Saturday, July 28, 2012

Olympian Incompetence: Even by NBC's Standards

I’ve been contemplating writing about the Olympics per se, as opposed to Mitt Romney’s inability to play nice with respect to them, since well before the games actually started. This post might or not qualify.

I’ve been thinking about why I care so much less about the Olympics now than I used to. Is it just because I’m older (I don’t follow baseball anywhere near as much as I did even a decade ago, for example)? Is it the proliferation of pseudo-sports with “judges” instead of referees/umpires/officials? Is it because “security” has trumped all else, turning host cities into police states? Is it because Games organizers are really more concerned with protecting their sponsors’ exclusivity than anything else?

Well, prior to last night, I’d have said “yes” to all four of those hypotheses, with a particular emphasis on the last item. Certainly the heavy-handed and frankly Stalinistic enforcement of sponsorship agreements with respect to the London Olympics makes the phrase “commercial whores” seem inadequate. Pick your story (sources, some of which are quoted or paraphrased below, are here, here, here, here and here):
--no Olympic food venue (and there are 800) except McDonald’s may serve chips (a.k.a. fries) unless accompanied by fish.

--all ATMs at Olympics venues will be Visa-only, meaning anyone else’s card won’t work.

--using two of the following words: “games,” “two thousand and twelve,” “2012,” or “twenty twelve” together, or combining one of those with “gold,” “silver,” “bronze,” “London,” “medals,” “sponsor,” or “summer” is prohibited in advertising (by non-sponsors) or on products/merchandise when used in a context that could suggest an association with the 2012 Olympic Games. I’m sure glad I don’t own a store called London Jewelry, trying to hold my 25th annual Summer Silver Sale.

--publicans were warned that blackboards advertising live TV coverage must not refer to beer brands or brewers without an Olympics deal.

--according to the contract the IOC blackmailed London officials into signing, spectators (spectators!) may not “wear clothes or accessories with commercial messages other than the manufacturers’ brand name”… unless, of course, the commercial message involved is a sponsor. Luckily, London officials have said they’re not going to be utterly stupid about this: I could probably get away with wearing my t-shirt from that Italian restaurant in New Hampshire. I could probably even wear a Pepsi shirt and get away with it… but if I got a few friends together to all wear Pepsi shirts, that would be conspiracy or some damned thing. And don’t think that level of stupidity doesn’t exist. Here are some examples:

--a Weymouth butcher faced a $30,000 fine if he didn’t remove an Olympics rings display comprised of sausages; a café in South London had to remove a similar display made of bagels; a florist shop in Stoke-on-Trent likewise offended with a tissue-paper construction. Apparently the locals are supposed to get excited about the Olympics, but God forbid if they have a little fun in doing so. It’s a pity the list of official sponsors doesn’t include a laxative company: their product is desperately needed by the IOC and London organizers alike.

--there are 286 enforcement officers—yes, people who have no other job responsibility than to protect the interests of their corporate overlords official Olympic sponsors.

--moreover, there are special traffic lanes in London—one of the world’s busiest cities—for use only by athletes, officials, the press, and sponsors. Londoners understand the need for athletes and officials to be at a particular place at a particular time. They’ll probably even grant a little leeway to the huge press corps. But they shouldn’t be expected to sit in traffic more snarled than ever, watching some junior executive assistant to the associate vice president for navel-gazing at Coca-Cola breeze by.
As the incomparable Ken at Popehat puts it, “there is a gulf between the field of Olympic effort and the Olympic brand—the pomp, the interlocking rings, the familiar music, the wall-to-wall coverage, the merchandise, the hype. The Olympic brand is about athleticism only in the sense that iTunes is about music: it is a vehicle for monetizing it.” I confess, I’m not a big fan of the IOC.

All that said, what I really hate about the Olympics can be summarized in three different letters: NBC.

There’s the unrelenting jingoism, the blithe assumption that American viewers couldn’t possibly be interested in a sport in which “we” are unlikely to win a medal. There are the interminable commercials—some of them well-produced, mind you—strategically placed to lure the viewer back to find out what happened when the race actually concluded. There are the announcers, who are apparently chosen with only two criteria in mind: liking the sound of their own voices, and having less of substance to offer than the scripted stupidity of Thanksgiving parade coverage.

There are the slick and soulless “personal interest stories,” which give every indication that they’re actually pre-fab slop generated by the athletes’ press agents. They’re always told in somber but ever-so-sympathetic tones against a background of soft-focus imagery and maudlin Muzak, and they yammer on about how [insert name here] overcame the trauma of breaking a fingernail at the age of seven and (and!) the death of the family dog only two years later to become the star athlete s/he is today.

There’s the unspeakable arrogance of not showing events live, and then pretending the actual competition (or ceremony, or whatever) didn’t happen hours ago. Accompanying this is the felt need to show the medal ceremonies of every American winner, and maybe two or three others over the course of the entire Olympics. If they fit.

There’s the fact that Ryan Seacrest has a job.

But last night was the topper. NBC saw fit to show us the silly Queen-jumping-out-of-the-helicopter schtik in its entirety. They dutifully cut to the stupid footage of Mr. Bean driving alongside the famous beachside run from “Chariots of Fire.” (Cute bit for about a third as long as it lasted.) They showed us the entrance of every nation’s delegation, burbling something vaguely irrelevant about each. They talked over everything, even—to be fair—providing useful context or commentary on two or three occasions: an eventuality I ascribe to the give-enough-monkeys-enough-typewriters phenomenon. (Side note: do the monkeys in question use PCs, now?)

In short, they did what they do best: 1). show ‘splosions, 2). babble, 3). think it’s about them. All this is standard fare from NBC. Their thoroughgoing incompetence at Olympic coverage has manifested itself for years. We’ve become accustomed to having the airtime dedicated to actual competition, let alone live competition, dwindle every time out to the point at which it is merely a sidebar to the real coverage, which is listening to the talking heads and PR flacks do their thing.

And yet, last night NBC managed to top themselves for arrogance, for incompetence, and for dishonesty. I’ll let them slide on the whole pretending-that-was-actually-the-Queen-paragliding-into-the-stadium thing, although NPR’s Linda Holmes gets points for her commentary: “Come now. There is playing along, and then there is clapping for Tinkerbell in the middle of a news event.” NBC even get a partial pass on their unaccountable inability to admit that they were showing events we’d already seen (or could have, if we’d chosen to): the whole “while we were away” and “this will be all over the internet within minutes” nonsense. Anyone stupid enough to think this was happening live probably deserves to be fooled. (It’s still unprofessional, of course, but listing all the ways NBC fits that description would take more time than I have—I’ve gotta catch a plane in four days, after all.)

No, this time they decided not to show us the transitional moment in mid-show, the tribute to those who died on 7/7 (England’s 9/11) and a somber recognition of all those causes—war, terrorism—which separate us rather than bring us together. Instead, we got an insipid interview by the terminally vapid Seacrest with the most over-hyped (and boring) athlete in Olympic history, Michael Phelps. And they didn’t even bother to tell us what they were up to. This is, in a word, dishonest. When They Make Me Tsar ©, whoever made that decision would be fired on the spot, and NBC would not be allowed to as much as bid on a future Olympics until Bob Costas has been dead for a decade.

There are several repercussions to this disastrous decision. In artistic terms, it defamed Danny Boyle, the director of the opening ceremonies, by making it appear that he didn’t know enough to alter the mood of the festivities. Variations in rhythm, in tempo, and in intensity are the stuff of directing—that’s why they get discussed in every Beginning Directing text on the planet. What we saw was all about loud, all about technological gimmickry, all about splash and trash. Furthermore, the edited-out sequence provided a link from the past to the future in historical terms, as well. My wife and I were talking last night about how strange it seemed that World War II and the Blitz were absent from Boyle’s historical odyssey. Ah, but they weren’t. The “war dead” motif included them, although still not as much as I would have hoped and expected. That NBC took it upon themselves to radically undermine Boyle’s overall vision without as much as acknowledging that they were showing us their version of a greatest hits show is unconscionable.

Moreover, whereas the purpose of this blog piece is not to comment on the artistic merits of individual moments, I must say I really enjoyed the missing number (screengrab above), which featured choreography by Akram Khan and a downtempo version of “Abide with Me” by Scottish singer Emeli Sandé. Here’s the link, Gentle Reader: decide for yourself. Whether the moment was “the best part of the whole ceremony,” or you believe Khan is “the most accomplished and fascinating choreographer working today,” as an English theatre friend said on my Facebook page when I posted the link, is a matter of personal opinion. It is undeniable, however, that this is a significant work by two significant artists (Sandé is no slouch, either, although less to my taste). There had better be a reason to cut something like this from the coverage of the opening ceremony. There wasn’t.

