Saturday, April 26, 2014

Valerie Strauss’s Double-Header: A Pair of Curmie Contenders

If there is a better education journalist in the country than the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, Curmie doesn’t know who it is. The last two days in a row, her column, “The Answer Sheet,” has highlighted a couple of prime contenders for the coveted Curmie Award, presented annually to the person or institution who most embarrasses the profession of education.

Steve Green, who apparently runs the Mustang schools now.
Yesterday, it was about the Mustang school district in suburban Oklahoma City that has blithely decided that including a year-long course on the Bible would be just a peachy idea. Of course, sanctimonious and venal plutocrat Hobby Lobby CEO Steve Green, whose Museum of the Bible (could I make that up?) minions wrote the curriculum, assures us that “This is not about a denomination, or a religion, it's about a book. We will not try to go down denominational, religious-type roads.” Gentle Reader, if you are even tempted to believe that line, may I humbly suggest that perhaps you have stumbled onto this blog by mistake. There’s a living-in-the-real-world requirement here. Turn back while your tender ignorance is unsullied.

First off, there’s the whole “Museum of the Bible” thing. No, that couldn’t be about (gasp) religion, could it? Next, notice the first person subject: “we” won’t be proselytizing. In other words, it’s not the district, much less the teachers, who will control the curriculum. Need more? Well, there’s this, from the AP article by Bailey Elise McBride:
From the outset, the book describes God as eternal, “faithful and good,” “full of love” and “an ever-present help in times of trouble.”

“The first pages of the Bible spotlight God's desire for justice and a just world,” the second chapter says, but adds, “When humanity ignores or disobeys his rules, it has to suffer the consequences.”

The course also says people should rest on the Sabbath because God did so after six days of creation.
Nope. No religious indoctrination there. Look, if you really want to have a course detailing the relationship of the Bible (and of Christianity) to history, art, and literature, fine. But somehow I doubt that students in such a course are likely to hear much about the barbarities associated with the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition, or pay a lot of attention to that business about camels and eyes of needles, or read that barely a generation ago even evangelical doctrine argued that fetuses aren’t the same as babies. Here’s McBride again:
Andrew Seidel, a lawyer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote to the Mustang district this week complaining that “negative aspects” of God, such as jealousy or punishing children for the actions of their parents, are not mentioned in the course.

The book phrases contradictory questions and answers — such as references to the Israelites being slaves — in ways designed to favor Christianity, Seidel said. He said it also poses Christian thought as rhetorical questions, such as asking, “How do we know that the Bible's historical narratives are reliable?” rather than, “Is the Bible historically accurate?”

“They assume the answer in the question and stifle all scholarly discussion,” Seidel said.

Dr. Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University who reviewed the curriculum at the AP’s request, said it lacked scholarly insight.

“It’s more of a very basic background book,” he said, adding that he found the curriculum “full of land mines” and used scripture from only one tradition, evangelical Protestantism.
Of course, the yahoos who run Mustang schools intone that the clown show that passes for a school board wouldn’t have approved the curriculum if they thought it “crossed a line.” There are only two possibilities, which of course are not mutually exclusive: they have the cumulative IQ of a pile of rotting tilapia, or they’re lying. My money’s on the latter, although thinking that no one would notice their egregiously unconstitutional indoctrination attempt does require a level of stupidity beyond the comprehension of the average mortal.

Today’s Strauss story of educational ineptitude may be even worse. At least there’s a logic to what the folks in Oklahoma want to do: they want to use public schools as a means of advancing their religio-political cause. It’s not constitutional, it’s not wise, and it’s not honest. But at least we can figure out why they want to do it. Not so with the news out of Elwood, NY, where the kindergarten show at Harley Avenue Primary School was cancelled because… wait for it…
What it lacks in substance it makes up for in pomposity.
We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers. Please do not fault us for making professional decisions that we know will never be able to please everyone. But know that we are making these decisions with the interests of all children in mind.
Yes, that’s right. That’s why the five-year-olds can’t do a show that, according to more than one signer of the petition on (which Curmie wouldn’t object to your signing and sharing should you be of a mind to do so), is a long-time tradition at the school.

Curmie has seldom seen so much stupidity in one place. We’ll leave aside the smugness and pomposity of the school’s response. “Please don’t fault us” [because we know what’s best, you insignificant little parent]? Or the fact that none of the letters’ signatories were available for comment after their obnoxious missive? Superintendent Peter Scordo wouldn’t talk about the glaring idiocy of it all, but sent forth a minion, one Michael Conte, who pompously pronounced that “the Harley Avenue Primary School educators believe that this decision is in the best interest of students. I don’t have anything more to add for your consideration.” Anybody but Curmie think these folks are a little longer on self-image than on sense? Finally, the apophasis du jour: we won’t even mention the irony of career-readiness being advanced by someone like Keri Colmone, who doesn’t even know where to sign a business letter.

For the school’s decision to make any sense in pedagogical, inter-personal, or public relations terms, three things must all be true. (None of them are.) First, it must be something other than laughable that it is in any way the “responsibility” of any pre-primary educator to prepare his/her charges for “college and career.” That this is the insane rhetoric of wealthy helicopter parents who “love” their kids so much they deny them a childhood, and of Arne Duncan, the worst cabinet member of the millennium (and yes, Curmie includes the likes of Alberto Gonzales and Donald Rumsfeld in that analysis) doesn’t make it any less risible.

