Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Robert Mugabe and the Irrelevancy of the UN

I owe my job to the United Nations.

Well, not literally or even directly, of course, but still… It was a course in the United Nations and World Government that finally pushed me over the edge and convinced me that I wasn’t really a Government major after all, and maybe this theatre thing would work out somehow. I’d survived one “One World” kind of course—I don’t remember the exact title—but whereas the professor for that course, too, made his ideology very apparent, I felt as if I could disagree with him without repercussions, and he was an excellent teacher, to boot.

I’m not saying the prof for the UN course was an “agree with me… or else” type—you know, the kind the right wing press thinks we all are—but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out. I read a couple chapters of the textbook, heard a lecture or two, and bailed. I believe it was the only course at any level I ever dropped more than one class day into the term.

But whereas I never regarded the UN as a panacea or even as a terribly enlightened body, I was always attracted to both the idea and the ideal. Even as a child, growing up an hour and a half or two hours up the Thruway from the city where the headquarters were (and are) located, I was fascinated by international diplomacy and its various manifestations. And the structure of the United Nations, the General Assembly where all countries are equal and the Security Council with its five nations with veto power, made a lot of sense to me.

My image of the UN was idealistic and probably rather romantic: enough so that my positive impression withstood the inevitable poundings caused by absurd votes, even more ridiculous vetoes, and a string of corrupt officials. I knew, of course, that no real organization could live up to my desires and expectations for the UN, but I believed, at least aspirationally. An enterprise as noble as this should not be de-railed, I reasoned, by the simple fact that the real-life manifestation was often controlled by the incompetent and the corrupt. After all, if you look at the most recent string of US Presidents, the only two without some serious ethical problems—Ford and Carter—were also the most ineffectual. Yet since the end of the Vietnam War, virtually no one but cynical right-wing politicians pandering to the wing-nut elements of their constituency (e.g., Rick Perry) has ever suggested secession or similar unpatriotic means to express disapproval.

Thus, I always got a little irked at politicians and pundits—mostly from the right—who brayed incessantly about how this country shouldn’t pay its UN dues and whatnot. Whatever its faults, the UN has its functions. If nothing else, it grants (or withholds) an international imprimatur to military actions—in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria, and so on.

And then… there was the announcement this week that the newest international envoy for tourism is… would you believe Robert Mugabe? Here’s David Smith of The Guardian:
Improbable as it seems, the Zimbabwean president, who is widely accused of ethnic cleansing, rigging elections, terrorising opposition, controlling media and presiding over a collapsed economy, has been endorsed as a champion of efforts to boost global holidaymaking.

Despite that fact Mugabe, 88, is under a travel ban, he has been honoured as a “leader for tourism” by the UN's World Tourism Organisation, along with his political ally, Zambian president Michael Sata, 75. The pair signed an agreement with UNWTO secretary general Taleb Rifai at their shared border at Victoria Falls on Tuesday.

Zimbabwe's state-owned Herald newspaper quoted Rifai urging tourists from around the world to visit: “I was told about the wonderful experience and the warm hospitality of this country… By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination.”
Seriously, if we were to rate stupid ideas on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being a silly mistake and 10 being ontological imbecility, this is about a 14. It would make more sense to ask Larry King for marital advice, to name Rush Limbaugh as the head of a physical fitness commission, to commemorate Abu Ghraib on a postage stamp, to give Rod Blagojevich an endowed chair in political ethics, to care what Donald Trump thinks about absolutely anything.

This, Gentle Reader, is off the scale. Mugabe truly is the Marxist thug some on the right try to portray President Obama as being. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the most corrupt leaders in the world, to have brutally suppressed political dissent, to have more than a little blood on his hands. He can’t travel himself, because of international sanctions. And this is the new face of international tourism. Brilliant.

I should point out, however, that Mugabe wasn’t necessarily the UN’s first choice. After all, the naked face-eater guy in Miami was killed Sunday, so officials had to scramble two days later to find the next-best representative of all the qualities one could expect in an honoree.

With this single, transcendent act of cataclysmic idiocy, the United Nations has definitively driven the last nail into its own coffin. I still yearn for an international organization wherein member states might be encouraged to discuss instead of invading, to negotiate instead of saber rattling, even to shout instead of launching air attacks. But this organization, the way it’s currently constituted: raze it, salt the earth, and start over somewhere else. It is officially, unequivocally, irrevocably, irrelevant.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Silly Statistics of the Month: “The Dumbing of Congress”

There’s an organization called the Sunlight Foundation that issued a new study last week. Their conclusion? “Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago, with the most conservative members of Congress speaking on average at the lowest grade level…”

Tempting as this is for a lot of leftie-leaning websites and Facebook groups to use as evidence of a dumbing-down of Congress with a gaggle of anti-intellectual Tea Partiers, the fact is that this finding proves exactly bupkes. Well, quoth the authors of the survey, the Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level and today’s Congresscritter talks at a 10.6, down from 11.5 in 2005. Horrors!

Seriously, is there a study that means less than this one? In case you were wondering, the formula in question is something called the Flesch-Kincaid score, which is determined by this equation: 0.39 * (Words/Sentences) + 11.8 * (Syllables/Words) - 15.59. In other words, if you use a lot of big words and lengthy sentences, you get a higher score. This makes sense. It shouldn’t. Eloquence is not a function of prolixity, and that is really all that goes into this “ranking.”

At one end of the spectrum, we have the admission that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech checks in at a modest 9.4. (The sentence “I have a dream, today” gets a 0.52.) Similarly, South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney ranks lowest in the current Congress with a score of 7.94. I doubt that I agree politically with Representative Mulvaney on virtually anything, but I can’t fault this: “I was trained to write in a clear and concise fashion, and you didn't use big words if small words would do. Certainly I'm not trying to dumb down the message by any stretch of the imagination.” Thus spake the graduate of Georgetown and of the law school at the University of North Carolina.

At the other end of the spectrum is this rambling quotation from Dan Lungren, the California Republican who gets the highest overall rating, a 20:
This Justice Department, in my judgment, based on the experience I've had here in this Congress, 18 years, my years as the chief legal officer of the state of California and 35 or 40 years as a practicing attorney tells me that this administration has fundamentally failed in its obligation to attempt to faithfully carry out the laws of the United States.
That’s a 62-word, 102-syllable effort. It warrants a Flesch-Kincaid score of better than 28. And it’s all but incoherent.

Please understand: I am not criticizing Representative Lungren. I’ve probably wandered around my point that way a couple of times a day for my entire teaching career, and I’m sure vocal inflexions would help to clarify meaning. But determining a speaker’s linguistic sophistication based purely on Flesch-Kincaid numbers is roughly akin to ranking baseball players exclusively according to batting average, paying no attention at all to power, speed, defensive ability, or any of the host of other considerations that go into an intelligent appraisal of a player’s worth.

For all the foolishness of the exercise, however, I was curious (and bored) enough to analyze five of my own blog posts written during the time-frame of the current Congress. They ranged from a high of 11.8 to a low of 10.4, and, interestingly enough, dropped over time. So there you go. I, too, am regressing in the same way Congress is.

We’ll leave aside the most fundamental point that one generally speaks or writes to be understood—certain academic journals notwithstanding. The words one chooses are different for different occasions; sentences are more complex when scripted, but more compound when uttered impromptu; explaining complex issues often requires lengthy sentences full of subordinate clauses, whereas rhetorical speeches to rally the troops or denigrate the opposition are generally better served by simplicity of language.

There was one element of the report that I found at least reasonably interesting, however. The study, if we can call it that, also analyzed how often the various Congresscritters used the Kaplan 100—the most common SAT words. A handful of those words—“compromise,” “prosperity,” “integrity”—get used a lot; others—“florid,” “sagacity,” “submissive”—not at all. Apparently Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy leads this Congress with 27 of those words. Depending on how you count—do I get credit for “prudent” if I wrote “prudence,” for example?—I’ve written between 40 and 43 of them in this blog over the past 15 months or so. You can add another handful if you go back another few months.

What does that prove? That my vocabulary is better than the average Congresscritter’s? I suspect it is, but this doesn’t prove it. What this shows is that I use words often employed to test the vocabulary levels of high school students at a fairly high rate. Bully for me.

What does this all prove? Well, for one thing, it pretty amply demonstrates that there are some pretty bored statisticians out there if this is how they occupy their time. For another, it reinforces the notion of confirmation bias: the public in general believes—or at least purports to believe—the average politician pretty damned stupid. That is, of course, especially true for the other guys. Thus Fox News wants to tell us that “ Obama's SOTU Written at 8th Grade Level for Third Straight Year” (complete with the same file photo of a kid in a dunce-cap I used to accompany the Curmie awards in January), whereas “The Inquisitr” declares that “Congress Officially Dumber, Study Finds, Republicans in Particular Showing Marked Decline.” Guess what—this stuff means precisely nothing.

