Sunday, July 13, 2014

Gloria Kathurima, Tom Robinson, and the Nature of Racism

in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson
in the trial scene in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird

Sometimes there’s a purely coincidental propinquity of events that helps bring a little clarity… or at least a little introspection.

A few days ago, I wrote about that bizarre float in the 4th of July parade in Norfolk, Nebraska. So, a day or two earlier, did Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall. We came to many of the same conclusions, although whereas Jack was to state unconditionally that the display was not racist, I was a little more circumspect. Here’s what I wrote as a comment on Jack’s essay (with one typo cleaned up):
I’m intrigued by the discussion of racism. Certainly I agree that nothing in the events described qualifies as inherently racist… but I think the word “inherently” matters here. The fact that there is not an obvious racial motivation for what is clearly an intentionally offensive float, one which displays its creator’s “disgust,” does not mean that it is intrinsically devoid of such volition. Even the little boy who cried “wolf” was right once. Similarly, whereas there are those who reflexively scream “racism” at every criticism of the current President, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t expressions of anti-Obama sentiment which really are grounded in the fact that he has a little more melanin than you or I do.

In this case, Ms. Kathurima and her daughter have experienced racism—or believe they have—and you say that you “don’t blame her” for perceiving it in this instance. Nor do I. That Mr. Remmich intended to insult the POTUS, I think goes without saying. Why, specifically, he set out to do so is an open question. Maybe it’s racial. Maybe it’s political. Maybe he knows his neighbors and pandered to their predilections. I certainly don’t know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t, really, either.

I grapple with a variation on this theme constantly in my professional work, especially in the area of communication theory as it applies to aesthetics. Oversimplified a little, the modernist/positivist view is that the sender of a message creates and encodes meaning, and the receiver’s job is to “find” the meaning through a process of decoding. The post-positivist view, however, is to argue that the sender catalyzes rather than creates meaning, that meaning is in fact created by the receiver of the message. To me, the two positions are equally valid.

One of my standard approaches to this dilemma is to suggest to students that “somewhere in this room is someone who has had a major fight with a loved one because what one of you thought you said was not what the other thought he/she heard.” Moreover, whether the “blame” for a misinterpretation should be placed with the sender or the receiver is likely to be influenced in your mind not so much by philosophical or theoretical concerns as by which of those positions you happened to occupy on the occasion in question.

We are left, then, with two significant questions, neither of which I am prepared to answer with confidence. 1). Is the meaning of a communication determined by the sender, the receiver, or by some presumably objective external agent? 2). At what point does a particular reaction pass from confirmation bias into, well, experience?
Jack was kind enough to make my commentary his “Comment of the Day,” and posted it separately on Friday. As a tag to that post, he wrote
1. The meaning of a communication is determined by the sender’s intent.
2. Since most bias is based on experience, I think the answer is both “always” and “never.” Experience doesn’t excuse or validate bias, it just explains it.
The problem with associating meaning with the sender’s intent, of course, is spelled out in Jack’s own later comment on the same post—it requires the presumption of “competent communication.” And if nothing else can be asserted with confidence about this particular mess, I feel comfortable in asserting that Mr. Remmich cannot be counted on to provide such competence, or it would have been a hell of a lot easier to figure out that a). he was portraying himself as the zombie-ish figure standing in frustration outside the outhouse/presidential library on the float, and b). that he was upset by the VA and Bergdahl incidents. Indeed, we could lay the entire responsibility for the communicative process on the listener if only we could limit ourselves to “competent interpretation.” Alas, there far too many potholes in far too many places along the road to communication to blame any one source.

In a comment on his own post, Jack added, “If the woman who thought the float was racist thinks any criticism of the President must be racist, the sender [can’t] do a thing about that, other than not communicate at all.” There is no evidence to suggest that she thinks that at all, and Jack’s comment could be taken either as a true hypothetical or as an assertion that she is guilty of this narrow-mindedness. I’m guessing the former. But I base that conclusion in part on “knowing” Jack—we’ve read and commented on a lot of each other’s blog pieces over the last three and a half years, and we even met in person for a few minutes once. Anyway, the idea of different perceptions stuck with me later in the day.

