Sunday, July 15, 2012

An Enemy of the People and the Montana Grizzlies

The first play by Henrik Ibsen (pictured at left) I ever read wasn’t A Doll House, which is probably most people’s introduction to the great Norwegian playwright. Nor was it Hedda Gabler or Ghosts, generally acknowledged today to be, respectively, his best and most important plays. My first Ibsen play was An Enemy of the People; I read it in a college class on Political Ideals as an example of traditional conservatism.

The central character, Dr. Stockmann, discovers that his town’s spa has become polluted, so the hitherto health-giving waters are now in fact poisoning the clientele. At first, local businessmen are grateful to the doctor for his discovery, but that’s before he proposes that the only solution is to shut down the baths until appropriate repairs can be made: a process involving both time and money the burghers don’t want to spend. After all, the waters are central to the town’s economic life, and those bacteria the doctor is complaining about are so small you can’t even see them: how much harm could they do?

Dr. Stockmann becomes a pariah, an “enemy of the people,” to coin a phrase. He bellows that “the majority is always wrong,” and promises to continue his fight even as merchants refuse to serve his family and rocks crash through the windows of his house. Stockmann was presented to those of us in Government 5 as the quintessential conservative for his single-mindedness, his quest for truth, and his refusal to capitulate simply because his was a minority opinion.

This essay isn’t about how far the term “conservative” has migrated from its erstwhile moorings, but rather to observe that Dr. Stockmann was, above all else, a man who believed in the power of truth, in the supremacy of safety over expediency. Needless to say, Dr. Stockmann was not an educational administrator.

In the wake of the Freeh report on the goings-on at Penn State, at which a known pedophile was allowed to continue to claim young boys as victims because it might have embarrassed the university and especially its vaunted and allegedly irreproachable football program to stop him, we get more reports of the same sort of transgressions happening elsewhere: at a high school an hour and a half away, and at a university whose dominance in FCS (a.k.a., Division I-AA) football actually surpasses that of Penn State in the FBS (Division I).

Well, that’s technically not true. The scandal at the University of Montana was already making headlines in the New York Times several weeks before the Freeh report was released; I just hadn’t heard about it until reading Jack Marshall’s trenchant commentary on the topic. The basic story line—one or more members of a school’s most cherished sports team commit felonies; administration does back flips to cover it up—is depressingly familiar. But there’s always a detail or two in which some idiot administrator goes one step beyond the idiocy anyone else anywhere had yet achieved.

Now, to be fair, the Good Ol’ Boy incompetence of Montana officials stretches across all areas of sexual assault, not simply those multiple cases involving members of the football team. Indeed, the most outrageous in a lengthy list of horrifyingly bone-headed moves by Vice President Jim Foley was not, apparently in an athlete-related case. Foley, hearing that a UM student had spoken publicly about having been raped and about the university’s somewhat less than stellar response, sought to punish her. In an e-mail to then Dean of Student Charles Couture, Foley demanded, “Is it not a violation of the student code of conduct for the woman to be publicly talking about the process and providing details about the conclusion?”

In another case, Couture apparently “repeatedly” warned a student, a Saudi national, that he had been accused of sexual assault. Before the actual police had been notified, the man fled to his homeland. This… erm… problematic response was then hailed by university president Royce Engstrom as “timely” and “appropriate” because “We can let people know we have dealt with these (alleged assaults) and that particular perpetrator is gone.” Yeah, well, I’m guessing that maybe the victims would have preferred that you’d done your freaking job, notified the police before de facto suggesting that the perp flee the jurisdiction, and set a precedent of prosecution rather than enabling the flight of a felon.

But we can always return to the staples of such stories: rapes by jocks. What’s your preference, Gentle Reader? The story about Foley’s objecting to the term “gang rape” when a woman was forcibly raped by four football players and an accomplice because the university’s preferred term is “date rape”? These asshats would call it a group hug if they thought they could get away with it. Couture may not have handled the other case very well, but to his credit he replied to Foley’s snot-gram by saying that he’d called it gang rape “because that’s what it was.”