Secondly, we must forget everything we know about child development, or of our own educations. I learned how to read in 1st grade, not kindergarten, and yet I somehow managed to get an Ivy League undergraduate education and subsequently a PhD from a really fine Research-1 university. And… get this… I actually had some fun as a kid. I read literature because I wanted to, learned about science because it interested me, and I performed in some musical and theatrical activities. Every authority on childhood behavior (and the current Secretary of Education is about as far from that as it is possible to be) agrees that play is not merely a significant part of a child’s development, it is in fact crucial. Play teaches, and any educator who doesn’t understand that is fit for no job requiring intellectual skills greater than those required to inquire whether the customer would like fries with that.

But, let us pretend that the function of kindergarten is to move five-year-olds a step closer to career-readiness, and that having fun is at best a distraction. Fine. So in order to cancel a “show” for that purpose is to suggest that there are no careers in the arts per se, that speaking in public is never going to be required, that learning to be part of a team is irrelevant as a life skill. It is to declare the long-term uselessness of confronting and meeting deadlines. It is to pronounce that problem-solving never manifests in the production of a show. It is to proclaim that the memorization, development of muscle memory, and inter-personal requirements of mounting a production, any production, aren’t central to developing the intellectual and social maturity of any child.

And let’s take it yet one step further. Let’s even pretend (if that’s still allowed in this post-cancellation-of-theatrical-event world) that the school’s rationale has the slightest relationship to reality, that there’s a kernel of sense buried somewhere under that mountain of bovine feces. So… the school needs to spend more time on developing other skills than those relevant to the production of the show. Perhaps the way to do that would be to have full-day kindergarten classes, like virtually every other district in the area does. Ah, but that would require work and money, precisely the two things no one in the Elwood district seems ready to expend.

Had Interim Principal Ellen Best-Laimit and her dim-witted underlings drooled down their chins and slurred a few sounds that never quite rise to the level of language, in other words, they’d look better than they do now. The letter is condescending, rendered especially ironic by its utter disregard for tradition, pedagogy, child development, logical argument, or comprehension of what happens in the mounting of a show. One suspects that the “teachers” found out that producing a show actually involves a little more than a pile of old clothes and an uncle with a barn, and they really didn’t care to do their jobs if they… you know… had to work. Luckily for them, there’s enough pseudo-pedagogical jargon to wrap themselves in. Alas, it’s a little less fortuitous for anyone who actually cares about kids, education, or the future of the country.

But I can pretty much guarantee that Best-Laimit and company won’t go away empty-handed. There is a virtually certain Curmie nomination in this for them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Mike Huckabee’s North Korean Inanity

I’m not sure, but I think the first time I wrote about political rhetoric per se in a blog essay was nearly nine years ago in a piece called “The Rhetoric of Gitmo.” It’s actually pretty well-written (what happened?). There are a number of points I made at the time, but here’s what seems particularly relevant today.

Back then, in 2005, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan described the detention center as Guantánamo Bay as “the Gulag of our time.” I cited an article by Pavel Litvonov, who was imprisoned at the real Gulag. He argues that:
By any standard, Guantanamo and similar American-run prisons elsewhere do not resemble, in their conditions of detention or their scale, the concentration camp system that was at the core of a totalitarian communist system….
There is ample reason for Amnesty to be critical of certain U.S. actions. But by using hyperbole and muddling the difference between repressive regimes and the imperfections of democracy, Amnesty's spokesmen put its authority at risk. U.S. human rights violations seem almost trifling in comparison with those committed by Cuba, South Korea, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia….
Words are important. When Amnesty spokesmen use the word “gulag” to describe U.S. human rights violations, they allow the Bush administration to dismiss justified criticism and undermine Amnesty’s credibility. Amnesty International is too valuable to let it be hijacked by politically biased leaders.
Similarly, Senator Dick Durbin described, objectively, the allegations regarding Guantánamo, then added:
If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings.
He then backtracked on his description, not because it was inaccurate but because he was catching all manner of political flak. Here’s what I wrote in 2005:
Durbin is a seasoned politician. He knows that you don’t mention Nazis. You just don't. Even if you’re not really making a comparison, even (no, make that especially) if the point you make is legitimate, you’ve got to understand that all people are going to hear is a slur. What Durbin had to say was important, but even speaking the truth in the wrong way can lose you credibility. He should also certainly know by now that the Bush administration might not be very good at much, but they are masters of the political counter-attack. If you say something dumb, they’re going to eat your lunch.

If you get stopped for speeding and the cop writes down your driver’s license number wrong, the law says you go free. The Bush administration has been blazing through the small towns of Truth and Accountability, spending very little time there. But until Sheriff Journalism or Officer Democrat get all their facts right, they’ll continue to get away with it.
Times have changed, and not for the better. The level of vitriol has been ratcheted up several steps. Not that long ago, there were some things that were just off limits in political discourse. They just were. You didn’t compare any American politician or political decision to Hitler, Stalin, or any other despotic or tyrannous regime. There have been corrupt and incompetent Presidents of both parties—virtually all of them could reasonably be accused of advocating policies that didn’t work, of playing to their base rather than enhancing the common weal, of appointing political allies over better-qualified contenders for positions in government. But they didn’t systematically target millions of people for torture and death based on race or religion or heritage. They didn’t have their political adversaries assassinated. They weren’t, in fact, tyrants. Bush wasn’t Hitler; neither is Obama.