Finally, there is the undeniable insult to our English hosts. This is the country whose monarch ordered the Star-Spangled Banner played at Buckingham Palace in the wake of 9/11, the country that has been our ally in every major skirmish since the War of 1812 ended, the country that had just taken offense (rightly or wrongly) at comments by the guy who could become our next President… and when they want to mark a moment in their recent history at their Olympics, some asswipe at NBC says “no, we’re not going to show that in the US”? “Appalling” and “contemptible” are insufficient words.

Seriously: why? There is nothing controversial about the politics of the piece: commemorating the deaths of the innocent is practically de rigeur at such events. NBC cheerfully showed the part of the ceremony in which the National Health Service was recognized as one of the most significant advances in British history (complete with the shocked exclamation that “they are actually proud of it,” or words to that effect). Bob Costas went on a riff about the IOC’s refusal to include a moment of silence to remember the Israeli athletes and coaches killed at the Munich Games 40 years ago. So it’s not political… or if it is, Curmie is just too dim-witted to comprehend.

The only explanation I can find is that someone at NBC likes ‘splosions, likes loud, and thinks that we really need to see another interview involving two people for whom I’d long since lost tolerance. That was just insulting, NBC.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s the whole idea of presenting the part as if it’s the whole. NBC has come under fire before for actively disguising the tape-delayed nature of much of its Olympics coverage. And we’re long since inured to the idea that the only people we’ll see in most of the coverage of, say, diving, will meet one of three criteria: they’re American, they medaled (or nearly did), or they got hurt.

But this, somehow, is worse. Maybe it’s just that I’m a lot better artist than athlete, but I do think that it’s less problematic to show only the highlights of an athletic competition—the SportsCenter version, as it were—than to edit out pieces of an artistic work. More importantly, however, no one believes they saw the whole game in the 45-second recap. We did, I did, think the entirety of the opening ceremonies, other than the hurried-past entrance of the national delegations of countries NBC figured we don’t care about, had been presented to us. With all that stuff that obviously wasn’t live being shown to us, it never occurred to me that we weren’t seeing what was happening live. (Note: “live” in this construction means relative to the people in the stadium; none of it, of course, was live to us.)

I should know better: know better than to think a multi-billion-dollar corporation is capable of upholding professional standards, know better than to think NBC isn’t going to micro-manage their coverage to show us only what the suits want us to see, know better than to believe that any network (it isn’t just NBC, although they’re as bad as any, and they’re handy right now) has the slightest comprehension of when to act like an entertainment company and when to act like journalists.

Now I know. More than anything, I know enough to wonder what significant information NBC is choosing to withhold from us next time. And the time after that, and the time after that, and…

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mitt Romney’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

To say that Mitt Romney would rather forget the last couple of days is like saying that Chick-fil-A isn’t likely to be catering a lot of gay weddings in the near future.

Let’s see… there was the inane (both ethically and politically) comment by an aide that Governor Romney was better able than President Obama to understand the special relationship between the UK and the US because he’s white “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special. The White House didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.”

Then there was the interview with NBC’s Brian Williams. Asked about his impressions about whether “they [the London authorities] look ready,” Romney responded:
You know, it’s hard to know just how well it will turn out. There are a few things that were disconcerting: the stories about the private security firm not having enough people, the supposed strike of the immigration and customs officials. That, obviously, is not something which is encouraging. Because in the Games—there are three parts that make Games successful. Number 1, of course, are the athletes: that’s what overwhelmingly the Games are about. Number 2 are the volunteers: and they’ll have great volunteers here. But Number 3 are the people of the country: do they come together and celebrate the Olympic moment? And that’s something which we only find out once the Games actually begin.
These comments got the locals pretty peeved, and Romney endured snark from Prime Minister David Cameron (“We are holding an Olympic Games in one of the busiest, most active, bustling cities anywhere in the world. Of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.”) and public humiliation by London Mayor Boris Johnson (“There's a guy called Mitt Romney who wants to know whether we're ready. Are we ready?”).

Plus, of course, the notoriously puerile British press got their collective skivvies in a twist, with the likes of the not-exactly-leftist Mail’s James Chapman tweeting merrily along, using the hashtags #romneyshambles (a play on the “omnishambles,” an apparently trendy British version of SNAFU) and #mitthitsthefan, and dropping such lines as these:
Diplomacy Romney style: casts doubt on Britain’s Olympic preparations; says last thing he wants is for US to be like Europe. Way to go Mitt!

Serious dismay in Whitehall at Romney debut. ‘Worse than Sarah Palin.’ ‘Total car crash’. Two of the kinder verdicts.

Another verdict from one Romney meeting: ‘Apparently devoid of charm, warmth, humour or sincerity’
Oh, and let’s see what else: he took questions from the British press but not from American journalists, may have forgotten the name of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, referred to the back garden of #10 Downing Street as the “back-side,” and revealed what should have been an ultra-private meeting with the head of M16.

He couldn’t have done much worse if he’d referred to the Queen as “the crazy old bat with the funny hats.” As a means of proving that Governor Romney has the gravitas to be President, this was something less than an unqualified success.

Does he deserve the public thrashing he’s now receiving? Some. Not all. Yes, the whole “Anglo-Saxon” thing qualifies as stupid, boorish, and offensive. But it was an aide, not the candidate, and if the campaign was a little slow to get ahead of the story, at least they managed to get out a statement that distanced Governor Romney from something some idiot on the staff said to a reporter (perhaps the staffer didn’t understand that writers for the higher-end British papers, unlike the overwhelming majority of their American counterparts, are actually good at their jobs).

“Back-side” was a slip of the tongue, and no one should get more than a short-term snicker out of it. Ducking the American press was petulant, but I’m guessing he regrets it now, given how he’s been treated by the fourth estate east of the Atlantic. Referring to Miliband as “Mr. Leader” didn’t seem odd to me until the British press chortled about it. Knowing that the meeting was going to occur, someone on Team Romney needed to check protocols to prevent their guy from becoming a walking joke. But I’m afraid I can’t get too worked up over it.

True, even acknowledging a meeting with M16 is a lapse worthy of Scooter Libby. The idea that a spy chief would meet with a mere candidate for office—not even a President-elect—is troubling for the British. That Romney can’t keep his mouth shut when he wants to strut his self-importance: that’s troubling on this side of the Atlantic, as well. But it’s not as if Governor Romney had described the substance of the conversation.

The real furor, of course, came in response to 2002 Salt Lake City CEO Romney’s comments about the Olympics. OK, I love my British friends, and I detest Mitt Romney with every fiber of my being. That said, the controversy over Romney’s remarks to Brian Williams is largely attributable to British authorities’ getting righteously indignant over the idea that there might be problems with their arrogant, inefficient, and venal supervision of the Games. Then the British press went jingoistic in an older sibling sort of way: we’ll beat them up, but you can’t.

Mr. Romney said three things that got him in trouble: 1). We don’t know yet how things will turn out. True statement. Next. 2). Stories about a private security firm not having enough people and customs workers going on strike are “disconcerting.” You mean they aren’t? 3). It remains to be seen whether the British people will rally around the games. Another true statement. Sure, Boris Johnson can attract a crowd in the upper 5-figures to a patriotism-fest on a beautiful day. But the significant traffic problems before the games even begin, the absurd security provisions, the nauseating capitulation to every whim of corporate sponsors, the scheduling that prevents some athletes from attending the opening ceremonies… all these things and more suggest that the average Londoner will be very happy to see the end of the Games.

Certainly, everyone—and I do mean everyone I talked to in London when I was last there, in January 2011, looked forward to the Olympics with far more disgust and trepidation than pride and anticipation. All that could change, of course: which was Governor Romney’s point. We don’t know.

OK, fine, as both a de facto representative of this country and as a former Olympic executive himself, Mr. Romney would have been well served to have been a little more positive: “there have been some problems attributable to the world economy, and there are always unforeseen eventualities, but I have every confidence blahdeeblahblahblah…” But I’m afraid I can’t get terribly upset when Governor Romney finally answered a direct question with a direct answer, even if the clearly scripted response wasn’t as diplomatic as it might have been.

And even if a few hyper-sensitive souls in England got butt-hurt in the first degree.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Jerks and Liars: Updates on Recent Stories

A quick follow-up to stories from just the past couple of days.

On Friday I wrote about some of the responses, good and bad, to the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. In my description of how little we knew at the time (not that we’re much more enlightened now), I said that James Holmes “was apparently reclusive, and his mother is on record saying she’s not surprised by his actions: ‘You have the right person,’ she says.” Turns out we didn’t even know that, or not for sure, anyway.

