Saturday, September 29, 2012

FLOHPA, Romney, and the Imminent Dusk

Conventional wisdom has it that whichever Presidential candidate wins two out of three of Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania is really likely to win the election. In fact, the last candidate to win the Presidency without winning FLOHPA was named John F. Kennedy.

This is not good news for Mitt Romney. The numbers will vary a little from day to day, but as I write this, Nate Silver is predicting all three states for President Obama, with likelihoods of 97% in Pennsylvania, 83% in Ohio, and 68% in Florida. Those aren’t close. If Obama wins every state where Silver gives him an 80% chance, he wins. If he wins every state Silver says he’s got better than a 2/3 chance, he gets 329 electoral votes. He’s closer to winning North Carolina (39%) than to losing Florida (68%), his weakest current win.

But the news gets worse for the challenger: there are remarkably few undecided voters. This isn’t to say that it’s impossible for Governor Romney to make a comeback, but he needs help. Even a series of excellent debate performances is unlikely to be enough. Obama needs to do something stupid, either in the debates or in his job, per se. And Romney needs to avoid the foot-in-mouth performances of recent weeks. Good luck with that, Mitt.

Here’s the thing: Huffington Post’s analysis of a host of polling data gives Obama over 50% in Pennsylvania. That means that a fair number of people who have already made up their minds will have to actually change their minds if Romney is to win the state. In Ohio, it’s currently 49-43; Florida is 49-45. That means that if no one currently intending to vote for the incumbent actually switches sides, Pennsylvania is off the table, and Romney would need to win 88% of the undecideds to take Ohio, and 83% to win Florida. The chances of that happening: well, certainly extant, but not great. The Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS News poll (shown above): well, it’s all over but the shouting.

Of course, it is possible to lose two out of three of the trio of battleground states with the most electoral votes and still pull out the election. If President Obama were to win only those states HuffPo describes as “Strong Obama,” he’d win Pennsylvania and Ohio and lose the election, with 265 electoral votes. By HuffPo’s calculus, there are seven states that will decide the election: if Obama wins New Hampshire, he’s guaranteed at least a tie; if he wins any of the others—Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia—with or without New Hampshire, he wins a second term. Of these, Obama currently leads in all but North Carolina… actually, he leads there, too, but by a miniscule margin well within the margin of error. Obama is currently running at 49% in five of the swing states, 48% in one, and 47% in the other. Romney has a 47, five 45s, and a 44.

Talking Points Memo tells an equally if not more grim story for the challenger, with Obama currently at 49.9% in Pennsylvania and 49.8% in the other two FLOHPA states. Romney needs over 99% of undecideds in the Keystone State, 97% in Ohio, and 96% of Floridians. That’s a Herculean task for a candidate who isn’t exactly playing the game flawlessly.

True, there’s the Rasmussen poll, the most right-leaning survey that anyone takes even a little seriously. But even that gives Obama 237 “safe” electoral votes to 181 for Romney, with 15 votes leaning towards Romney and 105 toss-ups. 76 of the 105 show Obama with a lead. In other words, if the Rasmussen poll were precisely accurate (and it has traditionally over-estimated Republicans), Obama would cruise to a comfortable 313-225 victory.

It’s no wonder the Romney team is clinging to fictions about polling samples and such. According to this silliness, Romney in fact has a comfortable lead. Look, Rasmussen (!) has it 313-225 for Obama, albeit with some of that margin a little uncertain. The Fox News (!) poll has Obama/Biden with a 5-point lead nationally. I can’t find a state-by-state analysis from them, but their overall polling fits right in with everyone else’s, all of which show Obama with a small-to-moderate, not insurmountable, lead. The NBC/Wall Street Journal (!) poll gives the President a five-point lead among registered voters and a six-point lead among likely voters. Everyone… well, virtually everyone, agrees.

If you need a dentist or a plumber or a mechanic, you go to a professional. We can argue about which one is best, but when every single one of them tells you that you need a root canal or a new toilet or a carburetor, I really don’t care what your friend Bob down the street says, especially if he’s a restaurant manager or a football coach or an insurance salesman. Things could change in this election; they have in the past. John Kerry made a late run, for example, although it turned out to be not quite enough. But to say that Romney is currently ahead by 6-10 points is lunacy. Period.