Since incendiary rhetoric was the only attribute Sarah Palin brought to the GOP ticket in 2008, however, such defamatory flights of fancy have become absolutely de rigeur in Republican circles, not least among those who bellowed the loudest when Senator Durbin—who actually had a point—made his rhetorical gaffe. Plug “Obama Hitler” into the Google Machine and you get over 52 million hits. That’s right, 52 million. (“Obama Stalin” yields “only” 11.4 million hits. You’d think it would be higher, given the whole being-a-communist thing and all…) And it’s not all from crackpots like Matt Drudge. Well, actually, it is all from crackpots, but some of them somehow avoid being viewed as such: a Catholic bishop, the billionaire founder of a Fortune 500 company, a leading venture capitalist, a top Republican donor.

More appallingly still, it’s almost a rite of passage in Republican circles among candidates and office-holders, a sort of perverse “no true Scotsman” riff in which you’re not a real American—and certainly not a real Republican candidate—if you don’t think Barack Obama is exactly like Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin (gotta have an African on the list after all: and you thought the GOP wasn’t interested in inclusion), Pol Pot (well, maybe not him, since the average Republican pol has no idea who he was), and Professor Moriarty all rolled into one. California gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly invokes both Hitler and Stalin, Arizona State Representative Brenda Barton has settled on “Der Führer” as her preferred appellation for the POTUS; Curmie’s own Congresscritter, Loony Louie Gohmert decided the BP escrow account was reminiscent of the Reichstag.

Quick: name the Republicans who seem to be jockeying for position for a 2016 Presidential run. What’s your list? Michelle Bachmann? Ted Cruz? Rand Paul? Rick Perry? Each has linked President Obama to at least one of the following: Hitler (or Nazis, the Reichstag, etc.), Stalin, communism, socialism, Sharia law. Bachmann leads the field, as far as I can tell, by scoring in four of the five categories (I can’t find a Stalin reference from her, but I trust it’s forthcoming). I won’t supply all the links, but trust me, they’re there. The only exception among the current front-runners is Marco Rubio, who always seems to stop just short of an actual allegation. But remember that it was Rubio who brayed the loudest when President Obama chose not to disrupt Nelson Mandela’s funeral and therefore shook Raul Castro’s hand; asked if Obama is a socialist, Rubio can muster nothing more than “he is not Hugo Chávez.”

But since Obama took office, one would be hard-pressed to find national Republicans saying even, “I disagree with President Obama on a wide range of policy issues, and I’m not sure he’s entirely honest, but he’s not a socialist, not a communist, not a Nazi, and he doesn’t want to impose Sharia law.” The best we can do comes from the ’08 campaign: John McCain’s response to the dingbat in Minnesota who declared Obama an “Arab”: “He’s a decent, family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” (We’ll leave aside the casual assumption that what makes Obama not an Arab is that he’s a decent family man.) That incident happened on October 10. Barely a week later, he was calling then-Senator Obama a socialist.

Mike Huckabee: not the sharpest knife in the drawer
So now Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor, current Fox News talking head, and also-ran candidate in the ’12 Presidential race, wants to join the party. But however much he tries, he doesn’t quite fit. He’s not a mainstream corporatist like Romney or Ryan, not a “maverick” who doesn’t actually act like one like McCain, not batshit bonkers like Cruz or Bachmann. He needs something different, something that will attract the attention of the carefully selected Koch addicts in the audience. Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union: old news. What to do, what to do? Eureka! North Korea! Axis of Evil! Bad guys on M*A*S*H! That guy with the funny haircut!

Kim Jong-Un: his regime is worse than his haircut
And so, presto change-o, we get one of the stupidest comments of recent years: “My gosh, I’m beginning to think that there’s more freedom in North Korea sometimes than there is in the United States.” Genius! Because nothing says “freedom” quite like a “Supreme Leader” who not only kills his mentor (and uncle), but everyone in that immediate family, including women, children, the country’s ambassadors to Malaysia and Cuba—he’s a piece of work, this guy. Governor, if you’d like evidence that it’s a hell of a lot worse in North Korea than here, try this on for size: you’re still alive after your critique of the President, you disgusting piece of crap.  [Note: there was not the slightest hint of irony or snarky exaggeration in the delivery, so don’t try the “he was kidding” crap.]

Of course, Huckabee had other commentary, too. From the beginning of the embedded video in the Raw Story piece:
• “We hold these truths to be self-evident… that all of us are created equal…” [Pssst… we know what it says, gender specificity and all.]
• It’s the federal agents who shouldn’t have rifles in the showdown with serial deadbeat Cliven Bundy. I’m not taking sides, mind you, but you know, it’s only a few “blades of grass,” (not, you know, a million dollars worth of unpaid fees and a string of court decisions as long as your arm). Besides, Fast and Furious, because that’s relevant.
• Benghazi, because it’s the only incident of its kind, ever. Except for (for example) the twelve separate incidents leaving 60 people dead that happened during the Bush43 administration… none of which seem to bothered me in the slightest. Oh, and 9/11. Seems like that might have been preventable, too… but I digress.
• Brandeis reversed field on an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali: clearly Obama’s fault.
• Freedom of speech = anyone (I agree with) can get paid to speak, anywhere and under whatever circumstances they choose, even if the sponsors think better of it.
• Condoleezza Rice’s position on the Dropbox board is being challenged, and that’s awful… because freedom of speech is only for people I agree with.
• The CEO of Mozilla was “pushed out of his position” because the board members are gutless idiots of a political stance. And I repeat, he has the right to contribute to whatever cause he wants, and nobody is allowed to be upset by that because Freedom of Speech exists for people I like and not for those who criticize them.
• Those nasty left-wingers want to “shut [your voices] down,” because challenging those in power is the sole preserve of the right (unless, of course, free speech for those on the left is completely ineffectual, in which case it’s OK), and I have no fucking clue what “freedom of speech” really means and BY GOD, I’m going to prove it.
• Now comes the North Korea analogy, which surprisingly nobody, even in an audience of Koch whores, thought was ever so clever.
• OMG, those airport security regulations put in place as an absurd over-reaction by the Bush administration haven’t all been lifted by Obama. I’m oppressed. And “people put hands all over me.” [The screening is annoying, officious, and useless, but I’ve gone through airport security dozens of times since 9/11; no one has ever asked for a second ID, and no one has ever touched me. Must be they just like you, Mike. Go with it—you could make new friends.]
• There’s no need to show any ID at all to vote… except for the ID you do have to provide, which doesn’t count because… uh… ACORN. [OK, he didn’t invoke ACORN, but only because he didn’t think of it.] And the President says “there’s no voter fraud,” which of course he didn’t say, but I’m not setting up a straw man, here. That’s somebody who looks like me. And I’ll make a clever little quip about “looking around” in the White House without an appointment or a photo ID. [Gotta give him that one: good line.]
The bottom line is that beneath the folksy pseudo-charm is… well… nothing. Mike Huckabee is either stupider than skunk shit or utterly devoid of any ethical center. I’m betting the latter: that, having seen the last GOP nomination taken by someone with no core beliefs, Huckabee figures he’d better jump on that train, because pretending to believe in something didn’t work out so well. Of course, to be willing to appear to be nothing more than an insincere opportunist, you actually have to be an insincere opportunist. Interesting philosophical case study…

