Thursday, June 29, 2017

SCOTUS, the Travel Ban, and the Half-Full Glass

Curmie was not surprised that SCOTUS overturned lower court rulings to support parts of President Trump’s travel ban imposed against citizens of a handful of majority-Muslim countries, but confesses he didn’t expected unanimity. True, The Guardian, a reputable if left-leaning publication, tries to spin the ruling as not really unanimous: it was per curiam, meaning, if Curmie, who is no lawyer, understands the term correctly, that the decision was announced for the court, with no specific author and with the pretense of unanimity: the equivalent of a political convention’s nominating someone “unanimously,” even though everyone knows a sizeable minority of the delegates voted for someone else.

But, let’s face it, it has all the trappings of a unanimous decision, even if not everyone was completely on board (indeed, only three, very predictable, Justices—Alito, Gorsuch, and Thomas—were all-in to the point of wanting the entirety of the ban to go into effect immediately). Certainly President Trump, who is nothing if not hubristic, bellowed his presumed overwhelming victory for all to hear.

Curmie thinks the glass is half full.
It is unquestionably safe to say that the constitutional arguments will continue until the Court takes up the case again in October—after (ever so conveniently) the 90-day ban on citizens from those half-dozen countries and the 120-day ban on refugees will have already expired. But it may just be that what Curmie has long viewed as an unconstitutional edict is in fact merely ham-fisted (the BBC’s term), stupid, Islamophobic, ill-considered, ineffectual, divisive, discriminatory, and smug.

Let’s start with who’s excluded: citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. And let’s compare that list to the 9/11 attackers, who actually did mean us harm: of those 19 men, 15 were from Saudi Arabia; two others were from the United Arab Emirates, and there were one each from Egypt and Lebanon. Let’s add to the latter list the Boston Marathon bombers: both Kyrgyz, with one also holding Russian citizenship and the other also a naturalized American. Ah, Gentle Reader, you’ve noticed something. The Venn diagram charting those two lists looks like Little Orphan Annie’s eyes: the overlap is precisely zero people. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some folks in, say, Libya who’d be more than happy to blow up a city block in New York City… but there are no doubt a fair number of native-born Americans who’d cheerfully do the same.

You’ll also have noticed, Gentle Reader, that it has now been over 90 days since even the revised version of the original January 27 travel ban was proposed. During that time there have been… wait a minute, that number was just here… where’d it go? Ah, here it is: there have been zero attacks in the US.  Curmie, of course, doesn’t attribute that number to the lack of a travel ban, but feels pretty confident that had the ban been enacted and there had been no pseudo-Islamic terrorist events on American soil, that the White House would have bellowed full-throatedly that their nasty xenophobic stratagem was the difference between peace and ontological annihilation.  [Note: Curmie’s recent trip to the UK was sandwiched between the Manchester bombing and the London Bridge attacks; this essay is not in the slightest intended to suggest that the threat of specifically Muslim violence is anything but real.] 

With the ban now partially lifted, Curmie fervently hopes that we do indeed need to endure the future preening of Chanticleer, who may truly believe that his crowing causes the dawn instead of merely announcing it. But the fact is that the Supreme Court’s partial lifting of the injunction is actually closer to what Curmie was hoping for than to what POTUS wanted. One way to tell that is to note that Mr. Trump declared “a clear victory.” If DJT says it, you can pretty well take it to the bank that it isn’t true.

You see, the key part of what transpired this week wasn’t lifting the injunction that prevented the US government from denying entry to citizens of those half dozen countries who had no demonstrable connection to this country. Rather, it was the explicit insistence that the borders be open to all those “who have a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States”: students attending an American university, foreign nationals offered employment by a US company (or university, etc.), close relatives of American citizens, and so on. This level of sensibility, nuance, and restraint was (of course) altogether lacking in any proposal coming from the Trump administration.

Protestations, such as those from Justice Thomas, that such a criterion is unworkable are largely but not completely without merit. Expecting State Department officials to do their job in vetting prospective visitors to this country doesn’t seem unreasonable. Such a process already took place. One of the exchange students scheduled to be coming to Curmie’s university last fall, for example, couldn’t get a visa. Whether that denial was appropriate isn’t a matter for current concern. What’s relevant is that if that young man could be denied, there’s a mechanism already in place that might result in denial.

There are some anomalies in the SCOTUS decision, however. For example: let’s say that I have a friend of long-standing who happens to be Iranian. That person could not, under this ruling, visit his old pal Curmie while on vacation (we’re friends but not close relatives); if, on the other hand, Curmie convinced his university to invite old buddy Farooq to come give a lecture, well, that might qualify as bona fides… and if Farooq happens to spend a couple of extra days at Chez Curmie, then so be it. But SCOTUS also wants to ensure that the lecturing gig isn’t just an end run around the regulations so that Curmie and Farooq can reminisce. Exactly how that would work logistically is beyond my feeble ken.

So yes, there’s probably both too much and too little wiggle room for US government officials: entry into the country ought not to depend on which clerk reviews a file. Still, shifting the presumption from allowing a national of a country at odds with the US to enter unless there’s a specific reason not to, to denying such access unless there’s a specific reason to allow it… that’s not the end of the world, much as Curmie would have preferred the status ante quo. There’s still the rather perverse choice of targets for the ban—essentially Muslim-majority countries with whom good relations are not perceived by the Trump administration as being of sufficient geo-strategic importance to avoid pissing off potentially radicalized Muslims in those and indeed in other countries. Still, whereas the ban is bad policy, correcting executive branch stupidity that isn’t unconstitutional isn’t in SCOTUS’s brief.

Ultimately, the SCOTUS decision to grant a partial waiver of the injunction and to hear the case more formally in the fall is cowardly but tactically sound, whether or not it’s actually a good idea. Both sides of the case can (and do) claim at least partial victory, and the whole business will, one hopes, be moot by the time the fall session begins. That is, unless the short-term bans are extended, which would not surprise Curmie in the slightest, since those “temporary measures” sure look like the thin edge of the wedge. ACLU lawyer Omar Jadwat agrees, fearing the Trump administration will use this week’s order “as a back door into implementing the full-scale Muslim ban that it's been seeking to implement.”

That’s a troubling prospect, but for now, the glass appears half full.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Free Expression Matters: Goes 2 for 2

A recent editorial on, the on-line presence of a consortium of New Jersey newspapers including the (Newark) Star-Ledger (whose editorial board was responsible for the opinion piece in question) and the Times of Trenton, called attention to two cases of what they describe as “suppressing free speech in schools.” Both cases, Curmie was not surprised to learn, involve President Trump.

Liam Shea's graphics project.
One of the stories involves a Morristown High School student whose portrait of the President as a pig-snouted, hooved, semi-human holding a clearly very unhappy cat (“grabbing the pussy”?) in front of a burning American flag (or is that the sun?) was removed from a student art exhibit because, you know, there were complaints. In the other story, a yearbook advisor at Wall Township High School removed a quote from Mr. Trump from the profile of one student and had the photos of two other students airbrushed to remove Trump campaign logos and slogans. gets it right: free speech trumps (ahem) other concerns. Let’s look at these stories in the order the editorial presents them.

Morristown junior Liam Shea actually had two pieces removed from his high school’s art and design show. One was the porcine presidential portrait that accompanies this blog piece; the other showed Mr. Trump on a missile, taking a selfie. The decision to remove the two items from the show was apparently made by Principal Mark Manning whom Shea quotes as saying, “I appreciate the risk you took, and it’s very well done … but other people weren’t too happy with this.” Manning, as cowards generally do, declined comment when contacted by the press.

