Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jammie Price and the Offensiveness of [the] Porn [Industry]

Sometimes the best thing that can happen to you is that you don’t get what you want. I applied for a job at Appalachian State University a few years ago. I didn’t get as much as an acknowledgment letter. In retrospect, that’s looking more and more like a good thing.

According to articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere, tenured full professor Jammie Price of ASU’s Sociology Department was “placed on administrative leave following complaints last month from four students about her ‘inappropriate speech and conduct in the classroom,’ including showing a movie about pornography.”

As is the case with many such incidents, it’s difficult to determine what the university’s real motives are. Are they really all that concerned with three students who didn’t think they were sufficiently warned about the fact that the film “The Price of Pleasure,” a scathing critique of the pornography industry which Dr. Price showed in class, has some pretty explicit scenes in it? I’m betting not, although the concept of the idiot administrator would hardly be novel.

More likely, Dr. Price is a pain in the university’s collective ass for other reasons—she’s also charged with saying disparaging things about athletes and telling students she doesn’t like working at App State. Professor Price told the Chronicle’s Robin Wilson that:
the administration is punishing her because she has spoken out about things on the campus, including what she describes as a male-only poker club that includes administrators and faculty members. “Men in the poker club gain more power, privileges, and income than others on the campus, and protection from student charges,” she said. “Since I started speaking out about this poker club, I have been bullied and harassed.”
But whether the showing of the film was the real problem or simply an excuse for administrators to exact vengeance on Dr. Price, it appears that showing the film was somewhere on the spectrum from cause to catalyst to last straw.

“The Price of Pleasure” (IMDB page here; film website here) is a 2008 documentary by Chyng Sun and Miguel Picker. It is sufficiently well-known in the academic community that I, who am not a social scientist, know of it. (I’ve never seen it, but I’ve seen other, earlier, variations on the theme.) It is, apparently, not infrequently used in classes similar to Dr. Price’s: in “hundreds of classes across the country,” according to one source. For her class, Price showed the copy owned by the university library.

I am ill-equipped to determine whether or not the film is a useful teaching tool. Critic Stuart Henderson calls the documentary’s approach “brainless”; a more scholarly review in the journal Gender and Education [note: sorry if the link doesn’t work: I needed a password to access the article; you might, too] describes the reactions of seven academics: “we were concerned both with the film’s failure to sustain an argument and the amount of time devoted to replaying pornographic images. We connected these to the lack of research presented in the film.”

On the other hand, one of the essential tenets of academic freedom is that faculty, especially tenured faculty, get to choose what works and what doesn’t. Other sociologists use the film in their classrooms, and one described disciplining Price as “ludicrous.” More to the point, Dr. Price’s credentials as a sociologist and as a teacher thereof (she’s a full professor, after all) far outstrip mine, so I’m not going to criticize the choice of material, especially since it appears to be widely used.

The furor, of course, seems not to be centered so much on the choice of film, but on the lack of warning to students that what was going to be shown includes graphic content and could be considered objectionable. This is the tack taken by John DeLameter, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin, who uses the film in his own classes. Mitch Smith of Inside Higher Ed writes that DeLameter argues that “professors have a duty to inform students ahead of time when a movie is graphic and to allow those students to leave without any repercussions.” Gail Dines of Wheelock College agrees. Apparently Price issued no warning but said students could have excused themselves without negative repercussions.

Hmmm… I don’t know. Really, I’m not sure whether this is even an appropriate standard. The impact of explicit scenes—however we define “explicit”—is inevitably going to be diminished, or at least altered, if we know they’re coming. It always makes me crazy to fill out the “content advisory” form for shows I’m directing. Yes, I get it, some people will be offended if we say this or do that, and (generally) we don’t want that to happen. But the vast majority of the prospective audience won’t be offended, and we just told them something that will quite likely give away a plot point or have the spectators waiting to hear that word or watch that moment instead of engaging with the rest of the play.

More to the point, there will be those who remain in the class who will be made uneasy by the film’s content: that’s the point, after all. If the film is worth seeing, worth showing in class, it’s worth making everyone watch it whether their delicate sensibilities are offended or not. I don’t care if those sensibilities are cultural, political, aesthetic, or whatever: what we’re doing in class today is watching the film, and you’re either going to watch it or you get an unexcused absence. Next.

Still, a little courtesy is appropriate, and unless the documentary really does rely on surprise as part of its effectiveness, it’s a good idea to tell students that they’re about to get uncomfortable. Moreover, if the statements that the film advances a particular philosophical/political stance are accurate, and I suspect that they are, then it becomes incumbent on Dr. Price to contextualize, to critique, to keep the class from becoming a platform rather than a dialectic. She may well not have done that. That’s a criticism of her teaching. It is not grounds to suspend a full professor.

That, really is the central issue here. Dr. Price may have made a mistake in judgment, but here’s the evidence for her alleged misconduct: three students complained. How many does leave who didn’t? (There are 60 students just in that section.) She’s been teaching at Appalachian for a decade, has been tenured for at least half of that time, and is quite likely to have used the same or similar classroom materials repeatedly in the past. That he suspended a senior faculty member for this tells me one thing above all else about Vice Provost Anthony Gene Carey (the actual Provost couldn’t be bothered to write the letter?): I’m glad he’s not my boss.

Robin Wilson writes, also, that:
The American Association of University Professors wrote a letter to the university's chancellor this month, saying that, in Ms. Price's case, the consequences of the paid leave were the same as a suspension. It also said AAUP guidelines say professors should be suspended “only if immediate harm to the faculty member or others is threatened”—something it said wasn't evident in Ms. Price's case.
Not only that, but Professor Price was denied a hearing by the administration, barred from campus, forced to turn in her keys, and (get this!) forbidden to discuss the case with colleagues or students.

Not surprisingly, not just the AAUP, but also FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) got involved. Mitch Smith writes:
Adam Kissel, a vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, criticized Appalachian State for instructing Price to not discuss her situation with students or fellow faculty members while the case is pending. While colleges have the right to investigate faculty members in some cases, Kissel said telling them to cut off communication with those on campus can prevent them from contacting potential witnesses for their defense.
Curiously, however, with the exception of a link to Smith’s article in Inside Higher Ed, FIRE’s website is strangely devoid of content on this case. It isn’t even included on the “All FIRE’s Cases” page. I'm not sure what’s up with that, although FIRE tends to lean a little to the right and to support students against faculty: this might account for their procedural but not substantive objections.