As I wrote years ago, the real problem with saying remarkably stupid things is that they become the only thing people remember. The more valid your point, the more imperative it is to stay away from the stupid stuff. There remain too many unanswered questions about Benghazi. Brandeis should either have done their homework before offering an honorary degree and a speaking platform or stuck to their guns, having made the offer. The Mozilla thing is a fiasco, especially given that principal anatagonist Sam Yagan of OkCupid doesn’t exactly have clean hands on the whole gay rights thing, either. (He responded to the article in Mother Jones that pointed out this inconsistency by explaining that his contribution to a virulently anti-gay candidate was purely mercenary, and shouldn’t be perceived as endorsing a position. Well, those weren’t his exact words, but that’s what he said.) Airport security is a farce, as I’ve been saying for years. Voter ID laws, per se, aren’t the least bit repressive.

And, if we’re not a True Believer, what do we remember? The inane North Korea line. I take it back. Huckabee is stupider than skunk shit. And he’s welcome to open the Pyongyang bureau of Fox News whenever he wants.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

South Carolina Upstate and Whether to Be a University

Yesterday I promised more contenders for the 4th Annual Curmie Award, presented to the individual or group who most embarrass the profession of education. At first I wasn’t sure whether this story qualifies or not. On the one hand, the real idiots of the piece are GOP state legislators who neither know nor care anything about education (insert boilerplate apology for redundancy here)—they can hardly embarrass a profession they don’t come close to representing. But those who capitulate to the hypocritical and anti-intellectual posturings of small-minded and censorial zealots: they are not without culpability. And so it is that the administration of the University of South Carolina Upstate is officially in the running for the [not so] coveted Curmie.

This is a multi-part story that begins with the university’s decision to assign Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio as the “Preface text” for incoming students. In other words, every Upstate freshman will read and discuss a single text. It’s a strategy that has been around for a long time—I participated in a variation on the theme when teaching at a small liberal arts college over 20 years ago.

The question, obviously, is what text—something canonical or something worthy but unknown? Something that will reaffirm students’ belief systems or something that will challenge them? Something everyone can agree on or something that will be applauded by many and despised by some? Upstate officials’ choice was a collection of personal stories from the Rainbow Radio program, which “has grown into a grassroots-driven community radio show that, since 2005, has offered diverse, accurate, and often unparalleled stories of gay and lesbian Southerners, their families and their friends.”

In making this choice, USCU opted for the latter path in each of the binaries described in the previous paragraph. Were they attracted in part by the potentially alluring naughtiness of assigning gay-themed reading matter at a state university in South Carolina? Perhaps. And so what? College is different from high school, and, done right, it challenges students to think critically and to respond objectively and professionally to material that may be utterly novel: any belief system that cannot withstand a little scrutiny is one best abandoned.

The response was a classic of symbolic petulance—a technique mastered by blue-state state legislators: Upstate and another public university, the College of Charleston, had their budgets cut in House committee by the precise amount spent on the book programs. In Upstate’s case, that totaled $17,142. One Garry Smith, a state representative, spearheaded the cuts, arguing that students ought to be able to opt out of having to read a book that is “purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate.” Curmie hasn’t read the book (and he’s got 20 bucks that says Smith hasn’t, either), but I’m willing to posit the idea that the only thing being “promoted” is the idea that individuality isn’t such a bad thing. And I don’t recall being asked if I wanted to do the reading for any course I ever took.

The idea that the state legislature ought to be interfering in such matters is particularly laughable (or it would be, if the stakes weren’t so high) coming from the right, who are all about “small government” except when… well, they’re the government, and they get to tell other people what to do. And, as J. Bryan Lowder writes on the Slate site:
The trouble is, if your goal is to excise scary gay stuff, that route pretty quickly gets you to a place where Homer’s Iliad (one of the seminal texts of Western literature) would need to be cut—unless you want Achilles and Patroclus promoting their homoerotic lifestyle all over the seminar table. Smith and his ilk most assuredly don’t want that; and, based on their willingness to entertain this kind of embarrassing intellectual prudery, they apparently don’t want South Carolina college students to come out of the state system any wiser or more prepared for work in a diverse world than when they entered it.
One might also note that most of the classics of literature feature behavior outside the normative: Hamlet and Macbeth commit regicide, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are but two of many adulterers in “great books,” and Oedipus was a real motherf… you get the idea.