My wife and I went to see a university production of To Kill a Mockingbird directed by one of my colleagues Friday night. In the play, as in the book and movie, Tom Robinson, a young black man, stands accused of assaulting a white woman. By the time he testifies, two things are clear: that he is innocent, and that he will probably be convicted anyway, despite a spirited and persuasive defense by our hero, Atticus Finch. Robinson had in fact run from the scene of the crime, however, after being seen by the girl’s father (who, by now, has been clearly established as the real cause of his daughter’s injuries; there was no rape at all). Here’s are the questions and the testimony (this is from the book; the play may be slightly different):
”Then you ran.”
“I sho’ did, suh.”
“Why did you run?”
“I was scared, suh.”
“Why were you scared?”
“Mr. Finch, if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too.”
What struck me, apart from the obvious truth of the statement given the setting in 1930s Alabama, was the use of the word “scared.” That word stood out. Gloria Kathurima, the Kenyan immigrant/naturalized citizen who had become something of a flashpoint in the Norfolk controversy had used it, too: describing her reaction to the float and the responses of her fellow parade-goers. “That's when I really became scared,” she said.

I remember thinking that was a strange turn of phrase, especially for someone as articulate and seemingly unflappable as Ms. Kathurima. I could understand “disgusted” or “resentful” or even “irate.” But “scared” seemed odd. I didn’t think much of it until seeing the show last night and hearing Tom Robinson talk about being “scared.”

The scene and the story of To Kill a Mockingbird as a whole are structured so that there is absolutely no doubt that Tom Robinson has every right to be afraid. If he didn’t get out of that shack and as far away as possible as fast as possible, he’d be beaten or possibly lynched. Everybody knew it—everybody in the fictive courtroom that day, and all the real people who read the book, saw the movie, or watched the play. Still, our reaction was probably more sympathetic than empathetic—most of us can approximate an intellectual understanding of what would be going through the mind of someone like Tom Robinson, but few—I hope—will have first-hand experience of that sort of terror.

The case in Norfolk is more nuanced. The bad guys of the piece—such as they are—are merely boorish in an ignorant and unsophisticated way: they are nothing like the embodiment of evil we see in the Ewell clan in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is impossible to believe that Gloria Kathurima’s “really… scared” was anything like Tom Robinson’s. On the other hand, it would be the height of arrogance to suggest that someone who looks like me understands completely what someone who looks like Ms. Kathurima goes through on a daily basis. If I were “[black] like her,” if I had endured the quotidian slights, the subtle ostracisms, and possibly worse, perhaps I’d be scared, too.

It is perfectly possible that a dispassionate observer would say that Ms. Kathurima has suffered the effects of racism not at all, that her perceptions of it are totally unfounded. It is even more plausible that the same objective witness would see no race-related intent on Mr. Remmich’s part. But I can’t see that that’s the end of the discussion. We can’t know what was in Remmich’s mind; someone even suggested on Curmie’s Facebook page that his stated reasons for making the float had been made up post facto when someone called him on his racism. That’s possible, although I doubt it.

And whereas Jack was right in his original post to suggest that Kathurima “has been told over and over again by Melissa Harris-Perry, Chris Matthews, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, the NAACP and others that President Obama is a great man who is being robbed of the credit due him by the racism of his enemies,” he also points out that “she is used to racism, [and] the scene of a mostly white crowd laughing at what she may have thought was a crude depiction of black President must have felt like a minstrel show to her. I don’t blame her.”  I might add, too, my oft-repeated observation that whereas all racism is stupid, not all stupidity, even when dealing with people of different skin colors, is racist.

It is, after all, all about perception. Because, as Atticus Finch reminds us, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Good advice.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Matter of Context: Yes, That Float Was Tacky

The world’s first great democracy, ancient Athens, showcased the strength of its government and citizenry by a variety of means, not the least of which was self-mockery. At the Lenaea Festival and later even at the Great City Dionysia, the polis staged rowdy and vulgar satires that left no one free from the scathing wit of the likes of Aristophanes, whose barbs were aimed at everyone from the strategos Cleon (The Knights) to Socrates (The Clouds) to the demi-god Dionysus himself (The Frogs). Variations on the theme appear in other governmental systems as well: the Feast of Fools, for example, or the wide political latitude granted to the court jester.

The phenomenon may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, but a little reflection leads us to the simple fact that the ability to laugh at oneself is a sign of strength, not weakness. This phenomenon has also played out in this country’s fairly recent history. One of the most reassuring moments in the period immediately after 9/11, for example, was when David Letterman went back on the air in New York. But we knew we were really going to be all right when he started telling Bush jokes again.

