legitimate reason to prevent the club from forming.) A principal with a spine would tell the haters to go fuck themselves (perhaps not in precisely those words), allow the GSA to get started, and go back to trying to figure out the difference between singular and plural nouns. Not Moser. He outlawed any discussion of the proposed group by supporters or opponents (he being an equal opportunity civil rights violator), thereby ensuring that the GSA would not be formed while cravenly pretending to be even-handed. In Carroll’s words, Moser “said anything going pro or against GSA... if any petition is found, it is to be torn up and thrown away. Any student caught with it will be sent to his office for further punishment.”

Moser, of course, ducked press inquiries, passing the buck to the Director of Schools, Mike Lowry, who (surprise of surprises) issued a mealy-mouthed and ungrammatical diversion from the issue at hand and an avowal that students who follow the rules (what rules didn’t these follow?) will be treated “fairly and equally,” which one presumes is sort of like “separate but equal” for the 21st century.

Ah, but Gentle Reader, we’re not done yet. It seems that a young man named Chris Sigler wore a shirt on Tuesday that said “GSA: We’ve Got Your Back.” Oh, the humanity! According to the ACLU, here’s what happened next:
A teacher ordered Sigler to cover up the shirt in the future. Sigler, knowing he had a right to wear the shirt, wore it again Friday, and resisted an order to remove the shirt. Sigler says that Moser then ordered all students out of the classroom, except for Sigler’s sister Jessica, who refused to leave. According to both students, Moser then grabbed Sigler’s arm, shoved him, and chest-bumped him repeatedly while asking “Who’s the big man now?” [Are you freaking kidding me? The guy ought to be fired for being a bad pop culture cliché, if nothing else.] Sigler’s mother reported that when she arrived at the school, she saw her son seated in a desk with Moser leaning over him and shouting in Sigler’s face.
True, we haven’t heard Moser’s side of the story, but I have this nagging feeling that an authoritarian homophobe (and I’m pretty confident of both of those descriptors) probably doesn’t have a lot of defense. Denial, maybe. Bluster, perhaps. Excuse? Doesn’t seem possible, does it?

We’ve been acculturated into keeping our respective heads down. Jerry Pittman Jr. may not have had a choice, but at least he filed charges. Chris Sigler didn’t duck at all. This may or may not have been “his fight”: the article doesn’t say whether he’s gay or straight. I like that. Because I don’t care, and I really couldn’t care less about anyone who does. Chris, when you graduate, you’re welcome in my class.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

O'Reilly and Cain Do Their Best to... Defend Obama?

There’s a lot to contemplate in the Occupy Wall Street protests: why are they only now gaining any sort of mainstream press coverage? why do we as a culture seem to condone the brutality evidenced by some of the cops? why have arrests led to even more protests? who are these people, anyway? what do they really want? how “spontaneous” is this stuff? do we need to send emergency supplies of granola and patchouli to New York?

All of these are legitimate questions, and all—no doubt—have complex but ultimately comprehensible answers. I’ll even try to provide some of those insights in the days ahead. But the protests and their aftermath have also generated a question in my mind for which the response can only be a disbelieving head shake: what the hell is the Right thinking?

I get the whole “class warfare meme” being mouthed by the likes of Mitt Romney, but the more strident tones adopted by Presidential candidate flavor-of-the-month Herman Cain and veteran Fox News windbag Bill O’Reilly are harder to fathom. Cain says “if you don't have a job and you're not rich, blame yourself!” This is pretty much an echo of O’Reilly’s “they’re jobless because they don’t want to work…. All they have to do is take a shower and they can get a job if they went to college.”

Apart from the obvious factual errors and interpretative horror-shows (the protests are more about corruption than about jobs, the complaint is the compensation for jobs rather than the jobs themselves, etc.), and even leaving aside the fulfillment of every Democratic strategist’s wet dream by alienating the under-employed and the simply angry, there’s something very odd indeed here. The Right is so terrified of some sort of conspiracy of the Left to distract our attention from bad economic numbers (that’s Cain’s argument) that they don’t recognize that the actual protesters (rightly) regard the Democrats, whose whimpers of protest die away when the campaign contributions roll in, as only slightly less complicit in the sorry state of economic affairs than the Republicans, who are more eagerly evil.