Well, maybe it qualifies as a bit of harmless fun, as long as no one is imbecilic enough to take it seriously. Yeah, that’s likely to happen.

Curmie Contenders: I... Can't... Keep... Up

It’s May, so I’m beginning to feel like Oprah: You get a Curmie nomination, and you get a Curmie nomination, and you get a Curmie nomination, and you get a Curmie nomination. Yes, four of them: all making news in the past week or so, each worthy, if that is the word, of serious consideration for the coveted award given to the educator who most embarrasses the profession.

I have my personal… erm… favorite of the quartet, but since I mean it that all four might get a Curmie nomination this December, I don’t want to prejudice the voting. So I’ll take them in the order I found out about them.

Leading off, then, is the story out of North Rowan High School in North Carolina. Social studies teacher Tanya Dixon-Neely was taped by student Hunter Rogers saying some pretty stupid things in the classroom.

Now, allow me to register a few caveats. First, Rogers is no hero for surreptitiously recording the class without permission and then posting the tape to YouTube instead of turning it over to school officials. (Curiously, I don’t see anything in the news reports about Rogers being suspended or even reprimanded for using a cell phone in class.) He’s an unethical little brat who thinks the ends justify the means: and the default position is that the means were sleazy if not illegal. Perhaps Dixon-Neely deserved it. His classmates didn’t… unless they were all in on the subterfuge, and Dixon-Neely was being set up to be ambushed. The fact that Dixon-Neely seems to have been prodded into her angry outburst doesn’t do much for the accusers’ credibility.

Second, the combination of poor sound quality and no video, coupled with a couple of pops and gaps, makes me wonder if the tape was edited. Andrew Breitbart might no longer be with us, but his legacy is. As I wrote a year ago, “I suspect that I’m not the only faculty member in the country who wonders whether today is the day that some student will show up in my class with a grudge, a recording device, and access to editing equipment.”

Third, some of what Dixon-Neely argues—and has been widely ridiculed for arguing—is indeed true, or at least could be argued to be true in general terms. I’d suggest, for example, that the behavior that Barack Obama admits to in one of his books doesn’t rise to the level of bullying, but the allegations about Mitt Romney do… of course, that’s not exactly what Dixon-Neely actually says, and she passes on an opportunity for a teaching moment. Moreover, the fact that we have a constitutional right to criticize the President doesn’t mean that people haven’t been arrested for doing so, as, say, the case of Nicole and Jeff Rank demonstrates. Oh, sure, the authorities called it something else, but yeah, they pretty much got arrested for criticizing then-President Bush.

Is this what Dixon-Neely was referencing? Given the incoherence of some of the rest of what she says, probably not, but we can’t know that for certain, and she deserves due process. That doesn’t mean that getting her out of the classroom was a bad idea; it means that there may be more to her side of the story than the deafening drum-beat of the rightist press will allow us to hear. It’s also saddening to see the specifically racist and sexist anger directed at Dixon-Neely. She deserves criticism for screwing up, for sure. But ”Ignorant Black Leftist SLUT Tanya Dixon-Neely Needs To Be Fired”? Really?

Still, the idea that you can disparage Romney because “he’s running for President; Obama is the President” is pretty bizarre, and describing President Bush as “shitty” may be an opinion with which I agree, but it is an opinion, vulgarly expressed. Opinions framed as opinions about non-political matters are fine. So is challenging a student’s assumptions. Using the excremental adjective to describe a POTUS while on the clock as a teacher, however: nope. It’s pretty clear that Ms. Dixon-Neely ceased to function as a teacher and began being an Obama campaigner not long into the tirade. I struggle in vain to imagine a scenario by which this would be appropriate behavior. Yeah, Hunter Rogers is a right little asshole, but Dixon-Neely is a Curmie contender.

Next up: the school nurse at Deltona High School in Florida who refused to give an asthmatic student his inhaler while he was having an attack. In fact, she locked herself in her office while he gasped for breath on her floor. And then, (you can see this coming, can’t you, Gentle Reader?) the school officials defended her actions. You see, they didn’t have a parental consent form signed this year. His mom had filled out the form in previous years and hadn’t revoked that permission. Not good enough. And, of course, they’d confiscated his inhaler—unopened, with his name and prescription clearly legible—from his locker. But, you see, there are rules.

What the hell is going on? It’s the rules to let a kid die? It’s the rules for someone whose profession is to heal the sick to refuse treatment? What kind of Ayn Randian nightmare is happening here? Yeah, I get it. The school could get sued if some other kid got the inhaler and had an allergic reaction or whatever. This is because some “victims” are greedy, because some lawyers are unethical, because some judges and juries are stupid. That’s where these odious “zero tolerance” policies come from. I proposed a solution to this problem on my old blog nearly seven years ago. Curiously enough, no one listened.

But this case raises the bar of callousness. Remember, the school seized the inhaler or there wouldn’t have been a problem. Even though knew the medication was his, that it had been prescribed, that there were release forms from previous years on record, they not only wouldn’t then administer potentially life-saving medication to young Michael Rudi, they wouldn’t let him do it himself, and they couldn’t be bothered to call 911. Frighteningly, this kind of depraved indifference is apparently not uncommon: I’ve heard of this happening at least twice in Texas, just in cases involving my students or former students. Ironically but absolutely appropriately, this inhuman treatment of a fellow traveler resulted in precisely what the stupid policy was intended to prevent: a lawsuit.

While part of me would like the nurse to be placed in an airtight room until she passes out, my better nature prevails. Just sue the shit out of her, the school, and every idiot administrator who sought to justify her indefensible actions. Maybe, just maybe, someone will get the message.

Next on the hit parade is the news from Walker, Michigan, where Kenowa Hills High School Principal Katie Pennington suspended 65 seniors for riding bicycles to school as a last-day-of-class senior activity. The students were escorted by a police cruiser, the city’s mayor “rode shotgun” and provided donuts for the group.

But, as is the tradition at Kenowa Hills, and probably at every other high school in the country, the students didn’t tell their administration about what they were going to do. (I’d call it a prank, but I yield to the linguistic distinction drawn by Zac Totten, the class president: “A prank is something that causes harm, funny for one side and not the other. I think she reacted the way she did because we kind of blind-sided her.”) Yes, that’s the problem: she wasn’t in on the gag, and that is an offense grievous enough to suspend over 20% of your imminent graduates, denying them their traditional “senior walk.”

What an idiot. Yes, one might point out that there were safety issues involved, that a little more advance warning would have provided a second police cruiser, that discretion is generally a good thing. But no one got hurt; there’s nothing illegal about riding a bicycle. People in town thought it was a great idea. I can understand the safety concerns, if indeed they were legitimate and not simply a convenient cover for what was in fact no more that administrative petulance.

After the case brought national notoriety, Pennington and Superintendent Gerald Hopkins, who (wait for it…) supported her actions, relented. Pennington even offered a public apology. That’s a step, I suppose. Reversing a silly decision before it makes national headlines would be better. Best of all would be a higher-fiber diet.

Finally, case #4, which I am rushing to write up lest there be a #5 on the horizon before I finish. This one concerns Jessica Barba, a student at Longwood High School in Middle Island, New York. For a class project, she created a video and a Facebook page, both clearly labeled as fictional, to demonstrate the real effects of bullying. “Hailey Bennett,” the adolescent heroine of the piece, is isolated when her best friend moves away, is subjected to constant bullying at school, and ultimately commits suicide.

It’s not the best project in history—not least because of the atrocious spelling employed throughout—but there is some creativity there, the video is well-edited, it shows the evidence of a lot more work than most high school kids will put into any assignment, and the project as a whole relates to a real issue in schools. Bullying happens, and too little is done to stop it. (No, Gentle Reader, I’m not going off on that screed.) Jessica can articulate a persuasive response (that was the assignment) to this situation far more effectively than she can to whether the elections in Egypt will lead to a new golden age, a return to military rule, or an increase in power for Islamic fundamentalists. She’s 15. Go figure.

But some parent apparently saw the Facebook page (why? how?), didn’t notice that it was clearly marked as fictional, and called the cops, who in turn over-reacted, as did the school, which promptly suspended the girl for… erm… “[creating] a substantial disruption to the school.” Those are the words of the Superintendent, unidentified in the article by Meghan Neal in the New York Daily News, but apparently one Allan Gerstenlauer, assuming the website is kept up to date. Of course, winning the big game in basketball would also cause substantial disruption, but I guess we’re not supposed to notice that.

As often happens in cases like these, it was the national press attention that really turned the tide. Let’s face it, whether this is a good thing or not, if Matt Lauer calls you out, you’d better be ready. There was also an on-line petition that gathered nearly 15,000 signatures. Caving more to public pressure than to any real beliefs, school officials rescinded the suspension and wiped Jessica’s record clean.