This whole affair does fit remarkably well with recent trends in Republican thinking, however. They don’t trust economists about the economy, scientists about science, teachers about teaching. And whereas the Pentagon has certainly earned our distrust over the years, there are those Congressional buffoons (cough… cough… Paul Ryan… cough) who accuse the military brass of lying when they say they need less money down the road. So it’s no wonder they don’t trust professional pollsters, either. Many things that used to be true have been turned on their head in the last half-generation of politics; foremost among them: Republican recognition of the notion that experts know whereof they speak. But global climate change really exists, teaching to the test doesn’t really educate our children, and waterboarding really is a war crime… and it doesn’t matter what the preachers and the political hacks have to say about it.

Still, it’s a minority of the GOP that gives this particular silliness any credibility. Even the chronically if not acutely moronic Erick Erickson gets this one right. Sure, he’s skeptical that his guy is as far behind as the polls say he is, and it’s easier to rally the troops for a close race than for one in which your candidate is getting crushed. But his commentary leaves no doubt that whereas he may be guilty of a little wishful thinking, he’s not in the tin-foil hat brigade on this one:
I do not believe the polls are all wrong. I do not believe there is some intentional, orchestrated campaign to suppress the GOP vote by showing Mitt Romney losing. I actually believe that Mitt Romney trails Barack Obama. I think Republicans putting their hopes in the polls all being wrong is foolish.
I do understand Republicans’ frustration. After all, Obama ought to be eminently beatable, and the GOP chose the most electable of their bevy of second-teamers… well, not counting Jon Huntsman, who is actually a grown-up, but who, predictably, was gone by February. Of course, we’ve been here before, in the other direction. George W. Bush’s first term was even worse than Obama’s, but the Dems chose the “electable” John Kerry, a stinking rich Massachusetts pol who, unlike his primary opposition, didn’t have much in the way of core values. And they lost. Perhaps, Gentle Reader, you might notice something interesting about that description.

We’re left with two major points. 1). This race has shifted, largely because of Mitt Romney’s ineptness, from being about the incumbent’s record to being about what an utter disaster the challenger is. That’s good news for Mr. Obama. 2). It isn’t over. That’s good news—the only good news—for Mr. Romney. I unabashedly steal the closing reference from a piece by Jason Linkins and Elyse Siegel on the Huffington Post: for the Romney campaign, to quote Bob Dylan, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

Friday, September 28, 2012

Mitt Romney and the 47% Comments

I got a few hundred words written about the two Presidential candidates’ responses to the situation at the American Consulate in Benghazi earlier this month (well, that incident in particular among several). On the one hand, we had the Obama administration’s absurd claim that the crisis was created, or at least catalyzed, by a hack movie-maker whose amateurish effort had been on-line for months. On the other hand was the incompetent and narcissistic posturing of Candidate Romney, whose allegations, even had they been true (which, of course, they weren’t: this is Mitt Romney we’re talking about, after all) would have been ill-timed, ill-considered, un-presidential, and dangerous.

Before I had a chance to finish, however, came The Leak. You know the one: about how Romney can’t win the support of 47% of the population because they don’t pay taxes. A friend posted a status on his Facebook page: “So...after Mitt's Libya debacle last week, and the now-famous ‘secret tape’ release on anybody else wondering what David Axelrod's gonna do with his third wish?” Yeah, pretty much. The scary thing is that this revelation had virtually no effect on Romney’s prospects: the bottom line is that independent voters (by which I include myself, along with other members of either party who are honestly willing to consider a candidate from across the aisle) 1). have largely already made up their minds, and 2). are voting for either Not Obama or Not Romney.

Stated otherwise, the fact that Nate Silver still gives Governor Romney a reasonable chance of winning in November (albeit that chance dropped from better than 1 in 5 to less than 1 in 6 in the couple of days it took me to write this piece) is attributable almost in its entirety to President Obama rather than to the GOP nominee himself. Obama’s positive/negative ratings throughout the campaign season—dating back to last November—have been largely even or negative… until recently, when those of us with cynical dispositions might be thinking not so much about his performance per se as how he compares to the other guy who wants the job.

