Saturday, January 30, 2016

There's a New Curmie II Winner!

There are lots of other things to write about, but I wanted to get the 2015 Curmie II winner announced while it’s at least still January. The Curmie II, you may recall, is for the stupidest utterance by a politician. The award is not for political statements per se, irrespective of how much I (or any sane person) might disagree, nor is it for outright lies, which of course there are plenty of in the political arena. No, the Curmie II is for “statements so absurd on their face that we wonder how the speaker is capable of dressing himself, let alone holding public office.” Unlike the original Curmie, I pick this one myself rather than having readers vote.

The first winner, and still all-time champion because his line requires literally no context, was Congressman Mike Rogers, for his immortal words, “You can’t have your privacy violated if you don't know your privacy is violated.” Last year’s recipient was former President George W. Bush, who somehow managed to keep a straight face while claiming that “I think you have to earn your way into politics. I don’t think that anything is ever given to you.” Context is required for this one: the statement is not completely ridiculous on its face—naïve, perhaps, but not face-meltingly stupid—but coming from someone with considerable inherited wealth, the son of a President and grandson of a Senator, this is a truly a legitimately award-winning display of obliviousness.

This year, amid all the pre-election bluster and preening, there were a number of worthy contenders, but the selection finally boiled down to two candidates: Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton. Both finalists have strong cases. DWS staked her claim with the thoroughly bogus Democratic Presidential debate schedule—a mere six debates (there were 25 the last time there wasn’t an incumbent), scheduled at ridiculous times (the Saturday before Christmas, MLK weekend, etc.), with penalties exacted for any candidate who appeared at an unsanctioned debate and indeed for any media outlet who covered such a debate. (Why major media outlets didn’t tell her to perform an exercise best suited to particularly limber hermaphrodites is certainly evidence of their duplicity, cowardice, and/or general incompetence.)

But she’s not our award winner for two reasons. First, whereas Curmie has it in his head that DWS was proclaiming one of the virtues of such a schedule to have been maximizing viewership, he can’t find a link to her saying that prior to this month, after the December 31 cut-off date. Secondly, it’s impossible to believe that Wasserman Schultz actually thinks her transparent stacking of the deck for the Clinton candidacy was really an exercise in increasing voter engagement. (Even PolitiFact didn’t buy that bullshit.) No, she was simply lying, and that doesn’t get you a Curmie II. Clearly, DWS doesn’t think the Democratic Party should be a democratic party.

The runner-up congratulates the Curmie II winner.
That leaves our winner of the 3rd Annual Curmie II Award as Hillary Clinton, for her outrageous tweet on November 22, “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” As with ex-President Bush’s award-winner last year, this one requires context. Just as GWB’s remarks might sound reasonable coming from someone other than a privileged son of a privileged son, so might HRC’s make at least some sense had they been written by someone other than the principal defender of a serial sexual abuser who happens to be her husband.

Curmie thinks back a couple of decades to when he was trained in rape crisis intervention. One of the cardinal tenets of that process was that anyone claiming to be a victim of sexual assault should be treated as if she (usually “she,” sometimes “he”) was believed. There was a sort of implicit blind faith that all such accusations are legitimate. They aren’t, of course, but they are more often than not, and as long as due process is upheld for the alleged assailant, it’s reasonable to proceed by believing the victim until and unless there’s reason to doubt her story.

Curmie has dealt with (meaning providing advice or support, not actually adjudicating) three date rape cases over the years; in two of them her knew both the accuser and the accused. In two of the three cases, Curmie would say the chances that an assault took place fulfill “preponderance of the evidence” standards but still fall short of “beyond reasonable doubt.” This, of course, complicates matters considerably, as we run considerable risk of real victims feeling unsupported on the one hand, and of innocent people being irrevocably stigmatized on the other.

It’s a vexed question, then, one not entirely suitable for condensing to 140-character proclamations. Still, Twitter is part of the world we live in, so over-simplifications are understandable and even reasonable if contextualized. But to have that statement come from Hillary Clinton, whom Juanita Broaddrick says “tried to silence [her],” who declared the allegations surrounding the Monica Lewinsky affair to be a “vast right-wing conspiracy” (except for the whole, you know, being completely true part), who presumably was consulted before hubby paid out close to a million bucks in an out of court settlement with Paula Jones. And we mustn’t forget Kathleen Willey, who alleges she was fondled against her will in the White House per se.