Now Arlene Holmes, through a lawyer, is disputing ABC News’s characterization of her remarks. Here’s her statement:
I was awakened by a call from a reporter by ABC on July 20 about 5:45 in the morning. I did not know anything about a shooting in Aurora at that time. He asked if I was Arlene Holmes and if my son was James Holmes who lives in Aurora, Colorado. I answered yes, you have the right person. I was referring to myself.

I asked him to tell me why he was calling and he told me about a shooting in Aurora. He asked for a comment. I told him I could not comment because I did not know if the person he was talking about was my son, and I would need to find out.
ABC News is standing by its story that producer Matthew Mosk had indeed called her at 5:45 a.m. California time, but that the conversation had gone the way it was described on air on Friday.

Two things are clear. 1). Mosk is an asshole. I don’t care how important you think your “need to know” is, or how much you want to scoop the other guy, you don’t call a mother in the middle of the night to tell her that her son is a mass murderer and ask if she’d like to comment. Not unless you’re the police. Period. End of discussion. 2). Somebody’s lying. Is it the news agency that’s already had to apologize once for the unprofessional musings of Brian Ross? Or is it the shocked mother, who might have realized a little too late that a). she was further incriminating her son and b). she didn’t look too good, either, if she suspected a propensity for violence and did nothing to stop it?

I don’t know, and neither does anyone else other than Ms. Holmes and Mr. Mosk, as there’s no recording of the conversation. But the phrasing has gnawed at me since the beginning. “You have the right person” sure seems to support Holmes’s story over Mosk’s. Had the interview gone the way Mosk says it did, the much more probable response would have been “They [the police] have the right man [“person” is generally used only when the gender isn’t clear].” Am I guessing? You bet. But I’ll give you 10 to 1 on this one.

I doubt that we’ll ever know for sure, but even the likelihood that ABC butchered the story again and are now frantically engaged in ass-covering doesn’t look good.

On Saturday, in my piece on the silliness of using these events to ban costumes, I also wrote, “whether the Aurora theatre will be sued remains to be seen—if that emergency exit door was literally propped open, as some news reports have suggested (and we all know how accurate they’ve been throughout this process, right?), then maybe they deserve it.”

Well, someone is indeed about to sue the theatre. And Warner Brothers. And Holmes’s doctors. And the company that made Holmes’s breakfast cereal. OK, I made the last one up. Unfortunately, not the rest. One Torrence Brown, Jr., who wasn’t hurt in the incident, has nonetheless hired a shyster named Donald Karpel because the bad man made him cry he is now suffering from extreme trauma.

OK, it might be possible that the movie theatre is liable if they didn’t take appropriate precautions to secure the door through which Holmes entered. Maybe. But the plaintiff in such a case would have some serious ‘splainin’ to do. The rest of it? Unmitigated feces. “The Dark Knight Rises” is a violent film? No shit? And little Mr. Brown didn’t know that? Karpel says Holmes “partially mimicked” the violence of the film he interrupted. Maybe. But I checked out all the official previews of the film, and not a one of them shows anything remotely like what happened in Colorado. Since the film premiered that night (that was the whole point of the midnight show, after all), no one could have predicted any similarity that did exist… except in the sense that pretty much all action movies trot out the same schtik with minor variations. In other words, Karpel is full of crap. But you knew that.

Finally on the “Dark Knight” front is news that Christian Bale really did visit shooting victims at the Medical Center of Aurora. I had written, of course, that the Internet solicitation of him to do so was unethical. I still believe that, and I still think his appearance will be regarded by many (including me) as a publicity stunt to attract more press for the movie, whether Warner Brothers said he wasn’t there to represent the movie or not.

The good news is that his visits were actually few in number (only seven victims—presumably those whose recovery wouldn’t be adversely affected by his presence, plus first responders, hospital staff, etc.), he didn’t concentrate on seeing kids, and he wasn’t in costume. The bad news is that we now established further precedent that celebrities can be summoned forth by every pushy fan with a “cool” idea.

And so on to the other recent story. I wrote Saturday, also, about two stories involving Chick-fil-A: the publicizing of the company’s anti-gay rights campaigns, and the unethical attempts by Boston Mayor Thomas M. Mennino to keep them out of his city.

And, the pendulum has swung back. After an announcement by the Jim Henson Company that they would be suspending future relations with Chick-fil-A over gay rights issues, the food chain has gone hard-core into sour grapes. The sign shown here was reportedly displayed at the Chick-fil-A outlet in the Shops at Willow Bend in Plano, Texas. The image was splashed all over my Facebook feed this afternoon. I must confess, I thought it was a fake. The coincidence was too neat, the safety issue so manifestly nonsense, and the “children getting their fingers stuck in the holes of the puppets” too conveniently a vulgar joke. Apparently, however, it’s real.

If so, then yes, they really are that stupid. And yes, this ultra-Christian company is a little too ready to, you know, bear false witness. They claim to have withdrawn the Henson toys in question as of July 19, but no I can find no indication that they made any such move prior to today, July 24, oh so coincidentally a couple of days after the Henson company ended their relationship. Chick-fil-A is acting like the junior high kid who doesn’t want to admit to having been dumped. Trouble is, they’re supposed to be proud of their sanctimony. That’s not working out so well.

OK: I doubt that anyone from Chick-fil-A will ever read this, but in case you do… I disagree with you as profoundly as it is possible to do about gay rights, but I support your right to do with your corporate profits whatever you choose, so long as you’re not breaking any laws. This does not, however, extend to getting into a snit about a failed business partnership and lying about the cause of your petulance, de facto libeling a reputable company. I don’t claim to be omniscient, however: show me any credible evidence that the “voluntary withdrawal” of Henson toys, supposedly ordered as of last Thursday, in fact existed before Henson ended their relationship with you, and I’ll apologize loudly and abjectly. Fail to do so, however, and I will continue to regard you not merely as theological hypocrites, but also as plain old garden-variety liars.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The NCAA and Penn State: A Contrarian View (you expected otherwise?)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my best friends is an administrator at Penn State University. He had nothing to do with any of the current turmoil—he wasn’t there yet when Jerry Sandusky was roaming the sidelines and the showers—but it falls to him and others like him, people who didn’t look the other way, to clean up the mess. I don’t think this influences what I’m about to say, but I mention it in the interest of full disclosure.

This morning the National Collegiate Athletic Association laid down “staggering” sanctions against Penn State, and online polls are asking if they were severe enough. Yes, there is an option to say that the scandal is none of the NCAA’s freaking business (absolutely true, but—of course—chosen by less than a quarter of respondents), but if you just want to say the penalties were too harsh, you’re out of luck. Glad the media have decided for us how we should respond.

The sanctions include a fine of $60 million (plus loss of Big 10 bowl revenues, another $13 million)[EDIT: It turns out the denial of Bowl proceeds was a Big 10 decision, not an NCAA decision. Apologies for the error.], all of which money will go to non-Penn State-related programs to prevent child sexual abuse; vacating all of Joe Paterno’s wins since 1999, dropping him from 1st to 5th on the list of winningest coaches; a four-year ban on post-season play; and the ability of any player, including recruits who haven’t played a down, to transfer to another school and play immediately, without the normal one-year wait. There are those who think the penalty will be more crippling to the future of the Penn State football program than the “death penalty”—a complete suspension of the program for a specified period of time—would have been.

Of course, there’s considerable debate—and not just from NCAA skeptics like me—about whether the NCAA has any jurisdiction in this case whatsoever. Their job—at which they fail rather spectacularly—is to enforce the proverbial “level playing field,” not to play cops and robbers. But whereas at least three of the last seven Heisman Trophy winners were very likely to have been taking illegal payments or otherwise scamming the system, and multiple major universities have found to be cheating, sanctions for those schools have been insignificant in comparison.

Let me explain. I am not suggesting that players’ getting free tattoos is a worse crime than covering up for a sex offender. But it is more problematic—or should be so—to the NCAA, whose job ought to be to enforce its rules about amateurism, scholastic progress and the like, and to leave the real criminality to the police and similar authorities. Really, we’re talking about the same creeping authoritarianism that I often complain about with respect to schools, except that now we’re talking about an athletics organization that seems considerably more interested in strutting its propriety than in actually deserving the reputation it seeks.

This isn’t just me saying this, as I suggested earlier. Here’s what an ESPN article has to say:
A former Committee on Infractions chairman and current Division I Appeals Committee member told's Andy Katz on Sunday the NCAA's penalizing of an institution and program for immoral and criminal behavior also breaks new ground….

“This is unique and this kind of power has never been tested or tried,” the former chair said. “It's unprecedented to have this extensive power. This has nothing to do with the purpose of the infractions process. Nevertheless, somehow (the NCAA president and executive board) have taken it on themselves to be a commissioner and to penalize a school for improper conduct.”

The chair said that the NCAA was dealing with a case that is outside the traditional rules or violations. He said this case does not fall within the basic fundamental purpose of NCAA regulations.