Problem is, the Constitution doesn’t just go away when some local school official finds it inconvenient. (Here’s where Curmie notes that he is no Constitutional scholar, but, as a beloved mentor once told him in a discussion of whether Curmie had the requisite knowledge to teach a course on the periphery of his skill set, I know something, and I can read.) The “Tinker test,” named for the criteria established by the Supreme Court in their landmark Tinker v. Des Moines decision, remains the standard by which such cases must be administered. Here are a couple of snippets from that ruling:
First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate….
In order for the State in the person of school officials to justify prohibition of a particular expression of opinion, it must be able to show that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint. Certainly where there is no finding and no showing that engaging in the forbidden conduct would “materially and substantially interfere with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school,” the prohibition cannot be sustained.
If Mr. Manning cannot maintain “appropriate discipline” because a high school kid created a graphics design that some folks don’t like, it’s time to step down.

Moreover, completely apart from the censorship being completely unexplained except as a sop to some unspecified someone’s tender sensibilities, the Trump portrait started as a class assignment to create a political cartoon! Curmie’s experience in the visual arts is somewhat limited, but he suspects that it is rather difficult to create a political cartoon that isn’t… erm… political. Shea’s mother says she thinks the image is clever rather than offensive. Curmie agrees. But here’s the key point: it doesn’t matter if Ms. Shea and Curmie are “right” or not about the aesthetic merit or indeed the intent of the work. It was chosen, presumably by an art teacher, to be included in the exhibition, and Mr. Manning capitulated to the complaints of a handful of whiners (Curmie thought it was lefties who are supposed to be the snowflakes) because he lacks an understanding of free expression, he has no backbone, or both.

The irony, of course, is that the graphic has now achieved far greater distribution and publicity than it possibly could have were it to have been treated as one hopes and trusts a similar editorial in the student newspaper would have been: essentially ignored. Young Mr. Shea himself understands that point very clearly. Interviewed by the local press, he burbled, “Me, I think it’s great. If it wasn’t taken down, I wouldn’t be talking to you!” And (of course) now that there’s some notoriety attached to the image, there’s talk of t-shirts sales and similar marketing. Ah, the entrepreneurial spirit! Donald Trump would be proud.

The politics of the Wall High case are different, of course. This time, it appears to be a left-leaning yearbook advisor who decided that supporting Donald Trump was a bridge too far in the whole “free expression” game. The key word in the preceding sentence, of course, is “appears,” as the teacher in question, Susan Parsons, has not—as far as Curmie can determine, at least—revealed her motives.

If we lived in a sane world, the fact that Ms. Parsons was suspended for her actions would tell us all we need to know about the story. We do not live in a sane world. We do know two things. First, the decision appears to have been made by the advisor, either with the tacit approval of student editors or, more likely, without their knowledge. Second, and significantly, there is nothing in the school’s policies that prohibits political expression on students’ clothing. The dress code is sexist, prudish, and a vestige of 1957, but whereas boys can’t have hair over the collar (seriously!), they can wear a t-shirt with writing on it to class, provided it meets some pretty basic standards (it isn’t lewd, doesn’t promote tobacco use, that kind of thing). Many schools would prohibit wearing a Trump campaign shirt (or a Clinton campaign shirt, or a Ragpicker for President shirt like the one Curmie’s production of The Madwoman of Chaillot used as a “show shirt” in the fall of 2012); this one doesn’t.

Wall High School junior Grant Berardo in his Trump shirt,
before and after the photo was adulterated.
Still, it’s a pretty stupid thing to wear—not because it’s a Trump shirt, but because this appears to be a semi-official school photograph, and wearing a t-shirt with writing on it (any writing on it) is really dressing down for the occasion. It would have been reasonable for Ms. Parsons, with or perhaps even without the input of upper administration, to insist (hypothetically) that for all personally submitted photographs (i.e., those taken by the yearbook staff) boys must be wearing shirt and tie, or that no legible writing appear, or whatever. 

Such a policy would be legitimate if and only if it was applied evenly (no Trump shirts means no Hillary shirts) and students had appropriate warnings that a specific submitted photograph would be altered (so that they’d have a chance to choose a different photo). This same strategy could have been employed by that Utah school a couple of years ago when school officials unilaterally and without warning covered those lust-inducing adolescent shoulders in a sloppy Photoshop job to protect us all from… well… something. The details here are different, but the essence is the same: most people will go along with even a stupid policy if you tell them what you’re doing and you give them the chance to make the problem at least a little less bad in their eyes.

None of that appears to have happened here. What’s worse is that the doctored photos aren’t even the most problematic element at play here. That dubious distinction would go to the decision to eliminate a Trump quote from the photo accompanying the freshman class president. Assuming that including such quotations is standard procedure for the yearbook, then striking the words of the President of the United States, no matter how wrong you think they are, no matter how insincere you think they are, no matter your opinion of the source: this is remarkably stupid behavior, and a suspension is indeed warranted.

The distinction is that whereas a Trump t-shirt could be considered inappropriate even if it didn’t violate the dress code, quotations abound in virtually every high school yearbook ever published, and eliminating one and only one such bromide without rationale or warning is just dumb.

The editorial concludes thus: “Free expression for one requires free expression for all. That's true of the student in Wall, and the student in Morristown. And students everywhere must carefully weigh the lessons being taught in both places.” Well done, lads and lasses at Well done.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Idiots Threaten Shakespeare Companies Across the Country

Corey Stoll as Brutus in the Public Theater's Julius Caesar.
There really are other stories worthy of comment out there, but the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar seems to be the gift that keeps on giving. Even after the play's closing, the controversy surrounding the Caesar-as-Trump schtik has engendered some of the best discussions of Shakespeare we’re likely to encounter as a larger population. Curmie, as a theatre historian and critic, has access to, and an interest in, more purely scholarly investigations on an ongoing basis, but the average American, even the average theatre-goer, has seldom had the opportunity he or she has had over the last few weeks to read some very high-level and yet eminently readable stuff.

Among these commentaries are those from practitioners like Corey Stoll, who played Brutus (the lead, in other words) at the Public, and Rob Melrose, who directed the 2012 Guthrie Theatre/Acting Company co-production in which an Obama-like Caesar was assassinated on stage in Act III. Most telling about Melrose’s commentary is this three-paragraph passage describing why he thinks his production avoided controversy whereas Oskar Eustis’s did not:
I think one key difference in the corporate response to the two productions is simply that most people who wrote about and talked about our production — the one with an Obama-inspired Caesar — actually saw the show, where it is clear that most of those outraged by The Public Theater’s Trumpian emperor either didn’t see the play or didn’t stay to the end. [emphasis Curmie’s] 
The Breitbart article that started the controversy is — I kid you not — a review by someone who talked to someone who saw the show. This second-order correspondent also thinks the play ends with the death of Caesar, as if they are killing the bad guy at the end of a superhero movie. In fact, the assassination takes place in the middle of the play, the rest of which deals with the terrible consequences of this action. Shakespeare built the outrage into the text. Mark Antony is so outraged — for himself, and on our behalf — that outrage suffuses the play’s entire second half. If you see a production, you get outraged with the play, not against it.
Our Obama-inspired production also didn’t have any gestures that tipped our hand to say “this is definitely Obama.” We wanted to make sure audiences could make the Obama connection if they wanted to — or could ignore the connections if they only wanted to live inside in the circumstances of Shakespeare’s play. In Eustis’s production, the Trump connections are more overt : Caesar wears an overly long red tie, Calpurnia speaks with a Slovenian accent (or “Slavic” if you are writing for Breitbart). There is also much more humor and satire in the Public Theater production. Caesar usually is not a very funny play, and I tip my hat to Oskar Eustis for finding so many genuinely funny moments. That may have bristled some people as well, but Eustis is hardly the first person to make fun of the president.
In other words, much if not all of the furor over the Public’s production was born of ignorance, and a rather proud and self-righteous ignorance, at that.

