Monday, February 15, 2021

Intentions Matter (except when they don't).

Curmie thinks a lot about the notion of intention. Part of that, of course, comes from being a theatre director. One of my most common notes to actors is to clarify intentions: to make clear what a character wants to accomplish, whether s/he succeeds in achieving it or not. 

But there have been three specific moments in the last week that have brought the concept to the forefront. The first was the annual discussion in Advanced Play Analysis class of the intellectual underpinnings of the absurdist movement in dramatic literature, specifically existentialism’s emphasis on prioritizing existence (the individual ego) over essence (the labels applied by others). 

I talked about how this concept is very similar to traditional conservative ideology (not to be confused with what passes for conservatism in contemporary politics). I also discussed how the manifestations (although not the rationale) of existentialist thought comport with those of Ancient Greece: Oedipus may have been attempting to avoid a horrible prophecy, but his actions bring about his downfall in a manner that is simultaneously inevitable and deeply ironic. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Mouches (The Flies) serves as an excellent means of linking the two philosophies, as he treats the matricidal Orestes as an existential hero. 

Finally, I contrasted the emphasis on individual responsibility with little regard for context or demographics and more traditional Judeo-Christian thought. Whether founded on a concept of pollution, as in the case of Shinto and (largely) Ancient Greece or upon a Nietzschean or Sartrean conception of the role of the authentic self within the universe, this emphasis on actions rather than intentions runs counter to the dominant Western belief system of the past two millennia. I should note here that concern for context is not an exclusively Western idea. Confucius, for example, distinguishes between murder (which cannot be condoned), self-defense (in which killing is excusable), and protecting one’s lord (in which failing to kill, if necessary, is punishable). 

Still, in terms of the way laws and ethical systems are constructed in the US and in countries like it, it’s the Judeo-Christian ethic that prevails. Thus, whereas Sartre’s Orestes strides unflinchingly into the swarm of flies, symbolic of both the chthonic Furies of Aeschylus’s Oresteia and the niggling doubts about the legitimacy of his regicide and matricide, even a lapsed Christian like W.B. Yeats can close The Countess Cathleen, the title character of which has sold her soul to the “demon merchants” in order to redeem the souls of her subjects, with the Countess’s ascension into Heaven and the Angel’s observation that “the Light of Lights looks always on the motive, not the deed, The Shadow of Shadows on the deed alone.” 

Donald G. McNeil, Jr.
What all this means is that in our society, existential thought notwithstanding, intentions and context matter. Usually. Which brings us to the second relevant event: the controversy surrounding the compelled resignation of now-former New York Times reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. McNeil was forced out for using a racial slur while leading a Times-sponsored student trip to Peru in 2019. As is often the case, the details of the incident are unclear. 

According to a late-January article in the Daily Beast, “McNeil repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks throughout the trip including, according to two complaints, using the ‘n-word.’” But according to McNeil himself, he had used the term only in the context of quoting a student who had asked “whether I thought a classmate of hers should have been suspended for a video she had made as a 12-year-old in which she used” the slur. The “repeatedly” and “sexist” parts of the allegations seem to have disappeared from the discussion, with the furor concentrating on the utterance of a single word. 

After an apparently lengthy internal investigation, the Times reprimanded McNeil for “extremely poor judgment” (really?) but determined that his intentions were neither “hateful or malicious,” citing in particular “repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.” (Curmie can’t help thinking about the “Jehovah” scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” Within a few months, McNeil was the paper’s lead journalist on COVID-19, even being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. But then the situation went public, and some 150 Times staffers signed a letter demanding further review. The bosses promptly ousted McNeil, declaringFebruary 2 of this year in a feature story on classicist Dan-el Parilla Peralta. Its use in that story, by the way, is completely appropriate. 

Busted for the inanity of the comment, Executive Editor Dean Baquet subsequently walked back the business about intent. Mediaite quotes him indirectly, citing “comments obtained” about “a staff meeting”: “In our zeal to make a powerful statement about our workplace culture, we ham-handedly said something you rightfully saw as an oversimplification of one of the most difficult issues of our lives…. It was a deadline mistake and I regret it.” If you, Gentle Reader, believe the “deadline mistake” part (there are deadlines for staff e-mails?), then Curmie has some ocean-front property in Kansas you might be interested in purchasing. 

The story took on even more “legs” when the Times higher-ups spiked a column by Bret Stephens in which he criticized the paper’s handling of the situation, especially the whole “regardless of intent” part. Whether the piece was axed by publisher A.G. Sulzberger (as Stephens claims) or by opinions editor Kathleen Kingsbury after consultation with Sulzberger (as she claims) really doesn’t matter. But the column found its way around the offices, and was apparently sent by someone (not Stephens) to the Times’s crosstown rival, the New York Post. The Post, of course, is as conservative as the Times is liberal (both to rather an extreme, alas), and their decision-makers were happy to publish the piece in full

Curmie urges you to read what Stephens has to say in its entirety, but for the purposes of brevity, Curmie will quote only two short passages. He opens with this: “Every serious moral philosophy, every decent legal system and every ethical organization cares deeply about intention.” A little later, he makes his thesis clear:
This is an argument about three words: “Regardless of intent.” Should intent be the only thing that counts in judgment? Obviously not. Can people do painful, harmful, stupid or objectionable things regardless of intent? Obviously. Do any of us want to live in a world, or work in a field, where intent is categorically ruled out as a mitigating factor? I hope not.
Curmie can’t improve on any of that, noting only that there’s a lot less mitigating context to Baquet’s inanity (which, being written, intrinsically allows time to reconsider before hitting “send”) than to McNeil’s utterance of a clarifying question. Somehow Curmie doubts that Baquet will be booted for violating a core principle of journalism. 

Full disclosure: Curmie has directed two plays (that he can think of) which include the word “nigger.” One of them, “Master Harold”… and the boys, is one of the most profoundly anti-apartheid scripts ever written, and the use of the term by white character—one we in the audience have come to like, in part because of his close relationship with the two black men in the play—shocks us, precisely as it was intended to do. Curmie has also said the word in class, choosing to quote texts accurately instead of dancing around specific words. And yes, there were complaints from the Woke Folk. So be it. Curmie will never use the term in his own voice, but will do so in citing a source if (and only if) the situation demands it. 

So: intentions matter. But, of course, they are sometimes insufficient justification for actions. Which brings us to event number three. Like many Republicans with political aspirations, Nikki Haley has been walking a tightrope of late. Having no core values (like many if not most politicians in both parties), she has found the purely pragmatic need to negotiate her distance from the sociopath who appointed her to the UN Ambassadorship, all the while trying not to alienate the Trumpian base. Suddenly, after it became clear that all Trump’s huffing and puffing wasn’t going to change the election results, she has come to the conclusion that perhaps, just perhaps, Donald Trump might not be the answer to all our prayers. 

After a couple of years as a Trump toady although she clearly despised the man and everything he represents, she’s now come to the shocking realization that “We need to acknowledge he let us down. He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.” In other words, she’s just as crass, self-serving, and ethically compromised as a host of other pols on either side of the aisle. Imagine Curmie’s surprise. 

But what really fascinates me about this otherwise mundane case of amoral political ambition is not so much Haley’s unwillingness to tell the truth to Trump, but rather that she presents as a defense for him the assertion that “to his core, he believes he was wronged. This is not him making it up.” There is, to be blunt, no conceivable way that all of those election officials, secretaries of state from both parties, and judges at all levels—including Trump-appointed members of SCOTUS—could all be part of a gigantic conspiracy to end the Trumpian regime. There may have been a minor glitch here or there, but there is literally no evidence (not to be confused with claims of ultimately illusory evidence) that Joe Biden wasn’t ethically and legally entitled to literally every electoral vote he received, or that Donald Trump was within hailing distance of a popular vote victory. Ah, but, you see, he really thought he’d won

There are three possibilities here. 1). Trump knew better all along, but is sufficiently narcissistic and traitorous that he just didn’t care. 2). Trump surrounded himself with a gaggle of sycophants who actively (or in Haley’s own case) passively withheld the truth from the President of the United States. Shouldn’t there be penalties for that? And, of course, Trump would have to be stupid enough to believe in the “alternate facts” spun by his yes-men (and -women). 3). Trump is so distanced from reality that he really does believe, of his own accord and without the fawning support of his minions, that he won the election. Ambassador Haley would have us believe this version. I’m willing to do so, but only if she’ll call it by its proper name: the insanity defense. 