So there is nothing whatsoever wrong with satirizing American politicians, up to and including President Obama. Except, well…

In Norfolk, Nebraska this 4th of July, a float carried on the back of a flatbed truck showed, in the words of the Omaha World Herald’s Hunter Woodall:
... a figure standing outside an outhouse labeled the “Obama Presidential Library”.…
The figure was dressed in overalls and standing next to a walker outside of the outhouse. The hands and head of the figure were greenish and appeared to be zombielike; the hands were pressed against the sides of the figure’s head. Miniature American flags were atop the float and on the truck.
As one might expect, there were two fundamentally different responses, or rather two fundamentally different sets of responses. There were those, like Gloria Kathurima, who regarded the float as “not OK,” and indeed as “not just political [but] absolutely a racial statement.” Kathurima, who immigrated from Kenya as a girl and is now a naturalized citizen, was, according to the NBC affiliate in Sioux City, IA (about 90 miles to the northeast), “deeply offended.” The station aired an interview with her in which she says, “[Some people were] laughing, some people were pointing, some people were clapping, and that’s when I really became scared. I was thinking ‘What are you guys laughing at? What's remotely funny about this?’ I don't see any sort of policy being argued. I don't see any sort of stance being taken.”

We can argue with the characterization of racism—see Jack Marshall’s piece at Ethics Alarms, for example—but in a town in which whites outnumber blacks by a ratio of about 55:1, an apparently gratuitous insult to a black man who also happens to be the President of the United States does take on a certain distastefulness. Couple that with Kathurima’s daughter’s experience in the local school district—descriptions of the other kids’ not liking her, always wanting to touch her hair: this speaks to an alienation, whether or not inspired by racial animus. Intended or not, that’s going to look a lot like “a racial statement” to a lot of people, especially those with a little more melanin than average in a small Nebraska town.

But even if we discount the racial element altogether, we’re still left agreeing with Jack Marshall’s list of adjectives: “wrong,” “harmful,” “ugly,” “inept,” “unfunny,” and “divisive.” Ms. Kathumira is unquestionably correct that there really isn’t a policy statement to be derived from the display: just contempt for the current President. And here’s where we get to the other group of people mentioned earlier: the ones who approved the float, the ones who laughed—these are not the cream of the nation’s intellectual crop.

But H. Dale Remmich, who designed and built this monstrosity, is a special kind of incompetent. He claims to have had two impetuses for his creation: the “ongoing issues of the Veteran's Affairs administration” and “the government's handling of the Bergdahl scandal.” OK, if you tell me that I’m looking for the former in this float’s satiric intent, I might be able to find my way there with a guide dog—I guess the figure could be taken to be a veteran whose benefits got bound up in VA incompetence. (Remmich claims it was intended to represent himself… why it was so intended is less than entirely clear.) But the Bergdahl case? How in the name of all that’s holy are we supposed to derive that particular meaning, based on this ill-conceived and poorly constructed monument to self-described “political disgust”?

For all this, Remmich is an intellectual giant compared to the judges who gave the float an award and especially to parade committee member Rick Konopasek and announcer Wally Sonnenschein, whose mental superiority to a decaying cucumber is not immediately apparent. Konopasek, having just said that floats could and would be denied for being “morally objectionable,” meaning, apparently, that anything sexual would be banned, immediately proceeds to claim that “If we start saying no to certain floats, we might as well not have a parade at all.” Uh, Rick… you are, presumably, saying no to certain floats.

The prize-winner, however, is Sonnenschein, who, it seems, was able to keep a straight face while declaring that “I really don’t see anything wrong with the Obama float and I’m kind of amazed anyone is complaining.” The first part of his statement is no doubt true, more’s the pity. The second part is either utterly disingenuous or ol’ Wally would come in third place in a battle of wits with a corn dog and an anvil.

The fact is that context matters. If this parade has a history of poking a little fun at political leaders, so be it. But no one seems to be defending the float on those grounds, meaning that this year’s entry was probably an outlier: one that should have been denied a spot in the parade for being out of tune with the purpose of the event. Analogously, when Representative Joe Wilson interrupted the State of the Union address a few years back to shout “You lie” at the President, he was rightly rebuked not because his accusation was inaccurate (although it was, at least in that particular moment), or that he didn’t have the legal right to object to the speech, but rather because expressing himself in that way, in those circumstances, was boorish, disrespectful of the presidency (not merely of the President), and a disgrace to his own constituency.