Indeed, if we count “consensual” sexual activity that—according to feminist theory—wasn’t really consensual at all because of a power dynamic, then we’re looking at an 8-time abuser (or should that number be 14? Or more?), and Hillary has played dutiful little wifey through it all, striking out at anyone with the temerity to accuse her randy spouse of the slightest impropriety, and de facto adopting a “boys will be boys” attitude through it all.

Until she thought she could score some political points by being a “feminist.” Or perhaps she actually is blinded to Bill’s comprehensive lasciviousness. Is she hypocritical or stupid? Either way, for Hillary Clinton of all people to claim that all victims should be believed… that’s Curmie II material.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Announcing the Winner of the 5th Annual Curmie Award

Yes, there is a Curmie winner this year, and I apologize for the delay in the announcement. It’s been a crazy few days since voting closed, highlighted—if that’s the word—by a ridiculous wait at the airport for DHS, or INS, or CPB, or whatever acronymic monstrosity it was, to remove its thumb from its ass, and by the opportunity to watch a pissing match between Curmie’s university’s lawyers and a playwright’s agents over which state would have jurisdiction in the 1 in 10,000 chance of a problem (a dispute in which everyone lost, of course… well, everyone but a different playwright and a different agency).

There were fewer votes this year than in the past, a function in part of Facebook’s greed newest algorithms, which limit viewership of posts in the absence of payola. Curmie posted daily reminders on the Facebook page after voting started; none of them were seen by as many as 10 of the 460+ fans of the page. Thus, despite the usual assistance from netpal Jack Marshall (thanks, Jack!), viewership of the nominations post was down by more than 50% from last year. Really, though, the problem was that barely 10% of those who visited the page actually voted. Still, elections are decided by those who vote, and we have a worthy recipient of the 5th Annual Curmie Award for most embarrassing the profession of education.

School officials would have us believe that this isn’t a disruption
for students trying to get to class.
Without further ado, it is with considerable pleasure that Curmie announces that the 5th Annual Curmie Award is presented to… Florence (CO) High School; its Principal, Brian Schipper; and its Superintendent, Rhonda Vendetti. The school’s outrageously evangelical approach is frankly a little much even for a Christian school, which theirs isn’t. It’s a public high school that operates solely (apparently) as a recruitment apparatus for a local church, The Cowboy Church at the Crossroads, and its pastor, Randy Pfaff.

Pfaff may be paranoid or a charlatan (Curmie’s pretty certain he’s both), but he’s not the problem. The problem is a public school administration which allows a local minister to be the de facto advisor to a student organization, to hold prayer meetings on school property that are so large that non-participants literally can’t maneuver past them, to hold all-school assemblies based on Christian gospel, to promote obviously sectarian events over the school’s PA system and by distributing flyers on school property. You get the idea.

Our runners-up… In 2nd place was the State Department of Education in Florida for a scheme which literally punished schools and teachers even if students got perfect scores on standardized tests if those same students also got perfect scores last year: no improvement, you see.

3rd place went to Principal Alan Luker of an elementary school in Gustine, TX, who decided that the way to solve the mystery of the gym floor pooper was to make literally every kid in the 4th and 5th grades to drop their pants. Apart from the outrageousness of the act itself, what the hell was he looking for?

Bedford (VA) Middle School and its representatives Assistant Principal Brian Wilson and School Operations Chief Frederick “Mac” Duis claimed 4th place. They punished an 11-year-old boy for marijuana possession, even though they knew—or damned well should have known—that their alleged evidence had tested negative more than once.

5th place was shared by the Cypress-Fairbanks School District in greater Houston and Marquette University. Cy-Fair copped its nomination for punishing a student for wearing a spaghetti-strap dress: bare shoulders distract the boys, you know. She was five at the time, by the way. Marquette revoked the tenure of a professor who posted a blog post the administration didn’t like. Curmie didn’t expect this one to win, but as a tenured professor who occasionally posts blog essays that those in power might not like, he’s kind of sensitive to this stuff.

In 7th place was the (ahem) brain trust at Glen Oak Elementary School in Lewis Center, Ohio. They became a finalist by punishing a teacher by treating a bully exactly the way the experts say she should.