So we’re back at intentions, again. Donald Trump isn’t really lying, you see. “He believes it” might be a good enough rationale in Haley’s mind for Trump’s outrageous and seditious behavior, but such a claim requires… wait for it… context. And the only context that gets the former President off the hook for seriously damaging the integrity and, nearly as importantly, the perceived integrity of the electoral system is the assertion that he’s batshit crazy. He can think he’s a butterfly for all Curmie cares: there is, after all, as much truth to that belief as there is to the claim that he won the election. But if Trump honestly believes that he was acting to protect democracy, he needs to be kept away from sharp implements and housed in a nice room with padded walls. 

It is perfectly possible to great harm with the best of intentions. It is also possible to do great harm by ignoring the context of an action. Curmie finds himself grateful to Confucius, whose disdain for generalities is vindicated yet again.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Of Assholes, Social Media, Idiot University Administrators [apologies for redundancy], and Victims

Curmie is a little late to the party—but not as late as is his wont—regarding the escapades of one Jimmy Galligan. Curmie first heard the name when a former student—a Social Justice Warrior as only a middle-class het white Christian male can be—applauded Galligan in a Facebook post. So Curmie broke out the Google machine and learned about the case. Turns out that Galligan is … what’s that word, again? An asshole. Yeah, that’s it.

Mimi Groves: because she’s the victim here
OK: here’s the story. Four years ago, then 15-year-old Mimi Groves got her learner’s permit and posted a three-second video to a friend via Snapchat: “I can drive, niggers!,” echoing language she had heard repeatedly in music she liked. Three years go by, and we come to the quite legitimate furor over the killing of George Floyd. Groves posted on Instagram that people should “protest, donate, sign a petition, rally, do something” in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ironically, it was this gesture of support for BLM that may have catalyzed her being labelled a racist. 

Someone she didn’t know responded to her post with “You have the audacity to post this, after saying the N-word.” Somewhere along the line someone had sent the Instagram post to Galligan, who then—get this—waited to post it publicly until Groves had been accepted onto the cheerleading squad at the University of Tennessee, her “dream school,” so he could “get her where she would understand the severity of that word”: in other words, when he could do the most damage to her reputation, and get the most publicity for himself.

Galligan claims he initially brought the video to the attention of school officials “without gaining any response.” Does Curmie believe this is a complete and accurate description of what happened? Well, his response starts with “n,” and isn’t the word that got Groves into trouble. But even if this claim is true, and even if Galligan had been subjected to racial slurs directed at him by other students (a plausible enough allegation), why lash out so viciously against someone who hadn’t done that?  The only plausible answer is that he could.

Social media having long since displaced quicksand pits and piranha pools as the most dangerous place to hang out, Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter were soon abuzz, complete with links to UT’s cheer team and admissions pages. 

Groves was immediately dropped from the cheer team and pressured to withdraw from the university. Whereas Curmie believes she is better off not subject to the whim of an athletics department and an admissions office (and, no doubt, an administration) more concerned with kneejerk virtue signaling than with intent, context, or proportion—the very essence of a university education—she understandably does not agree. 

Points to consider: 

Groves was 15 when she said the word, once. She was a kid. No one, and Curmie does mean literally no one, should be judged based on a single, frankly rather minor, lapse of judgment at age 15. Hell, Curmie did some remarkably stupid stuff when he was considerably older than that, and he’s betting you did, too, Gentle Reader. Much as Curmie thinks the term “cancel culture” is over-used, the concept does exist, and this is a prime example. 

The University of Tennessee behaved appallingly, their absurd over-reaction probably a function of trying to divert attention away from real incidents of racist activity by their already-enrolled students. If Groves had applied the epithet to Galligan (or anyone else) in her senior year, or used an equivalent term towards the LGBTQ+ community, or to members of a different religion, then withdrawing her admission might be appropriate. 

But it’s clear that she has grown up considerably in the last four years. If only the same could be said for UT’s cheerleading coach, athletics director, and director of admissions. A competent person in any of those positions would say to the screeching mob: “This young woman made a mistake when she was 15. If you say you didn’t, too, you’re either a saint or a liar, and we’re betting it’s not the former.” Instead, they adopted an especially perverse variant of the heckler’s veto in a gesture of appeasement that will become the new normal for them. 

Groves’s lawyer says, the “University of Tennessee caved in—in a panic, to a lot of hysteria, a lot of social media going on—and they didn't give her a meaningful investigation—which would have revealed that this happened years ago, and would have revealed the context of it.” Yeah, that’s about right. 

None of this, alas, is terribly surprising. Curmie’s politics are to the left of 85% of the US population, 95% of Texans, and 98% of the congressional district that re-elected Loony Louie Gohmert by a landslide. But he’s well aware that the biggest threat to his speaking his mind comes from that sliver to his left… well, them and the hand-wringing invertebrates (yes, Curmie knows that’s not good zoology) who make up the majority of university administrators. 

It’s extremely important to recognize that Groves did not (apparently ever) direct the term at an individual, nor use it as a term of disparagement at all, but rather she repeated an expression she had heard in her music. She is openly supportive of the BLM movement, and seems genuinely contrite at her past actions, not merely, à la a long list of politicians (for example), that she got caught. This is not the right scapegoat to choose. 

But Galligan doesn’t care: he got written up in the New York Times and had his 15 minutes of fame notoriety. Karma will return, however, as no responsible employer is going to trust him not to pull a similar stunt—and Curmie chooses that word carefully—in the future. Well, not unless he takes responsibilities for his actions. 

Moreover, “a few years ago,” Galligan’s own father, who is white, used the “n-word,” which he had heard his black in-laws use repeatedly, “prompting Galligan and his sister to quietly take him aside and explain that it was unacceptable, even when joking around.” A grown man can be “quietly taken aside”; a 15-year-old girl needs to be publicly humiliated years after the fact. And we need to wait until just the right moment, to maximize the damage. Even more problematic: Galligan is proud of the destruction he has wrought. 

Ergo: Jimmy Galligan is an asshole, and he will remain so in Curmie’s books until he expresses genuine remorse for his reckless, cruel, and unwarranted behavior. Curmie was about to say that whereas Mimi Groves is welcome in his classroom at any time, Jimmy Galligan is not. But that isn’t true. The teaching profession is one in which you play the cards you’re dealt, and Jimmy Galligan isn’t an unfamiliar figure. 

Curmie has known literally thousands of post-adolescents over his lifetime; he has been a student or a faculty member at a college or university for 93 of the last 95 semesters, and is about to start on semester 94. A lot of 19-year-olds have been part of that universe, and a lot of them turned out to be a lot better people as adults than they were as post-adolescents. It’s called growing up. Jimmy Galligan, like Mimi Groves, deserves the chance to do that. That doesn’t mean he isn’t an asshole right now.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Britbox, PBS, and Pusillanimous Prissiness

Tony Robinson as Baldrick and Rowan Atkinson as Ebenezer Blackadder
in “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol”

Curmie and Beloved Spouse have watched “Blackadder’s Christmas Carol” at least once every December for well over a decade. Often the “ritual viewing” takes place on Christmas Eve, as it did this year. Needless to say, we know the roughly half-hour show pretty well. We have two versions of the piece on DVD. One is a stand-alone which we always seem to forget is configured for British players and won’t work on ours (we could play it on a computer, but we’d naturally rather have the larger screen of the television). 