Herman Cain is a bigot and a bloviating jackass, but presumably he has at least a modicum of sense or he couldn’t have risen to the top of his profession. Bill O’Reilly is also a bright guy: not as bright as he thinks he is, but, of course, you could combine the best qualities of Aristotle, Einstein, Mozart, Lincoln, and da Vinci and not be as smart as O’Reilly thinks he is. But here, Cain and O’Reilly just got flat suckered. Whether the bait was dangled in front of them intentionally is not clear; that they bit, absolutely intentionally, is.

In Oedipus the King, the title character brings about his own demise by hubristically attempting to circumvent his fate: he abandoned Corinth in the mistaken belief that he could thereby protect his father and mother there, little realizing that his biological parents were in fact in Thebes. And so he kills his father on the road and is awarded the hand (and other body parts) of his mother as a reward for solving the riddle of the Sphinx. But it all starts with the belief that he can cheat the gods.

What happens to our two 21st century blowhards is similar: undeterred by reality, they forged ahead with their talking points, oblivious to the consequences. What consequences, you ask? Well, how about this: in their zeal to paint the protesters as whiners and chronic malcontents, these two paragons of the Right are arguing in no uncertain terms that the economic malaise felt by many people in the country is illusory. If all you have to do is take a shower to get a job, then all those unemployment figures don’t mean anything.

Commentators on both sides of the political divide agree on one thing: that the albatross around the neck of President Obama’s re-election bid is that 9.1% unemployment rate, up from less than 8% when Obama took office. And for all the CBO figures that suggest the President’s stimulus package saved us from a much greater disaster, the fact remains that jobs—the lack of them—will prove to be the biggest drag on the Obama 2012 campaign. Nor does it seem the President has much to offer. True, there’s that jobs bill, but neither John Boehner, who would cheerfully destroy the economy if it results in putting a Republican in the White House, nor Harry Reid (of “with friends like this…” fame) seem much interested in passing it, even in modified (read: “eviscerated”) form. The unemployment rate is therefore a virtual certainty to be higher on Election Day 2012 than on Inauguration Day 2009: and we can pretty much count on the Republicans to chant in unison that “he made it worse,” caring not a whit, of course, whether actually he did or not.

Indeed, it was beginning to look like Mr. Obama had no rejoinder to those charges. But wait, who’s that riding in on a white charger to whisk our beleaguered hero away from the clutches of electoral disaster? Why, it’s Bill O’Reilly and his faithful retainer Herman Cain! (Or is that Herman Cain and his faithful retainer Bill O’Reilly? I can never remember.) The unemployment problem isn’t systemic! It isn’t a failure of leadership! It’s completely unrelated to politics altogether! People are unemployed for two reasons only: they’re lazy, and they stink. The current economy is not, therefore, Mr. Obama’s fault, and no, the Republican House isn’t going to sign off on a stimulus package consisting of buying and distributing a few million crates of deodorant body wash. So our slothful and aromatic work force remains un- or under-employed, but at least we know whom to blame: not the guy we’re trying to defeat, but rather the voters themselves.

These guys are just too inscrutable for me.

Monday, October 3, 2011

All His Rowdy Friends Still Had Jobs on Monday Night

Hank Williams, Jr. is an idiot. But we knew that.

His pathetic display of borderline seditious boneheadedness on Fox & Friends this morning earned him the title of former singer of the intro song for Monday Night Football. His on-air comparison of the President of the United States to Hitler and his description of Mssrs. Obama and Biden as “the enemy”—an enemy so horrible, apparently, that John Boehner’s playing golf with the POTUS was “one of the biggest political mistakes ever”—was so outrageous that even Gretchen Carlson backed away from his lunacy. Let’s face it, if there are four people in a conversation and Gretchen Carlson is the smart one, you’re in serious trouble.

OK, Brian Kilmeade’s silly introduction notwithstanding, Hank Williams, Jr. does not “[know] a lot about politics.” He is, in fact, a buffoon. The fact that he has arrogantly-asserted opinions and a boorish smirk does not make him knowledgeable, although he could probably hold his own against the majority of the guests on Fox & Friends, including most of the alleged political experts and undoubtedly all of the presumed journalists. That he was previously enamored of Sarah Palin tells you that, let’s say, his politics and mine are not terribly well aligned. That he—or anyone—thinks Herman Cain is a reasonable candidate sends chills up my spine. But that’s not a reason to fire his sorry ass. Comparing the President to Hitler is.