Anyway, here’s what we come down to: Dr. Price’s actions may have reached to the level of inappropriate, although I’m not willing to go even that far without considerable trepidation. To say that they merited suspension, or administrative leave, or whatever euphemistic term the administration chooses to apply, is laughable: or, rather, it would be if the stakes weren’t so high. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, there is no reasonable conclusion other than that the administration are, collectively, at least one of the following: sexist, stupid, craven, pompous, anti-intellectual, vindictive, or just plain incompetent. Come to think of it, probably at least three or four off that list…

This one, whatever we think of Dr. Price’s classroom tactics, is an easy call. She she be restored to full faculty status and issued a public apology. The administration? Well, they’re Curmie contenders. That will have to be their consolation.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Case of the Sexy Seven-Year-Old: A Contrarian View

I don’t think I need to prove my credentials on the education front. This blog has criticized faculty, staff, and administrators from elementary school to major university. If you’re an embarrassment to my profession, I want you gone.

That said, it’s open season on teachers at all levels. It used to be public school teachers were exempt, and it was just us pointed-headed ivory-tower intellectuals with our slothful 60-hour work weeks and our cushy $50K salaries who were the enemy, but recently we have welcomed our brothers and sisters in elementary and secondary education to the wrong side of the public relations tracks.

There’s a case in New Jersey that serves as an ideal example of what’s really wrong with American public education. It’s not the teachers, although of course there are some bad ones. It’s the administrators who lack the will, the fortitude, and the intelligence to call Bullshit; it’s the media, who are too smug, too lazy, and too unconcerned with the truth; it’s the public, who have allowed themselves to be misled by the fantasies of ALEC and similar political machines who would actually prefer it if the public weren’t terribly well educated: I tend not to be as easily led as are those who think the laws of physics ought to be put up to a popular vote.

Anyway, in Egg Harbor City, NJ, substitute gym teacher Marco Inskip was “immediately dismissed” from Charles Spragg Elementary School for allegedly telling a 7-year-old girl that her outfit was “too sexy for gym class.” Superintendent John Gilly III seems to be rather proud of the dismissal. That’s because the news coverage, to use that term euphemistically, has been absurdly skewed. It is also because Mr. Gilly is an idiot.

OK, let’s take this a step at a time. First off, Mr. Inskip denies having said the word “sexy.” He claims to have said “cute,” which would certainly carry a different connotation. Ah, but two other girls, presumably classmates of the alleged injured party, Cadence Wilson, confirm her story. And, as we all know, never in the history of the universe have little girls ever lied to protect their friend. (The more perspicacious among you, Gentle Readers, might detect the slightest trace of irony in the foregoing sentence.)

Anyway, Cadence’s father, Henry Wilson, says that “Two other little girls who heard it had to tell the teacher because my daughter didn’t even feel comfortable saying ‘sexy.’” Uh huh. Forgive me if I’m a little less than entirely trusting on this front, especially since in another, earlier story with a competing TV team, it’s Cadence who “told another teacher.” In other words, the story keeps getting more sensational (and Cadence becomes increasingly unworldly) over time without any change in the basic facts. That ought to send off signal flares that perhaps—just perhaps—the desire for a… wait for it… sexy story might just be outstripping the truth. Any competent journalist or educational administrator would want to investigate further before defaming a quite possibly innocent man. Needless to say, they didn’t do so.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Inskip actually said the girl was wearing an outfit that was “too sexy for gym class.” Note a couple things: the allegation, even in its harshest manifestation, isn’t really, when you cut through the pseudo-journalistic hype, that he called Cadence “sexy,” (as the headlines would have it) but that her outfit was. That’s a huge semantic difference, roughly equivalent to the distinction between telling a student he did something really stupid (which I did yesterday) and telling him that he is really stupid (which I’ve never done, except, perhaps, in obvious jest to a student who knows—doesn’t just think, knows, I don’t mean it).

And whether “sexy” is the right word or not, that get-up was completely inappropriate for gym class. In my day (break out the “get off my lawn” voice) there were gym uniforms, even at the 2nd grade level, and that frilly little pink and black number with the bling: that wasn’t it. And don’t even try to tell me that girls that age aren’t sexualized. No, it’s not a good thing. But it’s absolutely real. Remember JonBenét Ramsey? She was six.

So, let’s review the bidding. Mr. Inskip may or may not have used the word “sexy” to describe the absolutely inappropriate (for the purpose, namely gym class) attire of a seven-year-old. The girl in question may or may not have told a different teacher… or maybe it was her friends who did that. Anyway, she definitely told her father, who seems to be more than enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame (how did we ever describe this phenomenon in pre-Andy Warhol days?). He seems interested in two things: getting his face on television and ending Mr. Inskip’s career, whether the latter deserves it or not. He actually filed a criminal complaint over this incident. Sorry, Mr. Wilson. That’s not being a protective father; that’s being a douchebag.

Notice that Mr. Inskip is not even accused of inappropriate conduct. He didn’t touch the girl (except, possibly, in the legitimate course of his duties). He didn’t proposition her. He didn’t arrange to meet her outside class. There’s all this furor, in other words, because he might have, once, used the word “sexy” to describe a little girl’s outfit, which was, at least arguably, precisely as he described it.

OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD! Break out the torches and the pitchforks!

The reasonable response by any administrator faced with this situation is to ignore the grandstanding father and take the teacher aside, suggest to him that he might want to choose his words more carefully, and move on. I need hardly mention that Mr. Gilly couldn’t care less about fairness or due process. He perceived which way the winds of yellow journalism were blowing, and he threw his employee under the bus, pretending his cynical disregard for truth and his pompous posturing were really righteous indignation.

Remember those teachers in Georgia who constructed math questions about slaves, beatings, and cotton? That was really offensive and inexcusable. I wrote in January, that the district should “[fire] their asses, hire someone with a brain, and then let those people teach.” What actually happened was a promise to “work with the teachers to develop more appropriate questions.”

This is the flip side. A reprimand, maybe, although even that seems too much. Firing? Absolutely not, unless there’s a whole lot more to this case than has been made public. Based on what’s available to us right now, it’s Gilly, not Inskip, who deserves to be out of a job, for pandering to the mob mentality and failing to do his damned job provide appropriate leadership.

The Greek cynic Diogenes famously roamed the countryside with a lamp, searching for an honest man. If he wants an even more fruitless quest, he could go in search of a high school administrator who’s smarter than a doorstop. Hell, I’d settle for one who isn’t a legitimate Curmie nominee.