We couldn’t immediately find the other one (it’s in a box set of the entire Blackadder series), so we decided to stream it on Britbox. A couple minutes in, Ebenezer Blackadder’s dogsbody Baldrick is describing the workhouse nativity play, for which the infant scheduled to play the baby Jesus had died, leaving the players no choice but to have the role enacted by Spot the dog.
Ebenezer: Oh, dear… I’m not convinced that Christianity would have established its firm grip over the hearts and minds of mankind if all Jesus had ever said was “Woof.”
Baldrick: Well, it went all right until the shepherds came on. See, we hadn’t been able to get any real sheep, so we had to stick some wool…
Ebenezer: …on some other dogs.
Baldrick: Yeah… and the moment Jesus got a whiff of them, he’s away! While the angel’s singing “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Mankind,” Jesus scampers across and tries to get one of the sheep to give him a piggyback ride!
Ebenezer: Scarcely appropriate behavior for the son of God, Mr. Baldrick. Weren’t the children upset? Baldrick: Nah, they loved it. They want us to do another one at Easter—they want to see us nail up the dog.
But Baldrick’s last speech in this sequence, which we knew well and indeed anticipated, never happened. Apparently there are multiple versions out there—some with and some without the line. (Hey, if you can’t believe Wikipedia, what’s the world coming to?) It seems a strange thing to cut a single line in an often darkly humorous piece of satire, which is what appears to have happened. And why do so at all? Are there a lot of Victorian-era urchins who will rise up in righteous dudgeon at the affront to their true humanitarian natures? The joke is funny, or at least Curmie and Beloved Spouse think so, and even if it weren’t, where’s the problem? It’s not like kids are the series’ target audience. Or are the offended spectators animal activists? Curmie loves dogs as much as the next person, but he knows a joke when he hears one. Either way, how is this line more problematic than Queen Victoria’s calling Prince Albert her “little German sausage”... or Jesus mounting a sheep from behind, for that matter? 

Moreover, it’s hard to believe that Rowan Atkinson (who played the title character) or Stephen Fry (not in this scene, but in two others), both of whom have become somewhat controversial for their ardent defense of free speech, would be very pleased at having their work thus edited.  

It’s also strange that the line is included in some versions and not in others. If it were deemed offensive (or whatever), surely the rights holders would allow the distribution of only the Bowdlerized version. Note: this may have happened, as it’s apparently been some time since the short film has been available in its uncensored form; our copy is several years old. 

But this situation also brings to mind another variation on censorial idiocy. We’re members of the local PBS station, and thereby we have access to a lot of archived material from PBS. It’s important to understand that we’re not talking about over-the-air broadcasts: you have to pay extra to be able to watch this stuff, and membership is specific: it’s not a bundle of things of which the PBS archives are only a single part. But apparently PBS has adopted a policy that those “seven words you can’t say on television” are verboten even on shows that can be viewed only by a self-selecting membership. 

This is especially disturbing for three fundamental reasons. First, they have unartfully clipped out all sound in those moments. Shifting from ambient noise (traffic sounds, almost but not quite inaudible background conversations, the TV on in the next room…) to none calls attention to the omission. If you’re going to censor content, at least don’t advertise the fact. Because you know what offends Curmie, PBS? It’s not when a character mutters an expletive when something goes wrong. It’s your pusillanimous prissiness. 

Which brings us to another point. PBS tries to position itself as a representative of the best in television: “where else can you see [fill in the blank]” is a standard marketing ploy for their fund-raisers. If anyone should be demanding artistic integrity and supporting the aesthetic choices of script-writers, it’s PBS. But they’ve been taken over by a gaggle of hand-wringers who fear that a little old lady from Dubuque might keel over if a character mutters an expletive derived from the Anglo-Saxon when frustrated. You know, like people do? 

Finally, PBS, I’m paying you to present me with authentic work. I expect you to provide me with that. Within the context of a script, it may be perfectly appropriate to have a character use scatological or “obscene” language, or even to use a slur based on race, gender, sexual identity, or the like. That’s a call for the writers, not you to make, and for me, not you, to decide whether to hear what the writers wrote and the actors said. All of these shows, by the way, include a warning about adult content. You don’t watch one of these programs without the expectation of… well… adult content. 

My particular favorites, by the way, are the shows in another language. The ubiquity of the English language comes into play here. Sometimes European characters swear in English; those words are bleeped by PBS. Sometimes they swear in French or German or Swedish or whatever; these lines are censored only in the subtitles. Pssst: nobody tell PBS that a lot of Americans know what “va te faire foutre” means without needing the subtitles, or that a lot of these terms have cognates in English.

Exactly why Britbox (presumably, or maybe the BBC) and PBS see fit to censor their own material from the likes of us eludes me. And don’t get me started on why the bots that control Facebook won’t allow Curmie (or anyone else) to link to a post on this blog: some unspecified “spam” offense, which, of course, never actually happened. Of course, there’s no actual appeal process or indeed a real person to complain to, just sanctimony and self-congratulation. Such is the way of censorious asshats. (The usual nod to Ken White of Popehat for this felicitous phrase.) 

It’s important to note, I think, that these concerns operate on a different axis than the traditional left/right continuum. Rather, this is on the sequence from authoritarianism at one terminus to libertarianism on the other, using the latter in its original sense, which differentiates between actual personal freedom (and unwillingness to be defined by group status) on the one hand and simple selfishness on the other. (Refusal to wear a mask in a pandemic is a function of arrogant stupidity, not libertarianism.) Objections to Blackadder’s line likely come from the left, to those naughty words on PBS from the right, to Curmie’s blog from irrational technophilia. 

I can comprehend a rationale for shutting down objective lies or conspiracy theories (the Republican governor and secretary of state of Georgia conspiring with the ghost of Hugo Chavez to keep Donald Trump from being re-elected, that sort of crap). But, as Oscar Wilde reminded us, the pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple. Curiously, however, subjective truth is easier to define than objective truth: it’s whatever the creators decided it to be. That includes a cop muttering “shit” when the bad guy gets away.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Selective Outrage or Biased (Non-)Reporting? Hint: Both.

Eric Swalwell and “Christine” Fang in 2012
Somewhat by chance, Curmie happened upon an article bemoaning the lack of New York Times coverage of a potential scandal involving Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) and an alleged Chinese spy named Fang Fang (a.k.a. Christine Fang). 

This essay is going to take the form of “on the one hand, but on the other hand.” Let’s start with what could be construed as the right wing position. Yes, it’s troubling that Curmie is only now learning about this story, which was broken by Axios nearly a fortnight ago. This speaks to Curmie’s apparent insularity, which he vows to address, to the fact that the story broke during finals week, and to the decision on the part of the Times and other left-leaning news agencies not to cover the story. 

This last part is indeed problematic. Even if the story is the legendary tempest in a teapot, it does seem to be worthy of at least a modicum of coverage: an alleged (and likely more than merely “alleged”) Chinese operative who gained enough access to a Congresscritter that she could apparently get an intern hired, who worked as a bundler for that politician, who clearly was a close affiliate, and who may indeed have had a romantic/sexual relationship with him. 

There is no accusation of this last from a credible source (Tucker Carlson hardly counts), and Swalwell declines to comment. That said, if Curmie may adapt Bill Maher’s apt observation on the Anthony Weiner case from nine years ago (damn, was it that long ago?) to the present circumstances: if somebody asks you if you schtupped a Chinese spy and your answer is anything but “no,” you schtupped a Chinese spy. And it’s a stretch to say that either confirming or denying the allegation could be construed as spreading “classified” information. 

Moreover, the implications of case go beyond Rep. Swalwell’s being a member of Congress. He’s a member of the House Intelligence Committee, in which position he has access to sensitive information. Following a closed-door briefing by the FBI after the Axios story broke, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy proclaimed that “The one answer that I got out of that briefing was there is no way Eric Swalwell should continue to serve on the Intel committee,” adding that “I just think there are definitely 200 other Democrats that I know could fill that place.” And it’s certainly plausible that the FBI would reveal information to Reps. McCarthy and Pelosi that they wouldn’t discuss even off the record with reporters: they want to avoid letting the Chinese know what information they have and don’t have, lest China refine their espionage activities to more successfully avoid detection. 