“The purpose of the NCAA is to keep a level playing field among schools and to make sure they use proper methods through scholarships and et cetera,” the chair said. “This is not a case that would normally go through the process. It has nothing to do with a level playing field. It has nothing to do with whether Penn State gets advantages over other schools in recruiting or in the number of coaches or things that we normally deal with.”

The NCAA, the chair said, had never gotten involved in punishing schools for criminal behavior.

“The criminal courts are perfectly capable of handling these situations,” the former chair said. “This is a new phase and a new thing. They are getting into bad behavior that are [sic.] somehow connected to those who work in the athletic department.
Moreover, there is no way to excuse the NCAA’s blithe circumvention of their own due process procedures. It’s difficult to find much sympathy for the Paterno family, but they’re right about this, taken from their statement this morning in response to the NCAA’s announcement of the sanctions:
That the president, the athletic director and the board of trustees accepted this unprecedented action by the NCAA without requiring a full due process hearing before the Committee on Infractions is an abdication of their responsibilities.
I completely agree. Current Penn State President Rodney Erickson’s complete capitulation to the NCAA goons is, frankly, a dereliction of duty. He’s as big a craven jackass as his predecessor; it’s just the identity of the Other Guy that has changed. Paterno ran Spanier’s Penn State; the NCAA runs Erickson’s.

That ESPN article cited above also says this:
The NCAA took unprecedented measures with the decision to penalize Penn State without the due process of a Committee on Infractions hearing, bypassing a system in which it conducts its own investigations, issues a notice of allegations and then allows the university 90 days to respond before a hearing is scheduled.

After the hearing, the Infractions Committee then usually takes a minimum of six weeks, but it can take upward of a year to issue its findings.

But in the case of Penn State, the NCAA used the Freeh report—commissioned by the school's board of trustees—instead of its own investigation.
So the NCAA, in other words, is butting in where it has no business, and violating its own rules in the process. But, as they say in the infomercials, that’s not all.

Put simply, there is no way that these sanctions can avoid hurting the innocent. The sexual abuser is long gone. The coach who looked the other way is dead. The president who facilitated the cover-up was fired. True, there are probably some other folks involved who are still at the university, but my guess is that there aren’t many. I took my current job in 2001, roughly the time frame we’re talking about with respect to Penn State. There has been at least one, often more than one, change in every job up the chain of command from me: Director of the School, Dean of the College, Provost, President. No one, as far as I know, has served for more than two three-year terms as a member of the Board of Regents, and there have been several different Chairs of that body. Only one of my seven full-time departmental colleagues from that year is still here, and she came the same year I did. If we extrapolate from there to Penn State, we can only conclude that most of the guilty are gone, even if they weren’t fired.

So who is being punished? Players who came to Penn State in part for its winning tradition, but also for its squeaky-clean reputation. This wouldn’t apply to new recruits, but certainly the upperclassmen would have enrolled at Happy Valley confident that they were joining one of the most reputable programs in the country. And they were. Indeed, one could make the case that Joe Paterno was, in all things but one, a model coach. Unfortunately, that exception was a lack of moral courage when he needed it most. But spare me the sanctimony about how you (not you, Gentle Reader; you, talking head or former coach or whatever) would have reacted differently. Perhaps you would have. I know that I hope I would have… but know it? I can’t say that, and, alas, neither can anyone else.

True, the NCAA has arranged it so that players can transfer elsewhere without penalty. That would be to abandon their friends and academic programs (the NCAA is big on academics… except when it isn’t) to transfer on about two weeks’ notice before fall practice begins to a place where they don’t know the system, didn’t go to spring practice and can’t find their way around campus without a map. What’s particularly significant here is that the “good kids,” the ones the NCAA purports to care most about, are the ones most adversely affected because they’re more likely to stay at Penn State. The ones who care only about football, and they are manifold, however much the NCAA would like to pretend otherwise: they’ll transfer to some other school where football rules the university: to Alabama or Auburn or Notre Dame or Oregon or Southern California or Florida or Ohio State or… sigh.

And, of course, it’s not just the players, but the coaches who had nothing to do with the scandal, the cheerleaders and marching band who don’t get to go to a bowl game, the local businesses that won’t attract as many customers when the team loses lots of games for lots of years into the future, as now appears more likely than not. Yes, it’s inevitable that the innocent will suffer in cases like this. What’s different here is that it is almost exclusively the innocent who will do so.

One of the ironies in this case is that, in vacating all those Paterno victories (Idiot Local Sports Guy on the Radio says the NCAA “just couldn’t” allow him to be #1 in wins), the NCAA now places former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden at the head of the list for victories by an FBS (Division I) coach. Yes, that would be the same Bobby Bowden who made pious proclamations about how he loved his dear friend Joe Paterno, but the statue needed to come down. It’s also the same Bobby Bowden who ran one of the most corrupt programs in the country, whose own win total was reduced by the NCAA because he was linked to wholesale academic cheating (you know, something the NCAA actually ought to be concerned about), and who was… erm… asked to retire under yet another ethics cloud. Plug “Bobby Bowden academic scandal” into Google and you’ll get 70,000 hits; “Bobby Bowden the cheater” generates 112,000. Whew. Glad that Paterno guy isn’t topping the list anymore.

It's also worth mentioning, by the way, as Jeff Eisenberg points out:
The irony of the NCAA’s punishment is Penn State will keep nearly all its victories from the 30 years convicted child sex offender Jerry Sandusky was an assistant coach. During the years in which he served as defensive line coach, linebackers coach and defensive coordinator, Penn State amassed 309 victories, only 19 of which were vacated by the NCAA’s ruling.
Penn State will find itself settling lawsuits and paying tens of millions of dollars to those brutalized by Jerry Sandusky: and they should. With an endowment just short of $2 billion, they can afford it. As a loyal fan of the Kansas Jayhawks, who would be thrilled with a 4-8 season this year, I can also tell you that there is no God-given right to play in a Bowl game. And there really is plenty that’s good about Penn State that has nothing whatsoever to do with football; an opportunity to re-define itself as a first-rate academic institution isn’t entirely a bad thing, even if “opportunity” looks more like desperate necessity right now. They’ll be fine.

All that said, the NCAA couldn’t care less about what is fair. They are interested in two things only: their own power and their image, independent of whether they deserve it. They care more about censoring mascots than about real problems, and they care more about appearing ethical than in being so. No other organization (well, outside politics and religion, at least) could as brazenly ignore its own rules, interfere in matters where it has no legitimate interest while reeking of its own self-proclaimed piety, or exercise power simply because it can.

The NCAA, in other words, is grandstanding. In other news, water is wet.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Context Matters. Still.

One of the (to me) depressing trends in the relationship between journalism and politics is the ever-increasing Balkanization of news coverage. It is now possible for candidates for the highest offices in the country to avoid aggressive questioning by granting face time only to those who can be trusted to ask softball questions and do half your spinning for you. And, whether it’s the fault of the hosts, the producers, or the politicians, you don’t see the talking-heads shows on the left or the right with guests who won’t adhere pretty much to the host’s political philosophies. For example, the standout sequence for me in Ben Wallace-Wells’s interesting and well-written profile in Rolling Stone of liberal TV host Rachel Maddow was this:
Viewers like to see Maddow on the attack: “People want to see the home team winning.” Oftentimes, the home team is all they want to see. “If there's a Republican, you'll see all these tweets,” [TRMS producer Bill] Wolff says. “Get that Republican off my screen!”
To say things are as bad or worse at Fox News is the equivalent of noting that the sun rises in the east. (To be fair, Bill O’Reilly puts forth at least a token effort, if only to be able to outshout his “guests.”)

The result is that far too many citizens, and far too many voters bear a considerable resemblance to the folks at the left, led along by their respective mouthpieces to, ultimately, the destruction of the democratic system. Plato, writing in the world’s first great democracy, said that “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” But engagement isn’t enough (no, I’m not suggesting that Plato didn’t know that): we need to listen to opposing views, but, more importantly, we need to be honest in our appraisals. That, to be polite, isn’t happening.

I wrote last week about the Romney campaign’s willful distortion of remarks made by President Obama at a speech in Roanoke. Of course, neither side has a monopoly in this arena. No, Obama didn’t mean business owners have no claim to their own success. But neither did Governor Romney mean anything sinister by his comment that he “[likes] to fire people”: in context, he clearly is saying only that consumers ought to be able to change providers (in this case in terms of health care) if they’re not getting good service. But both the other GOP contenders at the time and Team Obama have trumpeted the out of context remarks in a cynical display of faux anti-cynicism.