Three further observations:
First, whatever else may be true here, it’s clear that once again school officials think they have the right to control every aspect of their students’ lives. I don’t care that kids at school were talking about the video. If there was a disruption, maybe that’s a good thing. And, once again, we’ve got a school demanding a student’s Facebook password to delete the offending page. Maybe, maybe the account should have been taken down because it violated Facebook’s TOS agreement. But that’s Facebook’s call. Dammit, we’ve just been here. This kind of intrusion is stupid, unprofessional and unethical in Geneva, IL. What makes these bozos think it’s any different on Long Island?

Second, not every kid can drop by the “Today Show” studios with her parents. This, too, raises a familiar issue, a variation on the theme of one I discussed a few months ago. The internet helps, but you can be sure that somewhere in the country there’s some idiot administrator over-reaching just as much as the clowns in charge of this high school did… and getting away with it because there’s no Neil Gaiman or Clint Dempsey or Matt Lauer to take up the cause. (Side note here: my first post on the situation at UW-Stout has had more views than any other two articles I’ve written, combined, and about 10 times as often as the median. Wanna bet having the link tweeted by Adam Baldwin had something to do with that?)

Third, there was a snarky piece by Judith Warner in Time about this case. Warner is right to wonder,
shouldn’t a 15-year-old, ostensibly advanced enough in English to be taking a “persuasive speech” class (as opposed to, say, an old-fashioned class focused on reading and writing) know that “bestfriend” isn’t a word? That a “whole in her heart” makes no sense and that there’s no such thing as a “branned name shirt”?
What comes next is problematic, however:
And while we’re on the subject of academics, is allowing a kid to do something for a homework assignment that she’d probably love to do anyway – make a video, post on Facebook – really such a great idea? In an era of panic over the shrinking skills of our future workforce, and of “results-oriented” education reform, can we afford to waste students’ time on feel-good assignments rather than push them to master the basics of grammar, spelling and punctuation?
Rubbish. Warner would have us believe that students who actually enjoy an assignment are somehow doing something wrong. Look, I’m a grammar Nazi (ask any of my students), but correct spelling is only one component of education. Yes, I wish I didn’t cringe every time I look at a stack of papers from university juniors and seniors, let alone high school sophomores: I know that there will be some colossally stupid constructions in half or more of those essays. But any reasonable view of education seeks a balance between left-brain and right-brain activity. Jessica Barba deserves to lose points for her orthographic sloppiness. Neither Warner nor I know whether she did. But she’s got a good heart, a creative flair, and a fair amount of technical skill. There’s the potential for a promising adult in there. Still, she wasn’t completely successful. Her message about the perils of bullying and humiliation clearly didn’t resonate with the pompous Ms. Warner. Otherwise, this 15-year-old girl wouldn’t have been held up to ridicule in a national publication.

So there you have it… four more contenders for the Curmie. By my rough count, that brings the total for 2012 to about 16. It’s only May. Jolly.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

One More Update: Special “Oddyshoe” Edition

When I was an undergrad, I was the producer for an Intramural Play Competition, in which dorms and frats (and maybe a sorority… I don’t remember) competed in theatrical presentation. One entrant was a fraternity that collectively wrote their own piece, called The Oddyshoe, a comic take-off on The Odyssey in which our intrepid heroes go on a quest to figure out why there are shoes and boots raining from the heavens.

Throughout the play, there were references to a place called Vana (or perhaps Vahna). And, as they approach this place at which they hope to achieve enlightenment, one of the band says “this is near Vana.” (Get it? Enlightenment? Nirvana?) It’s hardly the cleverest joke in history, but it’s not unfunny, and it was probably hilarious when first uttered at the frat house, probably at 2:00 a.m. with chemical enhancements. Trouble is, the writers set up all the scaffolding about going to Vana and then… they forgot to include the joke itself.

Why I am reminded of this anecdote some 35+ years after the fact is that I just sort of did the same thing. In this morning’s update and sequel post, I managed to leave out the section on the one story I most wanted to talk about: the tale of Jammie Price and Appalachian State University. (At least I get to spend a little more time and space on it this way.)
It turns out that there was new information made available literally the day after I wrote my piece, which was entitled “Jammie Price and the Offensiveness of [the] Porn [Industry]” and was dated April 29, 2012. It concerned a sociology professor at Appalachian State University who was suspended (they called it something else), apparently for showing an explicit anti-porn documentary in her class.

The next day, Dr. Price posted the text of her letter of reprimand from the university to a Facebook page entitled “Academic Freedom and Due Process at Appstate.” It’s quite a read.

Remember, this is a faculty member who has tenure, has been on the job for several years, and who was promoted by the university. This is not the time to question teaching methods unless they are completely beyond the pale. Even if the worst possible spin were to be put on the allegations, and even if they were all true, this isn’t enough to suspend a tenured full professor. Not to grant tenure under these circumstances would be reasonable… that’s not to say whether it would be a good or bad decision, merely that consideration of pedagogical approaches would be relevant. In Dr. Price’s case, the university has already place its imprimatur on her teaching strategies.

In any case, Dr. Price was asked—to use the euphemistic term—to submit to a “professional development plan” that would be insulting to a first-year Assistant Professor: there are more “peer reviews” required of this senior faculty member in a two-year period than I have ever had of me in the 30+ years I’ve been in the classroom (yes, combined), including when I was a teaching assistant and when I was just starting out as a junior faculty member.

Also of particular note is point B:
Inclusion of best practices for teaching lower division courses, which should include at a minimum:
1. Attendance policy that requires attendance and specifies the method to take attendance during class.
2. Multiple assignments that provide students some form of graded feedback prior to the midterm period.
3. Individual class objectives which allow for framing conversations that deal with sensitive topics.
OK, what the hell does an attendance policy have to do with the allegations? “Graded feedback prior to the midterm period” is generally a good idea, especially in a lower-division course, but telling a full professor how to structure her course is unspeakably arrogant. I should also note that my Director (the equivalent of a department chair) will have had ample opportunity to review my syllabi over a number of years and to make comments or suggestions. I don’t imagine that App State is radically different in that regard. In other words, if there’s a problem in course structure, it should have been addressed long ago. And don’t get me started on the pseudo-educational jargon factory that produces such claptrap as “individual class objectives.”

One thing I’ve learned in 30+ years in the education business: if an administrator says “this requirement is not a ban on use of sensitive materials,” it means “this is a ban on use of sensitive materials.” As I said last time, I remain to be convinced that there is anything inherently wrong with allowing students to be shocked, appalled and horrified. Sometimes that’s the way the world is. Would I have done what Dr. Price did? No. Does that mean that what she did is censurable? No.

Anyway, I’m particularly pleased by the misplaced modifier in the closing paragraph: “Once developed collaboratively, you will be expected to comply with the conditions of the professional development plan.” Nothing says “we believe in education” quite as well as a sentence any high school kid should know is ungrammatical.

That same day, April 30, the Winston-Salem Journal published an article by Monte Mitchell about the fracas. In it, there’s a reference to a March 16 letter to Dr. Price. Let’s take the charges enumerated in the March 16 letter, as described by Mitchell, one by one. For the sake of argument, let’s say that everything alleged against Professor Price is true.

So… she “called ASU a racist, predominantly white institution.” “Racist” is in the eye of the beholder; “predominantly white” is a statement of fact. She “said student-athletes get special privileges.” Well, duh. She “spent most of a class talking about a student-led protest about sexual assault allegations against two football players.” As well she should, in a sociology class. She “showed a documentary on pornography without introducing it or telling members of the class it contained images that could be objectionable to some of them.” Yeah. And? I don’t see a there, there, completely apart from Price’s denial that she called the school racist or said football players get special privileges.

Appalachian State history professor Shelia Phipps puts it well: “I started to list all of the things about history that I teach that are disturbing. History is about human behavior and a lot of it has to do with bad things humans do to each other. I don't warn students about difficult topics, which is one of the things the faculty member was accused of.” I concur. Events are sometimes shocking. Maybe post-adolescents ought to know that.

I did suggest last month that there’s likely more here than meets the eye. Price herself blames the trouble on the “poker club” that she says really runs things at ASU. Conversely, Mike Adams, a self-styled “not politically correct” professor of criminology at UNC-Wilmington suggests that:
Price arguably should have been suspended by UNCW back in March of 2003 when she cancelled all of her classes for an entire week in order to protest the Iraq War. Her unprofessionalism was compounded when she offered extra credit – but only to those who would join her in protesting the war. Predictably, a student complained and Price was reprimanded.
Adams provides further details of Price’s professional life which, if true, are problematic. That said, all that stuff is ancient history. The statute of limitations on those crimes officially expired with the granting of tenure.