Finally, quoting the Axios article here:
Private but unclassified information about government officials—such as their habits, preferences, schedules, social networks, and even rumors about them—is a form of political intelligence. Collecting such information is a key part of what foreign intelligence agencies do…. 
Close relationships between a U.S. elected official and a covert Chinese intelligence operative can provide the Chinese government with opportunities to sway the opinion of key decision-makers….
China’s spy services want to influence [Chinese diaspora] communities to become more predisposed to the regime, as well as surveil and stamp out potential organized opposition to the Communist Party….
Access to local political offices can give Beijing’s intelligence operatives opportunities to collect information on communities of Chinese descent in the United States.
Meanwhile, other than a brief denial of wrongdoing—to a friendly interviewer—Swalwell has declined to comment… except for righteous dudgeon that the story had been leaked. Of course, he blames the Trump administration. Sigh. 

Oh, and the UK’s Daily Mail (a less than unimpeachable source, but still…) reports that Fang has a “lingering presence in [Swalwell’s] family’s Facebook friendship circuit,” whatever that may mean. 

So much for that point of view. On to what we’ll call the left wing perspective. Let’s start by quoting the Axios article that started this whole business. Remember, this is the result of over a year of investigative journalism:
U.S. officials do not believe Fang received or passed on classified information….
[A] Bay Area political operative and a current U.S. intelligence official… who witnessed Fang fundraising on Swalwell's behalf, found no evidence of illegal contributions…. 
Amid a widening counterintelligence probe, federal investigators…alerted Swalwell to their concerns—giving him what is known as a defensive briefing. Swalwell immediately cut off all ties to Fang, according to a current U.S. intelligence official, and he has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
[In 2015] U.S. intelligence officials also provided multiple briefings to White House officials and members of Congress on the case, a current senior official said.
So, let’s review the bidding: there is no evidence that Fang got any information of significance from Swalwell or anyone else; that Swalwell knew about Fang’s connections to the Chinese government prior to receiving the defensive briefing, after which he immediately cut ties with her; that, despite the snark a few paragraphs earlier in this blogpost, there was anything illicit about the relationship between Swalwell and Fang. True, if there were an affair, that wouldn’t be something to brag about on Swalwell’s résumé, but he was single at the time, so the prospects for extortion are pretty feeble. And Fang is not accused of doing anything illegal in her work with Swalwell’s political campaigns. 

It’s also worthy of mention that among the Congresscritters briefed about the situation by federal investigators five years ago was… drumroll, please… Kevin McCarthy. But now, like Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” McCarthy is shocked, shocked! that Swalwell would be allowed to serve on the Intel Committee. Curmie raises a skeptical eyebrow at the idea that McCarthy seems to have allowed this untrustworthy character to serve on that Committee for five years without complaint, but now, when Swalwell has become a particular thorn in the side of the Trump administration and has thereby achieved a degree of notoriety as one of the few significant Democrats under the age of 50, Swalwell is somehow unfit. 

We can readily imagine the tears McCarthy and his cohorts would shed if unsubstantiated rumors and scurrilous innuendo were to derail the political career of a rising star in the opposition party. Curiously, there are no calls for Swalwell to be arrested for treason or anything of the sort, only to remove him from an important committee. Curmie is trying to wrap his head around this part. The best I can do is to suggest that any kind of legal action would require proof, whereas wounding an adversary can be accomplished with scuttlebutt and innuendo, and demanding Swalwell be removed from Intel is sufficient to rally the base, which is the whole point of this exercise. 

Don’t get me wrong: consorting with a foreign spy is not an activity to be encouraged in anyone, let alone in a sitting Congresscritter. Still, assuming Fang was a spy, she appears to have been very good at her job. That she fooled Swalwell, and there is literally nothing to suggest anything worse than that on Swalwell’s part, means only that he didn’t detect her deception better than, apparently, a lot of other politicians, lobbyists, and the like. 

In short, show Curmie evidence—real evidence—that Rep. Swalwell did anything morally, ethically, or legally wrong. Perhaps that evidence exists, and perhaps the FBI presented it to McCarthy and Pelosi at their meeting. Perhaps David Koresh really was a prophet. Perhaps the moon is made of green cheese. 

But back to the initial question: should the Times be covering this story? Absolutely, because one of two things must be true: either there’s substantial and credible evidence that a member of the House Intel Committee has been compromised, or the House Minority leader is willing to impugn the integrity of a fellow Congresscritter without that evidence, whether to score some cheap political points or to engage in a little wagging of the dog to distract attention from Dear Leader Trump’s latest escapades or the GOP’s love affair with QAnon wackadoodles. Either way, there’s an influential Member of Congress who shouldn’t be allowed to serve.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Should Online Classes Be Discounted?

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on virtually every facet of everyday life throughout the world. Curmie’s twin professions—as a university professor and an homme de théâtre—have both been clobbered, in part because governments don’t seem to think either is as important as supporting multinational corporations. 

Thing is, in a complex economy, everything is inter-related. The owners of Amalgamated Widgetcorp may not need or deserve assistance, but their workers do, and if they don’t get it, they can’t afford to buy the new whatzit they’ve been coveting, damaging the whatzit company’s bottom line, causing layoffs, and… Well, you get the idea. 

It's almost as if there were a message on this page.
On the higher education side of things, revenues have plummeted, and the quite predictable response has been to cut costs… thereby decreasing value. It’s a mess, and pulling at one string often results in unforeseeable (or at least unforeseen) consequences. Take the furor over university tuition, for example. From students’ perspectives, online classes aren’t as good as face-to-face, and students are deprived of the opportunity to make friends, join organizations, or generally do the things that really define the college experience. Ergo, they shouldn’t have to pay as much.  

True, there may be the occasional play or concert with drastically reduced admission numbers, and of course universities are notorious for prioritizing sports, especially football and men’s basketball, over trivial stuff like classes and stuff like that. But there isn’t a university (at least a reputable one) in the country that is even pretending to offer all the things that defined the undergraduate experience a year ago. 

No one is surprised, therefore, that over 93% of college students, according to a poll this fall, think tuition should be lowered if classes are online. Hell, Curmie is surprised the percentage is that low. But university administrators primarily see the other side of the argument. Virtually every university in the country refunded literally millions of dollars in room and board fees (and often tuition charges) for the second half of the spring semester, and those revenues were significantly below normal again this fall even for those schools where dorms and dining halls were open. 

Still, students expect that course in cell biology or the American novel of the 19th century that they need to graduate, and they don’t want it taught by an ornithologist, or a Chaucer specialist, or (God forbid!) an adjunct. 

Universities also have a responsibility to their faculty and staff to retain them if possible. This would hardly be pure altruism, however: we’re all confident that something akin to “normal” will be within reach in a few months’ time, and still having that world-class sociologist on your faculty will be a good thing in even the medium term, even if her classes aren’t getting their traditional enrollment numbers in academic year 2020-21. So there’s a pragmatic as well as ethical element here. 

Also, of course, enrollment is also down pretty much across the board: a function of declining numbers of the traditional student-aged population as well as the economic effects of COVID-19. That also means fewer people buying branded merchandise, parking permits, and other revenue generators. Ticketed events—athletic contests, plays, concerts, etc.—attract fewer people in multiple ways. Because of lower enrollments and limited travel (no real in-person Parents Weekend, for example), there’s a smaller potential spectatorship; those people are understandably reluctant to attend a two- or three-hour event where they’ll have to be masked for the duration; and even if the same number of folks wanted to attend, venues are operating with limited capacities: the space where Curmie’s late February production will be staged, for example, will operate at 1/6 capacity. 

On the other side of the ledger, consider the costs of COVID protocols: the face guards, hand sanitizers, air purifiers, plastic shields, etc.,… plus all the classrooms that need to be fitted with cameras and all the other accoutrements of “smart classrooms,” and the extra expenses also run into the millions of dollars. 

Moreover, and here’s where Curmie may have more insight that most of his readers, faculty workloads have increased significantly from pre-COVID days: not in terms of classes taught, but in terms of hours spent on the job. Lectures need to be geared towards an online student population, either instead of or in addition to the people literally in the room. The average professor has spent literally dozens of hours of unremunerated work adapting to just the classroom part of the Brave New World. 

Add to that the time required to learn and implement the technologies required for distance learning: the simple act of taking attendance is no longer something that can be completed before class starts; it’s now a five-step process that takes an additional five minutes. That doesn’t sound like much, but that’s per class period: in Curmie’s case, multiply it by 11 class meetings a week for 15 weeks, and it added an extra 14 or15 hours of work over the course of the semester. 