Somewhat predictably, the President’s lowest ratings (42/50) occurred in December, when the posse of Republican candidates were all making headlines with their own spin on why the country was circling the bowl. The bad news for the Romney campaign—other than the fact that their candidate is Mitt Romney—is that Obama now has not merely an overall positive rating (50/44), but that for two consecutive weeks he’s hit the 50% plateau, where he hadn’t been for a very long time. Yes, the timing corresponds to that of the Democratic convention, so there’s probably a bump from that: his favorables went up 6 and his unfavorables down 3 during convention week. By contrast, Obama took a two-point favorability dip during the GOP convention—but there was no increase in his unfavorability rating, and Romney gained virtually no ground as a result.

What all this means is that Romney’s only hope is to keep the attention on Obama. I’m not sure I agree with Peggy Noonan that this is a year in which “Republicans couldn’t lose” (but are losing), but I think there’s no question that there is (or at least was) a greater opening for a GOP challenger now than there was 12 years ago, when George W. Bush was nonetheless elected. (And to my friends on the left who think Bush and his minions “stole” that election: it shouldn’t have been close enough to steal. Shut up and move on.)

Obama has had some successes that we can all agree on: the fact that Osama bin Laden and Muammar Qaddafi aren’t around anymore is a good thing. We can argue about how much credit should go to Obama, and about the downsides of those successes (further strained relationships with Pakistan, for example) but those are certainly victories that happened on his watch. The American automobile industry is in better shape now than in many years. Still, whereas many of us are glad DADT is a thing of the past, Obama’s leadership on the issue made him as many enemies as friends. Same for the Affordable Care Act, and for, in fact, the majority of what I and others might think of as accomplishments.

Moreover, the left is unsatisfied. I’m no Socialist (although I confess that I am somewhat disappointed that I have yet to be called one by an idiot right-winger), but the fact that a single-payer health system was never on the table even as a bargaining chip boggles my mind. Guantánamo is still open; DOMA is still the law of the land; Obama’s Iraq and Afghanistan policies are virtually indistinguishable from Bush’s.

More fundamentally, whereas Romney is surely disingenuous in many of his attacks on Obama’s policies—he’s hardly the first candidate to run against an incumbent with that strategy—there are some things that aren’t so good right now, and about which we can all agree. The unemployment rate, especially for minorities, and the deficit are unacceptably high. Yeah, yeah, I know: the GOP-led House won’t pass any jobs bills, and they are petulantly refusing to do what any rational person would do and raise taxes. They claim their Infallible Leader is Ronald Reagan, but it’s really Grover Norquist. I get all that, and I agree with the overwhelming majority of it. But the sign on Truman’s desk didn’t read “The buck stops with the Speaker of the House.”

Luckily for the Obama campaign, Romney is nothing if not hubristic. All he had to do following the events in Benghazi, for example, was to do precisely what he did after the shootings in Aurora: express condolences and look serious. “Much as I disagree with President Obama on many issues, I trust that all Americans blahdeblahblahblah…” Then, wait a few hours and do an interview where you’ll surely be asked about the situation. Respond by starting with sympathy and then allow as how the situation might possibly be avoided, and that you hope the rumors you’re hearing turn out to be false. Nope. He had to get out there with a statement that was rightfully interpreted as an attempt to score political points off a tragedy. Way too soon, and way too inaccurate. By the way, is anyone else a little bemused by those who grudgingly admit the “apology” was issued well before the attack, but whine that it was not taken down soon enough afterwards… after all, it’s not like those folks had anything else on their minds but updating their fucking website, right?

But, revenons à nos moutons. The Leak. Let’s stipulate two things: 1). the tape was attained through inappropriate means, and 2). what candidates—all candidates—say to supporters would probably shock and appall most of us. But this isn’t a law court. There is no evidence that the tape was edited, nor have I seen any claims from the Romney camp that it was. In other words, whereas making and distributing the tape was unethical by those who did so, using it as a means of learning more about candidate Romney by the rest of us is thoroughly reasonable.

So here’s the transcript of that now-(in)famous section:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Sigh. I mean, really, where to begin?
With the fact that people who pay no federal income tax still pay taxes: state and local taxes, including the notoriously regressive sales tax, property taxes (directly or indirectly: if you don’t own your home, your rent pays for the landlord’s taxes); the also regressive payroll tax (I’d say “don’t get me started on this one,” but it’s too late); various excise taxes; etc.?

With the recognition that the 47% in question is comprised substantially of active duty service personnel, students working to pay their way through school, the elderly? With the intriguing statistic that 96% of Americans (including, say, Paul Ryan) have received direct government assistance? (That’s not counting things like roads and schools and police: things from which all of us benefit.)