In any case, Price emerged from her meeting with administration officials with this to say:
The university finds that I create a hostile teaching environment in my classroom and that, subsequently, I need to go through lessons and [“on”?] how to teach better. I will be provided a teaching mentor and I will be watched closely from here on out—basically put on teaching probation. I have not accepted these terms.
Good for her. If nothing else, this case appears to be a due process nightmare. And remember how I said I thought it interesting that FIRE wasn’t more involved? They’re baaaaaack. Here’s a lengthy and lawyerly take-down of the university’s position. It was met with a predictably non-responsive response: yet another “we can’t talk about private personnel matters” dodge which, though probably true, doesn’t help anyone’s cause or allay anyone’s fears.

Just yesterday, the Appalachian State Faculty Senate unanimously passed two resolutions: making it clear that “administrative leave” differs from suspension only in terminology, and that due process really ought to happen, even in Boone, NC. Plus, the case has gone from barely on FIRE’s radar to top billing on their “Top Cases” page.

I wrote a few weeks ago that:
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…
I might add “terminally constipated” to the list, but otherwise I stand by my earlier comments. All told, it’s a good day not to be at Appalachian State University.

Updates and Sequels

Updates (in reverse chronological order of when I first wrote about the story):

My story: “Earthquakes in Ohio: Thank Your Friendly Neighborhood Fracker,” dated January 2, 2012.
Update: I wrote then about the area where my wife grew up. This week, there was a Mw4.8 earthquake here in East Texas. Oh, so coincidentally, there’s a fracking operation going not far away. OK, this could have been chance. There were minor tremors measured in the area before there was such a thing as fracking. But the report by the local television station does little to allay my suspicions: wow, there was a small quake as recently as 31 years ago (!), and the mouthpiece for the people responsible for fracking says it’s not a problem.

That would be one Ragan Dickens of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. Suffice it to say that Mr. Dickens is better at parroting Republican talking points than he is at geology, in which he has no apparent background. Here’s his smirking commentary, “If earthquakes are caused by fracking, then were those earthquakes in the 1800’s preemptive earthquakes because they knew fracking was coming? It's a silly comparison.” This argument, and I use the term loosely, is trotting out the old tobacco industry subterfuge. Today version: “Donna Summer just died of lung cancer, and she didn’t smoke. Therefore, cigarettes aren’t bad for you.” Only an idiot would buy such an argument. Only a sleazebag would make it.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes has slightly better credentials, and his argument at least makes sense: “there is no evidence to suggest that hydraulic fracturing itself is the cause of the increased rate of earthquakes.” Keyword: “itself.” No, it’s the injection of waste-water from fracking operations that causes the quakes. From the same DOI report as the single sentence that gets quoted by fracking proponents (and lazy reporters from local television stations): “USGS’s scientists have found, however, that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells.” See, not fracking. Dealing with the inevitable results of fracking. Am I crazy, or is this a distinction without a difference?

Hence, the commentary of Ben McGee of the U.S. Geological Survey (you know, an actual expert): “Of course you have to have a fault present to have movement along a fault, but water or fluid injected into the earth in the vicinity of faults of in faults increase the likelihood that those faults will move.” Makes sense to me. It also makes sense to me to take a time-out before we go too far down this fracking road.

My story: “Stupidest Legislative “Money-Saving” Plan of the Month: The First Three Nominees,” dated October 15, 2011.
Update: Camden County, Georgia, has apparently abandoned the profoundly silly idea of employing prisoners as firefighters in a money-saving stratagem. A couple other Georgia counties have also considered but scrapped the idea. As Carroll County Commissioner Kevin Jackson puts it, “It’s not a good idea at all. We don’t need prisoners inside the homes of our citizens.”

Of course, there’s a dissenting voice: Bill Twomey of Sumter County, who thinks his county’s plan, underway for a couple of years already, is “a model program” despite objections from, say, the Department of Corrections. Remind me not to move to Sumter County.

My story: “Celebrating the Continued Health of a Mass Murderer,” dated August 20, 2011.
Update: Convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi died this week in Tripoli. As might be expected, there’s a fresh round of indignation from the politicians, the pundits, and the populace. Families of the victims were especially outpsoken. Eileen Walsh, for example, lost three family members in the bombing. Her reaction to al-Megrahi’s death?
Good riddance to him and I hope he rots in hell.

I have no feelings apart from anger and disgust for this man. The fact that he was allowed to be with his family while he took two-and-a-half years to die makes me ill.

Because of him my mother died of cancer without most of her family around to comfort her.

I feel so betrayed by the Scottish government for what they did, and the British government played its part too. He should have died in jail.
Still, one father of a victim expressed his belief that al-Megrahi’s protestations of innocence were genuine. Jim Swire said, “'I've been satisfied for some years that this man had nothing to do with the murder of my daughter and I grit my teeth every time I hear newscasters say 'Lockerbie bomber has died. This is a sad day.”

It is unclear whether al-Megrahi’s death will help or hurt efforts to get to the truth. Some, like Eileen Monetti, who lost a son in the Lockerbie bombing, says that “Megrahi was a distraction that stopped us from finding out the truth. Now that Megrahi has died hopefully the Libyan government will give more information to the US and the UK about the bombing.” Of course, as Senator Charles Schumer points out, al-Megrahi’s death may have the opposite effect, allowing the American and British governments to continue to be, in Schumer’s words, “not forthcoming.” As far as I’m concerned , if there’s a little closure in this for the families, amen to that.

There is, by the way, an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Karol Sikora, in which he outlines his reasons for giving al-Megrahi only three months to live at the time of his compassionate release nearly three years ago. (It turns out by the way, that his report was not received by the authorities to factor into their decision; the doctor in charge, Andrew Fraser, clearly came to the same conclusions independently.) Dr. Sikora makes it clear that such predictions are guesswork—educated guesswork, perhaps, but guesswork nonetheless. He also makes the same point I made last August. In his words:
there have been significant advances since 2009 in the treatment of prostate cancer that has spread. These include drugs such as abiraterone, cabazitaxel, alpharadin and medivation, which Megrahi probably received and are still not widely available in the U.K. We judged his prognosis based on his treatment as an NHS patient in Glasgow at the time, when not even standard docetaxel chemotherapy was offered.
Whether one or more of these drugs extended al-Megrahi’s life, or whether it was simply luck, we’ll never know. But I’d like to think that this sorry piece of excrement contributed to prolonging the lives of, ultimately, as many people as he callously murdered. He didn’t do it on purpose, of course, but he was almost certainly a guinea pig for cancer treatments. All those chemicals will probably reduce his value as fertilizer, however. Pity, that.

My story: “A little respect, please, for our canine heroes,” dated May 26, 2011.
Update: Sadly, one of the few pieces of absolutely slam-dunk legislation, to list military working dogs as personnel rather than equipment, thereby facilitating their adoption subsequent to their service, continues to be tied up in committee. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was another television piece on the subject, this one on a local news show in Atlanta. The problem is that since these dogs are considered equipment, they’re routinely euthanized rather than even having the chance to be adopted. There are plenty of ex-servicemen and –women who’d gladly adopt their “best friend,” but not at the cost of thousands of dollars (the dogs are officially abandoned equipment, no longer the property of the government, so they can’t simply be loaded onto to plane that’s heading stateside, anyway) and mountains of red tape.

The article talks about dogs too aggressive or too sick to be adopted. Fine. That makes sense. But many dogs are perfectly adoptable but are put down, anyway, because Congress can’t get their collective heads out of their collective asses long enough to fix an obviously fixable situation. Have the military ship the dogs back to the States. Allow charitable organizations to help the dogs and prospective owners find each other. How hard is that?

Look, I get it that this isn’t the highest imaginable priority right now. But maybe, just maybe, it could be the kind of bill that would allow those on the left and on the right to see that the other guy isn’t really so bad; he just thinks we ought to have a different economic strategy than the one I like. And since this seems an intractable problem (this issue has been around since the ‘90s), maybe solving it would give us all a little confidence.

Senator Schumer took up the cause of one ex-marine and the dog she worked with in Iraq. That’s nice, but it isn’t enough. Fix the damned law, sir. (There is, by the way, a petition at, but I can’t tell how old it is; there’s another at that looks recent.)

My story: “Antiphon Is Always Welcome at Our Tea Party,” dated October 28, 2010.
Update: Well, not an update on content, per se, but a note that I will in fact be presenting a paper at this summer’s Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference on using Antiphon’s Second Tetralogy as a teaching tool for discussions of Greek tragedy.