Writing a quiz takes three times as long as it did, and grading it takes perhaps 20% longer. Advising meetings take twice as long. The fact that faculty and staff are being laid off or simply not replaced when they leave means more advising, more committee assignments, etc., for those who remain. (Curmie retires in August and fears he won’t be replaced.) None of this affects the bottom line directly, but it does make cutting salaries particularly unethical… which isn’t to say that a number of places haven’t done so. 

Curiously, mid-level administrators (provided they’re appropriately sycophantic) keep getting promoted into newly-created positions, and no university could possibly survive without an Executive Assistant to the Associate Vice President for Navel Contemplation. Curmie’s own university needs to make substantial reductions in spending, but axing the $45K salary of the assistant football coach for inside wide receivers (Curmie truly wishes he were making this up) is off the table. We’re an FCS (a.k.a. I-AA) school, by the way. And one suspects that no one on the top floor of the administration building is expected to buy their own printer ink. We’re all in this together… except for those of us who aren’t. Visions of Animal Farm dance through Curmie’s head. 

But Curmie strays, and the foregoing is a rant for another day. Yes, many universities, including Curmie’s, are making remarkably stupid and ill-thought-out decisions about how to deal with the economic effects of the pandemic. This does not change the fact that those challenges are real, and that even intelligent, big-picture, responses are likely to have profound and long-term negative implications, especially since state university budgets in particular are already strained by feckless and anti-intellectual state legislatures (as usual, Curmie apologizes for the redundancy of this last phrase). Higher education is in crisis, and Curmie is both relieved and a little guilt-ridden for getting out now. 

In other words, on the one hand, universities need to understand that they’re selling a product that isn’t worth as much as it used to be. Curmie isn’t talking here about the economic advantages of having a Bachelor’s degree; rather, this is about the actual experience, not just the piece of paper at the end of the process. Distance learning advocates claim that online classes are just as good if not better than the in-person variety. Students, parents, faculty in general and Curmie in particular all respond: Nonsense. (Well, that’s the PG-13 version.) 

Quite apart from the social and quasi-social elements that universities have quite rightly touted for generations—and I’m talking here not just about the 2 a.m. pizza parties, but the opportunity to talk to a classmate after class about that interesting point she raised in class discussion or to discuss with that pianist who’s just a little better than you how he approached that difficult passage in the Chopin piece—in-person learning just works better. Curmie can’t see everyone’s face in a Zoom class; often their cameras aren’t even on, and there are lots of admonitions about not intruding into students’ personal spaces and so on… advice Curmie plans to start ignoring next semester. 

The point is that any competent teacher at any level learns how to read the room. There are always those one or two students whose look of puzzlement can serve as a cue to explain a point further or to define a term. There’s the student who clearly wants to join in the class discussion but is a little shy, or otherwise just needs a nudge. If I can’t see that student to call on her by name, the opportunity is lost. 

There’s a huge difference between “Does anyone have any questions?” and “Marie, you look like you’ve got something to say about this.” (It’s also weird to not know if anyone is laughing at your jokes.) I’m a lot better at my job in person than virtually. That goes for the classroom and the rehearsal hall. Universities need to understand that students aren’t stupid, and they know they’re paying for rib-eye and getting flank steak: still good, perhaps, but not the same. 

Similarly, students need to understand that despite some pretty silly decisions, universities are just trying to stay afloat. It would be great to be able to offer tuition reductions since the experience isn’t the same, but cost-cutting can go only so far. Reducing income can’t be a viable solution. Moreover, any university worth a damn wants to return to in-person only instruction as soon as possible. Zoom works great for bringing in that guest lecturer without having to pay travel expenses, but it cannot be allowed to become “normal.” 

Acknowledging the superiority of face-to-face learning is one thing, but establishing a precedent for de facto cheaper distance learning classes not only abuses faculty, it also makes it harder to cancel those less expensive (to students) options, as students and parents will see them as rather attractive, especially for general education courses they (ignorantly) think don’t “matter.” To continue with the earlier analogy: if you want to establish yourself as a steakhouse, you don’t put a hamburger with Grade B meat on the menu, even for a low price. You just don’t. 

What makes this timely is that we’re now seeing some universities, especially the elite ones, cutting prices for online-only tuition. Well, that’s a lot easier for them. Many years ago, the development guy at the college where Curmie worked at the time said that a well-diversified and well-administered endowment would grow, on average, at 6% faster than inflation. Let’s just call it 6%, period. 

At Harvard, that return on the endowment translates into about $110,000 per student per year, or roughly once and a half the cost of attendance. Even with no other sources of income (federal financial aid, for example), that allows a break-even budget of roughly three times that of Curmie’s university, where, with a little over half as many students and 0.2% of the endowment, the per capita endowment income would barely pay for 1 semester hour of credit, let alone fees, room and board, books, etc. Harvard can afford to be munificent. Most places can’t, and everyone needs to understand that. 

Ultimately, of course, it’s neither university administrations nor students who need to be more cognizant of the realities on the ground: it’s the government. Curmie is so old he remembers when even the Republican party cared about access to higher education, when people like Nelson Rockefeller led the charge towards comprehensive, quality, state universities and university systems. It used to be, not that long ago, that a student could afford a college education by working at a minimum wage job during the summers and part-time during the school year. 

Six years ago Curmie cited figures that showed that during the 1978-79 academic year (two years after Curmie graduated), a student who worked minimum wage jobs for 40 hours a week for 13 weeks over the summer and 10 hours a week for 30 weeks during the academic year would make 101% of the total cost of attendance at the average public four-year university. By 2011-12, that percentage had plummeted to 35.4%. 

Now, those 820 hours of minimum wage work would generate $5945, or a mere 23.4% of the $25,396 total pricetag for a year at a public university. Some of the hugely disturbing trend seen here is attributable to demands for increased technology: the entire campus wired for wi-fi, that sort of thing. Some stems from the unethical practice of making students pay for crap like lazy rivers and similar non-essentials. Some comes from the utter stupidity of not raising the minimum wage in 11 years; inflation since the last minimum wage increase has meant that just keeping up with cost of living would make the current minimum wage $8.79. 

Of course, that would cost money the capitalist overlords would prefer to be spent giving them tax breaks. After all, we can’t allow the future of the nation to interfere with that fourth yacht, seventeenth Rolls Royce, or third vacation mansion. But even with due respect to Richie Rich and his fam, there are easy answers, at least at the federal level. Of the 14 countries other than the US who spend the most on the military, for example, ten are unquestioned US allies. The other four—China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil—spend about $415 billion annually. The US, $732 billion. 

In order for the US and its allies to spend only (!) twice as much as even the potential adversaries, the US could cut the military budget by about $309 billion. Give higher education a quarter of that number: $77 billion, more or less. That’s about $3800 for every college student in the country. That would go a very long way towards making a university education within the reach of the population. It still wouldn’t be 1970s levels of affordability (yes, we’ve strayed that far), but it would make a huge impact. 

Nor would it hurt anyone if the multi-billionaires chipped in a little. We hear about Jeff Bezos giving $50 million to help get people vaccinated. On the one hand, that’s great, and Curmie doesn’t want to belittle it. On the other hand, Curmie does, too, want to belittle it. Bezos’s net worth increased by $90 billion (yes, increased; yes billion with a “b”) in a little less than the first seven months of the COVID shutdown. That works out to just under $5000 per second. If you, Gentle Reader, earned, even pre-taxes, as much over those seven months as Bezos personally pocketed in 20 seconds, you’re doing well. The median net worth of American households (not individual taxpayers, entire households) is $97,300. That median family’s contribution of $25 to a good cause is actually more in terms of percentage of net wealth than Bezos’ $50 million. 