Moreover, as Terry Adams points out in one of the finest short essays Curmie has read in a long time (seriously, click the link and read the whole thing), conservatives’ new-found interest in government oversight is not merely hypocritical but deeply problematic:
If South Carolina's government can tell colleges what is and is not beyond the pale, if they can determine what is and is not appropriate on the subject of knowledge, if they can decide which manner of thinking is acceptable, if they can tell students when they are and are not ready to engage the significant issues of our time, what can we reasonably expect them not to control?
Anyway, the Upstate administration seems to have come through this brouhaha pretty well. They figured out a way to withstand the cuts, and they didn’t back down to the headline-seeking legislators.

A little later, they didn’t do so well. The university hosted and apparently sponsored a symposium called Bodies of Knowledge: New Normals, Old Normals, Future Normals in the LGBTQ Community. It appears to have been indistinguishable except in subject matter from virtually any other scholarly conference: a series of papers, a plenary session or two, some entertainment that may or may not be relevant to the conference’s disciplinary focus.

One of the events originally scheduled for the symposium was a one-woman play entitled How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less, which was to have been performed by performance artist Leigh Hendrix. The show’s website describes the play thus [note: the website expired a couple of days ago; I quote here from the article of Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Education]:
… a hilarious coming out story for queers and non-queers alike. Motivational speaker and expert lesbian Butchy McDyke deftly guides her captive audience in an exploration of self-discovery and first love, coming out, lesbian sex, queer politics, and a really important Reba McEntire song as they learn to confidently shout, 'I’m a big ‘ol dyke!' Writer and performer Leigh Hendrix weaves a story that is one part instructional seminar, one part personal story, and one part wacky performance art. At turns funny and poignant, silly and earnest, How To Be A Lesbian in 10 Days or Less is the perfect guide to gay for budding lesbians, no matter their sexual orientation!
All of which, of course, led state senator Mike Fair to come to the inevitable conclusion that “It's just not normal and then you glorify, or it seems to me, that the promotion at USC Upstate is a glorification of same-sex orientation…. That's not an explanation of ‘I was born this way.’ That's recruiting.” Yes, Mike Fair is transcendently stupid, even by Republican state legislator standards. That puts him about on a par with an over-ripe kumquat in the smarts department. Seriously… Butchy McDyke? That’s not a clue that there may be something a little sardonic about the play and its title?

Here’s Terry Adams again:
The title is ironic, as are the portions of the show that “teach” audience members how to be gay. But as is the case with most things deemed “political” in South Carolina, black and white are the only colors in our palette, and irony and humor are nowhere to be found. How daft can these people actually be? One cannot be taught to be gay. And if individuals claim that they were, then it’s highly likely they are charlatans. Being gay is not like adapting a core philosophy or set of principles. It is innate, and no more the product of choice or persuasion than our impulse to breath.
In other words, Fair and his brethren are utter idiots, so the university obviously did the only
"Butchy McDyke" responds to the cancellation
logical thing: they capitulated. Yes, really. Tammy E. Whaley, the university’s vice chancellor for communications sent forth this peculiar missive:
The title of ‘How to Become a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less,’ while deliberately provocative, is satirical in nature but has not been received as such. The controversy surrounding this performance has become a distraction to the educational mission of USC Upstate and the overall purpose of the Bodies of Knowledge symposium. As a result, we have canceled this segment of the symposium.
In another statement, she said:
So many people were interpreting her performance as an instructive session rather than the comical or satirical nature of the show. Elected officials and religious community members were thinking it was a class requirement verses [sic.] a symposium that was open to the campus and community.
Wait, what? I thought you were a university—you know, folks whose job it is to educate. Why on EARTH would you not take advantage of this opportunity to demonstrate that the play in question is indeed exactly what Hendrix says it is: “I’m not here to tell you what to do. No, I’m here to ask you who you are.” What possible reason is there to hand over a heckler’s veto to the likes of the dullard Fair and his equally misinformed allies?

Ah, but the Idiot Fair and his colleague Lee Bright (“We want to make sure that there isn't an attempt at indoctrination and that’s what it appears from the outside.”) actually voted against reappointing USCU trustees because of the scheduled production. So freaking what? Are you a university or the legislature’s lapdogs? Wait—don’t answer that. I’d rather not know. What I do want to know is how these two jackasses got named Fair and Bright, when it’s abundantly clear that neither is either.

In the aftermath, the university is trying to act as if it were… you know… a university. Chancellor Tom Moore issued a three-page official response to the kerfuffle, entitled “On Being a University.” He makes a number of salient points: that programming oriented towards the LGBTQ community is necessary, and that the two controversial elements—the book and the play—are “but two of thousands [of activities] that occur on our campus every year and it is their challenging and thought provoking nature that helps us to achieve that desired balance.” But he still weasels out of responsibility for closing down the How to Be a Lesbian performance. (Interestingly enough, there was a panel at the symposium entitled “How to Be Queer,” which seems to have gone ahead without incident. One wonders whether the problem with the play was its theatrical nature, its gender specificity, or its promise of fast results.)

Perhaps he’ll get away with it. Variations on the word “force” are all over the articles on the events in South Carolina: “State legislators force USC Upstate to cancel LGBT play,” that sort of thing. But I don’t see forcing. Those who think they have the right to dictate a university’s curriculum and activities are legion. The correct response to them, more often than not, is a monodigital salute and the word “no.” Fair, Bright, and the rest of the censorial ignoramuses who comprise the South Carolina legislature should, in the words of General Barker in one of my favorite episodes of M*A*S*H, be given a high colonic and sent on a ten-mile hike.