But Stoll’s article is, of course, more relevant to the current kerfuffle. Here’s the most important paragraph in Curmie’s mind:
When Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater and our show’s director, first assembled our cast for rehearsals, my anxieties centered on my desire to hold my own in such a strong company. After four weeks in the rehearsal room, we moved to the theater and I saw Caesar’s Trump-like costume and wig for the first time. I was disappointed by the literal design choice. I had little fear of offending people, but I worried that the nuanced character work we had done in the rehearsal room would get lost in what could seem like a Saturday Night Live skit. I was right and wrong. Audiences did laugh at Caesar, in an explosive, hungry way that shocked us with its intensity, but when it came time for the assassination scene, they lost their nerve. In early previews, isolated audience members would scoff or even applaud during the bloody, awkward, and ugly assassination scene. Two weeks in, once we refined our performances to neutralize the laughter, you could hear a pin drop. By then, I better understood Eustis’s decision to be so literal in making Caesar Trump. A nontrivial percentage of our liberal audience had fantasized about undemocratic regime change in Washington. Acted out to its logical conclusion, that fantasy was hideous, shameful, and self-defeating.
Notice that even Stoll himself had trouble getting past the literalization of the Caesar/Trump linkage, but ultimately he realized that it was the anti-democratic impulses of the left, not the authoritarianism of the right, that presents the greater danger in the play, and quite possibly to 21st-century America. Curmie is pretty certain that a significant percentage of both sides failed to make that connection. Perhaps this can be attributed to a failure in the production; more likely, it’s a failure in the spectators.

Speaking of the public’s (as opposed to the Public’s) failures: one of the most disturbing elements of the largely Astroturf outrage at Eustis’s production is that Shakespeare companies around the country started getting death threats. Getting riled to violence because of a play is not exactly a new phenomenon—one thinks of the first run of The Playboy of the Western World or the Astor Place Riots, for example—but if those events were spawned by hypersensitivity or hyperbolic nationalism, this round can only be attributed to utter stupidity. It’s repulsive enough that members of the Public Theater experienced death threats. It’s another step towards outrageousness that those threats extended to Oskar Eustis’s wife and daughter. “I want to grab you by the p---y,” one caller allegedly said. “Your husband wants Trump to die. I want him to die.” But for full-blown, terrifying lunacy, there’s the fact that other Shakespeare companies around the country—people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Public’s production—are also under threat.

The two theatres most often mentioned in press coverage of this phenomenon are Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, and Shakespeare Dallas. The Washington Post (linked above) and Salon, neither of them exactly bastions of conservative thought, both ran stories talking about how “Trumpsters” (Salon’s term) were sending death threats to “the wrong [theatres].” Serious question: is Curmie alone in thinking there’s no such place as a “correct theatre” to which to send death threats?

But there’s something else at play here for Curmie. Yes, it takes a special kind of stupid to make death threats at all. And yes, sending hate mail to Massachusetts or Texas because of a New York production secures an even more exalted place in the annals of history’s greatest morons. But, for Curmie, things just got personal. I have a friend and former student who’s acting at Shakespeare and Company this summer; three others that I can think of off the top of my head have worked at Shakespeare Dallas in recent years, and it’s only chance that they aren’t there now. I have a colleague at Arkansas Shakespeare, and seven present or former students at the Texas Shakespeare Festival. I know of at least three other summer companies with “Shakespeare” in the title where personal friends have worked in the past. One of them qualifies as “Shakespeare in the Park,” which seems to be the designated Google search term for assholes who might be violent if they weren’t so imbecilic and so craven. Curmie doesn’t like it when his friends get threatened, especially when they haven’t done anything that any sane person could construe as even remotely deserving of such treatment.

This episode serves to underscore some unpleasant truths about our country. Foremost among these is the political schism, the product of an arrogant buffoon of a President and a press corps interested only in spinning their partisan rhetoric, and the truth be damned. We are reminded that there are a lot of idiots out there (like we didn’t know that from who got elected President, right?). A more fundamental concern is attack on the arts in general. Any kind of commentary, any nuance, any perceived threat to the Hegemonic Legion of Doom, however miniscule, is increasingly likely to draw the wrath of the propagandists at Breitbart or Fox News: and the proudly anti-intellectual denizen of the White House will give them cover, even as they shill for his disastrous policies.

It ain’t pretty out there, y’all.

Academic Freedom and Reasonable Doubt: The Johnny Eric Williams Case

Professor Johnny Eric Williams
This started out as a comment to a post by Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall over at Ethics Alarms, entitled “Sought: An Ethical Reason Why This Professor Should Not Be Fired Immediately, And Never Hired For A Teaching Position Again, Anywhere.” Soon, however, my reply took on a life of its own, extending well past the length of a mere comment on someone else’s post, sort of demanding multiple links, and, well, putting my lengthy commentary on current events in higher education on someone else’s blog instead of my own.

The background is this: on the evening of Sunday, June 18, Trinity College (CT) associate professor of sociology Johnny Eric Williams took to social media to re-post an article from Medium by “Son of Baldwin” with the shall we say provocative title of “Let Them Fucking Die.” There’s a preface there now: “NOTE: This essay is in the context of bigotry and is speaking about bigots. If you aren’t a bigot, then it doesn’t apply to you. But, if you happen to feel hit, then holler, dog.” One suspects that was a later add-on, but in the absence of a screenshot of the post as it first appeared (maybe there’s one out there?), Curmie can’t say for sure.

What is clear is that Son of Baldwin is less than pleased with the state of race relations in the country right now. His prose is more fiery than most, but ultimately he presents a rather familiar argument:
In a battle between the moral and the immoral, the immoral will always win because they have no qualms about not abiding by the rules. Whereas those of us who imagine ourselves as moral gladly die at the immorals’ hands because we think better glories await us in some other, unseen realm. We, the moral, are terrible at memory. We never remember who created these rules and for what purpose. The immoral created morality so that we would accept their abuse and never even dream of retaliation. Like any drug white/cisgender/heterosexual people have ever given us, we get high on this notion that forgiving them after they slaughter our grandparents in churches, obliterate our siblings in the streets, and mangle our children in playgrounds makes us better people than they.
His screed concludes:
Saving the life of those that would kill you is the opposite of virtuous.
Let. Them. Fucking. Die.
And smile a bit when you do.
For you have done the universe a great service.
Ashes to ashes.
Dust to bigots. [emphasis in original]
Williams was subsequently to claim that his re-posting of Son of Baldwin’s piece was a response to the police shooting of Charleena Lyles in Seattle on Sunday morning. That would make sense in terms of timing, but given the fact that the article on Medium opens with a photo of recent shooting victim Rep. Steve Scalise and an accusation of racism and homophobia against him, commentators who argue that Williams seems to be endorsing Son of Baldwin’s implicit claim that Rep. Scalise somehow deserved to die can be forgiven their misinterpretation… if indeed it is such.

Screen capture of the posts that led to the controversy.
Anyway, Williams re-posted Son of Baldwin’s essay with the comment, “It is past time for the racially oppressed to do what people who believe themselves to be ‘white’ will not do, put an end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system.” And he added the hashtag “#LetThemFuckingDie.” A few minutes later, he added, “I’m fed the fuck up with self-identified ‘white’s’ daily violence directed at immigrants, Muslim, and sexually and racially oppressed people. The time is now to confront these inhuman assholes and end this now.”

Needless to say, this set off a firestorm in right-wing echo chamber circles. Calls for Williams’s firing were immediate, and (of course) there were threats of violence against him and even his family—you know, the kind that mouthpieces of the right claim never happen to leftist firebrands. Let’s be clear: Prof. Williams, contrary to the assertion in an otherwise thoughtful editorial in the Hartford Courant, did not “[create] an unsafe atmosphere at the college.” Other people did. Just as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos are not responsible (short of actual incitement) for the violence their mere presence on a college campus might engender, neither is Prof. Williams to blame for the fact that people who disagree with him threaten violence. It is important to note here that neither Williams nor indeed Son of Baldwin advocate violence. The latter’s advocacy for selective non-intervention and the former’s condoning of, if not actual support for, that position may be abhorrent and unethical (Curmie thinks so), but it falls far short of incitement.