True, it’s hard to put a positive spin on Ann Romney’s “we’ve given you people all you need to know” arrogance, but it’s not much worse than Michelle Obama’s “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.” (It’s “not much worse” rather than “no worse” because Mrs. Obama subsequently clarified her comments—it’s up to you, Gentle Reader, to decide whether the re-statement was either honest or sufficient; Mrs. Romney, to my knowledge, has made no attempt to sound a little less like the walking embodiment of every stereotype the 99% have about the 1%.)

And so we come to a news story by Lou Colagiovanni on under the headline ”Mitt Romney vows to ban pornography by installing a filter on every U.S. PC.” Well, if there’s anything likely to lose you votes, it’s interfering with the free flow of porn. As is the case with many such non-story stories, what is hinted at fits easily into the narrative the candidate’s opponent would like to construct: in this case, Romney the repressive moralizer.

If you look at the comments section on the Examiner site or on the Americans Against the Tea Party Facebook page, you’ll see that the general readership has fallen in line, baa-ing all the way. I can’t even pick out the most ridiculous comments, because there are so many… and so few commenters bothered to read the article, much less look at the linked video.

Notice the AATTP line, “Did you know Mitt Romney has vowed to install pornography filters on all new U.S. computers? Press ‘like’ and ‘share’ if you will not be supporting Romney and his bizarre social agenda!” And the Colagiovanni article proclaims,
In 2007 Romney exposed some of his more extreme positions while speaking during a town hall meeting in Ottumwa, Iowa at the Hotel Ottuma. One such position which Mitt rarely discloses now is his deep desire to make it mandatory for pornography filters to be added to all new computers entering The United States.

In specific Romney said, “I want to make sure every new computer sold in this country, after I'm president, has installed on it a filter to block all pornography.”
You will see here, Gentle Reader, precisely the same dishonest editing that gave us “If you’re a business owner, you didn’t build that.” If you actually watch the video linked at the side of the page (which Colagiovanni and his editors are justifiably confident that you won’t do), here’s what Governor Romney actually said:
I want to make sure we enforce our obscenity laws. And I want to make sure retailers don’t sell adult video games to kids. And I want to make sure every new computer sold in this country, after I'm president, has installed on it a filter to block all pornography, and that parents could click that filter and make sure their kids don’t see that stuff coming into their computer. [Emphasis mine.]
So what Governor Romney said in a speech five years ago wasn’t advocating censorship at all. Rather, he was taking a perfectly reasonable position that parents ought to be able to exercise some control over their kids’ computer habits. Is it naïve to think kids won’t just access their minimum daily requirement of smut elsewhere? Perhaps. But suggesting that there’s stuff on-line that you don’t want your 10-year-old seeing—and that there ought to be reasonable, voluntary means, requiring an active decision to “click that filter,” of keeping Junior from seeing it—strikes me as being a long way from an infringement on personal liberties.

Why the hysteria? Because actually bothering to find out what the “other guy” actually said takes… geez… almost a minute. Because we’re becoming increasing programmed to believe the worst of whoever it is we’re not going to vote for. Because, as we saw in the coverage of the “Dark Knight” tragedy in Colorado, being splashy at the expense of being accurate has no apparent repercussions (I didn’t hear anything about Brian Ross getting fired, did you?).

Democracy relies on an informed, thinking citizenry. It’s time to separate the sheep from the (Judas) goats.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Why “Bale Out Aurora” Is a Really Bad Idea

If you have a Facebook or Twitter account, chances are you’ve seen the post at right, musing about what a good idea it would be if “The Dark Knight Rises” star Christian Bale would visit the kids in Aurora hospitals who had been victims of James Holmes’s savagery. Oh, and in costume. I’m sure the person who came up with this idea did so with the best of intentions, and my friends who posted it are all well-meaning people. But this is—on so many levels—one of the worst ideas since John McCain picked his running mate.

I do take some consolation in the fact that I’m not the only person to think this way. The comments on a piece at Mediaite about the “Bale Out Aurora” movement are—hallelujah!—almost unanimously opposed to the idea, and for a host of very good reasons.

The first thing that came to my mind is that the very idea of a public request is little short of emotional blackmail. It is not Mr. Bale’s responsibility in any way, shape, or form. He didn’t shoot those kids. Neither as actor nor as character, much less as private human being, did he precipitate the attack. He owes his time to no one. Moreover, if he had been contemplating a gesture of some kind, his altruism is now ignored: it is the idiot tweeter, not he, who gets credit. That’s unfair at best, unethical at worst.

I read somewhere that he’s currently in Europe… kind of a long commute to Colorado. But frankly, it doesn’t matter if he lives across the street. I don’t care why he doesn’t go to Aurora (assuming he doesn’t). Maybe he doesn’t like mountains. Maybe he gets hives visiting hospitals. Maybe, OMG!, he just doesn’t want to go. It’s tacky to decide what someone else—even a celebrity—ought to do with his own time and money.

But the idea that he would be “a Hero right now, not a movie hero, a real flesh and blood one” is ludicrous. You want a hero? How about the first responders? The best Bale could do would be to be a guy in a Batman suit. That’s a damned sight short of any kind of hero in my book. Perhaps… perhaps out of costume, as a movie star, he could bring a little joy. But I’m pretty sure that a guy in a black costume, his face hidden by a mask, is not exactly what these kids need to be seeing right now. The last time they saw that, it didn’t turn out so well.

I will grant that any little kids who got shot need a hero, because their parents aren’t filling the bill. If I might quote from “Norman_Conquest” on the Mediaite comments, “‘Dark Knight’ isn’t a kids movie. Whoever took pre-teen children to that movie, esp. at midnight, is too stupid to breathe. (I don't care if it's legal.)” The phrasing might be a little crass, given the fact that some of those parents may, in fact, no longer be breathing, but the sentiment is right on target. Still, it isn’t the kids’ fault that their parents are irresponsible jackasses. That means that the rest of us have to look out for their well-being: and that means not subjecting them to unnecessary stress right now. It means they need to heal, and the last thing they need is some publicity stunt that will be seen by many, quite legitimately, as an attempt to leverage this horrific event into more press for the film.

Other commenters noted that Bale is notoriously volatile: not exactly the best characteristic for someone in this situation. It’s clear that he feels responsible in some irrational way—a variation on survivor’s guilt. His statement to the victims and their families was only two sentences long: “Words cannot express the horror that I feel. I cannot begin to truly understand the pain and grief of the victims and their loved ones, but my heart goes out to them.” Don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing him in the slightest. But he needs distance and time before he’s even going to be in the position of offering real solace or diversion.

I completely understand both the urge to do something—anything—to help and the frustration at our collective impotence to make things right again. I even get it that it might be “cool” if Christian Bale, completely of his own volition, volunteered to make an appearance, to sign autographs, whatever. But expecting him to do something specific just because you think it would be a good idea: nope.

If you want to help, make a donation to a local Aurora charity. Give blood. Pray, if you are religious. But the fate of those injured and of the families of those killed is now in the hands of real heroes, everyday heroes—doctors and nurses, clergy and grief counselors. Comic book heroes are never going to transcend their medium. Movie stars are all well and good, but their place in this saga is later, if at all. Christian Bale should not be trotted out like a dancing pony just because someone in the Twittersphere thinks he should be.

Only a Politician Could Make Me Side with Chick-fil-A

I used to eat lunch at Chick-fil-A maybe three times a month. I don’t, now. Part of the reason is that I found out about their position on gay rights, but I’d be lying if I said that the fact that their outlet isn’t as accessible as it used to be prior to renovations in our University Center didn’t play a role, too. Still, I’ve passed on plenty of opportunities in recent months to grab a sandwich from them—in airports, in malls, and such. I’m not adamant about it: I don’t recall having been to a Chick-fil-A in a couple of years, but I freely admit that I might have, and I don’t actively discourage anyone else from patronizing their outlets: after all, they make a pretty good chicken sandwich.

Part of my rationale, of course, is that my one-man protest isn’t going to make even a fraction of a dent in Chick-fil-A’s bottom line. This is the same reasoning by which I didn’t make a big deal out of boycotting General Mills when they starting bullying a small Utah bakery or Target when they made a series of questionable political contributions. The other part of the reasoning is that if I were to refuse to deal with any corporation with whom I disagree, profoundly, on at least one political or ethical issue, I’d have to hole up in a cave somewhere without mass-produced clothes, a cell phone, packaged food, and a whole lot of other things I kind of like having as part of my life. You pick your battles. I don’t go to Chick-fil-A if I can help it, but that decision is ultimately more about making me feel morally superior than about denying them profits.

Anyway, Chick-fil-A has been in the news twice in recent days. The first time was when CEO Dan Cathy (left) told K. Allan Blume of Baptist Press that his corporation is “guilty as charged” of contributing to a host of anti-equality causes… of course, it was written up as “supporting the traditional family,” but everyone on both sides of the issue knew exactly what he meant.