Rounding out the finalists is the administration of Harrisburg (PA) Sci-Tech High School, who threatened one of their seniors with suspension for wearing a too-revealing dress to prom, three full days after the event, for reasons that were simultaneously sexist, inconsistent, and creepy.

Curiously enough, Curmiphiles don’t seem to be entirely convinced
that scenes like this belong in public high schools.
But the day and the Curmie belong to the good folks of Florence, for whom the notion that a public school ought to be a secular institution is apparently an alien concept. Funny, Curmie voters thought it was pretty obvious. Maybe it’s the phrasing. Let’s tell them that they shalt not privilege a single religion over the U.S. Constitution. Curmie would say that we should translate the 1st amendment into Ancient Greek so it might actually get read, but he’s pretty sure that everyone in Florence thinks the New Testament was originally written in English.

Thanks to all who voted. We’ll have a Curmie II post up before long. I hope.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Farcical Tragedy of Border Security

Curmie recently drove to the closest international airport to pick up an exchange student who’ll be spending most of the spring semester at Curmie’s university. No biggie, right? Well, the student in question was held up by Homeland Security (or whoever) for quite a while. How long? Well, from the moment the plane was listed on the arrivals board as having arrived until the young woman finally emerged into the publicly-accessible lobby was 10 hours and 11 minutes. (10/11: one better than 9/11, apparently.)

Curmie even knew she’d been stopped only because a little over two and a half hours after arrival, she sent a Facebook message to her mother, who in turn Facebooked Curmie. Good thing, too, because the student’s phone was confiscated soon thereafter. (She eventually got it back.) From the moment Curmie knew the student had already been detained until she was released from Immigration: about seven and a half hours, during which she was shuffled from room to room but not given any real information about her status until around midnight, over nine hours into her ordeal.

And of course there was no way anyone in the International Arrivals terminal—as depressingly boring a space as Curmie has seen in a long while—was going to be of any help. There are no airline desks, so it’s impossible to know if someone even boarded the plane. The “information desk” is about as self-negating a description as the “People’s Democratic Republic of Korea” (whyever would Curmie think of that regime in this connection?). There’s a courtesy phone that allegedly connects to the Border Patrol/Customs/Immigration/Homeland Security offices. Any phone call goes straight to voicemail, however. There is no one to talk to in person. The place is Kafkaesque.

In other words, the only way Curmie even knew the exchange student had arrived was that Facebook message that made it through before the quintessential representatives of what those in Curmie’s generation used to call “the Man” showed off what manly men they truly are by finding a soft-spoken post-adolescent woman on her first flight anywhere ever, and cutting her off from all communication. Don’t you feel safer already, Gentle Reader? I mean, after all, Curmie is not one to advocate profiling, but if he were, he could certainly think of no one more terrifying, more likely to wreak havoc on American society as we know it, than a 19-year-old white Christian female British citizen with a stereotypically Scottish surname and a student visa so she could study scene painting in the States. Hell, she might weigh as much as 115 pounds after a big meal. Now you’re trembling in mortal terror, aren’t you, Gentle Reader?

And, of course, her ordeal was completely justified. After all, she had broken a rule. The heinous crime against humanity she had committed surely justifies indefinite incarceration at the very least: although her passport and visa were fine, she brought a photocopy of a form instead of the original. Break out the rack! Release the hounds! Prepare the guillotine! (By the way, the director of the Office of International Programs at Curmie’s university says that it’s not at all uncommon for foreign students not to have that form at all.)

So this is a British national’s first experience of the United States: bullying, intentional humiliation, isolation, denial of the ability to communicate with friends and family, sleep deprivation (Amnesty International calls most of those torture, by the way). And for what? To protect anyone from anything? No, they knew all along they were going to let her into the country. This shit is sport for these sick fucks. Seriously, how awful must your life be if you get your jollies pushing around nervous, exhausted young women at the end of their first flight ever?

Of course, one thing that happens when you’re standing around waiting for hours on end is that you make friends with other folks suffering the same fate. I don’t expect to be on the Christmas card list of any of these folks, but we were comrades once… the large African-American man who shrugged and said he understood why he would be profiled, but couldn’t figure why his mother-in-law should have any trouble returning from Guatemala; the federal agent (!) who couldn’t get any more answers than the rest of us could; the young woman who was trying to keep her 2-year-old son occupied while waiting for her mother, who was visiting from Romania (and speaks no English)—only after six hours did the geniuses behind the partitions decide that if they wanted their routine questions answered, maybe they really should allow a no doubt intimidated middle-aged woman to call her daughter, who could translate.