Just yesterday, I wrote in a comment on another of Jack’s posts (one in which Curmie’s insistence that the higher education classroom is not, in fact, a site of leftist propaganda was honored as “Comment of the Day”) that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education generally supports conservatives, but not because they’re conservatives. This statement is an ideal example of what I meant. Whereas as FIRE release concentrates more on the threats that Professor Williams has received (and that other faculty who have taken controversial positions in recent times have received), they do explicitly endorse a statement by the chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure:
There is only one option consistent with academic freedom. Professor Williams is entitled to his right to express his personal views on social media and the university has the right to differ with those views. But Trinity College must defend the professor’s right to express them without fear of retaliation by the institution. Trinity College should refuse to let the sort of threats and intimidation directed against Professor Williams and the entire campus achieve their insidious aims.
Despite literally dozens of false media reports to the contrary, Professor Williams did not write the screed that generated the current brouhaha. Nor did he explicitly endorse it, although his re-post of someone else's blog piece could be interpreted that way. What he said himself is angry and vulgar, but Curmie sees it as well within the realm of protected speech that ought not inspire more than a raised eyebrow from university officials... except, of course, for the hashtag, which on the one hand merely references the article’s title and on the other seems to approve of the content.

And that’s the key. Does Professor Williams’s post actually advocate what the right-wing media storm says it does? Or was it merely an example of a moment’s sloppiness, worthy of an apology and nothing more? Does Professor Williams conflate whiteness and bigotry, or did he merely re-post an article which appears to do so? Does it matter that Professor Williams was not acting as a representative of the university when he made the offending remarks? I know of a case in my own experience in which a common colloquial expression was interpreted literally and led to accusations of advocating violence. Is this a variation on that disturbing theme? 

The answer to all these questions, to me, is unclear, meaning that those of us who don’t know Prof. Williams, haven’t read his scholarly work (which presumably is of a standard that a respected institution like Trinity considers worthy of a senior faculty member), haven’t sat in on his classes, aren’t equipped to make such decisions.

The person who is in the best position to make those determinations is Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, who seems to be handling the situation with finesse: she shut down the campus for the safety of all and re-opened it when it appeared there was no imminent threat. She issued an official response which states that Son of Baldwin’s call for “indifference to the lives of bigots” is “abhorrent and wholly contrary to Trinity’s values.” She argues that the use of the offensive hashtag was “reprehensible and, at the very least, in poor judgment. No matter its intent, it goes against our fundamental values as an institution, and I believe its effect is to close minds rather than open them.” But she also insists that Trinity “[continues] to uphold our fundamental belief in academic freedom and support our community members’ constitutional right to free speech,” and deplored the threats to Professor Williams. She forwarded the case to the Dean of the Faculty, who will advise her on “whether college procedures or policies were broken.” This strikes Curmie as absolutely the right path to take. Let’s see what the actual facts are, if this case is an anomaly or fits a pattern, if Professor Williams can muster a more persuasive apology than simply arguing that he did not intend to incite violence (well, of course he didn’t, but that’s not the point).

There is also a petition of support for Professor Williams. Like many such documents, it started off locally (it opens “We the undersigned faculty at Trinity College”) but has expanded to include signatories from well outside the college. Importantly, it stands alongside the FIRE statement in affirming academic freedom and, specifically, the use of social media as subject to its protections. The drafters of the petition are correct that many of the attacks on Professor Williams are founded on distortion and misrepresentation. That doesn’t mean they all are, of course, but the use of intimidation and fear-mongering is an all-too-familiar tactic of what one of Curmie’s favorite professors used to call the “foam-flecked brigade” of any ideology. This time, it’s the easily-incited right. Next time, it will be the equally malleable left.

Like virtually everyone else who has opined on this matter, Curmie is ignorant of a lot of the details of the situation. What I do know is that revoking tenure without absolute certainty of the legitimacy of doing so is at least as great a threat to higher education as allowing a single renegade professor (assuming he even fits into that category) to remain employed would be. Tenure is not a guarantee of a job for life. It is, rather, a nominal assurance of academic freedom. In terms of a situation like this one, it merely shifts the standards for dismissing a professor from, loosely speaking, “preponderance of evidence” to “beyond reasonable doubt.” 

I have reasonable doubt. I'm not sure this qualifies as the ethical defense of not firing Prof. Williams Jack rhetorically seeks, but Curmie kind of thinks it does.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Margaret Court Arena Dilemma

Anyone who has paid any particular attention to this blog over the past few years knows that Curmie often picks up on story ideas from netpal Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms. This time, I saw the story first, but there was too much on my plate at the time, so I e-mailed Jack to get his take. Jack obliged, and posted his thoughts shortly thereafter.

Here’s the deal: Tennis great Martina Navratilova wrote an open letter to the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne (like Jack, I didn’t know tennis facilities were literate). In this epistle, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Navratilova argues that stadia ought to be named for an individual in recognition of “their whole body of work,” not merely their accomplishments, say, on the tennis court. For this reason, she concludes that Margaret Court’s name ought to be removed from that venue because the honoree is an avowed homophobe and was (perhaps still is) a racist.

The Margaret Court we can all celebrate.
There is no question that Court was a magnificent player, earning 24 Grand Slam singles titles and 62 overall, counting both women’s doubles and mixed doubles. Her nearest competition, Serena Williams, now 35 and pregnant, has 23 and 39 respectively. It’s conceivable that Serena could pick up another singles title, or even two, but it’s difficult to argue with Court’s assertion in January that “Nobody will ever hit my 62.”

Yes, we can point out, as Christopher Clarey does in the New York Times, that “eleven of Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles came at the Australian Championships, where the fields were predominantly or exclusively Australian in her earliest years and the draws were sometimes as small as 32 players,” or that she was never #1 in the world according to computer rankings that only came into play as she was nearing retirement. But the fact is that she was one of the greatest female tennis players in history. From that perspective, there is no doubt that an arena at the site of the Australian Open ought to be named in her honor.

But (and as they said in burlesque, it’s a big but), whereas her racist comments (praising the efficiency of South African apartheid, for example) seem to have been relegated to the past, and one easily can forgive a little nostalgia for temps perdu from a septuagenarian like Ms. Court, her homophobia and, frankly, nastiness, seems to be accelerating rather than moderating of late. Her expressed resolve to boycott Australia’s national airline, Qantas, “where possible for [her] extensive traveling” because of the carrier’s expressed support of marriage equality marks her as not simply an opponent of the LGBTQ community, but as an enemy.
The Margaret Court who's a problem.

Yeah, well, people say things in the heat of the moment and then tone down the rhetoric after they’ve had a chance to think more reasonably all the time. So that’s what she did, right? Uh… no. Rather, we get a screed linking homosexuality to Hitler, communism, and the Devil, quoting fabricated statistics, and implying some sort of lesbian recruitment program luring impressionable young women into “lust for the flesh.” So much for moderation.

There’s also Court’s “tennis is full of lesbians” line. Fact is, it always has been, although Court seems to be suggesting ‘twas not ever thus. (Possibility: there were just as many lesbians and bi-sexuals in the game when Court was playing, but they were far likelier to remain closeted. Another possibility: 1969 Wimbledon champion Ann Jones is correct that the number of lesbians on tour is actually decreasing.) If you’re listing the greatest female tennis players of all time, it won’t take you long to get to Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. Add to that list such excellent players, past and present, as Gigi Fernandez, Lisa Raymond, Hana Mandlíková, Casey Dellacqua, Helen Jacobs, Amélie Mauresmo… well, you get the idea. And those are just the ones we know about.

Meanwhile, the arena named for Ms. Court issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to “equality, diversity, and inclusion,” and there are rumblings of a potential boycott of the Court Arena (the temptation to call it the Court Court is overwhelming), led by Australia’s currently top-ranked woman, Sam Stosur.

