Friday, June 12, 2015

Kent State and Curmie's Coming of Age

All of us have that moment: the one that brings the world into focus and changes everything. Perhaps it’s a moment of triumph (the moon landing or the election of the nation’s first African-American President); perhaps it’s a moment of despair (the assassination of John Kennedy or the attacks of 9/11).

From the May 4 museum. 
The iconic image of Mary Vecchio
screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller.
For those of Curmie’s generation, there were lots of choices: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Apollo moon landing; maybe Woodstock… or Altamont, the alleged death of the Hippie era; the resignation of Richard Nixon. For me, though, there’s no question: it was the killing of four Kent State students by National Guardsmen on May 4, 1970.

I was 14, finishing up 9th grade in a few weeks. My father, a loyal supporter of President Nixon, was President of one of the SUNY campuses, so I literally lived on a college campus: the view out of my bedroom window was of two dorms and a dining hall. Speaking of windows and dorms… as Curmiphiles who know me personally may be aware, I’m currently at an NEH Summer Institute at Kent State. I’ve been here a week, with another fortnight to go, living in a dorm. And as I look out my window I see the building where the May 4 museum/visitors’ center is located. I can’t see the site of the killings themselves, but it’s just the other side of that HPE annex that was built in the late ‘70s.

This afternoon I wandered over to the museum. It’s quite small, and the May 4 Memorial could readily be mistaken for just another piece of public art. There’s also a walking tour: again, very restrained. There are couple of markers, a bit of text; some stained glass in one of the library’s reading rooms; a fountain dedicated to all students who died in residence, a deft inclusion of the May 4 victims without making it about them. But the university appears to have been quite adept at walking a very fine line, simultaneously commemorating the chilling events of 45 years ago and moving on with the academic mission of the institution.

I need to make three points. First, the fact that the museum doesn’t take up a lot of space doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a punch. I was fortunate enough to be the only visitor in the place this afternoon (a couple was leaving just as I entered), which allowed me to stand in the main video room and just be surrounded by the sound and images. It took less than a minute for the tears to come, only a little longer for the insensate impulse to hunt down the National Guard officers most directly responsible for this outrage and either rip their throats out or piss on their graves, as the case may be. The locals who opined that a few dead kids was an unfortunate but reasonable price to pay for law and order… I would, at that moment, have cheerfully given any one of them a splenectomy by reaching down their throats.

Second, I need—for my own reasons—to come to terms with just why this moment in American history struck me so profoundly. It was partially the “bringing the war home” element, partially the ensuing nationwide student strike (and further deaths at Jackson State less than two weeks later), partially the fact that students were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, directly contrary to what candidate Nixon had promised. But it was more than that for me, personally. As noted earlier, I was the son of an ardent Nixonite college president. In both those capacities, my father exercised a lot of influence on my thinking. In many ways this process was positive, or at the very worst benign. He was also struggling to keep order on his own campus, and (I found out later) some student radicals had made veiled but ominous threats against me as a way of blackmailing him into agreeing to their demands.

I was a pretty conservative and very naïve kid. I had long hair (shorter than it is now, but what of that?) and I listened to the Beatles and Rolling Stones and Iron Butterfly, but I hadn’t yet become a Deadhead, or even really tuned into Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or Pete Seeger, as I was to do in college. I’d never tried any illicit drugs; I hadn’t participated in any kind of political activity beyond hanging a couple of generic peacenik posters on my bedroom wall. I was, in the eyes of the Establishment, a “good kid.”

But every time I heard about the Kent State shootings as the inevitable result of the undisciplined disobedience of the student protesters, that the Guardsmen were legitimately in fear for their lives, that the Guard leaders were trying valiantly to defuse rather than aggravate the situation (gee… which side was armed to the teeth and which side completely unarmed?)… well, for the first time, I began to detect the distinctive aroma of bovine fecal matter in the government’s proclamations, in the press, and even in my Dad’s pronouncements.