One of the things that stuck in my mind this Independence Day season was the number of friends who rejoiced in the fact that for this one day, at least, we get to cease being members of a particular political party or religion or race or socio-economic status and simply be Americans. Remmich, Konopasek, Sonnenschein and their ilk seek to deny us that unity, and we are all the poorer for that.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The NEA Demands Arne Duncan's Resignation; No One Cares

Yesterday, the rank and file of the National Education Association passed a resolution demanding that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan resign, not that you’d know that from any of the major news organizations: as I write this, it’s now been about 15 hours since the vote, with nary a peep from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the New York Times, the Washington Post, even the Chronicle of Higher Education… well, you get the idea. Hell, it didn’t even make it the NEA’s own website, although the election of new officers is right there at the top of the main page.

One would have thought that such a declaration of no confidence in the nation’s foremost education administrator from the country’s largest educational organization (3,000,000+ members) might cause at least a ripple in the national media. Nope.

There are, no doubt, a number of reasons why. For one thing, the vote came late in the afternoon, on a holiday, at the beginning of a weekend. That’s pretty much the gold standard if you want a take-out-the-trash announcement. So was it intentional, or inept? It’s hard to say. It was certainly the latter if NEA wants its resolutions to be relevant to a larger discussion of education issues. But it’s tempting to think that the leadership, which has always been a lot cozier with the reformist movement (Common Core, charter schools, etc.) than the membership has been, anticipated the possibility that they just might not be able to deflect the anger of the rank and file again, just because similar “business items” in previous years failed. So having the vote when the rest of the country was firing up the grill and waiting for the fireworks to start may have been a strategic move. I doubt it, but only because I don’t think the NEA leadership is that smart.

After all, Secretary Duncan has proved himself repeatedly to be the worst kind of arrogant, duplicitous, corporatist hack. Everyone in the education business knew that last year and the year before that and the year before that, but now we also have his remarkably tone-deaf initial response to the Vergara case in California, which essentially eliminated tenure in the public school system in that state:
For students in California and every other state, equal opportunities for learning must include the equal opportunity to be taught by a great teacher. The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students. Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these problems. Together, we must work to increase public confidence in public education. This decision presents an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve. My hope is that today’s decision moves from the courtroom toward a collaborative process in California that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift. Every state, every school district needs to have that kind of conversation. At the federal level, we are committed to encouraging and supporting that dialogue in partnership with states. At the same time, we all need to continue to address other inequities in education–including school funding, access to quality early childhood programs and school discipline.
He backpedaled a few days later, but a lot of teachers—rightly, I think—read the first statement as an indictment not only of tenure but of teachers’ unions and indeed of teachers in general. The Vergara decision was, of course, an abomination, although some of the underlying issues do need to be addressed. Duncan’s second run at saying something intelligent about the case wasn’t too bad—supporting tenure but arguing that it shouldn’t be granted after only 18 months on the job, for example—but, especially given his support of what detractors have called the GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement) movement, it was too little, too late.

So, in Curmie’s ever-so-humble opinion, Arne Duncan richly deserves to be out of a job. But that’s not really the question here. The question is why nobody cares that the NEA thinks so, too. For one thing, the resolution carries no teeth. The NEA hasn’t demanded Duncan’s job, before, but they’ve certainly passed sweeping condemnations of his job performance: Here’s a link to Valerie Strauss’s coverage of a 2011 resolution, for example. And he’s more influential in the Obama administration now than he was before those scathing critiques. The principal reason for this is encapsulated by Mike Antonucci on the Hot Air site:
This particular item was introduced in a rather odd speech from California Teachers Association president Dean Vogel, who went on about leaders needing to take responsibility for what happens under their charge. Vogel asked rhetorically “Where does the buck stop?” and concluded “The guy at the top has got to go.” Apparently the buck stopped far from the guy at the top if Arne Duncan is the cause of all this angst.
That’s it, in a nutshell. The problem isn’t Duncan (well, it isn’t just Duncan); it’s the guy who chose him, the guy who really sets policy, the guy who either didn’t demand or didn’t accept Duncan’s resignation at the end of his first term (as he did for, say, Hillary Clinton), the guy whose former mouthpieces Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt are now scurrying across the countryside stoking anti-tenure lawsuits.