Most of all, I’ll remember the African-American man about my age whose wife was on the same flight as Curmie’s student…. Or at least she was supposed to be on that flight. At least our student had managed to get word to me, indirectly, that she was being detained. This poor man didn’t know for certain that his wife had even landed in the US—she could have missed the flight at Heathrow, for all he knew… and if she did, and hadn’t called… his mind had to have been racing to all the horrible possibilities. Chances are, she emerged a couple minutes after our student, but Curmie had a two-and-a-half-hour drive ahead, and, much as he sympathized with the man’s plight, he didn’t stick around to commiserate.

To be fair to the agents involved, they appear to have been hopelessly understaffed—at one point, we were told, there were only two agents trying to handle the influx of a half dozen jumbo jets. And whereas the average DHS agent isn’t necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer, they’re bound by stupid rules and regulations that actively discourage detached discretion, let alone compassion or empathy. Should human feeling trump national security? Of course not. But should it be a default condition in the absence of any evidence whatsoever that a traveler has committed an offense greater than failing to negotiate the arcana of government bureaucracy? Curmie thinks so.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Good night, Ziggy.

One of the many permutations of David Bowie.
David Bowie was one of those rare musicians in the sliver of the Venn diagram reserved for those who are both immensely talented and immensely popular. It may be fitting in this regard that the song most associated with him, “Space Oddity,” was probably Curmie’s least favorite of the canon. Even his first breakthrough song, “Changes,” never really resonated with me. Except…

Except that it did. I was never a fan of the whole song, but that refrain, “turn and face the strange”… that resonated with high schooler Curmie in a way that little else ever did; that admonition has stayed with me for the ensuing forty-something years. And temporal art—music, film, theatre—is often measured not by the effect of the whole, but by the indescribable thrill of that perfect few seconds. Later in life, other parts of the song—“A million dead end streets and / Every time I thought I’d got it made / It seemed the taste was not so sweet,” for example—took on extra meaning. And that was sort of the point, wasn’t it? Bowie was in his mid-twenties when that song, his first hit, came out, and yet there was a maturity of both philosophy and expression seldom seen even in older songwriters.

Bowie crafted himself in countless ways, great and small. He was the quintessence of glam rock and then he was recording Christmas songs with Bing Crosby or a Motown standby with Mick Jagger. He was androgynous and not; he was mainstream and bizarre; he was the leper messiah, the rebel rebel, the returnee from suffragette city.  And he was never, never boring.  As a friend put it on Facebook today, “Prepare for global warming. The planet just got significantly less cool.”

One of my favorite memories of Bowie songs came in the 1997 World Series, when NBC used “Heroes” to introduce its coverage. And sure enough, the Florida Marlins won the odd-numbered games (and therefore the Series), while the Cleveland Indians won the even-numbered games. Every night we heard “we can be heroes, just for one day,” and then, every night, last night’s heroes weren’t, anymore. “Just for one day,” indeed.

Above all, David Bowie was an original. He was constantly exploring, probing, testing the limits of his art form(s), of his popularity, and indeed of himself. And when he knew he was dying, he responded the way great artists do, by using his condition as the catalyst for new art. Warren Zevon, another of Curmie’s all-time favorites, wrote and performed songs like “My Ride’s Here” (“Man, I’d like to stay / But I'm bound for glory / I’m on my way / My ride's here...”) under similar circumstances. Bowie’s swan song was “Lazarus”: “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.”

Like the man once called “Swamp Thing,” Ziggy Stardust is gone now. Sort of. His passing reminds those of us of a certain age that we’re not as young as we used to be. But he’s with us still, not in some New Age-y pseudo-spiritual way. No, David Bowie lives on because, more than any other artist since Salvador Dali (at least), he was inseparable from his creativity and his creations.

David Bowie was not merely a consummate artist. He was the art itself.