Here’s the rationale:
We are very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.

We operate as a family business ... our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that.

We intend to stay the course. We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.
The statement is rife with the kind of code words we have come to expect: “biblical definition of the family unit,” for example, seems to omit, oh, say, Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines. This kind of selective enforcement carries over into the corporation’s practices, too: “there are a couple of passages in Deuteronomy that could be interpreted as opposing homosexuality, so we’ll give millions of dollars to deny the right to marry to a few million Americans. But that part of the same book that forbids eating pork products (that would be Deuteronomy 14:8, for those of you following along at home)… well, that clearly doesn’t apply to our bacon, egg and cheese biscuit.” And I bet they don’t spend millions trying to keep people from eating shrimp (Leviticus 11:9-12) or getting tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), either.

Ultimately, though, I can’t get too exorcised about this. Cathy is just another in a long list of pseudo-Christian hypocrites who select the Biblical passages that suit their prejudices and ignore the rest. It’s not the process of selection that’s the problem, of course: forcing a rape victim to marry her assailant (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) isn’t something any of the real Christians I know would condone, let alone command. Rather, it’s the ultra-pious strutting that annoys me. But, as I said earlier, it would be tough to survive if we didn’t ultimately do business with a company run by a pompous fraud. And, to be fair, at least we know where Chick-fil-A stands… in a post-Citizens United world, that company you like so much could be dropping millions into the campaign coffers of the Michele Bachmanns of the world, for all you know.

So… story #2, considerably less publicized, at least in the venues I frequent. I admit to coming late to this party: two of my favorite bloggers, Ken at Popehat and Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, have already weighed in on this. And I agree with them both, so there’s not a lot of new argumentation here… I just think it’s important that I should talk about this.

It seems that Chick-fil-A wants to expand into Boston, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino isn’t having any of it:
Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.

That’s the Freedom Trail. That’s where it all started right here. And we’re not going to have a company, Chick-fil-A or whatever the hell the name is, on our Freedom Trail.
Typical politician’s bluster, right? Well, actually, no. Menino then goes Full Blagojevich in terms of self-importance: “If they need licenses in the city, it will be very difficult—unless they open up their policies.”

Yeah, well, no. When Northeastern students kept Chick-fil-A off their campus, they did so by convincing their administration that the chicken chain’s “charitable” contributions run counter to the goals of the university (including, one surmises, a lack of on-campus disturbances). But that’s a citizen protest affecting a private university’s decisions. I have no problems with that: indeed, I endorse it. When Menino stopped Wal-Mart from moving into Roxbury, the opposition was crafted in terms of Wal-Mart’s actual corporate culture. This is shaky ground, but at least reasonable.

Threatening to withhold licensing on the basis of what the corporation does with its charities, absent any evidence of criminal discrimination towards gay employees or customers, however, is no different than, in another jurisdiction, withholding a building permit for a mosque because the mayor doesn’t like Muslims.

Ken pretty well nails it:
I haven't seen any evidence that Chick-Fil-A discriminates in hiring or service. Rather, they give money to a cause I despise, one that promotes social discrimination. But the government doesn't get to pick and choose what social causes are permissible, and any government actor who aspires to that power is a lowlife thug. What's particularly alarming about Menino’s thuggery is how openly his referencing to licensing “difficulties” reveals how things really work in government: whatever rights you think that you have, practically speaking some bureaucrat can punish you for exercising them on a whim, and there's very little you can do about it. Menino represents the ethos of government actors who think quite frankly that this is right and just and how it should be—that they, our masters, should be able to dictate what we think and do and say if we want to do business in their fiefdom.

Menino could use his bully pulpit to call on Bostonians to reject Chick-Fil-A if they come to town. He could call for social opprobrium on Chick-Fil-A and its affiliates and even on its patrons. He could organize protests and marches and letter-writing campaigns. He could carry a sign in front of Chick-Fil-A saying “BE LES BIGOT” if it opens. [I love this, by the way.] But if he says he’ll use the coercive power of government to retaliate against Chick-Fil-A for views he doesn’t like, he’s totalitarian. If you support him because you agree with him (and with me) that Chick-Fil-A’s stance on gays is worthy of condemnation, then you’re a damned fool, and don’t let me catch you whining if some other government actor retaliates against an individual or business because of a political stance you like.
Ken is more libertarian than I, and his anathema to government intrusion is therefore more foregrounded. But Menino’s belief that he has the right to keep Chick-fil-A out not because they’re predatory and exploitative (cf., Walmart) but because he doesn’t like the CEO’s socio-politics? What’s next? Denying a license to a grocery store because they plan to sell products made by companies owned by the Koch brothers? I’m with Ken.

I’m reminded of the time I met Harland Sanders, legendary founder of Chick-fil-A’s competitor, KFC. It took him 15 seconds to prove to me that he was the most smug and self-satisfied racist I’ve ever encountered face to face. What Sanders was to race, Cathy is to sexual orientation. I’m not going to buy a whole lot of their respective products [yes, I know, Sanders is long deceased and sold the company before his death]… but partly that’s because there’s a Raising Cane’s practically right across the street from my office. Love me some chicken fingers.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Dressing Up as Batman and the Nanny Society

When I first read Noah Rothman’s piece at Mediaite and watched the video of “world famous” forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden predicting that movie theatres will now, in the wake of the horrific events in Aurora, forbid customers to show up in costume, my first thought is that when the blonde du jour (in this case Anna Kooiman) on “Fox and Friends” is the most intelligent person in a conversation, it’s time to a). become a hermit, b). move to… hell… anywhere else, or c). plan a really great party, for the apocalypse is surely upon us.

But if we give the pompous Baden the benefit of the doubt, assuming he’s merely predicting this stupidity rather than cheerleading for it (although I very much suspect the latter), then maybe we should give him credit for his prognosticating prowess: a news report suggests AMC Theatres have already dutifully pledged that movie-goers will be forbidden to enjoy themselves may not bring costumes or props into the theatres (countdown until they start selling this stuff in the lobby, like the $3 bottles of water just the other side of airport security: 3… 2… 1…).

This is a remarkably stupid, not to mention illogical and craven, policy. The fact that one incident occurred in one theatre on one night suddenly sends these guys scampering for cover. It’s frankly even more sickening than the post-9/11 orgy of over-compensation: the PATRIOT Act, ridiculous rules about air travel, and the like. Nearly seven years ago, when it was revealed that two-year-olds were being kept off flights because their names were similar to those of someone on the no-fly list, I wrote this:
Ultimately, we need look no further if we seek concrete evidence that in this particular arena, if the expression might be forgiven, the terrorists have won. Shortly after September 11, there was a spate of bumper stickers and t-shirts with pictures of the American flag, sporting the cut-line, “These colors don't run.” Perhaps not, but we have, as a culture, abandoned liberty for self-imposed repression, reasonable deliberation for tail-chasing, and deliberate caution for hysterical panic... all because of fear. Those colors might not be running, but their tail is between their legs and they're cowering in the corner.
I’m reminded of that today as movie theatres scurry to cover their respective asses.

What makes this worse than the post-9/11 hysteria is this: at least some of the provisions of some of the 9/11 response was at least relevant in a closing-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-was-gone sort of way: forbidding box-cutters, strengthening cabin doors, really looking at IDs—had some of these precautions been in place 11 years ago, the date September 11 might have no further resonance for me than that five of my Facebook friends have birthdays on that day.

What is being proposed here, however, solves an imaginary problem that has never actually played out in real life… or at least it didn’t at the showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado. James Holmes didn’t buy a ticket and schlep in his cache of weaponry past the popcorn stand and the ushers. He found a way to come in through an emergency exit (having propped it open? kicking it in?). His “costume,” for want of a better term, may have served to protect him if anyone in the audience fired back (they didn’t), but was otherwise a non-factor.

You can carry a gun into a movie theatre in a pocket, much less a purse or a backpack. And you can get a gun, as we’ve just been reminded again, even if you’re a pancake short of a grand slam breakfast, if you know what I mean. But no, that would take all the fun out of over-reacting.

To be fair to AMC, they are not in fact banning costumes, although they had originally said they would prohibit “costumes that make other guests feel uncomfortable.” A later statement clarifies:
Contrary to media reports, costumes are not banned, but we will not admit guests with face-concealing masks and we will not allow fake weapons in the buildings. We want all our guests to feel comfortable at our theatres and we will be closely monitoring.
The company is also stepping up security measures in ways they quite reasonably don’t want to enumerate in detail. That’s a lot less problematic, but it’s still a knee-jerk reaction. What’s the big deal about a face-concealing mask, for example? (I’m OK with the fake weapons thing, although simply having an usher check them out would be a better solution in my mind.)