By the way, this isn’t a partisan issue. A few years ago Senator Dick Durbin was describing conditions at Guantanamo Bay and suggested (accurately, I might add) that:
If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings.
True, we expect a little more from a US Senator than from a pompous country singer the majority of the country knows for a single song from a generation ago. But Durbin was describing conditions, not people… and mentioning Nazis in general isn’t the same as a direct analogue to the guy with the funny mustache. Still, here’s what I said at the time: “… you don't mention Nazis. You just don't. Even if you're not really making a comparison, even (no, make that especially) if the point you make is legitimate, you've got to understand that all people are going to hear is a slur.” Williams’s walk-back appears to be even less sincere than Durbin’s, and demonstrates his fundamental failure to comprehend even the most basic of political realities: that Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner have to work together at least a little bit or everyone loses.

There will be those, including over 40%—as I write this, at least—of those responding to an online poll by USA Today, who think ESPN was “wrong” to fire Williams because “there’s free speech.” OK, once more: “free speech” means only that the government can’t prosecute you for what you say (with a few exceptions: incitement to riot, slander, perjury, etc.). It doesn’t mean that you can say whatever you want without repercussions. Sarah Palin may not comprehend this; Hank Williams, Jr. may not comprehend this. But it is a fact nonetheless: a private company can get rid of you for embarrassing them. Indeed, it is their responsibility to their stockholders and to their employees who aren’t dumber than the proverbial box of rocks to do so.

What will be really interesting to watch will be Fox News’s response to all this. They (or at least Carlson) backed away from Williams’s more incendiary rhetoric, but don’t be surprised to see them suddenly trumpeting his “right” to do whatever he chooses without restriction. (Watch the fireworks fly if one of their employees has the apostasy to question the Solomonic wisdom of Michele Bachman, however.)

Most significantly, of course, all of this leaves ESPN without a singer for their self-indulgent, over-produced and hellaciously boring intro. Luckily, I’m here to help them out. In Williams, they had a bigoted, reactionary has-been country singer. The reasonable replacement: a bigoted, reactionary has-been rock singer. And the Lions are on next week: “Cat Scratch Fever” seems particularly apt.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

"Fuck Obama" and the Mad Mathematician

In doing a little research for my last piece about the kerfuffle at UW-Stout, I came across another article at Popehat, this one by Patrick, about freedom of expression on yet another college campus. This one particularly caught my eye because the university in question in Sam Houston State University, my current institution’s arch-rival. The Popehat article gives only the bare bones; the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) site has more of the details.

It seems that a coalition of student groups from across the political spectrum—the SHSU Lovers of Liberty, Bearkat Democrats, Young Democratic Socialists, and College Republicans—joined together a fortnight or so ago to protest a proposed university social media policy. The groups co-sponsored a “free speech wall” on which students could write anything they chose. You see where this is going, don’t you, Gentle Reader? Post-adolescents, complete freedom to say anything… somebody is going to think the quintessence of wit is to use the so-called F-word. Aaaaaaannnd: they did. A letter from FIRE’s VP for Programs to SHSU President Dana L. Gibson spells out some of what appeared on that wall:
Many students wrote a variety of political and other messages on the wall, including “don't hate against Gays ...,” “If you make less than $200,000 Republicans don't care about you,” “God so loved the world He sent His one and only son ...,” “Best thing I've ever seen at this raggedy school!!!,” “Life's not a bitch, Life is a beautiful woman ...,” “Han Solo Shot First,” “My boyfriend is a liar!,” “Legalize Weed!!!,” “NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF!!!,” and “FUCK OBAMA.” In response to “FUCK OBAMA,” others continued the conversation. One person wrote “BUSH” under “OBAMA.” Another added “you,” apparently to signify saying “fuck you” to the person who had written “FUCK OBAMA.”
You can see part of this, at least, in the photo above. Anyway, along comes Math professor Joe E. Kirk, who was offended by the Anglo-Saxonism, specifically in reference to the President of the United States. He demanded the profanity be removed or covered up. The students refused. Kirk then went to his office, returned with a box cutter (yes, really) and performed a fuck-echtomy.

As far as I can tell, no one has actually asked Dr. Kirk exactly why he did that. He’s not a young man (if his college graduation year is an indicator, he’s in his early seventies), and the expletive may have actually bothered him. Maybe he’s a die-hard Democrat—apparently the wall featured a number of f-bombs, but only one was cut out. Or maybe “fuck [anybody but the POTUS]” is OK.