Ironies abound. There’s the whole “boycotts don’t work” argument, which of course applies as much to Court’s snubbing of Qantas (by the way, Australia’s other major airline, Virgin, also supports marriage equality) as it does to any prospective players’ action against playing in a venue named for someone whose religio-political position is so out of line with their own.

There’s the question of whether Tennis Australia and/or the Melbourne Park complex want to continue to honor a figure who so openly disparages their official stance on LGBTQ rights… but there’s also the possibility that Ms. Court may not wish to continue to have her name associated with organizations who positions differ so much from her own.

The biggest irony, of course, is the fact that the reason there’s a venue named in Margaret Court’s honor at all, is that Billie Jean King pushed for it. Yes, that Billie Jean King, who was long since “out,” and who had both defeated and been defeated by Court in Grand Slam finals. King still believes Court’s name should remain on what is the #3 venue in Melbourne (#1 is named for male Australian tennis great Rod Laver, #2 for Vodaphone, whom we suspect paid handsomely for the recognition). That doesn’t mean she isn’t “disappointed”:
I think it’s really important to always have acts of kindness, love over hate, than to make judgments on others. Do I agree with her? Absolutely not. I’m gay and I think she’s been hurtful to our community and doesn’t really understand us as humans first. But you know what? Judge not that ye be not judged; that’s how I live my life.
So where does all this leave us? Jack Marshall posed the question thus: “Do Margaret Court’s political views and anti-LGTBQ statements create an ethical obligation to remove her name from Margaret Court Arena?” To that question, I think the answer is “no.” But had he phrased his “quiz” differently, “Does Margaret Court’s outstanding career as a tennis player create an ethical obligation to retain her name on the arena despite her recent virulent anti-gay rhetoric?”, the answer to that question, too, is “no.”

The dilemma is two-fold. First, is Navratilova right that such honors ought to recognize the “whole body of work,” or is King correct that Court’s post-tennis comments may be “hurtful” but not disqualifying? It’s not like, say, the Baseball Hall of Fame, which has clearly delineated criteria for inclusion. Naming a venue after someone is much more ad hoc.

Secondly, Court’s current position would have been regarded as pretty mainstream when she was performing the athletic feats that earned her the honor to begin with. In 1977, a year after Court played in her last Grand Slam, this country (Curmie can’t find numbers for Australia) was evenly split as to whether “gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults” ought even to be legal; now that figure is about 5:2 in favor among those with an opinion. As recently as 1996 (when Gallup first started polling on this topic), support for same-sex marriage was at only 27%; now it’s at 61%.

One wonders how appropriate it is to demand that a 74-year-old woman change with the times when there’s still a significant population who agrees with her stance. But her current statements, not the ones made when they were more widely accepted, are relevant, and they are deeply offensive to a significant number of fans and players alike. Moreover, Evonne Goolagong, Navratilova’s choice for the honor, was herself a multiple Grand Slam winner, well-liked, and apparently uncontroversial; her aboriginal roots would also add a touch of a different kind of inclusion, in a sport that remains pretty monochromatic: a casual fan would be lucky to get much further than the Williams sisters if asked to name prominent non-white tennis stars of the 21st century.

There are solutions, of course. A company like Qantas could buy naming rights. This sort of thing happens all the time: the example that comes first to mind is Qualcomm Stadium (formerly Jack Murphy Stadium) in San Diego; there are others. Barring that, however, the officials in Melbourne have some serious soul-searching to do. Curmie is really torn on this one—it’s not that Court was found to have cheated, or that she’s been convicted of a serious crime, but her virulent bigotry does in fact give a black eye to the Australian tennis world. Ultimately, if I had to make the call, I’d proclaim that we (Tennis Australia and Melbourne Park) will be as outspoken and aggressive in favor of LGBTQ rights as Ms. Court is in opposition to them, we’ll make those statements on posters you can’t avoid seeing as you enter the premises, and we’ll make it clear that the arena recognizes her athletic accomplishments and only her athletic accomplishments. If she then chooses to have her name associated with an organization whose belief system is so antithetical to her own, so be it. But the ball is (ahem) in her court.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

An Actually Racist Statement Results in “Remedial Action”; Same Teacher’s Good Pedagogy Gets Him Fired

Curmie’s long hiatus has left him with a lot of catching up to do if he wants to resurrect the Curmie awards this year. The good news, in multiple ways, is that the calendar year so far has generated only a dozen or so topics that Curmie has any interest in writing about. The bad news is that quality and quantity are different things, and there are some doozies in this group.

We start with a two-parter, only the second half of which happened this year (in January). As is often the case, Curmie heard about this story from netpal Jack Marshall. I don’t have a lot to add to Jack’s analysis, but if the Curmies are to make a return, we need to start churning out the posts about worthy contenders.

So, we start last fall in Folsom, CA, where a student asked Sutter Middle School history teacher Woody Hart for a definition of equality: this was apparently triggered by a class discussion of an exam question, but it’s a reasonable enough request for a student that age to make under any circumstances, especially given the ubiquity with which the term was no doubt being tossed about, only six days before the national election.

Hart’s response was, shall we say, disturbing: multiple students claim he replied, “When you hang one black person, you have to hang them all (as) that is equality.” Say WHAT??? Well, his version differs slightly: “If you hang black people in the South, that means that you hang any black person who comes from outside the state.” Oh, well, that changes everything… except for the whole “it doesn’t change a thing” part. Curmie is not sure whether to be more perplexed by what apparently passes for rational thought in this quotation or offended by the face-melting racism hidden not very damned deep below the surface.

Tyrie McIntyre, the father of one of the (few) black students in the class, complained to school authorities, who acted. Sort of. They agreed to remove McIntyre’s son, Tyler, from the class. According to the Sacramento Bee, Principal Keri Phillips “outlined remedial action for Hart, saying he will use examples at a level that eighth graders can understand…. avoid stereotypes or culturally insensitive language and rely on ‘very simple analogies that do not focus on the controversy.’” Curmie gets the middle part, but fears that the eighth graders understood the example all too well, and there was no “focusing on the controversy” in Hart’s statement. It was the controversy.

Curmie is afraid he must agree with Mr. McIntyre that “there was no way to justify the statement that he made.” That doesn’t make Mr. Hart an awful person, but it does make one raise a skeptical eyebrow, wondering if the 70-year-old teacher just got trapped in a clumsy statement or if there’s some real, thinly disguised racial nastiness going on here.

School Board President Zak Ford:
Not the Sharpest Knife in the Drawer
What passes for the brain trust in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District would have us believe that question was answered in January. The Sacramento Bee again: “Board President Zak Ford expressed outrage at the meeting, calling the remark ‘very inappropriate and flat-out stupid.’ Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt called the comment inappropriate and apologized to thousands of district parents and staff members.” So far, so good, right? Except the reason for the meeting was that Hart had had the audacity to display a Confederate flag, one presumes the Stars and Bars, but perhaps the actual flag of the Confederacy (as well as a Union flag), while teaching about the Civil War. WHAT??? That’s a problem?

Curmie can add to but not really improve on the commentary of local resident Cliff Zall: “The Confederate flag is a wart on our history, but gosh darn it, it’s part of our history. The next thing you know, history is not going to be history. It’s going to be what we wish it was.” Here’s the addition: how are students to know that the Confederate flag is anathema if they don’t know what one looks like? Indeed, wouldn’t the suppression of such a readily-available image just make it a little more deliciously naughty, thereby increasing its appeal to the average 13-year-old? Or, if they already know, how is seeing one in the context of a discussion of the Civil War in any way inappropriate?

Students—you know, the people who were actually there—argued that Hart was treated unfairly by the Board. Eric Hall, an 8th grader at the school, presented a petition signed by about a quarter of the total student population, asking that Mr. Hart, “a great teacher” who “got the class interested in things,” be retained. By this point, however, the Board had already forced Hart into retirement. Here’s a snippet from yet another article from the Sacramento Bee:
Allison Simmons, a junior at Folsom High School, said Hart was her eighth-grade teacher. Simmons said she hated history until she participated in his classroom simulations, which made history come alive. The classes didn’t promote racial insensitivity, but quite the opposite, she said.