My story: “Two Cinco de Mayo stories (and a coda),” dated May 10, 2010.
Update: Three of the students sent home for wearing American flags on their clothing on the Mexican-American pseudo-holiday two years ago filed suit against the school. They lost last November, but announced in February that they intended to appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. As might be expected, the case has attracted the attention of the First Amendment Center and of the American Freedom Law Center; the latter has in fact filed briefs (an opening brief and a reply brief) on the boys’ behalf. It should be noted that the FAC is primarily interested in education; they do not participate directly in litigation. The AFLC, on the other hand, is an advocacy group which purports to be about Constitutional rights and is in fact about advancing a right-wing and indeed anti-Constitutional agenda, as indicated by their support (for example) for the heinous “Islamic Law in America” conference, organized by batshit crazy Pamela Geller and dedicated to anti-Islamic propaganda under the guise of a fight against a completely non-existent attempt to impose Sharia law.

That doesn’t mean they’re always wrong, though, and I confess their argument in the case makes a lot more sense than the lower court ruling does. The plaintiffs in this case are increasingly acting like the “little jerk-offs” I described them as being two years ago (not least by suing over something so minor), but it strikes me that any reasonable reading of the Constitution supports them in this instance. This case will be interesting to follow as the 9th circuit weighs in. I wouldn't be surprised to see this end up at the SCOTUS, either way.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Ryan Young and the Idiocracy at Safeway

Simmering on the back burner: a piece on identity and self-identification that will, I suspect, re-affirm my status as curmudgeon and annoy the hell out of those who think that I should be a good little progressive and roll over for the likes of Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren just because I generally agree with them politically. Roughly 2/3 written: an update piece covering several stories I’ve talked about in the past couple of years.

But today’s topic: the saga of Ryan Young. The utterly incompetently written piece linked here nonetheless communicates the essential information: Mr. Young was working as a meat clerk at a Safeway in Del Rey Oaks, California when he saw a man beating up a pregnant woman. So he did what any normal, ethical person would do: he intervened. Here’s Mr. Young’s own description of the events:
Every few seconds he would turn around and push her and then he actually kicked her. I told him to calm down and he was just irate. I saw no one was intervening in the situation and I just became afraid for her safety and also other customers safety. The guy was out of control and pretty much lost it in there.
Is it heroism simply to do the right thing? When there’s risk involved, I’d say yes. But at the very least it’s a net plus.

So what does Safeway, in its infinite wisdom, do? Why, suspend him without pay, of course! There’s apparently some rule—no one will really come out and say so—that the correct thing to do is to call security or a manager. Morons. These people are the enemy. I mean that. They were the ones sniping at Columbus, at Galileo, at John Hancock. Pythagoras probably had to endure them. You know Confucius did. And Einstein. And Nelson Mandela. And James Joyce. And Susan B. Anthony.

These are the people who can’t wrap their head around the idea that we need to be smarter than the rules, that sometimes you have to act, and that a young and apparently strong employee like Mr. Young might well be better suited to controlling a violent batterer than a pudgy middle-aged manager would be. More to the point, Mr. Young took action because it was necessary. Sure, if there was a threat of violence, he should get someone in authority on the scene. But this wasn’t some “gee, wouldn’t it be awful if…” scenario. This was real. And it was right now.

Everyone on the planet—except the buffoons at Safeway, of course—seems to understand that Young acted appropriately. The police chief thinks so. The witnesses think so. Even the store’s loss prevention manager thinks so. There is Internet outrage. There’s a fund-raiser. There’s a petition with a whole lot of signatures (I was #149,605). Meanwhile, the Safeway silliness squad execs have dithered for over a month, while Young, an expectant father, languishes without a paycheck.

Safeway is a definition by example of the Peter Principle, the idea that every employee rises to the level of his own incompetence. In any sane universe, everyone who contributed to Mr. Young's suspension, from enacting it to begin with to not over-turning it when given the opportunity to do so, would not only be fired—not suspended, fired—but be paraded through the streets in stocks and pelted with eggs bought at one of Safeway’s competitors. Any pregnant woman would be allowed to punch and kick every one of these idiots, preferably in the groin. Mr. Young’s own pregnant wife may also use a crowbar. The woman who suffered the beating in the store: a sledgehammer.

But this isn’t a sane universe, as you know all too well, Gentle Reader. I am, if nothing else, reminded of the sage advice I once received from a dear friend when an employer terminated me without following their own rules, let alone due process. She said, and I can quote it exactly although it was long ago, “You could sue them, and you’d win, but then you’d have to work for those assholes.” Yes, it would be good for Ryan Young to get his job back, and the company had damned well better pay him for his extended leave of absence while they tried unsuccessfully to extricate crania from anuses.

But what should happen, what would happen if I managed a competing grocery store, would be a conversation like this:
Telephone rings.

Ryan Young (into phone): Hello?

Me: Hello, Mr. Young?

RY: Yes…

Me: This is Curmie, the manager of Curmie’s Grocery Store.

RY: Yes?

Me: I’d like you to come work for me, in the same job you had at Safeway. I’ll pay you half of the money you lost by getting suspended at Safeway as a signing bonus, and I’ll pay you 10 cents an hour more than they were paying you. You interested?

RY: Of course!

Me: There’s one catch. I want you to do an ad for my store. I’ll pay you for that, too, but you’ve got to agree to it now or there’s no deal. OK?

RY: What do I have to say?

Me: Here’s the script: “Hi, my name is Ryan Young. A few weeks ago, I stopped a man from beating up a pregnant woman. Safeway suspended me without pay for it. Curmie’s hired me because of it. So… who would you rather have make a profit from your grocery purchases?” Deal?

RY: Deal.

Me: See you at 8 o’clock tomorrow morning. Wear a tie; you’re gonna be on TV.
Game, set, and match.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

On the Perils of Literalism

Sometimes a bunch of things fall together, and you see connections that somehow had hitherto escaped notice. And so we bring together: a). a blog post about a famous moment in “Showboat,” b). an article about a six-year-old suspended from school for sexual harassment, c). the judicial opinion that a Facebook “like” is unprotected by the 1st Amendment. What they all demonstrate, each in its own way, is the peril of literalism.

The first item for discussion, the “Showboat” scene, is particularly curious because it is simultaneously the most and least ethical of the trio. Jack Marshall, whose Ethics Alarm blog I often cite here, was watching the 1936 black-and-white film version of that classic musical a couple of weeks ago, and began to ponder some of the ethical considerations brought to light in one of the movie’s seminal moments. Here’s Jack’s description (you can watch the scene here):
A key sub-plot in “Showboat” involves Julie LaVerne, the show boat’s leading actress, who has been passing as white in the post-Civil War South despite having a black mother. She is married to the show boat’s leading man, Steve Baker, who is white, and thus in violation of the strict miscegenation laws then in force in the South. Alerted that the sheriff of the Mississippi town where the show boat has stopped to entertain is on the way to arrest the couple, Steve cuts his wife’s finger with a pocket knife, and swallows some of her blood in front of the boat’s captain and his family as well as others. When the sheriff arrives to arrest him, Steve provokes the sheriff to confirm that in Mississippi, the law regarded a man as legally black if he had “one drop of Negro blood” in him. Steve then announces that he has “more than a drop” “in” him, and will swear to the fact. He also declares that everyone in the room can also swear that they are certain that he has “a drop of black blood in him” and thus there can be no accusation of an illegal inter-racial union with his black wife.

One by one, all of the witnesses to Steve’s blood-sucking tactic swear that Steve Baker is telling the truth. One such witness, the ship’s navigator, employed the sheriff years ago, and reminds him that he “would never lie” and can be trusted implicitly when he says that he knows Steve has “Negro blood in him.” The sheriff, convinced, leaves without making an arrest.

It is a profoundly ethical scene, but also an ethically misleading one. The show boat family and staff properly and bravely rally to the defense of Steve and Julie against an inhuman and ignorant law…. Everyone is lying, but the lie is justified under utilitarian principles: the law is unjust, and lying is a lesser breach of ethics and morality than the enforcement of the anti-miscegenation law against a loving husband and wife for doing nothing more than living together.

Nonetheless, everyone is lying. The lie is textbook deceit, a statement that is literally true but carefully phrased to make the gullible listener believe something that is not true. They are all swearing that Steve “has a drop of black blood” in him because they just saw him suck on Julie’s finger wound. That is not what the sheriff, or the law he has come to enforce, means by “a drop of Negro blood,” and everyone knows that’s not what he means. They also know that the sheriff won’t realize what they really are swearing to when [they] confirm that Steve has “black blood in him.” They deceive him using words, and that is what lying is.
Notice that the characters are literally telling the truth, but they do so with a clear intent to deceive. Their motives are good, but if all they seek to do is to avoid trouble for themselves or their friends, the slope to ends-justify-means argumentation is very slippery, indeed. Rather, the law itself must be considered unjust: and that process requires (wait for it…) thought.