The Latest Threat to Western Civilization: Unescorted Prom Attendees

Last night was prom night for hundreds of schools across the country. My niece attended hers in Ohio: we’re waiting for the report. One state over, Amanda Dougherty apparently went to hers, too, but only because she was able to get a date after the guy who was supposed to take her backed out.

Ms. Dougherty attends Archbishop John Carroll High School in Radnor, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. She, like high school girls everywhere, was excited about going to prom, but her date cancelled on her—it doesn’t matter why. She dusted herself off and prepared to go to the event alone. Except that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had other ideas: they, in their infinite and medieval wisdom, have a rule against going to prom without a date. Really.

Quoth the Office of Catholic Education:
The prom is an exciting event for students in all of our Archdiocesan high schools. We do have policies in place to regulate both the junior and senior prom. Unfortunately, not all students are able to attend. We can’t address specific issues with specific students but there are various reasons that a student would not be able to attend. Not having a date is one example. Our high schools offer numerous dances and events throughout the year where dates are not required, but we view the prom as a special social event where a date is required to attend.
You can pretty much bet they wouldn’t be too pleased if Ms. Dougherty showed up with a female friend, either.

OK, let’s start with what this isn’t about: it isn’t about whether the rule would apply equally to boys or to girls, or whether there’s a legitimate intimation of sexism here; it isn’t about the $1000 or so Ms. Dougherty and/or her family reportedly shelled out so she could attend prom in style; it isn’t about whether her running to the press was the appropriate thing to do; it isn’t about whether the school, the diocese, or whoever is in charge, has the right to make and enforce its rules; it isn’t about the fact that the policy was apparently well-publicized and shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. It’s about one thing, and one thing only: whether the rule itself is profoundly regressive, punitive for no apparent reason, and, well, just plain dumb. (Hint: it is.)

Students have been going to prom solo and in groups since well before I was in high school, and that wasn’t exactly yesterday. The enjoyment level of the couples attending—both the couples attending and the hey-we’ve-been-friends-for-a-decade-and-neither-of-us-is-in-a-relationship-so-do-you-want-to-go-to-prom-together “couples” attending—is unlikely to be diminished by the presence of—OMG—a dateless girl. For contrast, if indeed such is needed, compare the impact of the presence of a couple who decide to make their own trio by inviting their good friend Jose Cuervo along for the ride.

But apparently the exalted poobahs of Catholic Church, those exemplars of interpersonal relationships involving adolescents, have not yet lurched forward into an era in which high school students ought to be able to attend social functions without an appropriate adornment of the opposite sex on one’s arm; an era in which one needn’t be physically beautiful or popular—or even comfortable in social settings—to participate in school activities; an era in which antiquated and arcane tenets of social decorum are not continued simply because that’s the way it’s always been done… or, as I like to call that futuristic realm: the Eisenhower administration.

The problem here isn’t really that the policy is kind of silly (OK, OK, a lot silly). It’s that, unlike most such rules, there appears to be no rational argument in favor of it (N.B., there are arguments against Ms. Dougherty’s response, but that’s a different matter). I may disagree with the Church’s position on abortion; I may think it’s a little hypocritical to cite Leviticus 20:13 ad nauseum to justify anti-gay bigotry, all the while pretending, say, Leviticus 11:10 (prohibition against shellfish… and whales and frogs, for that matter) doesn’t exist; I may think the Church is a little too ready to cover up for pedophile priests. But at least I can figure out why someone would behave the way the leaders of the Church behave, even if it’s out of prejudice, paranoia, or Machiavellian self-interest. I just can’t wrap my head around this one. The fact that the official statement doesn’t tell us why the policy exists only exacerbates my suspicion that there really isn’t a reason other than inertia.

The argument that “Unfortunately, not all students are able to attend” is all too true: alas, there are a lot of families who can’t drop a thousand bucks onto prom after already ponying up $5600 for tuition (plus, possibly, another $1150 in “supplemental tuition”). Not in these economic times. These are real-life exigencies: not everyone who wants to go on the study abroad trip to Ireland I’m leading this summer can afford it, either. I get it. But the idea that someone couldn’t attend because of some arbitrary rule that has no particular purpose other than further stigmatizing the unattached seems a bit odd.

Can we, Gentle Reader, take as given that only a small percentage of those attending prom as couples are in fact dating each other? Can we grant, also, that there is still a social convention that impels non-couples to get a prom date? Making a rule when one isn’t really necessary—either because there is no behavior that requires the prohibition (think: outlawing the imposition of Sharia law) or because there’s no harm done if the norm is transgressed (this situation)—may or may not be symptomatic of a greater societal malaise. But it’s certainly dumb.

There will be lots of students—tens of thousands of them, probably, male and female—who don’t go to prom this year because they don’t have a date. I didn’t, four decades or so ago, and I have managed to survive in the interim without being racked with remorse. I’m reasonably confident, in retrospect, that I could have found a date if I’d tried; I didn’t. I just didn’t care. But prom was available to me, even then, had I simply decided to go alone. It was, in other words, my choice.

There’s an argument that prom serves as an important social rite of passage. Attendees must, whether by decree or convention, conform to a dress code, obey certain dictates of decorum, engage in social niceties for no particular reason other than to have done so. These are legitimate functions, appropriate training for later life, and I have no intention to demean them. But independence, whether or not there is a gender element to this incident, is also a quality to be encouraged. So is personal initiative. So is standing up to The Man.

The fact that Ms. Dougherty appears to have circumvented the system rather than overcoming it is neither inherently good nor inherently bad news. We don’t know whether she or her (ultimate) date for last night’s festivities were even capable of enjoying each other’s company, under the circumstances. But, for all we know, it’s the start of a new romance. None of this is relevant to the simple fact of the matter: the rule prohibiting dateless students from attending prom is outdated at best, moronic at worst. And it’s apparently still on the books.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Defense of Pineapples and Hares

There is copious brouhaha of late about a series of reading comprehension questions on a standardized test administered to 8th graders in New York State. I suspect that Daniel Pinkwater, the author of the story from which the exercise was adapted (but not of the piece itself), was not responsible for the headline in the New York Daily News that appears over his name, decrying “the world’s dumbest test question,” but he certainly gives the impression that he endorses the sentiment. An editorial in the same paper proclaims the selection “flunks the test of common sense,” refers to a “dumb question,” a “now-infamous question,” and a “lollapalooza of a damaging embarrassment.”

The New York Times is a little subtler: “When Pineapple Races Hare, Students Lose, Critics of Standardized Tests Say.” NPR pronounces two questions in particular as “bizarre.” New York magazine suggests the exam “gets trippy.” You get the idea.