The real problem isn’t the guy on the left; it’s the guy on the right.
The problem, in other words, is Barack Obama, who won the NEA’s endorsement in both 2008 and 2012. The NEA has never endorsed a Republican for President (they have in gubernatorial races), and Mitt Romney sure as hell wasn’t the one to break the precedent for, but they’re under no statutory obligation to endorse anyone, of course. It is more than a little telling that the Education Week piece linked at the top of this piece says that the union “had no choice but to throw its weight behind Obama” in 2012. This is, of course, unmitigated bovine feces. Yet, as I wrote about two years ago, the 2012 NEA convention had all the trappings of an Obama re-election rally, with t-shirts inscribed with Obama’s name, videos, and delegates’ being encouraged to hold “house parties” to “educate their friends about why Obama… deserves a second term.” There were even encomia to the ACA, which seems sort of out of the organization’s purview.

The NEA, in other words, can’t seem to wrap its collective head around the idea that 1). all the proclamations in the world aren’t going to get President Obama to fire Secretary Duncan or to get him to resign (as Peter Greene at Curmudgucation points out in an essay well worth reading in its entirety, it’s “[interesting] that the resolution calls for Duncan to resign rather than the President to fire him”) and 2). replacing Duncan wouldn’t mean a new direction for the Department of Education, just a new second-in-command to the same President who thought Duncan was an even vaguely appealing choice to begin with.

It may be, as Greene also notes, that there will be a message sent:
... that teachers have had it with this amateur-hour bullshit trash-and-dismantle approach to our profession and the public education that we've devoted our lives to. Let's continue to make it clear to the folks in DC that we have had it with their assault on American public education. Let's continue to make it clear to the Democratic party it's not true that they don't have to stand up for us because we'll vote for them no matter how many times they attack us. And let's continue to make it clear to NEA leadership that we expect them to represent the teachers of America, and not politicians who keep attacking them.
But that, as Greene is well aware, is both wishful thinking and long-term, at least as far as having substantive impact on national decision-making is concerned. In the here and now, the NEA has less power to influence educational policy than it has at any point in my lifetime, and an utterly ineffectual (and close) vote, clearly not sanctioned by a diffident and equivocal leadership, to remove the Secretary of Education isn’t going to strengthen their political suasion, especially since Obama, like most politicians, is not above petulant retaliation.

All these reasons, then, help to account for the deafening silence about the NEA’s resolution that we hear from the corporate media. That, and the fact that they’re lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to actually cover the news.

Friday, July 4, 2014

American Apparel and More Than One Disaster

What American Apparel Posted
The Interwebs brouhaha du jour comes to us from the fine folks at American Apparel, the troubled but still (perhaps) trendy purveyor of overpriced clothing and sexualized advertising—all with a social conscience, of course. Apparently some enterprising lad or lass with admin access to the corporation’s Tumblr account posted a Photoshopped image of the Challenger explosion in what may have been somehow related to celebrating Independence Day. The actual post has now vanished (of course), but a screengrab shows that it was tagged “smoke, clouds.”

Was this image intended to be fireworks? That’s a rather bizarre claim, but so says the Ryan Parker of the Los Angeles Times.* I find no evidence to support this assertion. Of course, a dazzling array of other media outlets blithely repeated the Parker’s claim without checking it out: here’s Talking Points Memo, NBC, and WHNT (Huntsville, AL), for example. (Who’d have guessed that the New York Daily News, of all places, would actually get the story right?)

* Note: in the time it’s taken me to write this piece (taking time out to watch the Colombia-Brazil match at the World Cup), the LA Times has amended their on-line story to suggest that “It is unclear if the image was mistaken for fireworks or clouds.” Nice try, guys, but I know what your story said at first, both by having read it and having seen it widely cited elsewhere. You made an irresponsible claim, and now you’re saying it’s “unclear.” As in, “it is unclear whether reporters for the LA Times are required to obey any sort of code of journalistic ethics,” apparently.

The more iconic photo used in the LA Times story.
I should also note that the Times and TPM, among others, used what are in fact instantly recognizable photographs of the explosion to accompany their coverage, rather than showing the Photoshopped, re-colorized, image American Apparel’s social media maven found on an English designer’s Tumblr page.