Of course, if Bezos had a soul instead of a narcissistic desire for good publicity, he would have paid his workers, the ones really doing the work and taking the risks, a considerable percentage of those newly acquired billions. Amazon now has a little over one million employees. They’re not all full-time (then they’d have to get benefits, after all), but let’s pretend they are. One million employees times 40 hours a week times 30 weeks = 1.2 billion hours. If Bezos decided to give just 4% of his windfall to his workers, he could increase everyone’s pay by $3/hour. But, of course, he didn’t, and won’t unless he gets visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. Amazon’s ads crow about their contributions to education… but mostly, they’re bragging about stuff they’ve sold at a profit, not really contributed at all. La la how the life goes on. 

One of Curmies favorite plays for discussion purposes (it’s a mediocre play at best) is EuripidesOrestes, which closes with one of the most implausible deus ex machina endings ever.  But I have long believed that the awkwardly happy ending is intentional, that a play by one of the culture’s best-known atheists which relies on the intervention of the gods is not bad structuring, but precisely the opposite.  

The conclusion is so unbelievable that the spectator or reader is left with the feeling that it couldn’t possibly happen... meaning that the only solution to the problem is to not get to the point where civilization relies on this kind of incredible (literally, not credible) eventuality.  Ultimately, we’re asking the wrong questions.  This isn’t about whether online courses should be cheaper than their in-person cousins: it’s about preventing that choice from needing to be made.

If the government actually cared about the future, if the billionaire class actually cared about literally anything but themselves, if the movers and shakers would think about outcomes beyond the immediate, the solutions to a lot of problems would be easy. Of course, those are massive, even delusional, “ifs.” 

But we need to remember one simple fact. No one cares what the pricetag says. They care about the actual net cost. People who can fix this, and you know who you are, even if you pretend ignorance, Curmie is talking to you: Make it so the students can afford school. Make it so the universities can offer an education. Make it so there’s still a middle class. In the words of the prophet Nike, just do it.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Truthiness of Tucker Carlson

Tucker Carlson: Even when he's telling the truth, he's lying.
Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson is an ass, and a dangerous one, at that. But there is some merit to the “enough monkeys and enough typewriters” and “stopped clock” hypotheses. We have become so accustomed to Carlson’s paranoid fantasies and his utter disregard for actual facts that our completely understandable first reaction to his recent reticence about the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines was to reject his commentary out of hand. 

But Curmie didn’t get his moniker by cheerful acquiescence to what he’s being told, and Carlson’s skepticism about the hyping of the vaccines doesn’t strike Curmie as totally out of line. 

Carlson makes some good points: no one ought to pay any particular attention to what Melinda Gates has to say about the topic. The desire on the part of Twitter and Facebook to eliminate any real discussion of the legitimacy of the vaccine is disturbing to the extent that the regulations appear to extend beyond the propagation of literally false information. It is true that there has never been a successful vaccine for a similar disease. The proclamation by Ian McKellen (a.k.a. “the Gandalf actor” – is McKellen “He who must not be named” on Fox?) that he felt “euphoric” after the injection is indeed silly. 

And the rollout does in fact have something of the hype surrounding “a Hollywood blockbuster or the new iPhone.” Finally, it is legitimate to wonder if drugs that are authorized on an emergency basis have been subjected to the same level of objective scrutiny as those which go through the normal vetting process. 

So Tucker Carlson, for once in his shabby little life, isn’t—for a brief moment—completely mendacious or completely insane. Here’s one of his most controversial statements, at least according to the left-leaning press (here, for example):
How are the rest of us supposed to respond to a marketing campaign like this? Well, nervously. Even if you’re strongly supportive of vaccines—and we are—even if you recognize how many millions of lives have been saved over the past 50 years by vaccines—and we do—it all seems a bit much. It feels false, because it is. It’s too slick. Better to treat Americans like adults, explain the benefits, be honest about the risks, and let the rest of us decide.
There’s nothing particularly problematic about this paragraph except for “It feels false, because it is.” Curiously, which is to say not curiously at all, that Moment of Glib is omitted from the pseudo-transcript on the Fox News website, although the video link to what was actually said reveals the remark quite clearly. Funny how the stupidest thing he says in the open doesn’t make it to the “article.” Who’da thunk it, right? 

Still, based on that first paragraph, Curmie wondered if he’d need to defend Tucker Freaking Carlson the way he once did for the likes of Sarah Palin and Melania Trump

Then came the rest of the harangue. As expected, alas, the general tone of sense did not endure. After all, Carlson’s show has highlighted a steady stream of quacks, charlatans, and conspiracy theorists on COVID matters. The only people who don’t appear are the ones who actually know what they’re talking about (or are honest about it, as the case may be). Carlson has long endeavored, for example, to impugn the competence and integrity of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who, Curmie will go so far to suggest, knows a little more about dealing with pandemics than does a BA in History. He’s back at it in this piece, too, with the same predictable result of looking like an anti-intellectual junior high kid being a putz to impress an equally lazy-minded cheerleader with what he presumes passes for wit. 

So we get stuff like the claim that Fauci’s prediction of a COVID surge after Thanksgiving didn’t come true. Lots of idiots people travelled, you see, and “millions and millions” didn’t die. “Clearly, Tony Fauci and the CDC were wrong.” This would be a pretty significant indictment… if it were true. Of course, a lot of people didn’t travel—Carlson is careful to deceive while telling the truth. He says, for example, that there were more flights on the day before Thanksgiving this year than “on the same date last year.” Not the same day (relative to Thanksgiving); the same date, which would have been the Monday after Thanksgiving last year. Huh. I wonder how to account for that “increase”… 

Moreover, there was a change in the COVID statistics. Nationwide, the numbers for the week before Thanksgiving were a daily average of 171,653 new cases and 1537 deaths. The disease takes between 7-14 days to manifest. So let’s look at the period from one to two weeks after Thanksgiving weekend: daily averages of 220,169 new cases and 2431 deaths: increases of 28% in new cases and 58% in deaths over a fortnight or so. 

Is that a “surge”? Well, that may be debatable, but where Curmie comes from, those are significant increases for that short a period of time and with a sample size this large. And, of course, all those newly infected people were also contagious: the four days with the highest death and new diagnosis rates since the pandemic began came on consecutive days this week. 

As mentioned above, Carlson’s forte is to actively deceive while technically telling the truth. (Insert famous Inspector Clouseau “does your dog bite” clip here). Here’s another example: “One county in Colorado just noticed that 40% of the Coronavirus deaths they were reporting also has gunshot wounds. Two out of five.” Sounds pretty convincing, right? I mean, wow, if nearly half of the reported COVID deaths aren’t really COVID deaths… 

Thing is, Carlson implies without saying that the “two out of five” figure relates to a significant number of cases. Nope. When he says “two out of five,” he means literally two out of literally five: the cases in one county, population less than 15,000, in a week. So we now have documentation that of the 4323 reported COVID deaths in Colorado, .04% might have been unrelated. Shocking! Again, to be fair, there is more than a little legitimacy to the argument that people who are COVID-positive and die of non-health-related causes (murder, or automobile accident, or whatever), ought not to be counted as COVID deaths, but Curmie’s natural reaction is to reject Carlson’s smarmy manipulation even more than the perhaps not entirely trustworthy official data. 

Then there’s this:
States like Texas and Florida… allow people to eat in restaurants and see their families, and they still have fewer coronavirus deaths than New York State, a place where it’s a crime to live a normal life. Texas and Florida have more people than New York does and a whole lot more freedom, yet New York has seen more people die from COVID-19. Explain that one.
Curmie, ever the gentleman, is happy to provide such an explanation. This is yet another example of conscious and intentional deceit through manipulation of statistics. The totals since the beginning of the pandemic hardly tell the current story. 

After the initial outbreak which clobbered New York in April, and after the imposition of those allegedly freedom-depriving policies designed to limit the spread of the disease, things have been different. In the last month, for example, both Texas and Florida, where there is “freedom,” have had more new cases and more deaths than New York. Texas, for example, has had well more than twice as many deaths, and over 76% more new cases than New York in the last month. True, Texas and Florida have larger populations, but not by that margin: on a per capita basis, both the infection rate and the death rate for the last month are higher, in the latter case over 1/3 higher, in those “free” states. 