Wheaton College Revokes Tenure of Prof for Accurately Quoting the Pope

Larycia Hawkins: Christian scholar fired for being insufficiently anti-Islamic.
The administration of Wheaton College in Illinois has announced that Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured Associate Professor of Political Science is about to be out of a job. Real colleges and universities treat tenure seriously. To fire a faculty member with tenure requires—or at least ought to require—some sort of serious transgression: not going to class, plagiarizing an article, sexually harassing students, that sort of thing. Dr. Hawkins’s transgression: accurately stating that Pope Francis had claimed that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”

Colleges and universities with religious affiliations are an intriguing, not to say self-contradictory, phenomenon. If, as Curmie believes, the purpose of post-secondary education is to challenge assumptions and encourage critical and independent thinking, then adherence to a religious code would seem to run contrary to that end. This doesn’t mean, of course, that such institutions can’t thrive, and many religiously-affiliated schools—even evangelical ones—rightly maintain reputations for academic excellence.

But insistence that faculty march in lockstep to narrow and ultimately divisive theologies inevitably raises concerns in any legitimate scholarly community. And Wheaton risks sacrificing its time-honored standing in the academy to chase after the phantoms of Islamic otherness.

Dr. Hawkins, a Christian, first made headlines when she donned a Hijab throughout the recent Advent season:
... in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind…. I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.
Curmie can’t confirm that Pope Francis made that statement “last week,” but it is a a recurrent theme in his discourse. But the Doctrine Police at Wheaton couldn’t have that: it suggests that someone of less pretentious religiosity (Dr. Hawkins) or even someone who worships the same God differently (Muslims) might be worthy of respect. “Question all things except our interpretation of religious teachings,” in other words.

The bottom line is that the “people of the book” description is time-honored, and no one seems to have suggested that Christians ought to convert to Islam, merely that treating their Muslim friends and colleagues (and Muslim strangers) as… you know… people is the appropriate—dare I say Christian—thing to do. Indeed, as Miroslav Volf of the Yale Divinity School argued even before Hawkins was dismissed, “There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. More precisely, her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.”

That initial episode—not the hijab per se, according to the school, although Curmie suspects a quibble about that part—earned Dr. Hawkins a paid administrative leave. What got her fired was apparently her unwillingness to cooperate fully in the ensuing witch-hunt. Curmie uses that term quite intentionally, as the Wheaton administration is interested primarily in acquiescence, sincere or otherwise, and in the stomping out of anything so heretical as free thought. They make lots of fancy statements like this one:
In the interest of rigorous academic inquiry consistent with a Christian liberal arts education, Wheaton College exposes students to a variety of views to encourage them to think through difficult issues, embrace a mature adult faith with integrity, and learn how to articulate their own commitments.
Fact is, however, just want their faculty to shut up about anything that would actually lead to reasoned, disciplined, interrogation of social, political, and religious doctrines.

This is an act of intellectual cowardice, as is any suppression of free speech other than the usual regulations against treason, libel, and the like. A rigorous search for the truth will reveal the manifold falsehoods and slanders of petty minds. Seeking nuance in, for example, an approach to homosexuality is not a capitulation to secular forces: it is the essence of any legitimate religion and any legitimate educational enterprise. If the school’s narrow (not to say narrow-minded) interpretation of God’s law is appropriate, it will be revealed as such. But just as the ancient Athenians understood that the satirical barbs of an Aristophanes actually strengthened the polis, just as the Anglo-American system of jurisprudence insists on a vigorous defense of even the most obviously guilty defendant, so is probing, prodding, and questioning an inherent good in a theological system. Wheaton faculty understand that; their students understand that; their administration does not.

None of this is to suggest that Wheaton doesn’t have the legal (as opposed to ethical or pedagogical) right to do whatever the hell they want. Faculty sign declarations of faith as a pre-requisite to hiring, and however creepy such a practice might be, it’s still legal. But Wheaton has cost itself dearly in this contretemps: it risks falling out of the company of the most reputable schools of its kind—Calvin, Seattle Pacific, and the like—and into the mix with Asbury, Liberty, Bob Jones and their brethren: places where philosophy, science, history, and literature are subordinated to religio-political indoctrination. It would be a shame for that to happen, especially to the students who chose a religious school they thought viewed “rigorous academic inquiry consistent with a Christian liberal arts education” as a real goal instead of a marketing ploy. The administration, however, has brought whatever ignominy might occur upon itself.

NOTE: After posting this piece, Curmie came across a very good, detailed, view of the case. You can read Tobin Grant’s excellent analysis here.