With the fact that the states with the highest percentage of folks not paying federal income tax are overwhelmingly red? Of the 14 states with the highest rates of non-payers, Romney will win 11, including the top 3, even in the event of an Obama blowout.

With the blithe and condescending portrayal of half the population as self-described victims unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their lives?

Or is it with the face-melting chutzpah that suggests that Romney will somehow win over 94% of the remaining 53% in order to win? Those are Josef Stalin numbers.
The claims in Romney’s speech are, in short, substantively preposterous and politically inept: not merely because, as Meghan McCain (among others) points out, you’ve got to assume that there’s a camera-toting mole somewhere in your operation, but more importantly because you’re begging for money to help you win and essentially conceding defeat at the same time. It almost makes it worse that there’s a legitimate observation under all the camel dung of Romney’s rhetoric: too many people don’t pay federal income tax, because our wealth is so unevenly distributed that nearly half the population doesn’t make enough money to have to do so.

The fact that Romney is making political arguments I disagree with will shock you, Gentle Reader, precisely as much as my suggestion that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. But that he would be this utterly incompetent as a candidate is really mind-boggling. Because here’s the deal: either Romney actually believes the drivel he’s spewing (possible, but unlikely), or he thinks his audience doesn’t know any better (really insulting to a carefully selected hoity-toity crowd), or there’s a nudge-nudge-wink-wink schtik happening here, with the candidate and his (imminent) donors engaging in a rather disturbing coded intercourse (a term I choose quite consciously) replete with disingenuous claims which are actively twisted into a particularly nasty truthiness. I’m not sure which of these scenaria is the most disturbing.

Mitt Romney is an arrogant buffoon, a self-entitled jerk, and a pathological liar. And even after all that has become obvious to anyone paying even a modicum of attention, he’s still got about a 1 in 6 chance of becoming the leader of the free world. Not the biggest endorsement of Mr. Obama, is it?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Breast-Feeding Brouhaha

Among the pieces I want to write over the next couple of weeks are several nominations for the 2012 Curmie Award for educator most embarrassing to the profession. But one thing I’ve noticed is that relatively few nominees are people like me, i.e. college faculty. There are teachers, but they tend to work at the elementary or secondary level; there are people who work at universities, but they tend to be administrators. Whether this phenomenon is a function of college faculty actually being less profoundly stupid than others in the education field, or of less media coverage of their transgressions, or of my own biases, I cannot state with confidence.

What I can say is that we now have a nominee who is indeed a faculty member: Adrienne Pine (right), an assistant professor of anthropology at American University. She is now at the center of a minor kerfuffle after breastfeeding her daughter in front of her Sex, Gender and Culture class… no, not as a subject for discussion, but rather as a matter of course, or at least of exigency. Contacted by a writer for the student newspaper, she first responded to an e-mail inquiry, then got snotty in a face-to-face interview. She first asked the school paper not to publish the article. The editor offered her anonymity, at least, saying the editorial board hadn’t yet decided whether to proceed with publication. She asked him to “hide [her] name”… and then proceeded to identify herself in an article on the Counterpunch website.

Her piece was subsequently described by a supporter as “pedantic and needlessly defensive,” with “garbled and unconvincing arguments about why she breast-feeds.” I’d be a little more blunt. Her often incoherent screed is even more pompous than it is illogical, and that’s a pretty high threshold. She can trot out commentary about “a slippery slope of biological determinism” or “gendered essentialism” or similar jargon-laden gibberish, but she seems incapable of either saying “no comment” or understanding the way any journalistic operation works. She’s all about liberal principles, but don’t dare call her “Ms.” instead of “Dr.”: that’s a gendered derogation, apparently, even coming from another woman. I’m not exactly sure what it means, then, when my students call me “Mr.” (For those who don’t know me personally, I’m a professor with a PhD.)

I found about about this incident from Lela Davidson’s piece on the Today Moms page on the NBC News site. Knowing I wasn’t going to have time to write up my commentary immediately, I forwarded the link to Jack Marshall of Ethics Alarms, suspecting (with reason, as it turns out) that 1). he’d be interested, 2). he’d get to it before I would, and 3). his take would be very similar to mine.