He’s teaching you what’s right and what’s wrong throughout history so you don’t repeat it,” Simmons said. “You guys made a stupid decision to take the best teacher away from so many students,” she told the board.
Curmie has no opinion on Hart’s teaching skills, but can’t fault Ms. Simmons’s analysis that the Board’s decision was, in fact, stupid. I’d add anti-intellectual, hypersensitive, arrogant, ill-informed, pompous, and ultimately chilling, but “stupid” works, too. The only possible explanation for this ruling (because that’s effectively what it was) is that the Board was embarrassed by their earlier inaction when Hart really did do something that constituted a breach of professionalism, and they pounced on any pretense to put the entire situation behind them. That would be unethical, but not imbecilic.

But then, Board President Ford said “that the investigation of the Hart matter does not mean teachers should be afraid to be provocative or to use historical artifacts to “help students understand uncomfortable aspects of history.” And now we’re back at “stupid,” because this comment shows Mr. Ford to be dumber than the proverbial sack of hair. How else should teachers perceive such a nonsensical decision, if not as a direct threat to their classroom autonomy and an assertion that the Board will act arbitrarily, whimsically, and irrationally whenever it chooses. Ford shouldn’t despair altogether, however. Curmie is writing again, and there might be a Curmie nomination on the horizon.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Julius Caesar Kerfuffle, Take 2: A Theatre Historian's Perspective

Curmie suggests reading the play before
commenting on it.
The saga of Delta Airlines’ and Bank of America’s reneging on promises made to the Public Theater because of a production of Julius Caesar which links Shakespeare’s title character to President Trump continues. It is an oversimplification but likely not a falsehood to suggest that the majority of the people who are up in arms about the show have never voluntarily read or seen Julius Caesar, or indeed any other play by Shakespeare. Curmie has; he has letters after his name and a few decades of teaching theatre history and dramatic literature to college students. It is therefore not boastful to suggest that I might just get this stuff better than does someone whose understanding of English Renaissance drama comes from Breitbart and the Drudge Report. So it’s time to dust off the PhD and talk about something Curmie actually knows something about.

For one thing, a passing knowledge of the central themes of Julius Caesar leads to the inevitable conclusion that the assassination of a nation’s leader is never a good idea. (And how long would William Shakespeare have lasted in Elizabethan England had he suggested otherwise?)  We may, in this play, initially think Brutus is the hero—his is the largest role, after all, and his participation in the murder of Caesar is the central motivating action of the play. But Caesar’s death leads only to precisely the kinds of problems the conspirators were trying to prevent, as Mark Antony begins to understand almost immediately. He demonstrates this new comprehension in the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, which clearly serves to show Caesar as a noble and generous ruler. It is this oration that gets the play into serious structural difficulties: Caesar is the title character, Brutus is the lead, but it is Mark Antony who carries Shakespeare’s voice.

This irony of precipitating fate by trying to avoid it is hardly new with Shakespeare, of course. After all, the back-story of the play Aristotle regarded as the epitome of the tragic form, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos, involves precisely that phenomenon. Had Oedipus stayed in Corinth, trusting in his sense and moderation to avoid the two-fold horror of killing his father and sleeping with his mother, he would never have been forced off the road at that intersection, wouldn’t have killed Laius in the world’s first documented case of road rage, wouldn’t have been a position to solve the riddle of the Sphinx and thereby be awarded the newly-widowed queen as his bride.

But Shakespeare shows regicide a lot. Think Hamlet. Think Macbeth. Twice each, if you count the pre-play murder of Hamlet’s father. In both cases, the second regicide is linked to the first, but not as clearly as a casual reader or spectator might imagine. For one thing, ghosts were seen by the 16th century Anglican Church as inherently emanations from the Devil, so trusting in the apparition at the top of the former play is, shall we say, contraindicated. Perhaps for this reason, Hamlet constructs what seems to him to be a legitimate test of Claudius’s guilt (it isn’t, as if Claudius were completely innocent, he would reasonably interpret the “mousetrap” scene as a threat on his own life by his nephew, who arranged the entertainment), but even then he balks at actually exacting vengeance on the king. Of course, he believes he’s stabbing Claudius when he actually slays Polonius, but Renaissance thinking concentrates on the deed as much as on the intention: a prince who kills a counselor might not be acting in the best interests of the state, but he’s probably on safe legal and indeed ethical ground.

It isn’t until Claudius has already directly caused the deaths (or imminent deaths) of Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself that Hamlet plunges his sword, the tip of which was poisoned by Claudius himself, into the usurping king. The killing may be related to the death of Hamlet’s father, but there’s certainly no proximate cause. Moreover, the killing of the king—the one we see in Act V, scene ii—is, if not literally an act of self-defense (Hamlet will die, anyway), at least the first cousin to such an act.

Macbeth is an even more intriguing case. The murder of Duncan is a Very Bad Thing, and we’re reminded of how good the king has been to Macbeth shortly before the Thane repays his Lord by stabbing him to death. But notice that Macduff, even with plenty of evidence that Macbeth had turned into a tyrant, does not take immediate action. Rather, he goes to England to gain the support of Malcolm, the legitimate heir to Duncan’s crown. It is there that he learns of the murder of his wife and children, providing him with a personal motive to go after Macbeth, but it’s important to remember that Macduff is already persuading Malcolm to raise an army: the personal vendetta is simply the icing on the proverbial cake.

But even Macduff’s actions would have been ethically complicated to the Elizabethan mind. Yes, Macbeth’s ascension to the throne came as a direct result of his perfidy. Yes, Macbeth turned out to be a horrible ruler. Yes, Malcolm was rightfully king. But the theory of basileus, what was later to be called “divine right,” affirmed both a political and a religious belief that monarchs are chosen by God and it’s not for mere mortals to interfere with His plan. Bad kings will ultimately get their comeuppance, but it’s God’s job, not ours, both to judge and to impose justice.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon comes in the full (modernized spelling) title of an early Elizabethan play generally attributed to Thomas Preston: A Lamentable Tragedy Mixed Full of Pleasant Mirth, Containing the Life of Cambyses, King of Persia, from the Beginning of His Kingdom unto His Death, His One Good Deed of Execution, After That Many Wicked Deeds and Tyrannous Murders Committed by and through Him, and Last of All, His Odious Death by God’s Justice Appointed. Normally, Curmie talks about this title in terms of the English utter disregard for Italian and French ideals of purity of form, but it tells us something about justice, as well. Cambyses is, as the title suggests, guilty of “many wicked deeds and tyrannous murders.” But it’s not up to the populace to exact vengeance. Their job is to endure, and to let God sort it out in the end.

Similarly, the right path for Brutus was to put a check on Cassius et al. and to let Caesar do his thing; everything will be sorted out by a higher power in due course. And the same applies to those who oppose Donald Trump. Curmie is a member of the “Resistance” to the extent that he regards the current occupant of the White House as a dangerous, xenophobic, grifter. Curmie will resist virtually every decision of the Trump administration, but the key word in this sentence is “virtually.” A political position is not inherently bad just because it is advanced by an unethical ass-clown like Donald Trump. Nor will you hear “not my President” rhetoric from Curmie.

And no one, repeat, no one deserves to be killed in cold blood. Curmie suspects that Oskar Eustis, the director of the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, agrees.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Julius Caesar, Philistines, Corporate Cowardice, and Active Misreadings

A couple of days ago, Curmie was actually casting about, wanting to take advantage of his newly-returned desire to write, but unable to find a topic of more than moderate interest, the latest escapades of the most corrupt presidency in history and its nearly-as-unethical opposition having long since passed the point of generating ennui. But the last couple of days have provided a new story, two new-to-me stories, and a story that I have come to realize is indeed a worthy subject for an essay. The Blog Gods have heard my plaint.

