Wednesday, December 28, 2011

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that makes all of us a little poorer.

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