The situation is confused even further by the fact that there are two different versions of the test question floating around. Both appear in the NPR article, linked above. NPR also points out that the Daily News changed the version that appears on its website, apparently without comment. Here’s a link to, presumably, the story exactly as it appears in the exam. I mean, if you can’t trust the authenticity of a pdf file of a document that explicitly forbids reproduction, what (and whom) can you trust?

OK, so where does that leave us? Well, there are problems, to be sure. A variation on the theme of this series of questions has apparently been making the rounds on Pearson-devised tests in other states for some time, and there has been outcry every time. It would be reasonable to suggest, therefore, that Pearson is more than a little arrogant (who knew?) in re-cycling a question that has been challenged previously. And the edits of Pinkwater’s original story show why he writes books for children and young adults, and the editor… erm… works for Pearson. Giving authorship “credit” to Pinkwater after rendering his tale less interesting and less coherent isn’t necessarily doing him any favors.

All that said, the furor is way overblown, especially if the “real” reading selection was what I presume it to be (since the other one has punctuation errors, I’m guessing it’s the fake). I say this as a staunch opponent of high-stakes testing and the accompanying teach-to-the-test mentality. The story is fine. Five of the six questions are fine, and the sixth… well, I got it right without much thought, but a). I’ve got a little more education than the average 8th-grader, b). interpreting text is what I do, and c). I wasn’t 100% confident of my answer.

One question that spawned some debate was #7: “The animals ate the pineapple most likely because they were: a). hungry b). excited c). annoyed d). amused.” There’s no mention of hunger, excitement, or amusement in the story. But the animals had tricked themselves into cheering for the pineapple in its race against the hare. One might reasonably surmise that, two hours into a race in which their chosen hero had not yet budged would lead to a little annoyance. C: annoyed. Final answer.

The question that has generated the biggest kerfuffle, however, is #8: “Which animal spoke the wisest words? a). the hare b). the moose c). the crow d). the owl.” I can see where someone reading the first version of the question to be distributed to the public (almost certainly not the one actually used on the test) would be confused, as there’s no owl at all in that story. But the no doubt real version is actually fairly clear. True, what the hare says isn’t dumb, but neither is it very profound. The moose and crow speak out of a paranoid suspicion of the Other, and are proved wrong in their beliefs. The leaves the owl, whose observation that “Pineapples don’t have sleeves” is true and both the literal and symbolic level, and is the stated moral of the story. The owl has the wisest words to say.

This is not to discount the uproar, but rather to re-contextualize it. The problem with this question isn’t that it’s “dumb,” or “bizarre,” or “trippy.” It may not be a great question, but it’s a good one. The problem is that it tests precisely what ought to be tested: not rote memorization or even mere vocabulary, but actual comprehension. Moreover, it commits the cardinal sin of being told in a rather flippant manner, with talking animals and headstrong flora. It is, in other words, even in the Pearson-ized version, kind of fun. You know, like the works of Aesop, and Aristophanes, and Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, and Molière, and Lewis Carroll, and P.G. Wodehouse, and James Barrie, and….

You may color me unsurprised, Gentle Reader, that both sides of the debate over high-stakes testing, or educational accountability, or whatever you want to call it, are on the wrong side of this one. Both sides, you see, are more interested in winning political points than in being right. So those who would corporatize the educational system are using this phony issue to argue that the educationists need to be removed from power: look at the crazy stuff they want our kids to have to answer! Meanwhile, the teachers unions and similar folk revel in the same opportunity to claim that standardized tests themselves are the problem. I need hardly mention that I’m a lot closer to the latter mentality, and have been for a long time (here’s a link to a blog piece I wrote nearly seven years ago).

But the consternation over wise owls and annoyed animals isn’t justified. What has happened is in fact an indictment of the status quo, but not for the reasons being advanced by anyone I’ve seen weigh in on the issue. The problem is that anything outside the norm, anything that treats learning as a process rather than a collection of data, anything, in short, that has the slightest bit to do with actual education: this isn’t what students or teachers expect to see on tests. The T^4 (Teach To The Test) mentality cannot function in a world in which creativity, reasoning, and openness are prioritized over memorization, formula application, and test-taking strategies.

There is, moreover, nothing wrong with asking a question most appropriate to a grade level slightly above that of the students taking the test. How else are we to distinguish the truly accomplished from the merely proficient? And if identifying excellence isn’t a goal of these tests, it bloody well should be.

The crux of the situation is that, however much they bellow to the contrary, virtually everyone—teachers, students, education critics, journalists, everyone—really thinks education works best if it turns out Jeopardy champions instead of novelists, physicists, and sociologists. It’s neater, cleaner, less work, and far easier to measure. No one knows how to react when the paradigm is a little different than what’s been experienced already. “That wasn’t on the practice test” is somehow regarded as an inherently legitimate complaint.

The question about which animal speaks the wisest words is mildly problematic because of its failures as a determinant of student success: the second-best answer is a little too appealing. But ultimately, that’s not what the ululation is about. The real problem with the question in the minds of the critics is that it seeks to find out precisely what it should be seeking to find out. It demonstrates by contrast everything that is wrong with the country’s fetishistic craving for standardization in education. And that heresy cannot be tolerated.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

You Know, If This Guy Were My Principal, I Might Be Tempted to Skip Class, Too

Carrollton, Ohio, senior Austin Fisher will walk with his class on graduation day. This shouldn’t be the lead sentence in any news story or blog entry by anyone who doesn’t know Mr. Fisher personally. The fact that I mention it is testimony to two things: Carrollton principal Dave Davis is a certifiable idiot, and the Internet does have its uses.

Fisher has known since January that school rules would prevent him from participating in graduation exercises (or prom, or other senior activities) because—get this—although he was passing all his courses, he had racked up too many absences by caring for his mom, who suffers from Stage IV cancer. Really.

Let’s take this step by step. Teri Fisher has breast cancer, diagnosed as terminal although now, hopefully, in remission. Her son, the only other person in the household, took some time off school last fall to look after his Mom on particularly bad days, to drive her to doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy sessions… you know, irresponsible kid stuff like that. “I wanted to take a lot of pressure off of her, because that’s the most important thing when you have a cancer – a stress-free lifestyle, I mean, that’s how you heal the best, so that’s what I was trying to do,” he says.

He also worked two jobs to help with the bills, while maintaining passing grades. But, apparently, all those 16 absences were truancies according to school policy, and if you have more than 14 of them in a semester, you can’t walk. The Fishers went to Principal Davis when Austin was informed that he couldn’t walk with his class, and were told that “rules are rules.” A petition to allow “Fish” to go to his own graduation was “confiscated.”