Jack also cites the famous “That is not my dog” scene in the “Pink Panther Strikes Again.” It doesn’t advance my argument much, but it’s one of the funniest half-minutes in film history, so I feel the need to include it. One might mention, too, the tag to “The Silence of the Lambs”: “I do wish we could chat longer,” says Hannibal Lector, whom we know to be a murderer and a cannibal, on the phone, “but I’m having an old friend for dinner.” In that scene, like the one from “Showboat,” the audience is in on the joke; in the Pink Panther movie, we may suspect the gag is coming, but only because it is, after all, Inspector Clouseau. The dynamics of the scenes work differently, but the outcome is the same: the statements made by the characters in question are literally true, but we follow their “truth” at our own peril.

Version #2 of the phenomenon: the case of D’Avonte Meadows, the 6-year-old boy suspended from school for sexual harassment. His transgression: reciting the lyrics to a popular song to a girl in the lunch-line. It’s not worth spending much time or space on this on, just the latest manifestation of “zero tolerance” stupidity. It’s not even the most heinous example of administrative malfeasance in this general topic area in this school year: witness, for example the 6-year-old initially charged with sexual battery(!?!) in California a few months ago for brushing up against a friend’s “leg or groin” while the two children were playing tag. (The good news is that the charges were finally dropped, the boy’s permanent record expunged; the bad news is that it took the threat of a lawsuit to do it.)

That said, it is a perfect illustration of my point about literalism. In Aurora, Colorado, and elsewhere, no doubt, there’s a lengthy description of what constitutes sexual harassment. The definition takes up two full single-spaced pages in the policy manual. It was pretty clearly designed with the best of intentions, and ultimately I don’t fault the document at all. The people who drafted it probably assumed that no one would be moronic enough to apply these standards to a six-year-old.

They were wrong about that. And since there’s apparently something in School Administration for Dummies about the most important quality of a principal, superintendent, and school board being never to admit you’ve made a mistake, we get a statement of talking points drivel instead of a response: “Aurora Public Schools is committed to providing equitable learning for all students. We have policies and protocol in place to prevent any disruption to the learning environment,” quoth Paula Hans, the district’s media relations specialist. “Bullshit,” quoth I.

Look, telling a little girl “I’m sexy and I know it” probably does fall under the category of “unwanted sexual activity,” or at least as something the boy wouldn’t have said to another boy. It probably also could have “negative effects on the learning or work of others.” Fine. Anyone with an IQ higher than Michele Bachmann’s delegate count takes young D’Avonte aside and tells him that it’s probably not a good idea to go saying things if you don’t know what they mean (speaking of Bachmann!), and that quoting that particular song lyric isn’t really a good idea.

He apparently got in trouble for a variation on the same offense earlier, so it might, might even be appropriate to send him a message in the form of a short suspension for disruptive behavior or insubordination or whatever. But if you put it in terms of sexual harassment, whether you can squeeze some justification out of your policy manual or not, you make your entire enterprise look like it’s run by a gaggle of buffoons. It least that impression would seem to fall under the heading of truth in advertising.

Item #3 is especially interesting because it hints at the worst possible combination of circumstances: selective literalism. This phenomenon is most familiar to us in the Christian Right’s unending struggle to justify its homophobia by recourse to Leviticus, all the while ignoring literally dozens of other Bible verses (something about camels and eyes of needles, for example) that don’t feed its prejudices. The now-famous rebuttal to Dr. Laura Schlessinger, subsequently adapted into a famous scene in the television series “The West Wing,” demonstrates the flaws of this kind of thinking.

“Ah,” you say, “but all those other citations don’t really mean what you say they mean, or they’re taken out of context, or they’re simply a recognition of the reality of the times.” “Precisely,” I reply.

Sometimes, however, the dance between what is said and what is meant becomes even more complex. An example would be a recent court case in Virginia, in which six workers were fired by their boss, Sheriff B. J. Roberts of Hampton. At least one of the fired workers, Daniel Ray Carter, had “liked” the Facebook page of Jim Adams, Roberts’s opponent in the then-upcoming 2009 election, in which Roberts ultimately prevailed.

According to the AP story, “While public employees are allowed to speak as citizens on matters of public concern, Judge Raymond A. Jackson of Federal District Court ruled that clicking the “like” button did not amount to expressive speech. In other words, it was not the same as actually writing out a message and posting it on the site.”

If I’m reading this correctly, we’re quibbling over the definition of “speech.” In light of a series of SCOTUS rulings, none of us are quite sure any more. Corporations are people, money is speech… it’s a linguist’s nightmare. But if I read this correctly, what happened in Virginia is that Mr. Carter did too much and too little. By liking Mr. Adams’s Facebook page, he gave Sheriff Roberts reason to resent him, perhaps enough to fire him. But by not actually saying something, he failed to qualify for 1st Amendment protection:
Simply liking a Facebook page is insufficient. The Court will not attempt to infer the actual content of Carter’s posts from one click of a button on Adams’ Facebook page…. Facebook posts can be considered matters of public concern; however, the Court does not believe Plaintiffs Carter and McCoy have alleged sufficient speech to garner First Amendment protection.
Forgive me if I think this is nonsense. The concept that speech must cross a threshold to be speech makes less sense to me than invoking the interstate commerce clause to assert federal authority trumps states’ medical marijuana laws. And that’s a rather low hurdle to surmount. To “like” something on Facebook is a volitional act. It might not be much, but it’s something, and it must certainly be protected. Moreover, if an act of speech is sufficient to precipitate a response (in this case, getting fired), then it’s an act of speech.

Luckily, I’m not the only one who thinks so. Here’s Eugene Volokh, one of the country’s foremost authorities on First Amendment law, whose Volokh Conspiracy blog has long been on the CC blogroll even if I don’t always understand it:
A Facebook “like” is a means of conveying a message of support for the thing you’re liking. That’s the whole point of the “like” button; that’s what people intend by clicking “like,” and that’s what viewers will perceive. Moreover, the allegation is that the employees were fired precisely because the Sheriff disapproved of the message the “like” conveyed. I would treat “liking” as verbal expression — though it takes just one mouse-click, it publishes to the world text that says that you like something. But even if it’s just treated as symbolic expression, it is still constitutionally protected, as cases such as Texas v. Johnson (1989) (the flag-burning case) show.

To be sure, the message isn’t highly detailed; it doesn’t explain why one is supporting the “liked” person or cause. But the First Amendment protects speech even when the speech is not rich with logical argument, or is even vague or ambiguous. “[T]he First Amendment shields such acts as saluting a flag (and refusing to do so), wearing an armband to protest a war, displaying a red flag, and even ‘[m]arching, walking or parading’ in uniforms displaying the swastika. As some of these examples show, a narrow, succinctly articulable message is not a condition of constitutional protection ….”

Putting a “Jim Adams” bumper sticker on one’s car would be constitutionally protected. Putting such a sign on one’s lawn would be constitutionally protected. “Liking” Jim Adams on Facebook is equally constitutionally protected. If the plaintiffs appeal, I expect the Fourth Circuit will reverse the district court on this point.
So there you have it. Three cases—one fictional deception, one potential Curmie nominee, one court case. What they have in common is language: the way we use it, what it literally means, and the extent to which we should—hermeneutically, ethically, and legally—be bound by that literalism. Sometimes those grad level literary theory classes are actually relevant…

Friday, May 18, 2012

The “Creepiness Curmie”: Two Nominees

May seems to be a very good month for stories about idiot educators, as two stories from today alone attest. Today’s topic: downright creepy middle school/junior high principals and their unseemly interest in girls in their early teens.

First, there’s the middle school principal in Geneva, Illinois, who thinks it’s OK to force students to allow him to rummage around in their Facebook accounts. This sort of Big Brotherism is problematic enough when it’s done to a job-seeker, but at least there the victim is an adult, and has the right to tell the meddlesome HR person to perform an act best suited to especially limber hermaphrodites. Adolescent kids whose fondest desire is just to make it through the 7th grade don’t have the luxury of just walking out.