Anyway, American Apparel issued a public apology:
We deeply apologize for today’s Tumblr post of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The image was re-blogged in error by one of our international social media employees who was born after the tragedy and was unaware of the event. We sincerely regret the insensitivity of that selection and the post has been deleted.
There are three levels of wrong here, and Curmie admits he’s not sure which one is worse. But I’m pretty sure of who’s the least culpable: the person who actually made the mistake (assuming, and I’m not so naïve as to take this on faith, that it actually was a mistake). True, the image found on Tumblr doesn’t look a whole lot like smoke and clouds (and still less like fireworks), but I confess I wouldn’t have instantly recognized the source. It is not the iconic image of the Challenger explosion; it’s the sort of picture where a lot of people might say, “oh, yeah, I see it now.” And remember, the image is actually upside-down (and yes, that matters.)

The company’s apology is more than a little weird, however. “Born after the tragedy and… unaware of the event”? Born after January of 1986? Sure. This person could be in his/her mid-to-late-20s by now. “Unaware of the event”? Are you freaking kidding me? We’re talking about one of the signature events of the decade, here, even if that “international social media employee” means that American Apparel, which touts its American roots when it works to the corporation’s advantage to do so turns its social media over to non-Americans. Unaware of the event? As in, not “didn’t immediately recognize an edited photograph,” but “had no idea this ever happened”? Let’s see, what’s an equivalent event that happened a couple of years before I was born? Bobby Thompson’s home run against Ralph Branca? Nope. Too obscure unless you’re a baseball fan. The end of the Korean War? Too general. I’ve got it: Edward R. Murrow’s famous rebuke of Senator Joe McCarthy. And hey, guess what? I knew about it before I graduated from high school, let alone before taking a full-time job in a position of responsibility post-college.

Moreover, this isn’t the first time American Apparel has done something outrageous in their self-promotion. There was the obviously completely intentional “Hurricane Sandy Sale” a couple of years ago, for example, available only in areas hit by the storm and advertised by the cutline “In case you’re bored during the storm”. Were I of cynical disposition (perish the thought!), I might suggest that, given their history of questionable social media behavior and their hypersexualized ad campaigns (designed, no doubt, to stir controversy for its own sake), that someone—more likely a group of someones—high up in that corporate structure is convinced of the aphorism that all publicity is good publicity.

We are left inevitably with only four possible explanations: American Apparel is collectively illiterate (they meant to say something other than what they did in their apology), they’re lying, they hire uneducated buffoons and put them in the position of representing the corporation to the rest of the world, or they’re just a collection of right little assholes looking for notoriety in whatever form it might come. I confess that I find all of these possibilities rather unsettling… indeed, I’d stop shopping there, except for the fact that in order to stop, I’d have to start.

The press’s response, of course, has been a lot closer to sensationalist than to sensational. I’m happy to run a retraction if someone can provide legitimate evidence that I should, but for now I’m going to go with this: Ryan Parker and the LA Times published an assertion with no evidence, hosts of media outlets blithely repeated these speculations (if they even rise to that level) as fact, and a fair number of “reputable” news websites ran versions of the most famous photographs of the Challenger disaster rather than what American Apparel actually posted, thereby quite intentionally attempting to deceive their readership.

Why? Because they’re lazy? Absolutely. Interested in making the story “sexy,” whether it’s true of not? Of course. Unprofessional? Self-evidently. Dishonest? Yep.

In short, no one looks good here.  Imagine my surprise. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

More Updates and Variations on Themes

Curmie is not yet ready to respond in an adult manner to the mind-blowingly stupid SCOTUS decision in the Hobby Lobby case—calling five Supreme Court Justices doo-doo heads probably isn’t the most eloquent of rebuttals, but I’m so bewildered that even the likes of Alito and Thomas could be that illogical, could so readily ignore precedent, could so conflate personal religious conviction with sound legal opinion that I can’t do better right now. Justice Ginsberg calls it a “mine field.” Curmie thinks she’s being optimistic.

Anyway, let’s return, instead, to the updates and variations on themes started a couple of days ago.