Skip ahead in time to a few days ago. The exact order of events is unclear, but a few things happened in close proximity. A letter from Angela Howard appeared in the local newspaper. A thank you to Ms. Howard from Teri Fisher followed in short order. Shortly thereafter, Tammy White, a Carrollton alumna, started a petition drive on which ultimately gathered over 100,000 virtual signatures. A Facebook group, Let Fish Walk!, got over 30,000 “likes.” [The FB page administrator announced he’d be taking the page down soon, so the link may no longer work.] Kids started wearing “Let Fish Walk!” t-shirts to school. The entire town, minus the people responsible for the idiocy, of course, rallied behind the Fishers. And things started to change. All that “we can’t do anything” crap Davis tried to force-feed the Fishers in January suddenly evaporated.

There was a meeting between administrators and the Fishers, and ultimately Superintendent Palmer Fogler unilaterally reversed the earlier decision and announced that Austin will indeed be able to walk with his class. The press release says that:
At the meeting, Teresa Fisher provided additional information to the school administrators concerning Austin’s absences, which had not been previously provided to the district. Based on this new information and after careful consideration by school officials and the board of education, it was decided that Austin would be permitted to participate in commencement. In the interest of all of Carrollton’s students, the district and Teresa Fisher ask that the community respect their decision and that everyone move forward. Carrollton Schools is a great place to work and learn and we do not want to be sidetracked from our mission of educating children.
Apparently Austin may still not be able to do stuff like go to prom: that would be a remarkably stupid call, but asking a gaggle of education administrators to make two consecutive decisions requiring greater intellect than that of particularly dim-witted chipmunk is probably asking rather too much.

Meanwhile, members of the School Board professed ignorance of the situation as it was brewing: Board President Rose Seck claimed that “to be honest, we didn’t know anything about it until it hit the media.”

Indeed, all six Carrollton seniors who were prevented from walking only because of absences are now being permitted to walk. Principal Davis said that the administration and school board “made the decision that if we allow one to walk based on attendance records, all of them should be allowed to walk.”

So, why talk about this now, when everything seems to have worked out? Because the lunatics running the asylum are still in charge.

No one gets off scot-free here. Even the Fishers could have handled the situation better: whereas no one doubts Austin’s priorities, there are consequences to actions, and sometimes “sacrifice” actually has meaning. It’s also problematic that the national attention was initially linked to the fact that Austin is a baseball player. OMG, this awful thing happened to a jock! Good thing he doesn’t, you know, play the sax or hold office in the French Club, ’cause then he’d still be sitting at home on graduation night.

And School Board claims of ignorance are troubling, either way. Either they knew all along and are lying to avoid the consequences of their own moral cowardice, or they really didn’t know about a situation that had, months ago, already resulted in the confiscation of a student-generated petition. Everybody else in town seems to have known. After all, the town of Carrollton has barely over 3000 residents: everybody knows everybody. But the people charged with understanding what goes on in the schools didn’t know what was common knowledge in the high school? If that’s true, it’s an indictment of them, as well as of the high school administration. If it’s not… well, the courses in Prevarication and Avoidance of Responsibility will at least be well staffed.

Indeed, the incompetence shown by the people in a position to make something happen is astonishing, even in high school administrators. I learned long ago that I need to be smarter than my own rules, and I need to apply that intelligence to the benefit of students. If the database says you get an A, you get an A even if I think you deserve a B. If the database says you get a B but I think you could legitimately get an A, I think about it: how close were you? was it just one bad day that made the difference? are you a student who suffers from test anxiety? what was your attendance record? was there a group project in which your grade was dragged down because other members of the team didn’t pull their weight? And so on. Sometimes, the student gets the benefit of the doubt. Usually, not.

Principal Davis’s initial response to the situation was appalling. Confiscating petitions? Really? This silliness (or it would be silliness if he weren’t in a position of authority) is thrown into relief when considered in light of subsequent actions. Lesson #1 from Davis’s guidebook: don’t worry if you look like an authoritarian jackass in front of your students and faculty; it’s only when the school starts looking bad to the outside world that you should capitulate. Petitions by your own students: irrelevant. Petitions on the Internet: determinative.

Then he trotted out his variation on the “my hands are tied” soft-shoe number. This is both craven and mendacious—neither of those is a quality much to be admired. The “rules are rules” mentality is first cousin to “zero tolerance,” a policy system so stupid that even school districts pretend not to follow it (even when they do). It is a mind-set that is explicitly and virulently in opposition to the very foundation of what schools ought to be about: thinking. Different situations are… wait for it… different, and no one-size-fits-all rulebook should apply to all cases. But a system based on evidence, ethics, and contemplation—a Confucian system, if you will—requires both competence and work by administrators. Good luck with that.

Even worse than the fact that Davis’s intellectually lazy unwillingness to consider the specific circumstances of a case that any casual observer could recognize as something other than standard, every-day, truancy, however, is the fact that he lied about it. His hands weren’t tied. How do we know? Because the core facts haven’t changed. Austin Fisher still missed those class days. The rules haven’t changed—what you and I, Gentle Reader, might regard as an absence that ought to be excused (or placed in a separate category of some sort) is still, as far as I can tell, unexcused in the Carrollton Exempted Village School District. So, in other words, the fact that “Fish Will Walk” means that Davis could have done something in January. Apparently he and his colleagues are very concerned that the school looked bad in the recent controversy—enough so that Teri Fisher apparently had to agree not to talk to the press as part of the deal. They aren’t, however, sufficiently concerned with not being doctrinaire buffoons.

It’s not uncommon that I “break the rules.” For example, I might let a student with too many absences according to School policy—to pick a situation purely at random—still pass Theatre History, keeping in mind that the policy was really created for performance courses, which are more experiential in nature. Still, there has to be a reason—a documentable case of an ailing parent, for instance. And then… I make sure my boss knows what I’m doing. You know, zap him an e-mail that says, “I know the rule says X, but this is a special case, and I’m going to do Y unless you tell me not to.” And because he knows that I’m only going to say there are special circumstances when they in fact exist, he generally signs off on my decision. See how easy that is?

All Davis had to do was to say, “you know, I’m not sure there’s anything I can do for you, Austin, because our policies are pretty clear, but let me look into the situation further.” Then he picks up the phone and calls the Superintendent: “You know that policy that says a student can’t walk with the class if he’s got too many absences? Well, I think we ought to make an exception…” And the Superintendent can make that exception. How do we know? Because she did.