I have no idea if other theatres will adopt measures similar to AMCs, or possibly even more stringent measures. I hope not, but I understand the caution in legal terms even if not otherwise: whether the Aurora theatre will be sued remains to be seen—if that emergency exit door was literally propped open, as some news reports have suggested (and we all know how accurate they’ve been throughout this process, right?), then maybe they deserve it. But if one side of the political spectrum wants a “nanny state,” the other side seems pretty fond of a “nanny society,” in which it’s the companies, not the government, that tell us what we can and can’t do. Forgive me if I don’t see a difference.

There is, of course, a danger in not responding to new stimuli, and the danger of copy-cat gunmen cannot be discounted, especially over the next few days. But the far greater danger, it seems to me, is the continuing erosion of personal liberties. Yes, you’re safer if you capitulate to The Man (whichever form He happens to be taking): don’t text and drive, no smoking, fasten your seat belt… but also, no water bottles on the airplane, no alcohol on the beach, no broomsticks at the Harry Potter movie. Huxley was wrong: it’s a Craven New World.

On the plus side, I did come across this: in my own state of Texas, Dallas Morning News editor Britton Peele takes on the no-costumes madness:
Having been to a few midnight premieres myself (and many other “nerdy” events besides), I’ve seen more than my fair share of costume armor, weapons, guns and what have you. Some venues are more strict than others (most aren’t cool with real swords being part of a costume, for example, but some are OK with fake guns as long as they’re of the Nerf variety), but you still see plenty of unusual apparel. Why think twice about a guy in a mask when you’re sitting next to a scrawny Batman who’s eating a big bucket of popcorn?

So should that stop? Are we making it too easy for a threat to go unnoticed? Are we making it difficult for police to hunt down, “A man with a mask and armor” in a crowd full of costumes?

My answer, personally, is an unequivocal “no.”
And, on the other side of the metroplex, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History not only isn’t discouraging patrons from dressing up for “The Dark Knight Rises” at the Omni Theater, they’re giving a 10% discount to those who dress in costume. I have no interest in seeing the film (certainly not now, probably not ever), but it would almost be worth it to make movie-going an event again.

There are times when anarchy is good, when the Dionysian must trump the Apollonian. This is one of those times.

Responding to Aurora: Doing It Wrong and Doing It Right

By the time you read this, Gentle Reader, we may know something of the demographic profile, and/or the motives of James Holmes, the suspect (a.k.a. he did it) in last night’s shooting at the midnight showing of the new Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” in Aurora, Colorado. As I write this, however, it would be claiming more knowledge than we have to say that details are sketchy.

It appears that Holmes (left) was in the process of dropping out of the medical school at the University of Colorado. He was described in the by now all-too-familiar “quiet and easy-going” terms that tend to be trotted out post facto in these cases. He was apparently reclusive, and his mother is on record saying she’s not surprised by his actions: “You have the right person,” she says. He had access to weapons and protective devices and knew how to use them; apparently he was also able to rig a sophisticated booby trap in his apartment. Oh, and he painted his hair red out of some sort of metaphysical kinship with the Joker. That’s it.

That is the sum total of what we—meaning the public—know as I write this (I keep checking back with news sites in case there might be more). Authorities may have acquired more insights by now, but they haven’t yet released any additional information, and it is still far too soon to be upset by that. There were also unconfirmed reports—that one of Holmes’s weapons was an assault rifle, for example. (EDIT: This is now confirmed, by the way.) So I am going to adopt a novel approach, apparently unknown to politicians, pundits and journalists alike: I’m not going to speculate. Yeah, I know. Crazy, right?

One of the first Facebook posts I saw on this story was introduced by the page-owner who posted it by linking Holmes to the militia movement. Thankfully (I guess), that post has since been taken down—and, alas, I’ve forgotten which site it was or I’d happily embarrass them here. There is still a full-throated allegation (not a whiff of corroboration that I can find) that Holmes is linked to the Black Bloc and, possibly (?) by extension (?) to the Occupy movement.

More disturbingly, because from someone regarded as a journalist, there was this utterly irresponsible speculation by ABC’s Brian Ross:
There’s a Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado, page on the Colorado Tea Party site as well, talking about him joining the Tea Party last year. Now, we don’t know if this is the same Jim Holmes. But it’s Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado.
What!?! You’re going on national television with this?

Four years ago, I was returning from a Study Abroad trip to Dublin and London with 14 students in tow. I was stopped by Homeland Security and trotted off to a room in the airport that looked like a cross between a classroom and a hospital waiting room. After a delay of 20 minutes or so, during which time I was told to “stand over there” and subsequently to sit down, and during which time I was asked nary a question, I was released. When I asked if this was now going to become a common occurrence, I was told, “I don’t know. You have a common name.” OK—I’ll leave off the exegesis on how my first and last name might be common, even in combination, but a not terribly common middle name and a suffix (I’m a “III”), not to mention a passport number, ought to narrow the field a little. Fact is, yes, there are a lot of folks out there with a name a whole lot like mine: there are six listed in the phone book in my city of 30,000 or so.

Same goes for James Holmes. If you’re even going to mention this bit of information without something substantive to suggest this is the Jim Holmes you’re talking about, you’re not a journalist; you’re a gossip. But even Ross’s glaring lapse of judgment could have been attributed in part to “heat of the moment”; not so Alan Colmes, who posted the “story” on his website under the headline “ABC News Links Colorado Shooter To Tea Party.” No. No, they didn’t. Ross may have crossed the line, but he didn’t pretend to have found a link, just a possible one. Moreover, the story is still up on, without correction, over five hours after ABC apologized for the bad reporting.

I’m going to leave aside the all-too-predictable back-and-forth that these horrific events always engender about gun control: “See? This is what happens when it becomes too easy to get guns and tear gas and… and… and…” “No, this is what happens when no one in the audience had a gun to defend themselves with.” “Yeah, firing at a shadowy figure in a crowd of panicking people in a dark, smoked-filled room: that’s safe.” And on and on.

Nor do I want to talk except apophasistically about the notorious Erick Erickson tweet that “I bet it wasn’t the Lutherans” who perpetrated the killings in Norway last year. You see, ol’ Erick would have lost that bet… sort of.

Rather, I turn to the equally inevitable “they asked for it” drivel that spews from fundamentalist preachers and idiot Congressmen. The shooter wasn’t some messed-up guy with (probably) indiscernible motives… no, this heartbreaking turn of events was caused by the fact that “we have been at war with the very pillars, the very foundations of this country.” Except for the whole Founding-Fathers-not-being-all-that-religious thing, this is a good argument. Actually, no, strike that. This country could have been created by religious zealots, and this kind of argumentation would still be stupid.

The quotation above—yeah, that’s Curmie’s very own Congresscritter, the ever-embarrassing Louis Gohmert. Representative Gohmert “kind of [likes] his [i.e., God’s] protective hand being present.” This is a reasonable enough statement of religious faith, but very strange under the circumstances, don’t you think? I suspect there are a few families in Colorado right now wondering about what happened to God’s protection.

But let’s not veer off into theological discussions. What matters here is that we find out happened before we fully articulate our response. Authorities seem to have ruled out Islamic terrorism. Good. But that leaves us with 50 million minus 1 possible motives. Too much of what passes for political thought today consists of forming a conclusion and then fashioning a “truthy” scaffolding to try to support it. It really does work better to start with the facts.

Conversely, I am more than a little re-assured that both contenders for the Presidency handled this situation well. Policy differences matter, but only if the less formal but no less important ceremonial functions are also performed. In situations like this, the President is indeed the Mourner in Chief, and Mr. Obama nailed it. Here’s most of his remarks:
We’re still gathering all the facts about what happened in Aurora, but what we do know is that the police have one suspect in custody. And the federal government stands ready to do whatever is necessary to bring whoever is responsible for this heinous crime to justice. (Applause.) And we will take every step possible to ensure the safety of all of our people.

We're going to stand by our neighbors in Colorado during this extraordinarily difficult time. And I had a chance to speak with the Mayor of Aurora as well as the Governor of Colorado to express, not just on behalf of Michelle and myself, but the entire American family, how heartbroken we are.

Now, even as we learn how this happened and who’s responsible, we may never understand what leads anybody to terrorize their fellow human beings like this. Such violence, such evil is senseless. It’s beyond reason. But while we will never know fully what causes somebody to take the life of another, we do know what makes life worth living. The people we lost in Aurora loved and they were loved. They were mothers and fathers; they were husbands and wives; sisters and brothers; sons and daughters, friends and neighbors. They had hopes for the future and they had dreams that were not yet fulfilled.

And if there’s anything to take away from this tragedy it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious. And what matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives. Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another. (Applause.)

It's what we do on a daily basis to give our lives meaning and to give our lives purpose. That’s what matters. At the end of the day, what we’ll remember will be those we loved and what we did for others. That’s why we’re here.