The Nation’s Rape Capital
We start with a story I first covered in July 2012: the term “rape culture” may be thrown around a little too frequently these days, but it certainly applies to Missoula, Montana, the University of Montana, and especially the football team. I wrote then that:
There’s little wonder that there’s a widespread belief that 1). sexual assault is not being treated very seriously in Missoula—not by the university and not by the local police, 2). the looking the other way is especially pronounced when football players are involved, and 3). the intervention of the DOJ is not merely appropriate but necessary.
Now there’s more from Missoula: a petulant display from the County Attorney, rejecting not merely some but apparently all of the DOJ’s recommendations for his office. Keep in mind here that Curmie is no fan of federal interference in local affairs, but when a city of under 70,000 people is seeing a sexual assault reported well over once a week for a period of several years (who knows how many weren’t reported), when that small city has come to be known as the nation’s “rape capital,” well, it’s pretty clear that the locals are either unwilling or unable to do the job. (Curmie bets on the former.)

Dana Liebelson of Mother Jones describes the proposed changes as follows: “The DOJ recommended adding two or three new staff positions, including an advocate for victims; ramping up training for county supervisors and prosecutors; and collecting more data on sexual-assault cases, including feedback from victims.” In some, perhaps even most, environments, telling the Feds to take a long walk on a short pier would be absolutely justified. But, in a city where a detective told a woman who was vomiting during her assault that “she might have had a case if she had been unconscious during the rape rather than merely incapacitated,” where another victim was asked why she hadn’t fought harder and asked “Tell me the truth—is this something we want to go through with?,” then I might perhaps be permitted a little skepticism about the claim that “the Missoula Police Department and our office have done a very good job of handling sexual-assault allegations regardless of what national and local news accounts may indicate.” If this is “very good,” one shudders to imagine what “horrible” looks like.

So Missoula remains Rape Central. Everyone from the police to prosecutors seems to be more concerned with proclaiming their competence than in proving it. There may be—or may have been—a very bad atmosphere swirling around the university football team. But the real problem lies with those sworn to protect the citizenry and—intentionally or otherwise—utterly failing to do so.

Gwendolyn Williams: Not Overweight
The “Fat Letter”
Next—a story I wrote about in October 2013, when 11-year-old Lily Grasso, a healthy, athletic girl in Naples, Florida, received the so-called “fat letter” because, although she’s fit enough to be on the volleyball team, at 5’3” and 124 pounds, she meets some idiot’s definition of “at risk” and “overweight.” A variation on the theme has now occurred on Staten Island: 9-year old Gwendolyn Williams (4’1”, 66 pounds), who is apparently precisely one pound over the average weight for her height and age. For this, she was described as “overweight” by some sub-moronic “Fitnessgram” from the city Department of Education. As might be expected, the DOE digs its own grave snootily defending itself. Here are the last three paragraphs of the New York Post article:
A DOE spokeswoman defended the Fitnessgrams Thursday as “just one indicator … which helps students develop personal goals for lifelong health.”

But for Gwendolyn, the Fitnessgrams are just dumb.

“I know that I’m not overweight, so why should I believe the New York Department of Education?” she said.
If Fitnessgrams are “just one indicator,” why not get more information before labeling children, especially girls, as overweight? In fact, Gwendolyn is absolutely correct: Fitnessgrams are indeed just dumb, and she shouldn’t believe the New York Department of Education about, well, anything. And that’s the problem—the DOE has made itself look silly, and has lost considerable credibility. That’s a bad thing, on the off chance that there are some things at which they are not as arrogant as they are hopelessly inept.

Moving on… In January of this year, I wrote about an online poll that got hijacked first (perhaps) by SeaWorld employees and then (for sure) by people reacting to the perceived manipulation. The poll had to do with the publicity generated by the documentary film “Blackfish,” which shows SeaWorld in a considerably less than positive light.

Now comes more evidence against SeaWorld’s protestations that “No one knows for sure how long killer whales live. Long-term studies will ultimately answer this question. By counting growth layers in teeth, scientists find that killer whales in the North Atlantic may live to 35 years.” If orcas “may” live to be 35, then the fact that most of those held in captivity at SeaWorld die in their 20s and the average lifespan in captivity is 4 ½ years is only mildly troublesome. Unfortunately for the spinmeisters at SeaWorld, J2 (a.k.a. “Granny”), recently spotted off Canada’s western coast, is 103 and was photographed in the 1930s. Oops. Tell me again how captivity doesn’t harm these magnificent, intelligent, social, creatures. But you’d better bring your A game if you want to leave without a bitch-slapping.