Finally, there’s the utter capitulation in allowing everyone who didn’t meet the attendance requirement to walk, provided they met all the other requirements. The problem with the current (now replaced?) policy isn’t that it’s too strict—I’d argue it isn’t strict enough—but that’s it’s too inflexible. One other case about the absence policy was presented to the School Board: it looked to have merit. The other four: probably not so much. The intelligent thing to do is to look at appeals on a case by case basis: sometimes there’s a good reason a kid didn’t show up to school every day; sometimes there isn’t. But that would make too much sense.

No, what we’re going to do instead is to say that rules don’t matter at all; that real, actual, truancy is without consequence; that Emerson’s critique of a foolish consistency was never more apt. And why do we say that? Because we’re too cowardly to admit that we make exceptions to rules, and too craven to look an actual truant squarely in the eye and say, “No.”

Everyone in the Carrollton system, Principal Davis foremost among them, seems to be suffering from the lack of a brain, a heart, and courage. Alas, I don’t see a wizard—or even a man behind a curtain—to make things right.

Maybe a Curmie nomination will help.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bill Cosby Cuts through the Clutter

It may be a little ironic that I'm the one saying this, but I really do think it’s kind of problematic that entertainers seem to have a more thoroughgoing understanding of the world than the so-called pundits do. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert aren’t watched by so many people just because they’re funny: they’re also a more reliable source of information than most journalists are, especially to those with enough of an understanding of humor to readily differentiate between objective fact-telling and comedic exaggeration.

To these gentlemen, I would add the name of Bill Cosby, whose recent comments on the Trayvon Martin case are as cogent as they are measured. No, I don’t agree with him all the time (what fun would that be?), but Mr. Cosby, unlike a number of other celebrities from Spike Lee on the left to Ted Nugent on the right, is almost always worth listening to. His remarks on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Candy Crowley seem to me to cut to the heart of the issue:
When a person has a gun, sometimes their mind clicks, that this thing… will win arguments and straighten people out, and then in the wrong hands, in the wrong mind, it’s death….

You’ve got to protect yourself in your own home. But I also believe that when you tell me that you’re going to protect the neighborhood that I live in, I don’t want you to have a gun. I want you to be able to see something, report it, and get out of the way…. I don’t want you to get hurt. And I don’t want you to hurt anyone….

What is solved by saying “he’s a racist; that’s why he shot the boy”? …. It doesn’t make any difference if he’s racist or not racist: if he’s scared to death, and not a racist, it’s still a confrontational provoking of something….

I used to have gun. The policeman who okayed it said to me, “Mr. Cosby, when you pull this trigger, you can’t call it back.”
It’s not entirely clear whether Cosby is merely mouthing pedestrian liberal platitudes about gun control. Even if he is, he’s raised the level of discourse on the Martin/Zimmerman case considerably. But he just might be concentrating his attention (and therefore ours) on a more specific issue: the notion that those entrusted with our protection ought not to make us less safe.

The idea of a neighborhood watch, at least in the truest sense, is virtually an inherent good. People who actually live in the area come to know who belongs and who doesn’t, and they’ll have a particular interest in maintaining order. But strap a gun onto an otherwise model citizen, and there’s a good chance he’s going to go all Junior G-Man on you.

I talked last time about the alarming and precipitous decline in the importance of the police and quasi-police officers employing pepper spray irresponsibly. What is shocking here is the increased availability of this stuff to low-level (and presumably relatively untrained) personnel, not that the underlings are likely to abuse what little authority they have: that part is entirely predictable. It’s the same phenomenon that feeds the self-importance of small-town cops: call it the Barney Fife Syndrome.

It may be that George Zimmerman is a racist, but the two central pieces of evidence that he might be are unconvincing at best. Silly me, I believed the tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call released by the media was… you know… real. It turns out to have been manipulated by some unethical jerk of a producer, whether out of political motives tied to ends-justifies-the-means thinking or simply a desire to make the story “sexier,” independent of its veracity.

Seriously, if you believe the “a mistake, not a purposeful act” argument employed by “sources,” please leave this blog immediately. This is fare intended for those with IQs above room temperature. NBC, this go-‘round’s sanctuary of mendacious pseudo-journalism, fired the “veteran producer” involved, but of course never identified the culprit so we have no real assurance other than the word of the people whose truth-telling is specifically under question that a). s/he was really fired or b). s/he won’t be promptly hired by somebody else. Anyway, the transcript of the real, i.e., unedited, tape shows that Zimmerman identified Martin as black only after being asked the suspect’s race by the police dispatcher.

Similarly, it wasn’t Zimmerman who made a big deal out of the fact that Martin was wearing a hoodie: no, that would be Geraldo Rivera, to whom neither truth nor the common weal have ever mattered nearly as much as, well, Geraldo Rivera. A more self-important grand-standing douchebag has yet to have trod the planet. The point here is that Zimmerman’s reference to what Martin was wearing, like the racial description, comes only after a prompt by the police.

It may be, as the anvil chorus on the left has intoned virtually incessantly, that Zimmerman was treated differently than would have been the case had the races of the two principals been reversed. It does not strain the brain overmuch to imagine that cops and district attorneys in a small southern town might (not to say did) inappropriately factor race into their thinking. But even if that’s true, it’s not Zimmerman’s fault. Was he really supposed to demand to be arrested for actions he apparently didn’t think were criminal, just because the guy with a bullet in him had a little more melanin than Zimmerman himself?

More to the point, however, is Cosby’s point: it doesn’t matter. Zimmerman may or may not be a racist, may or may not have thought himself at risk, may or may not have perceived Martin as a threat based (exclusively, largely, partially…) on the basis of race. But a couple of things are clear: if Zimmerman had listened to the dispatcher and not followed Martin, the latter would still be alive and the former would like his life right now a whole lot more. And if Zimmerman were unarmed, the chances are he’d have stayed put and waited for the cops to show up. Also, of course, it’s a lot harder to shoot someone if you don’t have a weapon.

I’ll leave it to others to cite statistics and to wax rhetorical about the ALEC-driven “Stand Your Ground” law that (wait for it…) may or may not have contributed to the tragic events in Florida. Nor am I interested in debating the intricacies of gun control legislation. Did George Zimmerman have a legal right to carry a gun? Yes. When all the facts are in, might we (meaning all of us but the hopeless ideologues) agree that he did nothing illegal according to the laws of the jurisdiction? Yes. Even in the absence of such consensus, might a “not guilty” verdict be appropriate on the basis of reasonable doubt? Yes. Was it a good idea to have an apparently untrained, slightly paranoid, self-important yahoo carrying a loaded gun through the streets of his neighborhood? Why, no. No, it wasn’t.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Pepper Spray and the Erosion of Legitimacy

It seems hard to believe now, but it wasn’t that long ago that pepper spray was a sort of anachronism—a remnant of a time when altercations between protesters and authorities really might have resulted in injuries to the latter. But that was before pepper spray became the new Taser: a toy to be employed by police and police wannabes who lack the skill, training, intelligence, human compassion, or (apparently) penis size to do otherwise.