I’m sure that many of you who are parents here had the same reaction that I did when I heard this news. My daughters go to the movies. What if Malia and Sasha had been at the theater, as so many of our kids do every day? Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I’m sure you will do the same with your children. But for those parents who may not be so lucky, we have to embrace them and let them know we will be there for them as a nation.

So, again, I am so grateful that all of you are here. I am so moved by your support. But there are going to be other days for politics. This, I think, is a day for prayer and reflection.

So what I’d ask everybody to do, I’d like us to pause in a moment of silence for the victims of this terrible tragedy, for the people who knew them and loved them, for those who are still struggling to recover, and for all the victims of less publicized acts of violence that plague our communities every single day. So if everybody can just take a moment.

(Moment of silence.)

Thank you, everybody. I hope all of you will keep the people of Aurora in your hearts and minds today. May the Lord bring them comfort and healing in hard days to come.
Governor Romney did well, too. I couldn’t find a complete transcript of his remarks, but here’s the video; some highlights follow:
Our hearts break with the sadness of this unspeakable tragedy. Ann and I join the President and First Lady, and all Americans, in offering our deepest condolences for those whose lives were shattered in a few moments, a few moments of evil, in Colorado….

Today we feel not only a sense of grief but perhaps also of helplessness. But there is something we can do. We can offer comfort to someone near us who is suffering or heavy-laden….

Grieving and worried families in Aurora are surrounded by love today, and not just by those that are with them and holding them in their arms. They can also know they’re being lifted up in prayer by people in every part of our great nation. Now and in the hard days to come, may every one of them feel the sympathy of our whole nation and the comfort of a living God.

There will be justice for those responsible, but that’s another matter for another day. Today is a moment to grieve and to remember, to reach out and to help, to appreciate our blessings in life.

Each one of us will hold our kids a little closer, linger a bit longer with a colleague or a neighbor, reach out to a family member or friend. We’ll all spend a little less time thinking about the worries of our day and more time wondering about how to help those who are in need of compassion most. The answer is, that we can come together; we will show our fellow citizens the good heart of the America we know and love.
Well done, sir.

Don’t worry, Gentle Reader, Curmie isn’t going to go all soft and fuzzy on you. But one of the functions of the Presidency is to be an appropriate voice of calm reassurance in times of sorrow, to represent us all in our cumulative grief. Both men passed with flying colors today. No “bring it” belligerence; no partisan jabs about gun control or whatever; no assumption of “facts” we don’t really know. I’ll never vote for one of them, and I’ll hold my nose voting for the other, but today they both did us proud.

The fact is, Gentle Reader, this guy Holmes doesn’t represent me even if we’d vote for the same person or worship at the same church. If he turns out to be an atheist, that doesn’t mean that atheists are the problem, any more (or less) than Baptists are the problem if that’s what he is. His politics can be from the left, right, or center, and he doesn’t represent any of the good people some of whose views he shares. Even if he had help, he’s a lone wolf. Our society lives on, saddened but intrepid.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

3C and The Right to Parody

Playbill reports that an Off-Broadway production of 3C, a new play by David Adjmi, ran afoul of lawyers for DLT Entertainment, the company that owns the long-defunct television series “Three’s Company.”

Really, all you have to do to see what has DLT’s communal skivvies in a twist is to look at the publicity shots by Joan Marcus on the Playbill website (one of them shown here). I doubt that I ever watched an entire episode of “Three’s Company,” but anyone who was around in the ‘70s and had even the slightest interest in popular culture knew the premise, the central characters, and the style simply by social osmosis. And what we see in the 3C photos looks pretty familiar.

The “cease and desist” order enumerated some 17 similarities between the old TV series and Adjmi’s play, including such high-tone observations as “Connie is sexy and jiggles just like Chrissy.” Yes, really, at least according to an open letter from the theatre community penned by playwright/screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz.

Adjmi estimates that he made a total of perhaps $2500 from the five-week run of his show, which according to the producers “received some wonderful reviews and played to sold-out houses.” He didn’t think he could afford legal representation, so although he never signed anything or returned the information demanded by Kenyon & Kenyon (the DLT lawyers), he also didn’t think it possible to extend the run of the show past its scheduled closing date.

But here’s the thing. Similarities or no, DLT has no case. None. Zero. Bupkes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’re developing a stage version of the series (God help us) and 3C “damages” their property. Blah-de-blah-de-blah-blah-blah. First thought: what really damages the property (the Three’s Company stageplay) is the fact that it’s based on the “Three’s Company” series which, let’s face it, sucked.

Secondly, whereas there are clearly overlaps between the two shows, they go in totally different directions. Here’s Baitz:
Yes, David's play satirically invokes the sitcom in question as a template upon which to de-construct the mores and tropes of that time. It is clearly and patently and unremittingly parody, to the extent that it depends on Three's Company’s 1970s attitudes towards sexual relations, etc., in order to slyly examine the underlying brutality and bigotry attendant to American popular culture of that era. (And since then). The critical response to the play has generally acknowledged 3-C's exploration of the essential aloneness of the characters, and the toxic suffering they endure. Mr Adjmi's intentions are not to replicate Three's Company, but clearly and patently to mutate it into something dark and frightening, savage even.
More significantly still, parody is protected speech. That’s why there are shows like Dog Sees God or Forbidden Broadway. This fundamental interpretation of the 1st Amendment runs through the entire history of American jurisprudence. If Hustler can get away with their vicious attack on Jerry Falwell (a fake ad of the televangelist apparently having a drunken sexual affair with his mother in an outhouse), David Adjmi can put a big-breasted bubblehead in his play. (Does DLT really think that character was original with “Three’s Company”?)

The Dramatists Guild also points out that:
…the right of authors to make fair comment on pre-existing work (whether through parody or other forms of fair use) is a First Amendment safety valve in the copyright law, and one we wholeheartedly support, as do the courts. If the author contacts us, we will discuss the issue with him and see how we can help.
Note what Adjmi is doing isn’t like, say, the Wooster Group’s wholesale appropriation of the actual playscript of The Crucible for their production of L.S.D. (Just the High Points). It would be disingenuous to suggest that audiences for 3C aren’t supposed to make the connection to the television series. That said, the aesthetic intentions involved are radically different.

Remember, too, that a work need not even be specifically determined as parody to be protected. Such was the case, for example, in a copyright infringement case regarding Alice Randall’s novel The Wind Done Gone which uses Gone with the Wind in much the same way as 3C uses “Three’s Company”: to problematize attitudes once taken for granted. As Kyonzte Hughes writes on the First Amendment Center’s webpage:
Applying the elements of fair use, the appeals court recognized that Randall’s work was made for a commercial purpose. However, the court said that this factor was “strongly overshadowed and outweighed in view of its highly transformative use” of Gone With the Wind.

“Randall’s literary goal is to explode the romantic, idealized portrait of the antebellum South during and after the Civil War,” the appeals court wrote.

The appeals court also determined that the Mitchell estate had failed to show evidence that Randall’s book would harm the market value of Gone With the Wind’s derivative works or take away market demand for Mitchell’s book.

A concurring judge even pointed out that Randall’s book may “act as complement to, rather than a substitute for Gone With the Wind and its potential derivatives. The judge reasoned that readers of The Wind Done Gone “may want to refresh their recollections of the original.”
Kenyon & Kenyon is, pure and simple, engaging in legalistic bullying. This might not technically be a SLAPP suit (which would be illegal in New York), but it’s certainly a first cousin. DLT is doing this because they can, not because they are really stupid enough to think they could win if the case ever went to trial. “No one has ever heard of David Adjmi; let’s push him around a little.”

What DLT doesn’t understand—because they’re in this only for financial gain and perhaps a little self-importance—is that no matter how much we theatre types are inevitably in competition with each other, it’s rare indeed when we don’t take care of our own. David Adjmi, they might be able to take on. But not Jon Robin Baitz, Andre Bishop (Lincoln Center Artistic Director), Tony Kushner, Stephen Sondheim, Terrence McNally, John Guare, John Patrick Shanley, Jose Rivera, Craig Lucas, Jim Nicola (Artistic Director, NY Theatre Workshop), Terry Kinney (co-founder, Steppenwolf Theatre Company), Stephen Adley Guirgis, and nearly three dozen other signatories to Baitz’s letter: and that was before it really went “public” to the rest of us in the profession. Curmie has already added his name—for what little good it might do—to the quickly-growing list.

Would I like Mr. Adjmi’s play? Perhaps not. But Baitz answers that argument, too:
Whether one appreciates the work or not is immaterial; the principle at stake here is a basic one. Specious and spurious legal bullying of artists should be vigorously opposed, and that opposition must begin first and foremost with all of us in the New York Theatre community.
Preach it, JRB.