Anyway, according to Morgan Freeman (that would be the president of the SHSU chapter of Lovers of Liberty, not the one you’ve heard of), the students then:
called [their] advisor, who called one of the deans. The dean said to call the police because Joe Kirk had used a potential weapon. The police (UPD) came and interviewed us and then went to talk to Joe Kirk. They returned and said we had to either cover up the profanity or take it down. There was too much profanity to cover it all up. We decided if we were not really free to exercise our freedom of speech, then there was no point in having a free speech wall. So we removed the paper, and then disassembled the wall, packed it up and left.
And there you have it: a neat little free-speech episode with no one to root for.

The administration? Well, they were willing to create a social media policy that was imposed from above without appropriate consultation with students, staff, or faculty. It’s also incompetently written: if parallelism means anything anymore (and if the draft version posted online hasn’t been corrected), there’s a section that reads: “[The] University claims the right to remove comments and content from social media accounts if they… Do not violate the terms of use/service of the social platforms you use.” (pp. 8-9 of the pdf file) Yes, that’s right, you’ll be censored if you do not violate the TOS of the provider. That’s not what was intended, but that’s what it says. And the ultimate response to this brouhaha? “The incident… is currently under investigation.” I feel better already.

The student protesters? Well, they got their skivvies in a twist over a policy that is really only intended to protect the university from unauthorized or inappropriate use of the school’s brand: you can say whatever you want, but you can’t say it as a representative of SHSU. As an administrator of our School of Theatre Facebook page, I’ve removed spam, and I would, if necessary, remove posts which would reflect poorly on our program… whatever the reason. There is no right being violated by removing graffiti, whether the medium is paint or a Twitter feed.

Moreover, they had to have known that their little exercise in “free speech” would degenerate into a battle of who could say “fuck” with the most fervor. While there are a couple of expressions on the wall that actually qualify as political speech—the protection of which was the real intention of the 1st amendment—most are, to use a term that’s probably literally true in some instances, sophomoric. There’s no law against that, and their right to free expression should not be abridged simply because they nothing of value to say, but it would be nice if they didn’t feel so compelled to demonstrate their vacuity.

Professor Kirk? He had the right to be upset, but not to wield a box-cutter. Vandalism isn’t cool. The end.

The dean? Suggesting that the real problem was that Dr. Kirk “had used a potential weapon”? Assuming Ms. Freeman reported the dean’s words correctly, this is right up there with the stupidity manifested at UW-Stout. Other potential weapons that clearly were not used as such would also include the hot sauce in Prof. Kirk’s chili and the car he drove home in. Dean = Moron.

The campus police? The words on the protest wall were pretty clearly intended for no reason other than to be offensive, but they didn’t rise to the level of disorderly conduct, regardless of what the university’s Deputy Police Chief may think. The Houstonian, the student newspaper, reports that the statute in question reads as follows: “A person commits an offense if he intentionally or knowingly; (1) uses abusive, indecent, profane, or vulgar language in a public place, and the language by its very utterance tends to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” The first part happened; the second didn’t. It wasn’t the language that incited a breach of the peace, and whatever breach there was wasn’t immediate.

Still, we can make a case that the situation at least neared a grey area. It was the dithering that really looks bad: clearly there was no violation if the investigating officers didn’t think so when they first showed up. Leaving and then returning with threats is tacky at best.

This case is nowhere near as clear-cut as the one at UW-Stout. There, no reasonable person could possibly have read the “Firefly” poster as a threat. Here, well, “fuck” bothers some people, especially when applied as an insult to the President. Moreover, while a university does not have the right to limit student speech per se, they do have a right to maintain order on their campus and to apply rules of conduct for the use of university facilities. It is this same principle that allows universities to forbid firearms or alcohol on campus, or that allows me to throw someone out of my classroom or my office, even though they’re in a state-owned building.

The students in question are jerks. But they’re politically active post-adolescents: it’s sort of their job. Still, the conflation between that which is legal and that which ought to be done continues to be troubling. Professor Kirk needs to chill, possibly in retirement. The campus police need to enforce the law and the Constitution, not their personal agendas. And the administration would do well to talk to, instead of at, students and faculty. Because they fucked this shit up.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Firefly," Fascists, and Freedom of Speech

For a year or two, there was a sign on my office door that read “Perge, scelus, mihi diem perficias.” That translates roughly as “Proceed, varlet, and render the day perfect unto me,” or, more colloquially, “Go ahead, punk, make my day.” It was, of course, a joke: the merging of a popular culture reference with my projected self-image both as intellectual and as (pedagogical) tough guy. Anyone who felt threatened, even after having the saying translated, is too stupid to be in my classroom.