The turning point was probably the moment when creep-with-a-badge Anthony Bologna sprayed a group of already-confined female protesters at an #Occupy event in New York in September. The women posed no threat to him or anyone else, but that wasn’t enough to a keep a prick like Bologna from summoning his inner sadist. And he probably figured that the idiots up the food chain from him—Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg—would let him get away with it. He was right: a Staten Island resident, Bologna was (ahem) punished by losing some vacation days and being transferred to a post that shortens his commute. A more appropriate punishment would be to fire his sorry ass and charge him with multiple counts of assault.

Anyway, Bologna immediately started playing the victim, fabricating a story the video doesn’t come close to supporting (he even got a pseudo-journalist or two to take his side), and generally representing in a single man everything that made a lot of folks in my generation refer to the police as “pigs.” Actually, if Tony Baloney is what a $150K a year cop looks like, we owe an apology to our porcine friends for comparing them to such a creature.

Of course, Bologna was just the warm-up act. There were other incidents, too, of course, but the next big step-up in police (or pseudo-police) arrogance and malice came in November on the campus of the University of California at Davis, where campus cop Lieutenant John Pike became a household name—and subject of an Internet meme—for all the wrong reasons by pepper spraying over a dozen student protesters with the same body language one would use to spray weed-killer into the cracks in the driveway. Pike is, of course, the quintessential CamPo idiot, with a self-importance to sensibility ratio that’s off the charts. This week, the Task Force charged with investigating the incident released its report. It ain’t pretty.

The report begins, “Our overriding conclusion can be stated briefly and explicitly. The pepper spraying incident that took place on November 18, 2011 should and could have been prevented.” [emphasis in original] The litany of screw-ups from the Chancellor on down takes nearly 200 pages to spell out. Here are just a few snippets from the table of contents: “failure to investigate,” “ineffectively communicated,” “confusion as to legal basis,” “decision-making process was ineffective,” “Notwithstanding the deficiencies in the operations plan, the incident was not managed according to the plan.”

And then we get to essence: “The decision to use pepper spray was not supported by objective evidence and was not authorized by policy” and “The pepper spray used, the MK-9, First Aerosol Projector, was not an authorized weapon for use by the UCDPD.” And… finally… “Lt. Pike bears primary responsibility for the objectively unreasonable decision to use pepper spray on the students sitting in a line and for the manner in which the pepper spray was used.”

Frankly, all of this was pretty much self-evident at the time; the report merely confirms what we already knew: that the whole incident could have been avoided if any of a handful of people had done their damned jobs, and that John Pike is—or at the very least was, for a telling moment—an amoral bully… and a rather stupid one, at that. Last I could figure out, he was still on paid leave: maybe the report will at least lead to his firing, and/or that of erstwhile Campus Police Chief Annette Spicuzza, also on “administrative leave.” Of course, for the report’s evisceration of Pike to be perceived as having merit, Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi would have to acknowledge that her conduct, too, was blameworthy. They’re all culpable, they’re all incompetent, and they’re all liars. Doesn’t matter. Chances are, all three will be at Davis as long as their little hearts desire. Because California has plenty of money to pay these three buffoons six-figure salaries apiece, after all, right?

Oh, how I wish we had reached the nadir of common sense as regards pepper spray with the events at UC-Davis. Alas, there’s one more step. So far.

A “School Resource Officer” (don’t worry, I don’t know what that is, either--this might help) subsequently identified as Anthony Brown sprayed down a hallway at Jack Robey Junior High (!) in Pine Bluff, Arkansas because the kids weren’t getting to class fast enough. Three students were hospitalized; over a dozen more left school early.

I mean, seriously, how freaking stupid can you get? The list of things transcendently stupid about this tactic would stretch from here to Ashtabula. The National Association of School Resource Officers describes one of the functions of SROs as to “provide a visible and positive image for law enforcement.” Yeah, well, no.

The provocation was miniscule enough as is, but if, as one report suggested, the problem was that students were obstructing the hallway, then the logical surmise is that some of those caught in the logjam might actually be trying to get to class. In other words, innocent people were going to be harmed by the precipitous and bone-headed act. Rather than risk the health and well-being of innocent bystanders, the military and the police will often allow the most heinous of miscreants to escape. This idiot is willing to send people to the hospital (or worse) because somebody else was late for pre-algebra.

Ah, well, but according to the Doofus in Charge Superintendent Jerry Payne, the canister was pointed downward, not directly at the students. Like Jonathan Turley and Jack Marshall, I’m more than a little unimpressed. For one thing, as Turley points out, “The idea of spraying a painful caustic substance into a hall as a crowd motivator is the definition of not just negligence but assault and battery.” For another: if this is the damage caused by pointing the spray away from students, what the hell is in there, and what kind of damage could it do if, like the women in New York or the students at Davis, someone were actually to catch this right in the nose or eyes? Student Faith Forney says she “walked right into it.” And what assurance do we have that similar circumstances wouldn’t lead to someone catching this junk square in the face?

There are serious problems here. What the hell is an SRO doing with spray this potent? Who authorized it, either for the police or for the school district? Who hired this idiot? And—assuming (safely, I suspect) the blame doesn’t all fall to Officer Brown—who was responsible for training people carrying this grade of pepper spray around as to why, when, and how to use it appropriately? And why wasn’t that person fired, along with Brown and Payne?

Three disturbing trends present themselves with respect to the three incidents I just described. First, the officers in question—those with access to this hideous stuff—are increasingly less important: we go from a Deputy Inspector for a major city police force to a lieutenant for a UPD, to a School Resource Officer. The victims went from adults to college students to junior high kids. And the provocation went from yelling at armed policemen to organized passive resistance to walking too slowly. By all three of these taxonomies, then, the situations keep getting more egregious. And that’s after acknowledging that Bologna’s actions were appalling and indefensible.