Moore, Whaley, and their lot talk tough in the aftermath, but they were cravenness personified when it mattered. This game was long since over by the time they decided to prove that they’re vertebrates. That’s why they’re in Curmie contention.

Two Stories That Weren't. Sort of.

Two stories that caught my attention this week turned out to be wrong. Sort of. Both involve confirmation bias of a sort, but I’d argue that I wasn’t a complete idiot to have been deceived.

The first story came out of the Ukrainian city of Donetsk. USA Today reported that Jews in that city of nearly a million residents (and another million in the metropolitan area) had received a leaflet demanding that they “register” with local authorities. Here’s the center of Oren Dorrell’s article:
Jews emerging from a synagogue say they were handed leaflets that ordered the city's Jews to provide a list of property they own and pay a registration fee “or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated,” reported Ynet News, Israel's largest news website, and Ukraine's Donbass news agency….

The leaflet begins “Dear Ukraine citizens of Jewish nationality” and states that all people of Jewish descent over 16 years old must report to the Commissioner for Nationalities in the Donetsk Regional Administration building and “register.”
It says the reason is because the leaders of the Jewish community of Ukraine supported Bendery Junta, a reference to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement that fought for Ukrainian independence at the end of World War II, “and oppose the pro-Slavic People's Republic of Donetsk,” a name adopted by the militant leadership.

The leaflet then described which documents Jews should provide: “ID and passport are required to register your Jewish religion, religious documents of family members, as well as documents establishing the rights to all real estate property that belongs to you, including vehicles.”

Consequences for non-compliance will result in citizenship being revoked “and you will be forced outside the country with a confiscation of property,” it said. A registration fee of $50 would be required, it said.
The article quotes US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt as calling the leaflets “the real deal,” and Secretary of State John Kerry’s response certainly sounded as if he took the situation seriously. Kerry called the threats “beyond unacceptable” and “grotesque.”

There was a denial on the part of the leader of Donetsk’s pro-Russian movement, Denis Pushilin: he acknowledged the leaflets were published under the name of the organization he heads, but denied any knowledge of their publication or distribution. Still, the situation in Ukraine is anything but stable, and the leaflets aren’t really a whole lot more outrageous than what the Russian government under Vladimir Putin routinely does to gays. Why should it be difficult to believe that a reasonably good-sized splinter group might adopt a different and time-honored bogeyman?

But, for all the seemingly careful sourcing of the article, the situation doesn’t seem to be as dire as we believed. Oh, the leaflets are real enough. But the folks at PolitiFact, who do good research even if their conclusions are often wackadoodly, smelled something fishy. According to their report,
Reporters on the ground quickly found that no one was actually being registered.
PolitiFact exchanged emails with Ari Shapiro, an NPR international correspondent reporting from Donetsk, who said there is a real flier, but it went ignored until the media caught on. Shapiro himself went after the story and shared his reporting with us….
Donetsk chief rabbi Pinchas Vishedski acknowledged the flier’s existence, but called it a provocation, Shapiro reported. U.S. media outlets like Vox and the New Republic have also questioned its validity. A New York Times report from Donetsk said that militants never intended to set up a registry, and the room designated for registering Jews sat empty Thursday.
Even Julia Ioffe’s New Republic article, however, while attributing the story to the “Ukrainian rumor mill,” nonetheless points out the anti-Semitic tendencies by at least some on both sides of the turmoil in eastern Ukraine. She quotes independent Russian journalist Vladimir Fedorin as saying “I think the fliers are fake, but the anti-Maidan crowd is a collection of the hardcore ‘alternative’ variety and criminals, so it’s possible some of them are capable of this.” Indeed, the consensus seems to be that the pamphlets and the masked men who distributed them were, in the words of Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, part of “a series of cynical and politically manipulative uses and accusations of anti-Semitism in Ukraine over the past year.”

In other words, everything about the story is real except the story itself. Anti-semitism exists in a sufficiently significant way—quantitatively and qualitatively—in Ukraine that this kind of stunt could gain traction. And the distribution of the fliers actually happened, and was more than a little creepy. But the people on the ground, foremost among them the overwhelming majority of Donetsk’s Jews, seem pretty much unfazed by the whole affair.

Were Curmie of cynical disposition, he might wonder about the competence of American intelligence forces and/or Secretary Kerry that a little problem was treated like a big one. The press didn’t help, of course, but there’s a difference between a few cranks trying to embarrass the other guy and Holocaust 2.0. It would be nice if the people responsible for knowing the difference actually… you know… knew the difference.

The other story that “got” Curmie this week was a satire piece that seemed credible because yes, those people are that stupid. They just didn’t manifest it in quite this way. Yes, it is true that Texas governor-in-waiting Greg Abbott, whose mental abilities rank somewhere above Louie Gohmert’s and somewhere below those of a butternut squash, does indeed base part of his education policy on the ideas of the even more appallingly moronic Charles Murray.

That would be the Charles Murray who is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “white nationalist,” who argues that it benefits women to be paid less than men, and who said this week that he had found no “evidence” to prove that any woman had been a “significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions.” One would have thought that as a self-described libertarian, he might have found a little room in his pantheon for Ayn Rand, at least, if not for Simone de Beauvoir, Hélène Cixous, George Eliot, Emma Goldman, Hildegarde von Bingen, Julia Kristeva, Susanne Langer, Rosa Luxemburg, Iris Murdoch, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, or Simone Weil… to name but a few.