It turns out, of course, that my suspicions were correct. The Guardsmen, seemingly retreating to avoid further confrontation, turned in unison to fire into the crowd.  The nearest of the four students fatally shot by the Guard was about 85 yards away and simply observing the activities, not even taking part in the protest. And this is according to Nixon’s own appointed commission, headed by former Pennsylvania governor William Scranton. The nearest of the nine students wounded in the 13-second fusillade (a total of 60+ shots fired from 28 military-grade rifles) was 20 yards from the Guardsman; the furthest was nearly 250 yards away. Think about that. 250 yards away, and he was shot in the neck… by the alleged good guys? Only two of the 13 casualties were shot from the front. They were the aggressors? I don’t think so, criminal acquittals of the killers notwithstanding.

No. The Kent State killings (and the disingenuous aftermath) were indeed the ultimate declaration of war by the authorities on my generation, and I knew then, with my 15th birthday still nearly five months away, not only that I’d have to take sides, but which side I’d have to take.

Don’t get me wrong. I was still a “good kid.” I still didn’t go on protest marches or smoke dope—that... erm... may or may not have come later. But I never uncritically believed either the government or the press again. Intellectually, as a functioning member of a democratic system, I grew up that day. We were talking this morning in the Institute about the process of finding “gain” in “loss.” What I lost that day was precious. What I gained has defined me for the 45 subsequent years.

Finally, let’s talk about today. In this regard I’d make two observations. First, I fear there couldn’t be a Kent State today. Yes, I fear that, because such a declaration betrays a profound and disturbing apathy among today’s post-adolescents. This isn’t true of all late-teens and 20-somethings, but a terrifying percentage of my students can’t be bothered to fulfill their responsibility (yes, responsibility) as citizens and even vote, let alone write letters to Congresscritters or actively engage in political campaigns, either for specific candidates or for issues (abortion rights, gay marriage, etc.). The overwhelming majority of people under 30 are liberal on social issues, but that doesn’t matter if making their voices heard isn’t worth a few minutes of their time.

Secondly, the 1st Amendment rights so central to the protest at Kent State in 1970 have been eroded, precipitated by both the right (qualitatively) and the left (quantitatively). The right’s ululations about “political correctness” may be exaggerated, but they’re not without merit: you can get into big trouble—as student or faculty—for expressing an opinion the apparatchiks censors bleeding hearts don’t like. There is a right to freedom of speech guaranteed in the 1st Amendment; there is not a right to be unoffended. That paradigm has been inverted on far too many campuses. Alternatively, the right’s suppression of science (forbidding the use of the term “global warming,” for example) is chilling in the extreme.

My own campus has a “Free Speech Area” which a). isn’t, really, and b). suggests (accurately) that the rest of the campus doesn’t qualify. Curmie is a progressive, yes, but he’s more of a civil libertarian, and that means healthy arguments, not suppression of ideas. That doesn’t mean we need to suffer trolls on our Facebook pages or blog posts; it does mean that debate is always encouraged: I can’t learn anything from those who always agree with me. If I want to be agreed with, I’ll just talk to myself.

I leave you with another “gain” from that horrible day in 1970: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s brilliant “Ohio.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Curmie Has a Common Name. Again.

Snazzy logo.  At least the graphics designer is competent.
Several years ago, Curmie was re-entering the US after escorting a cadre of students to Dublin and London on a Study Abroad trip. He intentionally positioned himself last among the group heading through immigration, only to be told that he had to follow the officer because… well… because. So, while students phoned their awaiting parents that yes, they’d landed, but that their group leader was being led away by The Man, Curmie was sent off to a room somewhere in the Customs/Immigration complex at George Bush International Airport in Houston.

Curmie was told to stand in that line over there, so he did. He looked around and noticed that literally everyone else in the room was either in uniform or looked either Hispanic or Middle Eastern. After five minutes of waiting in a line that didn’t move at all, Curmie was then ordered to go sit down. So he did. In the back, he could see a cluster of Junior G-Men huddled around his confiscated passport, glancing at it, then at him, mumbling to each other. After ten minutes of this bad community theatre production of How to Pretend to Be Doing Something, one of the agents called Curmie up to the desk, handed over the passport to told him he was free to go.