Here’s the story: Pam Broviak’s daughter attends Geneva Middle School South. According to Broviak’s blog piece on the incident [obvious typos corrected]:
It started because a teacher heard another student spreading rumors about my daughter-–all of it unrelated to school and nothing against the law. So the school called in my daughter to demand to know if the rumors were true. This went on for some days, without my knowledge, and culminated in them asking her to open her Facebook account to them which she did. Then the vice principal called me to demand I come to the school immediately to read through her private messages. At the time I was out of town for work and could not make it back until later that night. She had obviously kept the account open long after my daughter had left and told me she would keep it open until I got there. She was almost hysterical about the whole situation also demanding I punish my daughter for what she had allegedly done. …

Of course I found out when I got home that this had taken a huge toll on my daughter who ended up crying through most of the rest of the day and therefore missed most of her classes. She was embarrassed and very upset. Particularly so because their line of questioning had also been sexual in nature with them demanding she share with them everything she had done sexually. In this day and age, I just cannot imagine how a school adminstrator could confront a 13-year old girl and demand to know the extent of her sexual experience. …

So the next day, I spoke with the principal.... He explained that the reason they had to interrogate my daughter was because the punishment for spreading rumors is different depending on if the rumor is true or not. So he insisted on his need to conduct an investigation into the truth each time they hear a rumor about a child. …

I told him not to pry into the private lives of my children. And he said he cannot do that-–it is his obligation to look out for the morals and ethics of the children at his school. And if he feels they are not leading a moral life (obviously according to his standards), he is going to launch an investigation. And only if he finds they are in fact exhibiting poor behavior will he contact parents. And even then he said he doesn't like contacting parents because most kids don't want their parents to know anything and would rather just talk to him.
Gentle Reader, Curmie knows better than to form an opinion with only one side of the argument expressed. But he also knows creepy when he sees it.

Assuming Ms. Broviak’s account to be accurate, here’s what we’ve got. A 13-year-old girl is the subject of rumors, apparently about sex. The principal, rather than squelching the rumors (or admitting that he’s unlikely to be able to do so), uses them as an excuse to pry into this girl’s private life. Sorry, sir, that’s not due diligence; that’s prurience. It is not the principal’s job to snoop into the morals or ethics of his students, certainly not unless there is a provable and direct link to the efficient functioning of the school, and certainly not without parental knowledge. And if a misbehaving student doesn’t want his/her parents to know, that’s all the more reason to call them in.

Moreover, the way to encourage high ethical standards amongst one’s students is most assuredly not to adopt an unethical and (literally and figuratively) unwarranted subterfuge to access personal information not only about them, but about their friends, families, and acquaintances, as well. That, sir, is NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS.

Neither the blog piece nor the MSNBC article by Bob Sullivan where I first heard about this case refers to the principal by name. I’m guessing that it’s Terry Bleau, who is indicated as such on the school web page. That would certainly make sense. Click on his name on that page and you get his autobiographical blurb, which includes the following: “I am a devoted family man.” Those of you, Gentle Readers, who know me personally have probably heard me say, “If you have to tell me, it ain’t so.” If you have to tell me you worked hard on that project, you didn’t. If you have to tell your cast that you’re in charge of a rehearsal, you aren’t. If you have to tell me you’re a devoted family man… well, you get the idea.

But if the principal isn’t identified, the superintendent is: one Kent Mutchler. He seems indignant about the suggestion that school officials demand students’ passwords. “Nay!,” quoth he, “we simply demand that students sign into their accounts and then we don’t close out of their private affairs until we get our voyeuristic little rocks off.” OK, so maybe that’s not a direct quote.

Mutchler also disputes Broviak’s claim that this kind of amoral intrusion is common. “It happens a half-dozen to a dozen times per year.” Let’s see, that’s roughly once a month, figuring nine as the average between the two extremes mentioned, and a school year lasting about that many months. That doesn’t strike me as remarkably rare, even if we believe him. But let’s look at it another way. The population of Geneva is 24,391, as of July 2009. The population of the country at that time was 306,771,500, or roughly 12,577 times as big. So, if there’s one such incident per month in Geneva, and if Geneva is average, that means there are over 12,500 invasions of students’ privacy happening somewhere in the country each month of the school year. The average school day is about seven hours, with maybe 22 or so days of school in an average month. Let’s say 150 hours a month of school being in session.

Uh oh. This is looking unpleasant. That makes 83 such events per hour. In other words, either Geneva schools aren’t normative, after all, or there is some creep in a school administration somewhere in the country demanding access to personal information from students in this particular manner about every 43 seconds that classes are underway. Sure doesn’t sound “very rare” to me. Wanna know something else that’s all too common? Idiots in charge of schools.

For further proof of this assertion, we turn to Tooele, Utah. There, the blogger known as “adult onset atheist” has a 14-year-old daughter who attends one of the local junior highs. On Wednesday, he was called to the school, where his daughter has apparently committed some grievous offense against humanity. I’ll let him tell it:
The office has large windows so that the student is on display to their peers throughout the interminable wait time. The bell rings and hundreds of students rush past the offender-on-display; some linger long enough to make obscene gestures. There are some sociopaths that would revel in the attention, but in most adolescent minds this is cruel and unusual punishment.

What had AYD done to deserve this punishment? Was it some valiant gesture of defiance against a fascist dehumanizing system, or was their [sic.] cruelty and torture involved? I found it hard to picture AYD engaged (or at least being caught) in either of these types of actions, but I was hoping for the first. …

After spinning up the possibilities in my mind I was not prepared for the actual nature of her offense. AYD was dressed inappropriately. I am not the best judge of “appropriate” dress for a 14-year-old girl. I try, but it is a skill I have no intention of using for very long. I tried to circumvent my need for it at all by suggesting that both AOD and AYD wear hospital scrubs till they graduate the 12th grade, but that was apparently “not happening”. I know that if I dressed myself from AYD's wardrobe it would be wildly inappropriate regardless of what I chose. Now my lack of attention had forced AYD into a life of crime. It is always the parents’ fault.

Luckily I was working at home, so I took a camera and rushed over to the junior high school with some dungarees and a sack-like shirt for AYD to change into. This is a picture of her in the school's front office, and this is the apparently inappropriate outfit she was wearing.
Yes, really. I don’t know about you, Gentle Reader, but I, for one, would be immensely comforted to believe that 20% of the adolescent girls in the country dressed as appropriately. The outfit is attractive, conservative, and appears comfortable without being scuzzy. If I had a 14-year-old daughter, I’d want her to dress like that to go to school.

But… erm… her skirt was apparently ½” too short. Actually, no. No, it wasn’t. If there’s a rule that says it was, then perhaps the dress code should have been revised at least once since 1962. Moreover, AOA says the yearbook (coincidentally distributed that very day) “had many photos of students with much higher hems on their skirts or pants. The yearbook photos raise the issue of selective enforcement.” More to the point, for that outfit to be regarded as provocative, we’d have to be looking at an intentionally deceptive view of a get-up in which there’s really no back to the skirt and the girl’s butt is hanging out. Why do I not think that’s the case?

The more trenchant issue, though, is this: given the fact that the skirt is obviously not provocative at all (unlike a good share of what teen-age girls wear these days), what kind of perv does it take to look at it long enough and hard enough to start calculating hem lengths to the half-inch? Here’s AOA, again [a couple of obvious typos corrected]:
I began to think: “luckily the school administration can look at AYD and see her as a provocative female,” but then I thought… no… that is extremely creepy. I tried to think: “luckily the school administration can look at AYD through the eyes of hormone addled teenage boys to see her as provocative,” but then I thought… no… that is weird-creepy.

So I began to imagine some teacher thinking inappropriate things about AYD, and she being punished for it. Imagine sitting in a class where you knew the teacher was literally looking through your clothing to see you as a provocateur? I began wondering if transferring her to a new class in the last two weeks of school would do more harm than good.

It turns out that the principal himself had personally identified her as inappropriately dressed. He had walked up to her during lunchtime and identified her crime where nobody else could. I can’t help but think that the principal’s action creates an unhealthy atmosphere in his school. What does it say to the teachers who had her in class earlier in the day, and not noticed her inappropriate dress? Will there be punitive actions taken against the teachers who could not look at my daughter with perversion in their eyes?

Is AYD safe?
Beneath AOA’s snark is the legitimate concern of a good father. Who is this principal, and WHAT IS HIS PROBLEM?

As I’ve said, I don’t want to leap to conclusions about either of these cases. In one or both, we may be hearing about events only as interpreted by a parent who is, quite reasonably, not the most objective of observers. But based on what is available to us right now, both of these principals seem to be struggling to keep their minds on their real jobs. Both seem to have just a liiiiiiittle too much interest in the sexuality of their adolescent female charges. In one case, it’s a perverse desire to intrude into their private lives; in the other, it’s a rather unsettling if not fetishistic determination that an outfit the rest of us would consider positively demure is somehow arousing.

I posted the latter story on the CC Facebook page, and got the suggestion of a special Creepiness Curmie award. I must say, it’s kind of disturbing to get two nominees on the same day.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Corporate Bullies: Diageo and Jaguar/Land Rover

One of the things Diageo and Jaguar have in common is that I like their products. Diageo is a huge international corporation which owns a great many brands in the alcoholic beverage business. If you’re a drinker at all, chances are that one of their products is your favorite beer (Guinness, Smithwick’s, Red Stripe) or Scotch (Johnnie Walker) or rum (Myers) or gin (Tanqueray) or tequila (Jose Cuervo) or… well, you get the idea.