I yield to both these writers on a number of matters. Here’s Davidson on one of the central considerations:
This is not about breast-feeding. It’s a matter of professionalism. And, yes, sometimes we all have to make very difficult choices between our families and our jobs. The truth is Pine’s daughter could have waited until after class to eat. Had she not been ill, she would have been in childcare during class, presumably either being bottle-fed or not eating.
Oh, yeah. But I’d suggest that this story both is and is not about breast-feeding. The real transgression was bringing a sick child to class at all. The daughter is too sick to go to day-care, but it’s OK to drag her into class, where her presence is at best a distraction, and where she is likely to infect students? (Note: Pine herself said she “caught and improved upon [her] baby’s cold.” Translation: the girl was contagious.) And don’t give me the “no other choice” nonsense. Of course there were other choices. If the TA can’t handle syllabus-distribution day, get another TA. There are friends and colleagues who can look after the kid for less than an hour. Or hire a student to keep her out of trouble: after all, a student had to alert Pine that the girl had a paper clip in her mouth, meaning that the attempt to parent and teach simultaneously wasn’t exactly going so well. Were I of a snarky disposition (perish the thought!), I might note that years of intensive study have shown exactly what processes lead to the whole baby-having thing, and that doing so is a choice.

In virtually any other profession, this situation would simply not happen. Imagine an ill infant trotted along by a Walmart cashier, a bank teller, a defense attorney… a high school teacher, for that matter. Babies do not belong in the workplace, period. I should note that it is fine to have the child in your office when you’re preparing the next day’s lecture or whatever, but in the actual public performance of your professional duties, I expect you to devote yourself to the task at hand: teach or be a mom, but you can’t do both at once. I’d also note that if you’re really afraid that missing the first day of class because of a sick child will imperil your tenure chances, you need to find a new employer ASAP: you’re either looking for an excuse for your imminent failure, or you’re going to be a lot better off working for people who aren’t schmucks.

But I do think that the breast-feeding angle does matter, too. If Dr. Pine is really so cloistered that it is inconceivable to her that someone in the class would be made uncomfortable by her “giving her baby her boob,” to use Andrea Marcotte’s expression, or that someone on a college newspaper would think the incident worthy of a short blurb on the feature page, then maybe some of those stereotypes about ivory-tower academics aren’t so silly, after all. It sure as hell would raise an eyebrow or two on my campus, whether it should or not. If you want to argue that breast-feeding in public, or even on the job, ought to be unremarkable, go right ahead. But if you don’t understand that there’s a difference between reality and utopia, I really do pity your students.

And the self-righteous riff on how other cultures aren’t subject to the same Puritanical self-repression as Americans doesn’t change the fact that the chances of encountering someone who thinks that breast-feeding your kid while you’re supposed to be teaching is a bit outré are pretty damned close to 100%, even in a “feminist anthropology” course at one of the nation’s artsy-fartsiest universities. But Dr. Pine aspires to professional victimhood: everything that goes the slightest bit wrong in her world is attributable to “anti-woman implications” or some such twaddle. She crows in her ultimately hubristic article about how she was rude to the (female) student reporter, whom she identifies by name, whose questions she derides as “biased and sophomoric,” and who is accused of “passing the buck” about whether the article will be published to the editor whose job it is to make those decisions. Forgive me if my irony meter just lurched past “extreme.” Way to stand in solidarity, there, Professor.

Really, this should and could have been a non-issue. But Dr. Pine, and no one else, chose to make it otherwise. What could have been a blip, easily defused by a simple recognition that not everyone thinks the same way Pine does and a pro forma apology for unspecified distractions of the first day, metastasized into a public internet harangue that manages to be simultaneously vicious and paranoid, and ought, in a just universe, to be the last nail in her tenure coffin.

One thing that student artists share with journalists (and with athletes) is that their work, unlike that of, say, anthropologists, is public. Or, rather, it is when the work is done. If you come to opening night of my upcoming production and immediately take to the Net to criticize my female lead, I’ll do nothing to stop you. But if you do so based on a rehearsal, I’ll rip you a new one before you can say “Countess Aurelia.” That student reporter is, after all, a student reporter. The article apparently still isn’t published—and at this point, why should it be? But you’re going to eviscerate her for what she might have been thinking about saying?

Bringing your sick kid to class is unprofessional; breast-feeding her during class aggravates the situation. But getting sufficiently exorcised about an unpublished article that you’d publicly defame the student whose perfectly reasonable questions rendered you “shocked and annoyed”: that’s way over the line. We can be grateful for the breast-feeding incident, at least. It, or at least its aftermath, revealed Dr. Pine’s true colors.