But if you want to compare states on a per capita basis, let’s look, for instance, at the super-spreader sanctuary of North Dakota, where despite a population density less than 2.5% that of New York, the last month’s per capita infection rate is more than double the Empire State’s, and the COVID death rate is over five (!) times greater. (You will recall, Gentle Reader, that low population density, not intelligent leadership, was the right’s argument for the success of New Zealand in controlling the virus.) So the palaver about (recklessly employed) “freedom” being safer than prudence is, well, just more fecal matter from a Fox host who cherry-picks numbers to fit his considerably less than honest purposes. Imagine Curmie’s surprise. 

Finally, there’s the irony, not to say hypocrisy, of whining about the lack of a reliable and trustworthy vaccine for a pandemic that Fox in general and Carlson in particular have been telling us for months doesn’t really exist. But some doctors are saying the inoculation might not be completely effective until virtually everyone gets it (Carlson distorts these quotes, too, but you already get the point)… so let’s instill a little doubt in the population about its safety and/or effectiveness, using whatever means necessary to create precisely that fear. Yeah, that’s the ticket! The fact that a little reticence about the vaccine’s efficacy might be appropriate ultimately comes across as little more than coincidental to a rant that’s ultimately about Tucker Carlson wanting to feel important. There is no difference between truth and falsehood for him; both are merely rhetoric. 

So this is a complex situation not unlike the proverbial little boy who cried wolf. It’s yet another case where simply telling the truth—what Carlson repeatedly accuses “our current leadership” (carefully avoiding mentioning by name the incompetent and uncaring POTUS) and Silicon Valley (!?) of not doing—would have made legitimate skepticism the centerpiece of Carlson’s rant. Alas, he is pathologically incapable of doing that.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Boys' Bedrooms Are Not School Property

This is either a still from Woody Allens Love and Death
or a training course for school administrators.
Curmie isn't sure which.

Curmie returns to a topic that was once—and may yet be again—one of the centerpieces of this blog: utterly insane decisions by people running schools. Curmie opens by adapting Mark Twain’s famous line about Congresscritters to the current situation: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a school principal. But I repeat myself.” Alas, there are more than one of these cases, in different locales. 

The earliest incident Curmie can find occurred in June at Seneca Elementary School in Baltimore County, MD. Well, not exactly at that school, and that’s rather the point. Courtney Lancaster’s son Jackson, you see, was attending school virtually because of the pandemic. 
So he was set up in his bedroom with his webcam on for a GoogleMeet class, and a couple of teachers and the officious parent of another student took a screenshot which showed “guns” mounted on the wall behind the 11-year-old 5th grader. They contacted the school safety officer, who brought in the principal, who called the police. 

Be it noted: no one suggested the boy was threatening anyone, or even that he was paying the slightest bit of attention to the alleged “weapons.” And this is the boy’s bedroom we’re talking about; he wasn’t on anything approaching school property, much as a lot of school systems might think they are the masters of the realm. 

Anyway, Officer Thomas shows up on the doorstep and asks to search boy’s bedroom. Ms. Lancaster, who knows there’s nothing to hide, allows the search despite the lack of a warrant. It takes the cop virtually no time to ascertain that the alleged arsenal consists of a couple BB guns, an airsoft gun, and some toys. Bodycam footage shows his reaction: “Ma’am, I definitely apologize or bothering you. I had more than you when I was a kid.” Lancaster says the officers “commended [Jackson] also on his respect and understanding of the BB guns.” 
Not surprisingly, however, Lancaster, a Navy veteran who might reasonably be expected to demand and indeed implement gun safety on her premises, wanted to know why the principal didn’t call her instead of 911. Side note: Ms. Lancaster was told it was the safety officer who called the police, and school documents show that, as well. On the audio recording of the 911 call, however, the caller identifies himself as “Jason Feiler… the principal at Seneca Elementary School.” In other words, the school is already lying. 
The school, predictably, tried avoidance, and when that didn’t work, opted for moronic pomposity. “The safety of students and staff is our chief concern, whether we are meeting in classrooms or via continuity of learning.” And apparently school officials are asserting that having a BB gun hung on the wall of a 5th grade boy’s room is the equivalent of bringing a weapon to school. Um… no, it isn’t. 
Lancaster reasonably wonders “So, what are the parameters? Where are the lines drawn? If my son is sitting at the kitchen island next to a butcher block, does that constitute a weapon? It's not allowed at school, right? So, would my home then be searched because hes sitting next to a butcher block? I feel like parents need to be made aware of what the implications are, what the expectations are.” Curmie would amend this to read “Parents need to be reassured that blithering buffoons like the not-so-brainy brain trust at Seneca Elementary School will never again be allowed within the same zip code as an educational establishment.” 
There’s a lawsuit pending, and the school is being intransigent and mendacious. No news there. But, as they say in the late-night infomercials, that’s not all. Not to be outdone in hubristic cretiny, the Jefferson Parish (LA) School system has not one, but two, such cases. Indeed, the reason there’s still discussion going on (and why Curmie can talk about it in something resembling the present tense) is that the school board refused, only a couple of weeks ago, to remove from school records the charges against 9-year-old Ka’Mauri Harrison. 
So we’ll start with the Harrison case. Again, this was a BB gun in a private residence, neither a weapon per se nor on anything any rational person would believe is school property. Young Ka’Mauri explains what happened: “My brother walked in the room and tripped over the BB gun and I put it on the side of me.” Those of us with IQs above room temperature (Celsius) understand that the fact that a little of the butt of a BB gun showing up in a virtual environment represents literally no threat to anyone. But we don’t work for Jefferson Parish schools, where common sense is apparently outlawed. 
Ka’Mauri was immediately suspended and threatened with expulsion because he… get this… “possesses weapons prohibited under federal law.” Again, the legislation the district tries desperately to invoke to cover for their absurd over-reaction bans certain kinds of weapons on school property. The fact that a BB gun does look a little like an actual gun gun apparently qualifies it as a “facsimile,” so it would in fact be outlawed on school grounds. A little boy’s bedroom is not a schoolroom, even if it has been called into duty to function as such during a health and safety emergency. Sometimes ontology trumps phenomenology. This is one of those times. Stated otherwise, as has appeared on Twitter (Curmie can’t seem to find who said it first), “if this child brought a gun to school, then by the same logic, his teacher is hanging out in students’ bedrooms.”
The Harrison family’s admirable response to these shenanigans is two-fold: to seek to restore Ka’Mauri’s good name by appealing the decision, suing, and, importantly, lobbying for a state law to protect the rights of students in cases such as this. The Ka’Mauri Harrison Act was passed unanimously by both house of the Louisiana legislature and signed into law. Gentle Reader, you would not have found your way to this page without the ability to figure this out for yourself, but in this interest of thoroughness, allow Curmie to point out that any legislation that passes unanimously is pretty uncontroversial—there’s always a Rand Paul or Sheila Jackson Lee ready to object on faux principle otherwise. 
Add to that the support of both the NRA and the ACLU, and it’s pretty clear that the only people who thought the bill was a bad idea were the Jefferson Parish education brass. To top things off, after the school board petulantly upheld Ka’Mauri’s suspension (after it had already been served, of course), state Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill called the decision “a travesty.” “They ignored their own policy. They just don't seem to learn.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, that. 

Finally, also in Jefferson Parish but in a different school, there’s the case of 11-year-old Tomie Brown, also suspended, also threatened with expulsion, also charged with violating federal weapons regulations, also guilty of nothing more than having a BB gun in his own bedroom. 
Oh, and by the way: the teacher admits he never saw the alleged weapon. So we have are forced to rely on the testimony of a bunch of other 9-year-olds, who exclaimed “he’s got a gun!” Curmie wonders how that… erm… evidence would be treated in a real trial, not to be confused with the kangaroo court that passes for a review process in Jefferson Parish. Tomie’s father, Tim, notes that “I … never received any type of documents or rules that they considered my home their property while he was doing a virtual class.” Well, of course not: they consider themselves immune from the kind of common sense dictates required of mere mortals. Mr. Brown also says “If my son had done something wrong, the school system would’ve been the second in line to punish him.” Curmie believes him. 
None of this is surprising, but it is shocking. For years, school systems have been falsely claiming authority over any action any of their students take at any time in any place. Curmie doubts that a couple of lawsuits will reverse the trend, but it’s a place to start.  Curmie believes in what his leftie friends refer to as “common sense gun laws”: registration, background checks, making military grade weapons unavailable to the general public, stuff like that.  But he would prefer not to be associated with the Dithering Ideologues (good band name, no?).