Tina Benko and Gregg Henry in the Public Theatre production of Julius Caesar.
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Today, Curmie does something he hasn’t done in a very long time: write about a topic while it’s still “hot.” Sunday, Delta Airlines and Bank of America both withdrew their funding of the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar, literally the day before it officially opened. The play, which was in previews for about three weeks (and somehow was already reviewed) has caused controversy by portraying the title character as a Donald Trump clone: what New York Times critic Jesse Green describes as “a petulant, blondish Caesar in a blue suit, complete with gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife.” Subtlety does not appear to be this production’s strong suit.

Of course, Caesar is killed by his must trusted advisors about halfway through the play, a structural anomaly that makes Julius Caesar one of Curmie’s least favorite Shakespeare plays. Let’s face it, after Mark Antony’s big speech in Act III, we’re left with the longest dénouement in history. It’s really hard to bring off Acts IV and V because they’re, well, boring as hell.

But Curmie strays. You see, apparently this production’s assassination scene is more graphic than most, prompting further indignation from paranoid right-wingers: you know, the ones who call other people snowflakes. So the right-wing media ginned up an Astroturf campaign to apply pressure to the Public Theatre’s corporate sponsors. And the hegemons controlling those corporations—being devoid of any understanding of theatre, historical perspective, ethical sensibility, or moral courage—promptly capitulated.

Delta sniffs:
No matter what your political stance may be, the graphic staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ at this summer’s free Shakespeare in the Park does not reflect Delta Air Lines’ values. Their artistic and creative direction crossed the line on the standards of good taste. We have notified them of our decision to end our sponsorship as the official airline of the Public Theater effective immediately.
Apparently their vaunted “values” don’t include honoring commitments to theatre companies any more than they honor them to their customers. What Delta does with its money next year is completely up to them, and if they don’t want to be associated with one of the most famous and indeed prestigious theatre programs in the country, that is absolutely their prerogative, even if it is cowardly and ill-advised. But they’ve made a commitment for this year, and even if their high-priced legal team (which they need because their service is so terrible) can get them out of legal obligations, their ethical duty to support the Public Theater financially for the remainder of the season stands, even if they publicly disavow this production.

At least Bank of America understands that much… sort of. They, too, unethically withdrew funding from this play, although they did not completely sever relations with the Public. Still, they accuse the company’s production of an intention “to provoke and offend.” The former is certainly true. The latter might be true, but there certainly isn’t sufficient evidence to say that with any certainty. Bank of America, like Delta, is craven and culturally illiterate. Do they not get it that the whole point of Julius Caesar is that killing the title character is a Bad Thing? Perhaps the production does not make that sufficiently clear—it does sound more pretentious than profound—but the company’s official statement seems both apt and sincere. I quote it here in its entirety:
The Public Theater stands completely behind our production of Julius Caesar. We understand and respect the right of our sponsors and supporters to allocate their funding in line with their own values. We recognize that our interpretation of the play has provoked heated discussion; audiences, sponsors and supporters have expressed varying viewpoints and opinions.  Such discussion is exactly the goal of our civically-engaged theater; this discourse is the basis of a healthy democracy. Our production of Julius Caesar in no way advocates violence towards anyone. Shakespeare's play, and our production, make the opposite point: those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic means pay a terrible price and destroy the very thing they are fighting to save. For over 400 years, Shakespeare’s play has told this story and we are proud to be telling it again in Central Park.
That’s a good response to a pretty knee-jerk reaction by corporations who should know better. As Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall wrote, “Corporate donors to the arts should give because they support art, artists and public access to art, not because they endorse or insist on any particular message or artistic vision.” Indeed, it would be foolish to expect any theatre company to intentionally avoid plays or interpretations of plays that would resonate with a contemporary audience. (Disclaimer for those who don’t know Curmie personally: my scholarly interest centers on modern adaptations of inherited, often classical, material. What I do, in other words, is to explore as a scholar precisely the kinds of adaptations and productions the Public and groups like them explore as artists.)

There have also, of course, been expressions of support for the Public: from other sponsors like the New York Times and from the New York City Comptroller, who sent copies of the play to the heads of the two corporations, with a note saying that “Art matters. The First Amendment matters. Expression matters,” and that the companies’ cravenness (Curmie’s word, not his) “undermines the very vibrancy of the cause you chose to support in the first place.”

But if the corporations were running scared without good reason, their pusillanimity pales compared to the National Endowment for the Arts, which is more concerned with covering its own collective ass than in being a legitimate advocate for art or artists. All they could muster was this:
The National Endowment for the Arts makes grants to nonprofit organizations for specific projects. In the past, the New York Shakespeare Festival has received project-based NEA grants to support performances of Shakespeare in the Park by the Public Theater. However, no NEA funds have been awarded to support this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar and there are no NEA funds supporting the New York State Council on the Arts’ grant to Public Theater or its performances.
Way to fight for the cause, guys! Seriously, Curmie has (unsurprisingly) been an advocate for the NEA for years, but if this is how they’re going to act when the heat is on, we might as well do without.

Of course, this is a serious matter. The arts don’t matter to Americans… or, rather, they don’t matter to politicians (especially, but not exclusively, Republicans), and they don’t matter enough to voters to throw the rascals out. This production got nothing from the federal government and about 2/10 of a cent per New York State resident from the state. The NEA receives about 46 cents per American per year. By contrast, even in this era of Tory “austerity,” Arts Council England gets nearly $12 per UK citizen; in Germany it’s over $18.50, over 40 times the American per capita rate... and that's with the Euro at an all-time low relative to the dollar.  The result is that corporate (and foundation) sponsorship is inordinately important here. When corporations support art, it’s a good thing. When they start attaching strings—“you can only do pabulum”—that’s another matter. It isn’t censorship (despite what some lefties might say) but the result is pretty much the same (despite what some on the right would say). You’re not going to be prosecuted for doing this production of Julius Caesar, but remember that you’re getting almost all your funding from corporate sponsorship (remember, the whole idea is free Shakespeare in the Park, so box office isn’t in a position to make up the difference if the suits start thinking they should have approval rights for anything that goes up under their sponsorship).

Curmie knows something about this from having dealt with local businesses who sponsor summer stock or university theatres. He knows what some folks demand for just a couple thousand dollars. Make that a couple million, and the self-entitlement is likely to be thick on the ground.

Still, it is difficult to imagine what is going on in the minds of the execs at Delta and Bank of America. Do they think that theatre is somehow apolitical, when (Curmie would argue) it started as a means of consolidating power for the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus? Surely the political content of everything from The Oresteia to “Master Harold”… and the boys is manifest? Doesn’t every high school student know what The Crucible is really about? Was Tartuffe written in a vacuum?

Indeed, Curmie often uses two Shakespeare plays—Richard III and Macbeth—to illustrate the politics of drama. Question: which was written first? Unless you’re a Shakespeare scholar, you might not know off the top of your head. But how about this: Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, just about the midpoint in of Shakespeare’s career, to be succeeded by James I. Elizabeth loved stories of England’s history; James was Scottish, liked tales of the supernatural, and detested women. The title characters of both plays were actually the villains: Richard is defeated by Elizabeth’s grandfather; James traced his lineage to Banquo who, though murdered by Macbeth’s minions, was nonetheless prophesied to “get [i.e., beget] kings.” So: which play was written first, and when, relative to 1603, were they written? Q.E.D.