Now a different professor of theatre at a different non-flagship state university is at the center of a controversy involving a very similar door decoration. James Miller teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He put a poster (shown at right) from the now-cancelled television show “Firefly” on his office door. It reads “You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me. And you’ll be armed.” Much to the consternation of some of my students, past and present, I’ve never seen the show, but commentators who are fans assure me that the quotation in question comes from the pilot episode, in which the hero responds to a question about whether the other character will be killed in his sleep.

I can’t confirm that, but anyone with any right to be in a theatre building can read a text well enough to understand that the meaning of the line is the precise opposite of a threat: “You have nothing to fear from me unless you take up arms against me, in which case I will annihilate you.” All of which proves that the Chief of the University Police, one Lisa A. Walter, is an idiot. She removed the poster and then informed Mr. Miller by e-mail that she had done so, claiming that “it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing.” Seriously? I'm glad she wasn't the one deciding whether we could advertise our recent production of Yeats one-acts, including (OMG!) The Death of Cuchulain.

Miller reacted pretty much as I would have if my sign had been removed by some moronic campus cop who was as incapable of reading comprehension as she was of respecting personal liberties. (I hope I wouldn’t have called her “fascistic,” as Prof. Miller did in his response, but I make no guarantees.) And then the escalation began. Not content with being merely stupid, Chief Walter ratcheted up the stakes:
My actions are appropriate and defensible. Speech can be limited on a reasonable expectation that it will cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat. We were notified of the existence of the posting, reviewed it and believe that the wording on the poster can be interpreted as a threat by others and/or could cause those that view it to believe that you are willing/able to carry out actions similar to what is listed. This posting can cause others to fear for their safety, thus it was removed.

I am willing to schedule a meeting with you to discuss this further, if you wish. If you choose to repost the article or something similar to it, it will be removed and you could face charges of disorderly conduct.
Well, no, Chief, your actions were inappropriate and indefensible. No rational human being would come to a “reasonable expectation” that a poster from a television show (you might not have known that, but surely you could figure out that the poster was mass-produced, right?) could possibly cause a “disruption of school activities,” “material and/or substantial” or otherwise, or that the words on the piece of paper constitute a threat of any kind. If other people “fear for their safety” because of that poster, it is your responsibility to escort them to the psychiatric ward, not to confiscate private property without as much as a warrant. Certainly it is you, with your terrifying admixture of stupidity, arrogance, and simple bravado, that constitutes a threat: charges of disorderly conduct? Really?

Miller then raised the tension level again, e-mailing Walter in apparent disbelief:
Postings that "refer" to violence constitute a threat? As in a poster from Hamlet? Or a news clipping about Hockey players that commit violent murder? [EDIT: This last line seemed a bit strange, so I looked it up: sure enough, there was a local story about a group of hockey players allegedly causing the death of a fellow student. Two were charged with felony murder; ten were suspended from the team but not from the university: actual violence apparently fits in fine with the sense of warm fuzzies sought by the Stout administration.]

Don't threaten me with charges that have no basis in reality—I am a committed pacifist and a devotee of non-violence, and I don't appreciate card carrying members of the NRA who are wearing side arms and truncheons lecturing me about violence.
And, of course, he put a different poster on his door: the one to the left, showing a beat-down of a citizen by a cop, with the cutline “Warning: Fascism. Fascism can cause blunt trauma and/or violent death. Keep Fascism away from children and pets.” Whether Chief Walter was really too dim-witted to know that she was the target of the commentary or just wanted to pretend that she wasn’t, her response was sadly predictable: another removal, another inane justification e-mail:
My office removed another posting from the outside of your office. The posting depicts violence and mentions violence and death. The campuses [sic.] threat assessment team met yesterday and conferred with UW System Office of General Counsel and made the decision that this posting should be removed. It is believed that this posting also has a reasonable expectation that it will cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat.
Notice that the precise “charge” is never spelled out. More importantly, it’s no longer just Walter who is on the silly side. I’ve spent the vast majority of my adult life on college campuses (I’ve taken or taught college courses for at least one semester in every calendar year since 1973), and I’ve known, at least in passing, a few dozen campus cops. Many are nice people, the majority are no doubt perfectly qualified to hand out parking tickets and break up parties that get too loud, but I don’t think many will ever be accused of being intellectual giants. Conversely, more than a few are self-important jackasses. It would be an exaggeration to say that I expected Chief Walter to fall into this latter category, but it certainly didn’t surprise me.