And earned her a Curmie nomination.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Pre-approving Freedom of Speech

The brouhaha coming out of Prague, OK recently gives me a chance to talk about a case in Fullerton, CA that I’ve wanted to write about since last spring, but that had never seemed to make it to the top of the stack. I’ll get to what they have in common—other than idiot administrators—in a moment.

Let’s start with the earlier case. At Fullerton High School, there’s an annual “Mr. Fullerton” event, a sort of variation on the theme of beauty pageant: it’s unclear to me how much is serious and how much is parody. Anyway, one of the elements of the contest is a question-and-answer session. There seems to be no exact transcript of what contestant Kearian Giertz (left) said, but his after-the-fact description seems to be universally accepted as catching the gist:
I said, ‘Hopefully, in ten years’ time, I’ll be winning Emmys, Oscars and Tonys’—just, you know, the typical answer—and, then I added, ‘But, more importantly, I’d really, really like to sit on the couch with the person that I love and say I’m married to them. And my case, that is a male. And, I hope that, in ten years’ time, gay marriage would be legal.
Cue the idiot Assistant Principal. (As usual, Gentle Reader, Curmie apologizes for the redundancy.) Onto the stage trots one Joe Abell, ordering Giertz’s microphone turned off (“Cut him! Cut him! Cut him!”), ushering him backstage, and disqualifying him from the festivities for “going off script.”

Considerable brouhaha ensued, with student protests, public and private apologies by Abell, statements by school board members, the whole nine yards. The official (i.e., Cover Our Ass) statement from the district (I can’t find the original, complete text) said that whereas Abell’s actions were prompted by “what the Assistant Principal believed to be a statement that was off script and not pre-approved,” “the student’s statement… regarding… future plans and hopes did not violate any school rules,” and “[the] District believes that the matter should have been handled privately….” Abell was briefly suspended, then returned to his job. He will be re-assigned to classroom teaching in another school for next year: a move he had apparently already requested long before this incident.

Shift to Oklahoma. There, in the tiny town of Prague, high school valedictorian Kaitlin Nootbaar (right) was denied her diploma because she used the word “hell” in her valedictory speech. Yes, really. Ms. Nootbaar, like many teens, has changed her mind not infrequently about her long-term goals. According to her father,
”Her quote was, ‘When she first started school she wanted to be a nurse, then a veterinarian and now that she was getting closer to graduation, people would ask her, what do you want to do and she said how the hell do I know? I’ve changed my mind so many times.’”

He said in the written script she gave to the school she wrote “heck,” but in the moment she said “hell” instead.

Nootbaar said the audience laughed, she finished her speech to warm applause and didn’t know there was a problem.

That was until she went to pick up the real certificate this week [in mid-August].

“We went to the office and asked for the diploma and the principal said, ‘Your diploma is right here but you’re not getting it. Close the door; we have a problem,’” Nootbaar said.

He said the principal told Kaitlin she would have to write an apology letter before he would release the diploma.
She has (quite reasonably) refused to do so. As with the California case, there has been great hoopla, with even a little more spice in the mix: an appearance on the “Today” show, accusations from Papa Nootbaar that Principal David Smith “constantly picked on” Kaitlin throughout her senior year, and the inability of Smith or Superintendent Rick Martin to comprehend the fact that they’re embarrassing themselves and their district with their fit of censorious petulance.

It’s pretty clear in all this that no one is exactly without fault. The substitution of “hell” for the approved “heck” seems to have been deliberate, even if not planned from the beginning. David Nootbaar’s “stand your ground” rhetoric is at least one step past the line into libertarian arrogance. But the school’s conniption over a word that, used once, doesn’t even change a movie rating from G to PG, is positively absurd. Sure, “hell” is a stronger expletive than “heck,” but not by much. Songs like “Highway to Hell,” “Hell’s Bells,” and “Hell Is for Children” blare across public airways. Not so coincidentally, “heaven” songs often contain the word hell: “If you want to get to heaven, you’ve got to raise a little hell”; “If there’s a rock and roll heaven, you know they’ve got a hell of a band.” Plug “‘how the hell’ lyrics” into a Google search and you’ll get 154,000,000 hits.

The word most often linked with “hell” on the scale of potentially offensive language is part of one of the most famous movie quotations ever, from a G-rated movie… or did someone change that line to “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a darn” when I wasn’t paying attention?