Or Foley’s decision, in the words of Gwen Florio of The Missoulian,
… to delay releasing UM’s final report on the sexual allegations for fear it would coincide with a scheduled hearing on a restraining order filed against Grizzlies quarterback Jordan Johnson, accusing him of sexual assault. “I would prefer to not send this out on that day for the same news cycle the following day,” Foley wrote.
Or the fact that even when the administration, including deans and directors, was urged to attend a webinar entitled “Sexual Assault and Crime on Campus: What Higher Education Leaders Need to Know,” sponsored by the National Association of College and University Attorneys, the university legal counsel suggested that “we’ll be lucky” to fill a room that can accommodate two dozen people? Engstrom couldn’t go, and his designated surrogate skipped it, explaining in an e-mail that her day was “too crazy” to get away.

President Engstrom professed himself “surprised” that the US Department of Justice launched an investigation, which makes him one of the most easily confounded adults in the history of the universe. In all, just in the New York Times article by Jim Robbins, there are references to nine (!) different football players (unless, perhaps, one or more overlap across incidents) implicated in sexual assault since December 2010; that figure doesn’t count the one convicted of biting a woman (the Athletic Director showed photographs of the bite mark to reporters in an attempt to convince them that the bite “was not that serious”). Of course, “implicated” doesn’t mean “convicted.” Sexual assault cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, especially if university officials, police, and prosecutors have no particular interest in either finding the truth or punishing the guilty.

[Note: for much of the next three paragraphs, I’m quoting or paraphrasing myself in a comment on Jack Marshall’s Ethics Alarms blog, linked above.]

There is, seemingly even more so today than a generation ago, a virtually endemic de-valuing of rape and sexual assault as an issue. The usual excuses (“she was asking for it,” “boys will be boys,” and variations on the theme) get trotted out. The same “blame the victim” mentality comes into play. More problematically (because seemingly more innocently), public relations concerns trump safety (just as Ibsen said the bourgeois mindset would do). We don’t want to make it seem as if an incident is anything but an isolated event, an aberration, an anomaly. There is prudence in this thinking. There is also denial.

I was talking with one of my students a couple days ago about the “training” she has to go through to be able to be a counselor for our high school camp. This “training” consists of watching a stupid video and answering a couple of questions that anyone with a brain could answer without the video, in part because the answer is always the one that most suggests that there’s a problem. Such exercises are met with contempt by students because they deserve to be.

I contrasted this with the training I received 20 years or so ago on rape crisis intervention. This was a 4-day event that contained real information, real strategies, real approaches. Was it worth it? Well, I’ve only used that training three times in 20 years… but I’ve used it three times. That’s me: a middle-aged male whose persona is hardly that of the traditional nurturer. Imagine how many more young women are more comfortable with a female confidante… or, worse yet, don’t talk to anyone. There’s still a stigma attached to being a rape victim, and if the rapist happens to be popular—or worse yet, a star quarterback or something like that—then accusing him brings incalculable social risks to the accuser… and there’s certainly no guarantee of justice at the end of it all.

When a school like the University of Montana fires its football coach and athletic director after the team went 11-3 and made it to the national semi-finals, there’s something up. Maybe that has something to do with an encomium from then-coach Robin Pfugrad about his star quarterback who just happened to be a rape suspect, describing Jordan Johnson’s “tremendous moral fiber.” Look, innocent until proven guilty and all, but just say that “he’s a member of the team until the judicial process runs its course and we’re happy to have a player of his skills on our side of the ball” or something similarly innocuous. Praising a rapist—which Johnson quite likely is, although perhaps it can’t be proved—is tacky, even by football coach standards.

There’s little wonder that there’s a widespread belief that 1). sexual assault is not being treated very seriously in Missoula—not by the university and not by the local police, 2). the looking the other way is especially pronounced when football players are involved, and 3). the intervention of the DOJ is not merely appropriate but necessary.

Conservatism, this is not. Ibsen is scowling. Of course, he always did. Maybe the prospect of a Curmie nomination for the fine folk at UM will cheer him up? Nah, probably not.

1 comment:

Rabid Liberal said...

Ibsen will never smile (metaphorically or otherwise!), but nominate 'em anyway :)