But even Murray and Abbott aren’t quite as dim-witted as an article on the satire site Newslo reported. Curmie confesses he skimmed instead of read the article and therefore missed the first “tell”—the line so preposterous that not even a moron could say it with a straight face. Generally, there are at least two per story, so you know something is up with the story when you get to the second one. Missing the first, though, messes up the interpretative process. In this case, that first “tell” was:
“It’s not that I have anything against women. They’re nice enough, but it’s just a physical fact that their brains have developed [notice our tendency to insert “not” into that phrase] to the same degree that men’s brains have developed.

“I’m not a doctor,” he added, “but it may have something to do with their need to develop breasts. The human body can’t do everything.”
And I missed the Newslo banner. Result: I trimmed a couple more IQ points off both Murray and Abbott than they deserved, and trust me, they don’t have a lot to spare. This one is on me, however. I could argue—with reason—that confirmation bias is actually healthy: that treating what some people say with skepticism if not disdain is the only way to survive. Fool me once, blah blah blah. There’s a point at which that’s true, but really, I screwed up. The satire site played by the rules, and I just missed it.

These two stories tell us something about natural skepticism. I actually distrusted the legitimate news story (“legitimate” in the sense of reporting actual facts, however distorted the view might have been) more than the parody piece. I desperately didn’t want to believe it, for one thing, so although I did post a link to the USA Today story on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, I did so with a voice in the back of my head suggesting that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. But I guess the leap from suggesting that there have been no female “significant original thinkers” to asserting that women’s brains are smaller (a well-played homage to the once-prevalent argument concerning racial differences in cranial capacity) just didn’t click as significant. Whether that’s because I’m getting too smug or because yahoos like Abbott and Murray make satire redundant is a tough call.

I’ll try to do better. They won’t.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Fire, Blood, and Curmie Contention

Curmie has a Word document consisting exclusively of links to stories he’d like to write about when he gets a chance. At the end of every calendar year, he purges the list of topics and starts again. There are two categories—education and everything else. Sometimes the line is kind of fuzzy: where to put a discussion of the NCAA, for example.

What with a hiatus of over two months, there’s quite a backlog of stories just from 2014—big enough, to be sure, that I’ll never get to them all. Right now, there are 17 in the “education” category and 32 in the “other” group. But if there’s one thing I feel I owe you, Gentle Reader, it’s discussion of legitimate contenders for the 4th Annual Curmie Award, to be awarded in January of 2015 for transgressions committed this year. And we’ve got a couple of doozies.

Today’s contender comes from Bergen Community College in New Jersey, where a professor was suspended for posting a photo of his daughter to his Google+ account. No, not because it embarrassed the school that one of its profs is so uncool that he uses Google+. The Censorious Asshat Brigade objected to the “threat” associated with the 7-year-old’s t-shirt, which quoted a catch-phrase from the popular “Game of Thrones” series of books and television episodes. Yes, really.

I trust that you're as terrified by this as Curmie is.
This story, which seems to have been first reported by Inside Higher Education’s Colleen Flaherty has found its way across the Atlantic (here’s the story in The Independent), and to the snarksite AV Club. As might be expected, the folks at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) are already on the case, as is the inimitable Ken White at Popehat. Curmie can’t improve on Ken’s analysis, but he can at least repeat some of it to ensure that the Bergen idiocracy will receive full consideration for a Curmie Award next January.

The case immediately reminded me of the events at the University of Wisconsin-Stout about two and a half years ago. There, the Offending Object was a poster from the short-lived but much-beloved “Firefly” television series. The idiot campus police chief (that’s not quite a redundant expression) decided that it was a threat (it was, in fact, the exact opposite), and doubled down on her petulant ignorance, wrapping herself in righteous dudgeon that her right to violate free expression, to exercise power for its own sake, and to be dumber than a corndog in the process, should be open to criticism.

Naturally, the administration’s “Threat Assessment Team” (I think that’s the name of their comedy troupe), led by Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen, Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes (and the Office of General Counsel, who were at least smart enough to keep their names out of the headlines), backed the inanity of the cop-who-should-have-been-fired-on-the-spot rather than the faculty member (or the 1st amendment, for that matter).

I was smart enough to yield to Ken at Popehat then, too:
If a rational person wouldn’t take it as an actual threat of violence, then it’s not a true threat that can be censored, however much the hysterical, irrational, nanny-stating, coddling, or professionally emo think about it, and however much university chancellors would like to believe otherwise….

A system in which what we can say is premised upon the likely reactions of the mentally ill and the undernourished pussywillows of the world is a system that encourages suppression of all unpopular, forceful, interesting, or challenging speech. The irrational and the morally and mentally weak are not entitled to have their feelings protected through the force of law, however prevalent they are on campus….

If your “UW System Legal Counsel” told you that these posters could be censored based on their content, then stop hiring lawyers out of the back of a bait shop.
Anyway, things finally got back to normal after the university was embarrassed in the national press and the likes of “Firefly” stars Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion joined the chorus. (Baldwin actually tweeted a link to Curmie’s article, helping to make that story the most-viewed ever on this blog until a Russian bot zeroed in on another piece.)

This case may be worse. As was the case at Stout, even someone completely unfamiliar with the specifics would still know in an instant that the expression being used—in this case, “I will take what is mine with fire and blood”—is a pop culture reference. I’ve never read the Game of Thrones books, and I’ve never seen the TV series. But I can recognize mass-produced merchandise when I see it. And that inevitably leads to the presumption that maybe what I’m seeing as a threat might just be a line from a TV show or something. If I’m really curious, I can pop that sucker into a search engine and find 387,000 links (if I use quotation marks; over 28,000,000 if I don’t). My search engine also suggested that I might be interested in the 2 million links to “I will take what is mine with fire and blood t-shirt.”