Finally, Curmie is obliged to respond to the paranoid delusions of some on the right who proclaim that if a Clinton or Obama were portrayed this way, the liberals would be incensed.  The facts say otherwise.  There was a joint production a few years ago by two of the country’s most prestigious troupes, the Acting Company and the Guthrie Theatre.  Here are snippets from three different reviews:
  • Noah Millman: “Caesar… is a tall, charismatic African-American politician; he doesn’t look or sound much like Obama…, but the audience is unquestionably going to read him as an Obama stand-in nonetheless.”
  • The Morning After arts/entertainment blog: “...Caesar is cast as a tall, lanky black man, the Obama inference is a bit too obvious.”
  • Jay Gabler: “...Bjorn DuPaty cutting an unmistakably Obama-like figure as the eponymous ruler.”  [in all cases here, emphasis mine]
Oh, and the director, Rob Melrose, says that “I think both Oskar [Eustis] and I are doing the same thing, which is, whenever you produce this play, you have to think about who is currently in power. I think when you encourage an audience to think that way, it brings the play into people’s lives in a way that’s palpable.
    There is no doubt that the Public’s production points more unmistakably to the current President than the previous one did to the one then serving, but that is hardly the same as saying that what was so readily apparent to several reviewers of the earlier production was somehow missed by everyone else.  Note, too, that one of the reviews quoted above was published on a site called The American Conservative, and another underscores Mr. Obama’s “[failure] to live up to the Messsianic hype.”  In other words, the authors are anything but Obamaphiles.  Yet neither they nor anyone on the left that Curmie can discover as much as batted an eye at the Acting Company/Guthrie production.  Moreover, such parody (or pastiche?) is either legitimate or it is not.  How some hypothetical audience of some hypothetical production may or may not have behaved (or might behave in the future) hardly seems relevant.

    The idea that plays, or productions of them, are somehow apolitical is patently absurd. Most productions that attempt to move Shakespeare out of period are fraught with peril (and the Public’s Julius Caesar may well an example of this phenomenon), but some (Ian McKellen’s Richard III, for instance) are brilliant. And, as Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis said in his curtain speech before the official opening:
    ...when we hold the mirror up to nature, often what we reveal are disturbing, upsetting, provoking things. Thank God. That’s our job…. The Public’s mission is to say that that the culture belongs to everybody, needs to belong to everybody, to say that art has something to say about the great civic issues of our time, and to say that, like drama, democracy depends on the conflict of different points of view. Nobody owns the truth. We all own the culture.
    Amen to that.

    Saturday, June 10, 2017

    Again with the Dress Codes and the Idiots in Charge.

    It may be a little late in the year to start collecting nominations for the Curmie Award, which we missed altogether last year, but since education has been and will always be a central topic of Curmie’s blog, I’m going to talk about this story whether there’s an award nomination down the line or not.

    Summer Bond in the offending garment,
    It is, alas, a familiar story of high school dress codes and administrators who get their jollies by forcing students—well, some students—to conform to arcane, archaic, and profoundly sexist regulations. A young woman named Summer Bond (she’s identified only as “Summer” in all the news stories, but her lawyer uses her full name in a press release, so Curmie will do so, as well) was suspended and, apparently, not allowed to participate in her graduation ceremony from Hickory Ridge High School in Harrisburg, NC, presumably for wearing the shirt you see in the picture on the left. Yes, really. Or perhaps for “insubordination” for not prostrating herself before Petty Tyrant Executive Moron Principal Michelle Cline, bellowing mea culpas at the top of her lungs. Whatever. Fact is, it’s stupid.

    Let’s get some stuff out of the way in a hurry. First, the dress code is (of course) an exercise in sexism. Girls mustn’t distract boys by, you know, looking attractive or fashionable. Obviously, there are legitimate functions of a dress code: no school wants gang signs or explicit bigotry on clothing, and it’s true that see-through tops or similar manifestations are at best unprofessional and at worst disruptive. OK, fine. But Curmie went to high school with some very beautiful young women who routinely (it being the ‘70s) wore skirts that wouldn’t come close to passing Hickory Ridge’s current dress code, and still managed to keep his mind on his courses. The “no cleavage” rule might work at a high school in North Carolina, but it wouldn’t last a day at virtually any university in the country. Curiously, students across the gender spectrum manage to concentrate.

    We have further evidence of the gender-based nature of the school’s dress code in this reporting from WCNC in Charlotte: “earlier this year, 45 girls were brought into the principal’s office just because they were wearing leggings without shirts that were long enough.” (For the record, on any given day, about half the women in Curmie’s department would be similarly dressed.) Curiously, there are no reports from Hickory Ridge of boys violating the dress code. Go figure.

    OK, Curmie gets it. The fact that high school dress codes are designed to blame girls for boys’ behavior is old news. Moving on. Other things to note up front:
    • The fact that Summer is an excellent student is irrelevant. She could be barely passing, and the injustice would be just as manifest.
    • She will, of course, graduate, although she may not walk. Even Michelle Cline isn’t stupid enough to risk the kind of damages that lawsuit would inevitably precipitate.
    • She was never in danger of losing (note correct spelling, please, multiple sources) her scholarship to “a major university.” Any university that would give any credence to the petulant grandstanding of a two-bit high school principal instead of Ms. Bond’s grades, board scores, and recommendations is unworthy of attendance.
    • There seems to be some history between Summer, her mom, and Principal Cline. This would appear to be at the center of the controversy.
    Assuming the news reports are correct, here’s what happened: Principal Cline approached Summer at lunch (note that apparently no one had complained all morning), demanding that she put a jacket on over her top. Summer protested that there was nothing wrong with what she was wearing, but a friend loaned her a jacket, which she put on. We’re done, right? No, apparently that wasn’t enough, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.  One source suggests that (according to Cline) Summer's lower back still wasn’t covered, making that top the strangest shaped garment in history, but whatever…

    Anyway, Cline then demanded that Summer change clothes altogether, but—because of that chronic tension mentioned earlier—there was apparently an arrangement (or merely a maternal insistence?) that Summer could not be punished in any way without her mom being notified first. So, with the school’s inability to contact the mom, we’re done, right? Nope. Cline throws everyone else out of a school assembly, calls in an armed School Resource Officer, and threatens Summer with arrest (!) for… uh… well, something. The mom called the school back just in time, but Summer was still suspended for ten days and threatened with expulsion.

    OK. Analysis time. Notice that the local story from WCNC says that the problem is that Summer’s shirt “rests just off the tops of her shoulders and exposes her collarbone.” The HuffPost article specifically states that Summer was “suspended for wearing a shirt that showed her collarbones.” Curiously (not really) the school’s vaunted dress code, which school officials would have us believe descended from Mount Sinai to a trumpet fanfare, has nary a word about collarbones. Imagine Curmie’s surprise. The closest thing to an actual violation on Ms. Bond’s part is in fact a pure judgment call: the dress code demands that “all shirts should adequately cover the upper body including the shoulders…” Summer’s shoulders were covered, but one might reasonably quibble over the definition of “adequately.” As a side note, the WCNC’s Tanya Mindes wore a shoulder-revealing top as she reported from the scene. One suspects that viewers were somehow able to listen to what she was saying. (Curmie has wondered repeatedly over the years about what is so inappropriate about shoulders: here, here, and here, for example.)

    It’s also worth noting that a suspension of more than two days for a dress code violation is allowed only for the sixth offense, but that the same student handbook gives carte blanche to school administrators to do pretty much whatever they want for some pretty ill-defined offenses. It’s another “Fuck You, We’re the Administration” clause. The order of the violations which can lead to suspension is telling. Here are the most egregious violations:
    • 1. Being a persistent discipline problem.
    • 2. Failure to report to the Control Room.
    • 4. Disrespect to an Administrator.
    More minor offenses—you know, stuff like actual crimes—are also included. Stealing is #11, vandalism is #12, bringing a weapon to school is #15, fighting is #16, drugs and alcohol #17. But the really important stuff to the school is at the top, and Curmie suspects that anything short of abject obeisance is going to be regarded by the likes of Michelle Cline as disrespect. It isn’t. Disrespect is what Curmie feels and expresses towards you, Ms. Cline, you heinous, bullying, buffoon.