There’s requiring training for a potentially lethal weapon and there’s prohibiting boys from having BB guns.  There’s protecting a schools students and teachers, and there’s claiming dominion over students’ bedrooms for literally no increase in safety for anyone.  If you can’t understand those distinctions, Curmie would rather you take your hand-wringing elsewhere.
Curmie closes with a bit of nostalgia. Some 45 years ago, Curmie had a small part in a semi-pro theatre production of Robert E. Sherwood’s play Idiot’s Delight. As it happens, our show t-shirts arrived on a day off from both rehearsal and performance, and coincidentally also when the then-current Woody Allen film “Love and Death” was playing at the local cinema... so, many of the company went to see the movie.  It features a brief scene of a “village idiots convention.” About a dozen of us, wearing our show shirts which featured the emblem displayed behind the “bar” in our production and the single word “Idiot’s,” rose as one to applaud. Now, why would all this remind Curmie of that memory from oh so long ago? Hmmm….

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Censured and Censored Aren't the Same

You don't want to look at AFS.
This is prettier... and pretty accurate.
Curmie was far from alone in denouncing the boorish op-ed by AFS (see Curmie’s last essay for an explanation of this attribution) which appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal. Now comes the follow-up from the WSJ’s opinion page editor, Paul Gigot. 

Curmie actually knows, or, more accurately, knew Mr. Gigot, who was editor-in-chief of the undergraduate daily newspaper for which Curmie was a columnist, critic, sometime reporter, and frequent arts page day editor. Gigot was a pompous prat 40-something years ago. As Curmie noted on a friend’s FB page, in this time of uncertainty it is reassuring to know that some things don’t change. But here’s the thing: then, and one presumes now, Gigot wasn’t/isn’t stupid. The stereotypical privileged white male, yes; an idiot, no. 

In other words, Gigot knows full well that his defense of AFS is disingenuous. He’s de facto lying, because that is what he is paid to do, and his job is waaaaaay cushier than Curmie’s, so it’s understandable that he’d want to keep the overlords satisfied. But that doesn’t earn any sympathy in Curmieville. 

Let me first stipulate that if the WSJ’s editorial policy is to use the term “Dr.” only for “medical doctors” (the extent to which this designation extends past MDs is unclear: dentists? chiropractors? veterinarians?), that is their prerogative: Curmie thinks it’s a dumb idea, but it’s far less annoying than most of their editorial decisions. If they really did, unlike most of the mainstream media, refer to Henry Kissinger as “Mr.,” then they are free to refer to refer to Dr. Biden as “Ms.” or even “Mrs.” But singling out the holder of an advanced degree for ridicule because she chooses to actually claim the honorific she has earned (yes, earned, unlike AFS’s single honorary post-baccalaureate degree): that’s petulant at best. And “Mr.” Kissinger certainly made damned sure everybody within earshot knew he had a doctorate, without being told the term was in any way inappropriate. 

Gigot, as mentioned above, is not so unschooled in the ways of the world that he honestly believes the “torrent” of criticism AFS’s smug and borderline incoherent rant was orchestrated by Biden operatives, but it sure sounds better to the base than “virtually every academic on the planet ripped us a new one for being sexist, anti-intellectual, and more than a little bit envious.” Of course the political handlers got in on the act, but the lion’s share of the response didn’t know that anyone from the Biden camp per se had entered the fray. Curmie found out about it from a friend who, like Jill Biden, is a female educator with an advanced degree. Curmie sure as hell doesn’t take marching orders from anyone named Biden. He voted for the now President-Elect as the lesser of two evils. That’s as far as it goes. 

Curmie has already said he’s not convinced of the argument that “this would never be written about a man,” although there’s a good chance that it’s true. AFS’s puerile little outburst strikes Curmie as more of a desperate shot at anyone associated with the President-Elect, although AFS goes out of his way to self-identify as a sexist (and a racist), so it’s difficult to fault those who view the screed through that lens. Gigot then sniffs that “Nearly every publication wrote about the Biden response, reinforcing the Biden-New York Times line: “An Opinion Writer Argued Jill Biden Should Drop the ‘Dr.’ (Few Were Swayed.)” Don’t you just hate it when journalists tell the truth? Fact is, with the exception of the usual suspects—the always smarmy, seldom accurate, Tucker Carlson, for example—virtually everyone who read AFS’s op-ed thought he was… well, an AFS. 

Gigot moves on to justify AFS’s fecal outburst as “fair comment,” and takes as evidence an 11-year-old article in which Joe Biden is quoted as saying that his wife’s interest in pursuing a doctorate was because she was “sick of the mail coming to Sen. and Mrs. Biden,” wanting to get mail addressed to “Dr. and Sen. Biden.” Dear, dear, Paul. You had no sense of humor in the ‘70s, and I’m saddened to see you haven’t developed one. That line is what we in the trade call a joke. You may have heard the term. Biden’s line is not literally true (and even if it were, it would be irrelevant). Curmie has been quoted as saying that he chose Kansas over Illinois and Florida State for his doctorate because he liked the colors of their regalia hood better. He does indeed rather like the crimson and blue, but the actual decision was made for rather more substantive reasons. See the parallel? 

Similarly, AFS doesn’t get off the hook for the patronizing “kiddo” line because Joe has sometimes called Jill that. Curmie and Beloved Spouse have been known to crack open a bottle of wine and toast each other with a Bogie-inspired “here’s looking at you, kid.” Anyone else who calls her “kid” within my earshot will be lucky to leave the premises with a full set of teeth. 

Then, of course, we see that despite the misogynistic tone of the entire essay, men with honorary degrees are also deflated by AFS’s rapier wit. Newsflash: honorary degrees have nothing to do with whether someone with an earned doctorate can legitimately be referred to as “doctor.” Easy answer: yes. Next question? 

A couple other points come to mind. The GOP and their minions in the right-wing press (or is it the right-wing press and their minions in the GOP?) have spent the vast majority of 2020 demeaning the expertise of MDs whose actual knowledge about epidemiology runs counter to the ravings of the Mad King of Trumpistan. Now, all of a sudden, doctors (that kind of doctors) must be protected from the incursions of those wild-eyed and glory-hungry PhDs and EdDs. Curious. 

Side note: Curmie recalls a conversation with his dentist a few years back. There had been an article about me in the local newspaper—I don’t remember what it was about, but I was listed as “Dr.” He wanted to know if he should call me that. My response was that if he was visiting me in my professional capacity, perhaps. But I was visiting him in his, so no. It strikes me that if we’re going to have a FLOTUS who, as Dr. Biden has indicated, will make education her signature concern, having an EdD tends to suggest a little more confidence in her expertise than, say, having posed for some soft-core porn photos. 

The relevance of Dr. Biden’s degree is at least as significant as the military rank of the stream of so-called experts the likes of Fox News trot out whenever they need some presumed authority to mouth the political sloganeering du jour. But—speaking of sexist, racist assholes—what do they do about, say, “Colonel” Sanders, whose military-sounding title, which he insisted on using, was in fact an honorary position in the Kentucky state militia, granted because he was a crony of the governor… and rich? (Curmie had a dear friend who was also a “Kentucky Colonel” but never mentioned it.) 

Finally, Paul Gigot of all people knows that saying publicly that AFS is a weak, terrified, and rather mediocre man confronted by a woman with better credentials than his own is nowhere near the “censorship” alluded to in the final paragraph of the rebuttal statement. AFS, Gigot, and their brethren in pompous twatwaffledom are free to write whatever they choose, provided they do not incite violence or outright lie about objective reality. Their musings, like Curmie’s, are subjective. But not being censored and not being censured are different things. If the entire purpose of your essay is to be “provocative," you can’t avoid those who disagree... and who just might be smarter than you.

It is December, and the snowflakes are falling.