But now we have the portentous-sounding “threat assessment team” and indeed the university system’s General Counsel getting into the act. These people should know better. It is more than a little distressing that they do not. This is where I yield to Ken at Popehat:
If a rational person wouldn’t take it as an actual threat of violence, then it’s not a true threat that can be censored, however much the hysterical, irrational, nanny-stating, coddling, or professionally emo think about it, and however much university chancellors would like to believe otherwise….

A system in which what we can say is premised upon the likely reactions of the mentally ill and the undernourished pussywillows of the world is a system that encourages suppression of all unpopular, forceful, interesting, or challenging speech. The irrational and the morally and mentally weak are not entitled to have their feelings protected through the force of law, however prevalent they are on campus….

If your “UW System Legal Counsel” told you that these posters could be censored based on their content, then stop hiring lawyers out of the back of a bait shop.
Anyway, about the same time as Walter and the Minions launched into their tap-dance routine, Dr. Miller brought FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) on board. FIRE is best known for rallying around right-wing students whose tender sensibilities have been affronted by rationality (expecting students in a biology class to articulate the principles of evolution, for example), but, like the ACLU from the other direction, they actually do believe in a philosophy rather than an ideology. In other words, they really do care about free expression. And, alas, I must tell you that in my experience there have been more assaults on academic freedom and 1st amendment rights on campus from the left than the right.

Anyway, this is right up FIRE’s alley, and they blasted away with an article on their website and an all-out publicity blitz, sending an open letter to Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen of the Stout campus, and enlisting directly or indirectly the assistance of actors Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion from the “Firefly” series (that’s Fillion on the poster), plus such decidedly disparate sites as Reason.com and Gawker. (Gawker’s story is particularly snarky and therefore dear to my heart.) Unfortunately, rather than listen to reason or to argumentation (and derision) from the left, right, and center, Chancellor Sorensen punted.

He and his equally craven, hubristic, and vacuous senior staff—Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes—sent an e-mail to all faculty and staff at the Stout campus, attempting to spin their thuggishness, repressiveness, and outright fatuousness into something comprehensible if not noble. I include the entire e-mail here, with my commentary inset and in brackets:
There have been recent news reports about an incident in which two posters hung by a UW-Stout professor outside his office were removed by campus police. There are some important points to consider in the wake of these incidents:
[Indeed, there are…]
UW-Stout administrators believe strongly in the right of all students, faculty and staff to express themselves freely about issues on campus and off. This freedom is fundamental on a public university campus.
[Then STFU.]
However, we also have the responsibility to promote a campus environment that is free from threats of any kind—both direct and implied. It was our belief, after consultation with UW System legal counsel, that the posters in question constituted an implied threat of violence. That is why they were removed.
[Bullshit. The first poster was removed before any such consultation, and everything after that came as a result of trying to justify that initial stupidity. So, first of all, stop lying. Secondly, if you think those posters “constituted an implied threat of violence,” you are barely intelligent enough to feed yourself, let alone sit behind a desk—even as students—at a reputable university. Finally, it is not your “responsibility” to enforce a threat-free environment, certainly not if the standard for an “implied” threat is what the most moronic reader (such as yourselves) might contort a perfectly innocuous expression into potentially meaning.]
This was not an act of censorship. This was an act of sensitivity to and care for our shared community, and was intended to maintain a campus climate in which everyone can feel welcome, safe and secure.
[True, technically this was not an act of censorship. That would imply that the state qua state was prohibiting free expression. No, you gaggle of dimwits are acting not as the state but as employer, thereby possibly rendering your inanity legal, although still ethically unsupportable and professionally incompetent. And puh-leeze, spare me your sanctimony, your sensitivity, and your caring. Give me instead, please, an institution that values reason, personal liberties, and the free exchange of ideas… because this ain’t it, and an out-of-the-closet intellectual such as myself does not feel the slightest bit “welcome, safe, [or] secure” in this “shared community.” Indeed, you three, the chief of police, and the general counsel all terrify me.]
There is one piece of good news… I have another reason to be happy where I am.

(Thanks to my netfriend Jack Marshall for alerting me to this story. You can read his commentary here and here.)