With a nod at one of the many posters adorning the walls, all of them crowing about INS’s alleged “transparency,” Curmie asked if “this” (by which he meant but did not say aloud “this clown show”) would likely happen again. The agent, an African-American woman perhaps 20 years old and 100 pounds, drew herself up to her full glory and proclaimed, “I don’t know. You have a common name.”

Well, in one sense, that’s true. According to (and if you can’t trust some random website, who can you trust?), there are over 13,000 folks in this country alone with the same first and last names as Curmie’s. The chances that one of us is a bad guy are pretty good. But if you throw in a middle name, a suffix, and a freaking passport number, and I’d suspect the field might just be narrowed a little, yes? Naturally, I suppressed the urge to make this observation—or to burst into laughter—until I was well clear of the authority of the DHS, INS, or whatever other acronymic idiocracy might hold sway.

All of this happened nearly seven years ago, however, so it’s hardly news. Except that it just happened again a couple of weeks ago. Curmie was just in London for a short trip with his boss, and returned to the States via Dulles. There’s a new (or at least new to Curmie) electronic procedure that makes going through Immigration and Customs smoother, at least in theory. But once again, Curmie set off alarms (not literally): there was a big X through half of the “receipt” that substitutes for a Customs declaration card. So Curmie went where directed, responded truthfully to the three questions asked by the agent (the most important of which was clearly about whether Curmie had ever gone by another name (specifically Curmie’s surname with a different first name with the same initial). The agent said he couldn’t clear me. So off we went to Line C; all Curmie could think of was Arlo Guthrie’s Group W bench. There did not appear to be any father-rapers there, however.

At least this time the process was faster and far more efficient. The agent was thoroughly professional, apologized for the fact that the other agent hadn’t simply cleared me (which apparently he could have), and sent me on my way. I asked about why Curmie had to go through this process again. Yep, there are a lot of people with my same first and last name: they are in fact the 8th and 5th most common names, respectively, in the country. The agent said he hoped he’d made it so this wouldn’t happen again. I told him this was the second time in my last six trips abroad. He shook his head somewhat ruefully, scowled at his computer, and repeated what he’d just said, with a little more emphasis on the “hope” part.

This got followed, of course, by the inane requirement of going through airport security again, a procedure that wastes considerable time and pots of money to do nothing substantive beyond forcing that one guy who bought a bottle of water after clearing security in Rome (or wherever) to dump it out before flying to Cleveland (or wherever) because SECURITY. Since very few bags are actually checked at Customs, sending the majority of them on their way to their final destination without ever putting them back in the hands of the traveler while continuing random (or not so random) checks would reduce the absurd lines by 80% or more.

There are, of course, greater wastes of money than the follies attending to entering the country. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t pay attention to stupidity when it happens. There is a political dynamic to all this, of course, but not one that breaks along party lines: Curmie has been stopped by representatives of the Bush and Obama administrations, and it will—assurances from the agent at Dulles notwithstanding—probably happen again in the next administration. Because, as Curmie has been saying for a very long time, the DHS (at least in this manifestation), much like the TSA, is much more about the appearance of security than in security itself. Perhaps because of his background in theatre, Curmie looks at these little scenaria as a bad magic show: the diversion is supposed to convince us that the world is safer, but even a reasonably attentive observer knows that it is not, and the need to be perceived as being safe is perhaps the clearest indication of our lack of real safety. If you have to tell me, in other words, it ain’t so.

After all, if you’re going to go to the trouble of forging a passport that can fool both a computer and a live agent, the chances are pretty good you’re not going to change your name from Walter Smith to William Smith, right? You’re going to be William Anderson or Samuel Walters or Heinrich Pofflewitzel or something. And if you can clear someone in a matter of seconds, why not do it? Answer: because you need to look as if you’re actually doing something. In the world of “national security,” appearance trumps reality 10 times out of 10.

The waste of resources, not to mention the fact that I’d have been pushing it to make my connecting flight if it hadn’t been delayed, is troubling. What’s worse, however, is the utter laxity surrounding the entire process except as manifested in remarkably silly charades.