“Gang Signs”
In February I wrote about two brothers in Wisconsin who were (initially) suspended from school for making “gang signs” in a photograph published in the local paper. The fact that they are basketball players (the photo was of them in the uniform of their high school team) and that the principal ever-so-scary gang sign in question was universally recognizable as the signal for a three-point shot never quite penetrated the fog that surrounds the brains of school officials.

Dontadrian Bruce: Not a Gang-Banger
Whether there’s a racial element at play here is up for debate. What isn’t is that the students in question are African-American. So, coincidentally or otherwise, is Dontadrian Bruce, who was suspended from his school in Olive Branch, Mississippi for the same infraction. There are two differences: Dontadrian plays football instead of basketball, and his gesture, he says was to illustrate the number on his uniform: 3. This is a little less obviously innocuous than the Jackson brothers’ gestures. That makes me only virtually certain that his gesture was completely innocent, whereas the Jacksons’ case attained ontological certitude.

Nonetheless (or, given the genius displayed by most high school administrators, therefore), a disciplinary committee ruled in favor of “indefinite suspension with a recommendation of suspension” because, apparently unknown to young Mr. Bruce, the seemingly innocent gesture we see him make—that looks exactly like the way a European would signal the number 3 (not to mention virtually identical to the ASL sign for the number)—is “affiliated” with the Chicago-based gang the Vice Lords, which according to one news report “has a known presence in the nearby area,” whatever that means. Dontadrian says he was “trying to tell [his] side, and it was like they didn’t even care.” I believe him. Why? Because there had better be some real evidence before throwing a kid—any kid, even a trouble-maker (and Dontadrian isn’t one)—on the scrap heap. Stupid “zero tolerance” policy (the usual apologies for redundancy) or not, a little common sense had damned well better enter the equation at some point. Assistant Principal Todd Nichols and every member of that disciplinary committee deserve to be fired and paraded through town in stocks wearing signs that say “I convicted a kid on no evidence because I couldn’t be bothered to care about justice.” I was tempted to put “stripped naked” in the previous sentence, but nobody wants to see that.

Seriously, though, if schools in general were as interested in teaching our kids as they are in convicting them of phony transgressions, I’d be a lot more confident about the nation’s future. (By the way, the school finally lifted the suspension—the world-wide humiliation the school faced and the 2600-member Facebook group of Dontadrian’s supporters has nothing to do with that, I’m sure.)

Steve Green: Not Law-Abiding
Steve Green
Finally, we turn to another of the ongoing exploits of Hobby Lobby’s sanctimonious Hypocrite-in-Chief, Steve Green. Back in April, I wrote about Green’s successful attempt to convince the blithering idiots of the Mustang school district in suburban Oklahoma City that an unquestionably evangelical course on the Bible was just what that public school curriculum needed. Green’s pitch was patently disingenuous—same as his Obamacare complaint—but, given the complete lack of concern for, say, education or the Constitution evinced by school board members, the proposed course sailed through.

Now it turns out that Green met privately with members of the school board just hours before the vote: an apparently clear violation of Oklahoma’s Open Meetings Act.
The April 14 meetings with Steve Green and other members of the Museum of the Bible curriculum team occurred just hours before the Mustang School Board approved the course as an elective for the fall. The Mustang superintendent acknowledged insisting on separate presentations so the public wouldn’t have to be invited, and did so at the direction of Green and his public relations representatives.

“I want to emphasize again that per my conversation with Ashleigh and the decision to break into two groups, that this will not be a public meeting,” Superintendent Sean McDaniel wrote in one of the emails obtained under an Open Records Act request, referring to a woman at the Saxum public relations company, which represents Hobby Lobby and helped set up the meetings.

The Oklahoma County prosecutor said the move—which involved the board leaving its base in Canadian County and traveling to Oklahoma City—could create a potential violation if it is proven to be a deliberate attempt to go around laws that require government bodies to meet openly.

“Even if there’s an out-of-county board, if they come here and meet in an attempt to circumvent the Open Meetings Act, just because they’ve met in a place that’s not routine, doesn’t mean they circumvent their requirements for meetings,” Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said.”  If someone is going to that great of length to avoid quorum, it sounds like they’re being pretty darn careful.
So it turns out that Steve Green is not only a duplicitous, pompous fraud and a disgusting human being—we knew that long ago, after all—he also quite likely broke the law (or told his minions to do so). But there is a bright side: he strengthened Superintendent McDaniel’s case for Curmie Award consideration.