But that, you see, is what a sensible person would do. It’s different if you’re a dean at a juco in New Jersey. So… Francis Schmidt, a tenured professor of art and animation, is a big “Game of Thrones” fan. And, in anticipation of the trailer for the forthcoming season, he posted a pic of his rather adorable daughter in a show t-shirt. The Google+ post clearly includes not only the photo but Schmidt’s comment, “Trailer for the new season coming out.”

Jim Miller (not the same as the aggrieved faculty member James Miller of the Stout case), the Executive Director of Human Resources at BCC, hauled Schmidt in for questioning with a cadre of administrators including a “security official” because of a “threatening e-mail.” It would be impossible for Miller to be any stupider. First off, it’s not a threat, and no rational person could construe it as such. Second, it’s not an e-mail—the Idiot Miller has his Google+ account set to forward all posts from his “circle”; Schmidt was included, so his public post of his daughter in a t-shirt was regarded as a private threat because… well, because Jim Miller would have to evolve to have the intellectual acumen of a pollywog. Meanwhile, Security Boy (I picture him in a fuchsia lamé cape) intoned that the word “’fire’ could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.” Seriously, how do these people feed themselves? (I suppose it’s a good thing that Schmidt didn’t mention that the actual reference is to dragons, because Miller and his gaggle of incompetents would be calling out the Air National Guard to protect the campus from the imminent aerial reptilian invasion.)

But, as they say on the late-night infomercials, that’s not all. Schmidt explained to the dim-witted Miller and his minions that the quote was from “Game of Thrones.” He did a basic web search and showed the administrators the several million hits. They weren’t impressed. They don’t watch the show, so apparently no one else does, either. So, according to CBS New York, they went out into the hallway, where one of the secretaries promptly identified both the phrase and “the sigil of House Targaryen.”

Case closed, right? Administrators mumbled apologies and shuffled back to their offices, leaving Professor Schmidt befuddled but otherwise unaffected, right? Of course not. These are college administrators, and a significant percentage of these creatures are pathologically incapable of admitting a mistake.

So… several days after the meeting, at which anyone with the brains of a particularly stolid wombat would have been satisfied that there was nothing to worry about, the school suspended Professor Schmidt without pay, pending a psychiatric evaluation. At least he could pass one, unlike the cretinous yahoos who did the suspending.

And then the Idiot-in-Chief President B. Kaye Walter intoned that “she did not believe that the college had acted unfairly, especially considering that there were three school shootings nationwide in January, prior to Schmidt’s post. The suspects in all three shootings were minors targeting their local schools (although three additional shootings at colleges or universities happened later in the month).”
Schmidt is back at work now, but the damage is irreparable. Walter, who is already under fire (see what I did there?) for other reasons, should be gone. So should Miller. So should mouthpiece Larry Hlavenka Jr., who somehow thinks the following is relevant: “Since January 1, 2014, 34 incidents of school shootings have occurred in the United States. In following its safety and security procedures, the college investigates all situations where a member of its community – students, faculty, staff or local residents – expresses a safety or security concern.”

As Ken at Popehat points out:
There are at least two maddening components to this. First, they didn't just “investigate” — they suspended the professor and made him see a psychiatrist because he posted a picture of his daughter in a wildly popular t-shirt from pop culture. Second, the statement is an implicit admission that the college refuses to exercise critical thinking about the complaints it receives. There is no minimally rational connection between school shootings — or any type of violence — and a picture of someone's kid in a pop-culture t-shirt. The college is saying, in effect, “complain to us about your angers or fears, however utterly irrational, and we will act precipitously on them, because OMG 9/11 COLUMBINE TEH CHILDREN.” Shameful. Ask yourself: what kind of education do you think your children will get from people who think like this?
I hate to say it, but Ken under-estimates the problem. This is why I said earlier that this case is even worse than the one at Stout.

First off, the (ahem) “threat” didn’t come from Professor Schmidt, but presumably from his evil girl-spawn, who… uh… okay, she’s really cute. We should also notice that the involvement of the administration didn’t come in the form of covering up for a particularly inept campus cop as it had at Stout; the instigation for this entire round of inanity seems traceable directly to the administration itself.

Moreover, the punishment was handed down after the case had blown up in the administration’s collective gawping faces. It’s one thing to completely misconstrue the meaning of a text, over-react to what you mistakenly thought it meant, and threaten dire consequences to those heretical enough to comment on the emperor’s nakedness. It’s another to have your entire case destroyed by one of your own secretaries and still pursue it because you don’t have the maturity to admit that you fucked up royally.

Finally, and most importantly, James Miller’s “Firefly” poster was on his office door at Stout. True, no one with the intellect of an addlepated chipmunk would think it was a threat, but at least it was on campus. Bergen has no God-damned business interfering with what Professor Schmidt says or does off campus. If you’re really afraid, call the cops. The real ones. The ones who’ll laugh in your face for being a paranoid nebbish. Otherwise, perhaps it might be a good idea to heed the old adage about the superiority of remaining silent and being thought a fool than speaking and removing all doubt.

Professor Schmidt claims that the Bergen administration was retaliating against him for filing a grievance when his application for a sabbatical leave was denied. In this, I have no opinion. Perhaps he’s right. But petulance and petty vengeance aren’t the only forms of incompetence. The real problem at Bergen would seem to be that no one in the administration could do better than third place in a battle of wits with a barstool and an eggplant.