More to the point, withholding a student’s diploma for such an offense, even if it were premeditated from the very beginning, is simultaneously overkill and a particularly good example of administrative impotence. It’s the former because the transgression, if it even qualifies as such, merits at most a private reprimand. It’s the latter because Ms. Nootbaar is by now already attending classes at Southwest Oklahoma University, and it’s only a matter of time before that piece of paper from her high school—if and when she gets it—will be shoved into a drawer or a box… or perhaps discarded altogether. One suspects that she’ll earn at least a BA or BS, and quite likely an advanced degree, as well. And nothing Prague High School attempts to do about that will matter in the slightest.

No, they chose to piss into the wind for no apparent purpose other than asserting one last time that they’re in charge. As virtually anyone who knows me personally will attest, one of my personal mantras is, “If you have to tell me, it ain’t so.” If you’re directing a play and you have to tell your cast that you’re in charge, you’re not. If you’re teaching a class and you have to tell your students that you’re in charge, you’re not. If you’re a high school principal and you’ve got to tell your recent graduates (and Ms. Nootbaar is, apparently, an alumna, even if she doesn’t have a piece of paper that says so) that you’re in charge, you’re not.

Both these stories feature over-reactions by school administrators: not just making mountains out of molehills, but constructing the entire Himalayan range out of an adolescent mole’s first attempt. But what I find fascinating is the “sticking to the script” trope. Notice that the students in question had to submit their commentary to school officials prior to being allowed to speak in public. Yes, I know that’s both legal and prudent. It’s also creepy… in two ways.

First, let’s look at the utterly dishonest pragmatics of the whole charade. This entire rationale is a scam. I spent a good share of the last week in auditions for a play I’m directing. I know some of the monologues students presented, and I can say with certainty that there were some paraphrases up there. At callbacks, by definition limited to those most likely to be cast, actors with scripts in their hands didn’t get everything word for word correct. And that’s actually OK. Sure, I want everything to be word perfect when we open. But I’ve been around the block a couple of times in my career: I know—don’t just suspect, but know—that someone will drop a line or say something at least as different from the text as “hell” is from “heck.”

I know for a fact that I both paraphrased and added a line when I gave a scholarly paper at a conference last month, despite the fact that I had the written text in my hands. And that made the paper more effective rather than less so, despite the fact that I’d spent a considerable amount of time crafting the presentation to say exactly what I wanted it to. Because I was making eye contact with my audience rather than burying my face in my text, I could sense where clarification was needed, when two examples instead of the three I’d scripted would suffice, and so on. There are two, and only two, differences between what I did and what Mr. Giertz and Ms. Nootbaar did: my variations from the script went unnoticed because no one else had seen the text (and because the audience was comprised largely of people who’d done precisely the same thing with their presentations earlier in the conference), and, well, I’m older.

In other words, using “going off script” as an excuse to punish someone is disingenuous simply because it happens all the time: it’s the equivalent of firing someone because they use the office computer to check Facebook during their lunch break. “The rules are clear. You can’t use the office computer except for official business.” Except that everyone does it, and singling someone out for doing so is always a stand-in for something else. One suspects that had Nootbaar changed inserted her current interest in marine biology into her speech, or had Giertz recently entered into a relationship with a girl and burbled that he hopes to marry her someday, there would have been no repercussions, despite the obvious deviations from scripted remarks.

More troubling, however, is the implicit assumption that it’s any of the school’s business to censor students. If you don’t trust your valedictorian not to say something offensive, don’t have her speak. It’s not a requirement—there was no such speech at either my high school or college graduation ceremonies. (Or at least I don’t remember them… that was a while ago.) As noted above, I understand the rationale. But I also reject it. If you’ve done your job as a school, you’ve instilled at least a modicum of responsibility in your students: tell the valedictorian or the participants in a light-hearted contest they need to stay on track and the chances are pretty good that they’ll do so.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t occasionally wish some student had done something else. But the ones who earned the right to speak deserve the right to do so without administrative interference. Conversely, those who seek naughtiness for its own sake will say what they want when they want, whether they’ve submitted a script or not. Trusting students to do what they’re supposed to do isn’t easy. It is, however, a risk worth taking, and ultimately the right thing to do. But that would require abstract thought and faith in someone other than themselves: the two things the average high school administrator lacks.