Another source of some concern is that we, as a culture, seem to be developing a tolerance for this sort of misbehavior by the authorities. The Pine Bluff incident wouldn’t have shown up on my radar screen if I hadn’t read about it on the Ethics Alarms blog. Maybe it wasn’t as “sexy” because it couldn’t be linked to the #Occupy movement, which the media had a grand time covering (as usual) simultaneously too much and too little. But it sure as hell should be a major story: after all, the right likes to blame schools for society’s woes; the left likes to blame the police. Here’s the intersection of both: everybody wins!

Seriously, though, there needs to be some uproar over this stuff. Because the next step in the progression is crossing guards’ pepper spraying kindergartners for wearing mismatched socks.

[The post was edited slightly on 4/15 to clarify that Chief Spicuzza of the UCDPD has also been on administrative leave since shortly after the incident there.]

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Mitt Romney's Taxes: The Story That Isn't (But Is) Relevant

Readers of a certain age will remember one of the most oft-spoken lines of the Watergate scandal: “the cover-up is worse than the crime.” I’m reminded of that in looking at the mini-controversy over GOP front-runner Mitt Romney’s tax returns. There’s not really a whole lot to the case itself: Romney is stinking rich, has a gaggle of high-priced accountants and tax lawyers and similar minions who stretch the law to precisely the breaking point and ethics a little further than that. In other words, he’s no different from any other ridiculously wealthy politician, whether that be Jon Corzine or Meg Whitman or Michael Bloomberg. There is, as Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, no there there.

Still, there was a Washington Post story by Tom Hamburger detailing how Governor Romney “has taken advantage of an obscure exception in federal ethics laws to avoid disclosing the nature and extent of his holdings.” Curiously enough, Cleta Mitchell, “a Republican lawyer who has represented dozens of candidates and officials in the disclosure process, including [oh, so coincidentally] Romney’s leading challenger for the GOP nomination, Rick Santorum,” thinks Romney’s secrecy about his finances “turns the whole purpose of the ethics statute on its ear.”

And “Joe Sandler, a Democratic Party lawyer who has shepherded candidates and nominees through the disclosure process for 26 years [including for the John Kerry Presidential campaign],” proclaims that “Romney’s approach frustrates the very purpose of the ethics and disclosure laws.” Go figure: political rivals think (or purport to think) that Romney is up to no good. In other news, dry ice is cold.

But despite the arcane nature of the allegations, Governor Romney saw fit to send forth an emissary to articulate the reasons we should all believe the rich guy. Unfortunately for the Governor, the talking head chosen for this assignment was senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, best known as the guy who committed this year’s signature campaign gaffe, the Etch-a-Sketch line. He didn’t do a whole lot better with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd. Even a lightweight like Todd sets up a fairly tough question: “I understand you guys are following the letter of the law, but are you following the spirit of sort of what presidential campaign candidates have done in the modern era of releasing more details, more tax returns, than what you’ve released?”

Fehrnstrom is, presumably, a really bright guy. He just doesn’t play one on TV. He sniffed that:
The Governor has provided all the disclosure that’s required by law, and that is significant, but then he’s gone one step further than that: he’s voluntarily put forward hundreds of pages of tax return information…. we’ve put out 2010 tax return information; we had an estimate for 2011, and we think that’s sufficient.
Let’s parse that, shall we? First off, it’s significant that a candidate for President of the United States obeyed the damned law? Is that what he’s saying? That’s the impression one gets from the tape, although the transcript alone might be read to mean that what’s required by law is significant disclosure. It isn’t, by the way, given the public’s right to know whether a decision is based on the good of the country or of the President’s portfolio.

Secondly, Governor Romney has put forward “hundreds of pages of tax return information,” but it’s all from the same year. That’s right: hundreds of pages from the same year. My most complicated year had some stuff most people don’t, at least all at once—moving expenses, a little rental income, some capital gains, some dividends and interest, enough mortgage payments to make for itemized deductions, and so on. It totaled maybe 15 pages; throw in my scratch pads for calculations and you might get to 20. I’m pretty certain that if you added up all my tax returns for the 30+ years I’ve been filing tax returns, they’d barely total “hundreds of pages.”

One of two things is true: either Mitt Romney’s taxes are so complicated they require such documentation, or they aren’t, and all the excess is intended simply to obfuscate, to make it more difficult for journalists and opposition researchers to find the problematic needle in the haystack of irrelevant data. Romney, of course, makes more money (without actually, you know, working) in a month than a lot of people will make in a lifetime of labor. (Yes, really.) And he pays less, in percentage terms, in income taxes than taxi drivers and 3rd grade teachers do.

So it’s not surprising that his taxes go on for days: those hired guns have got to earn their keep, after all… it’s probably not literally true that he spends more to get his taxes prepared than the average American makes in a year, but it sure seems that way. Given Romney’s apparent embarrassment at being who he is—rich, well-educated—reminding us of the “hundreds of pages” of tax information for a single year might not be the most ideal strategy. The idea of the diffident übermensch doesn’t work very well to begin with; calling attention to it is as long on stupid as it is on disingenuous.

Then, of course, there’s the concept of “sufficient.” Frankly, that seems to be a theme for the Romney campaign: he’s not exciting, he’s not interesting, he’s not consistent, he’s not honest… but he’s sufficient. Sufficiently not crazy. Sufficiently not ideological. Sufficiently prepared for debates. Oh, and sufficiently not Obama.

Finally, this little escapade allows reporters and prospective voters to remember the last go-round. Sam Stein of the Huffington Post quotes Jim Messina of the Obama campaign:
Governor Romney provided 23 years’ worth of tax returns to the McCain campaign so they could determine if he would make a suitable Vice President. He must meet that same standard now so that the American people may judge whether he would be a suitable President, and whether there are any conflicts of interest that could cloud his judgment.
One is tempted to wonder what nefarious dealings might be brought to light if, having actually considered ol’ Mitt as a running mate, John McCain passed on him for a dimwit like Sarah Palin.

What we do know of Romney’s finances from his 2010 tax returns shows millions of dollars of income and offshore accounts in Switzerland, Luxembourg, and the Cayman Islands. That’s not likely to win him a lot of credibility in the “just folks” sweepstakes, but few people who’d have considered voting for him anyway are likely to be bothered much by those revelations. Further disclosures, should they happen, will be predicated on political motivations alone… is it better to maintain one’s privacy and have people suspect you’re hiding something or to release all that data and remove any doubt.

My suspicion is that more tax returns and accompanying information will appear shortly after the nomination is completely wrapped up. This stuff isn’t going to go away as a side-story, and dealing with it now is better than dealing with it later. Besides, people’s imaginations will conjure worse transgressions and creative accounting than Romney is likely to have committed. Or at least that can be proved. Probably. We hope.