Jaguar is the car I’ve always wanted. I won’t ever have one, but since I was a little kid, it was always my dream car—over Ferraris and Lamborghinis and whatever else. The red Jag driven by Inspector Morse always intrigued me more than James Bond’s Aston Martin or even the Batmobile.

The other thing the two corporations have in common is that both are portrayed as amoral bullies in stories I’ve run across in the last few days. Diageo first.

The BII (the apparently now-official title of what used to be the British Institute of Innkeeping), in association with Diageo, presented awards in various categories at a gala affair in Glasgow on May 6. The folks at BrewDog were alerted that they might fare well in the Bar Operator of the Year category. But when the award was announced, they didn’t win. I’ll let their man James (presumably, but not necessarily, co-founder James Watt) pick it up from there:
This disappointment was further compounded when one of the judges (seated at our table) told us in disbelief “this simply cannot be, the independent judging panel voted for BrewDog as clear winners of the award.”

Events took a further twist when the people who got given the award refused to accept it as it clearly had “BrewDog” engraved on the trophy as winners.

On Tuesday, 2 days after the award, I (James) took a phone call from Kenny Mitchell, Chairman of the BII in Scotland and Chairman of the Award Committee explaining the situation. To directly quote Kenny:

“We are all ashamed and embarrassed about what happened. The awards have to be an independent process and BrewDog were the clear winner.”

“Diageo (the main sponsor) approached us at the start of the meal and said under no circumstances could the award be given to BrewDog. They said if this happened they would pull their sponsorship from all future BII events and their representatives would not present any of the awards on the evening.”
OK, even if the Diageo reps had been sampling a little too much of the product, this is weird. I mean, why would anyone behave that way, especially since there’s no way this could do anything but hurt the reputation of the company? Are we really to believe that someone a huge corporation would send out as an official representative to an event like this has never heard of conflict of interest, appearance of impropriety, um… sanity? I figured it had to be a mistake, an over-reaction, a fit of pique by a losing operation. Apparently not: I followed the link to the BII site and found this:
Following widespread reports of an incident at the BII Scotland Awards on 6th of May in Glasgow, when a sponsor intervened in the awarding of the bar operator prize, Peter Thomas, chief executive of BII, has released the following statement:

“This is a regrettable and isolated mistake. I am pleased that my colleagues acted quickly to address this situation. We have never had this sort of issue before and will be ensuring that this never happens again.

“It is crucial that awards of this kind are entirely independent, transparent and above question. Therefore, we will be reviewing exactly what happened, and we will ensure that our usual rigour and high standards will operate in the future. The judging process must be clear, straightforward and understood by all concerned.”
Whoa!!! This really happened, then? Apparently so, as here’s the statement on the Diageo website, too:
Diageo has provided the following statement in response to communications from independent brewer, BrewDog, in relation to the British Institute of Innkeeping Scottish Awards on Sunday 6 May 2012.

A Diageo spokesperson: “There was a serious misjudgement by Diageo staff at the awards dinner on Sunday evening in relation to the Bar Operator of the Year Award, which does not reflect in any way Diageo’s corporate values and behaviour.

We would like to apologise unreservedly to BrewDog and to the British Institute of Innkeeping for this error of judgement and we will be contacting both organisations imminently to express our regret for this unfortunate incident.”
Wow. Notice, of course, that they didn’t say anything about, you know, giving the award to its rightful recipient, or that those responsible would be terminated, reprimanded, or even identified.

Brewdog’s James seems to think the regret was more for getting busted than for the crass power play. Whether or not we might wish he’d kept to the high road in rebuttal, we can but admire the verbal skill of his takedown of the pomposity of the multi-gazillion dollar/pound/euro Goliath:
As for Diageo, once you cut through the glam veneer of pseudo corporate responsibility this incident shows them to be a band of dishonest hammerheads and dumb ass corporate freaks. No soul and no morals, with the integrity of a rabid dog and the style of a wart hog.
Ah, c’mon, James, don’t hold back. Tell us what you really feel! The result, of course, has been a lot more publicity for BrewDog than winning the award without incident would ever have provided, and possibly a new brew to commemorate the foolishness of Diageo: Scandale and Fail Ale are among the front-runners for names.

I like it. I’d love to be able to promise James and his compatriots that I’ll boycott Diageo, but that just isn’t going to happen. I’m heading to Ireland in a month’s time, and they control about every “local” beer there is there—Guinness, Smithwick’s, Kilkenny, Harp… The best I can do is promise to buy a pint of BrewDog at my first opportunity, and to seek out craft beers in general. But I do that, anyway…

OK, on to Jaguar. This one is, apparently, a trademark infringement case. I guess. Here’s the deal. Siblings Nick and Teresa Letchford bought a couple of stores in London’s Shoreditch area in 2001, back when that part of town hadn’t yet transformed from depressed working class area to the hipster haven it is today. Partially because of lack of money, partially because they rather liked the idea, they left the signs advertising the previous establishments in place, so their “collective”—a gallery/bar/café—became known as “Dream Bags Jaguar Shoes.”

The main entrance to the space was into the old Jaguar Shoes building, so that’s what the place came to be called. The enterprise became successful, attracting an artsy clientele and drop-bys from such celebrities as Natalie Portman, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Winehouse, Paloma Faith, and Beyonce. Anyway, in 2009 the Letchfords decided to protect their investment by copyrighting “Jaguar Shoes,” in a document that specifically points out “none of the aforesaid services relating to sports, vehicles, automobiles or the automotive industry.” Jaguar/Land Rover nonetheless have their collective skivvies in a twist.

We’ve been through this before. Some of you may remember when the Pillsbury people went apoplectic that a tiny bakery in Salt Lake City would have the audacity to use a World War II theme and call itself “My Dough Girl.” They won, of course, not because they had a case, but because the owner of the bakery didn’t have the resources—time or money—to fight them.

Here’s what I wrote at the time:
When we get right down to it, Pillsbury/General Mills is pursuing this course of action not because they have to to protect their trademark, but because they can. No sentient being could possibly confuse Pillsbury with My Dough Girl. The people at General Mills know that as well as anyone. But they just can’t help themselves. To a certain personality type, strutting around bullying the little guy is a show of manliness. To me, it’s a pretty sure sign that someone is compensating for something. [Insert vulgar anatomical reference here.] ….

Pillsbury, … even if they “win,” won’t have eliminated a real threat to their trademark; they’ll simply have created a shit-storm of negative publicity. Certainly if I were a General Mills stockholder, I’d be pretty upset that management is wasting money on lawyers and generating bad press to eliminate a phantom threat rather than—hell, I don’t know—developing new products, or improving employees’ job satisfaction, or (best of all) increasing my dividends.
But at least Pillsbury and My Dough Girl were sort of in the same business. No, no one is going to confuse the two operations, but they do both provide baked goods.

Jaguar/Land Rover’s objections are even more specious, more arrogant, more inane than Pillsbury’s were: and that is a very high hurdle, indeed. British copyright law is no doubt different than its American cousin, but the basic principal is the same. As explained by Catherine Wolfe, president of the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys, the “basic test” is whether people are “confused.” Uh, no. No, they’re not. If Jaguar Shoes were actually a shoe store, some of the dimmer bulbs might think the auto-maker was branching out in a what-can’t-you-buy-on-Amazon sort of way. But this is a funky bar called Jaguar Shoes. You go there because it’s trendy, because you’ve heard good things from your friends, because it looks like fun. You don’t go because it has the same name… sort of… as a car company.

And what if you did? What if you decided to go in because it has the word “Jaguar” in its name, the same way I decided to try O’Brien’s pub on my first trip to Dublin because it had the same name as a favorite former student? What of it? First off, those associations are going to happen whatever the name. But more importantly, what does the automobile manufacturer lose in the process? Are we to believe that someone is going to storm out of Jaguar Shoes exclaiming, “Their prices are too high, and they water their drinks. Just for that, I’m buying a Beamer!”? Or maybe it works the other way—“I just love this little café. But I do spend a lot of money here. I should shop around more, maybe get a Mercedes this time.”

I’m guessing that neither of these scenaria will ever come to fruition, except perhaps as performance art (hey, they’ve got a great venue for that!). Writing about the My Dough Girl case, I said of General Mills (parent company of Pillsbury), “We can but hope that someday they'll accidentally pick on someone who can fight back.” It appears that Jaguar/Land Rover may have done just that. There’s a tone of defiance on the Jaguar Shoes website, not to mention the fact that they have all those famous (and wealthy) clients, who might just wield a little more clout in the court of public opinion than some blogger in East Texas does. The multi-national car-maker might just have bitten off more than it can chew. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Ultimately, both these stories are about quotidian douchebaggery by giant corporations for no reason other than that, like Pillsbury, they can. It would be nice to see some big company somewhere at least have a rational reason for acting like jerks, or to… say… fire some dimwit who makes them look bad. Don’t hold your breath.