Monday, June 20, 2022

Ilya Shapiro and the Sad Portents

This post has been languishing on Curmie’s computer, half-written, for too long…

The Ilya Shapiro case at Georgetown Law School is one of those stories that mostly played out while this blog was dormant.  The proverbial fecal matter interfaced the whirling rotors in January; Curmie didn’t write any blog posts between November and April.  

So… a little background.  Shapiro had been recently hired as senior lecturer and executive director at the law school’s Center for the Constitution.  In January, with the announcement of the imminent retirement of Justice Breyer, Shapiro criticized President Biden for signaling his intention to keep his campaign promise to nominate a black woman for any SCOTUS opening.

Shapiro’s admittedly inelegant tweet has been taken down, but there are lots of screenshots, etc., out there:  

OK, so there’s much to unpack here, not least of which is wondering what the hell Georgetown thought they were getting when they offered a senior position to someone who’d put in over a decade at the Cato Institute.  Moreover, Biden’s campaign promise was stupid, pandering, and politically naïve.  Who, exactly, was going to change their vote from Donald Trump to Joe Biden on the basis of that pledge?  And whereas politicians in general (and Biden appears to be no better or worse than most) casually forget what they said in the campaign by, well, the day after the election, Biden picked this vow as one to keep.

Moreover, the stated reason for the exclusion from consideration of anyone except black women, diversity, is rather strained.  True, there’s a long history of white men on the court, due in large part to the fact that for a good deal of American history, they were indeed the only ones qualified.  The eight returning members of SCOTUS after Breyer’s retirement include a black man and three women (one of them “of color”), just not a black woman.  

Plus, of course, Shapiro is right that Judge Srinivasan, as an Asian-American, would also represent first for SCOTUS.  Equally importantly, let’s look at religion, certainly a category that might shape a justice’s perspective, perhaps to roughly the same degree as race or gender.  According to a Pew Research Center report from a few years ago, Protestants outnumber Catholics in this country by more than a 2:1 ratio, and Jews by nearly 25:1.   Yet even after Justice Jackson replaces Justice Breyer, there will still be six Catholics and a Jew on the Court, as opposed to two Protestants.  If we lump together “atheist,” “agnostic,” and “nothing in particular: religion not important,” we get a figure more than eight times greater than the Jewish population, yet since 1916 there have been two or more Jewish Justices more often than there have been none; there has never been a Justice (or as far as Curmie can tell, a nominee) from that “unaffiliated” group.

Does this make the court “less like America”?  Perhaps.  But Curmie believes in meritocracies.  The NBA sure has a lot fewer white or Asian players than their populations would suggest.  So what?  The goal is to win basketball games, and if the best players available to help the team win are black, so be it.  Same with SCOTUS.  No, I’m not suggesting that every SCOTUS choice was divinely inspired—few of us will have abundant respect for both Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor—but drafting Sam Bowie before Michael Jordan might not have been the brightest move ever, either.

Shapiro is correct, too, in another tweet in which he suggests that the nominee, who turned out to be Ketanji Brown Jackson, would be regarded as an “affirmative action” choice.  The wording might be a little harsh, but it’s not inaccurate.  One could argue with some justification that the two Justices just mentioned, Thomas and Sotomayor, may also have been chosen for their demographic profiles.  But Jackson was considered the best option not merely from a specifically and intentionally delimited field, but from a delimited field that had been publicly trumpeted by the administration.  The fact that she’s at least as qualified as any of President Trump’s nominees fades to the background: she will be perceived by many people not as the best choice for the job, but as the best available black woman.  And that does add what Shapiro calls an asterisk to her status.

Obviously, though, it’s the penultimate sentence, especially its last two words, in Shapiro’s tweet that has garnered all the attention.  More on that in a moment.  But let’s talk for a moment about what everyone else seems to overlook: that first word.  This guy is a high-ranking administrator at a prestigious law school and he tosses out his opinion as “objective”?  Precision in writing ought to be very high on his list of priorities.  The “lesser black woman” phrasing was inelegant, but any objective observer (see what I did there) reading those words in the context of the rest of the tweet knows what he meant, and it wasn’t racist.  On the other hand, suggesting that objectivity in deciding the “best pick” is even possible, let alone that he alone can recognize that fact is an expression of both delusion and arrogance.

But, let’s return to that phrase that caused all the furor: “lesser black woman.”  Taken in context, all Shapiro is saying is that if Srinivasan is the best available candidate, then literally anyone else is “lesser.”  It was, after all, President Biden, not Shapiro, who limited the field to black women.  The phrasing was, as Shapiro was to admit, “inartful”—“a less qualified black woman” would make the point clearer and less problematically—and yes, he should have known better.  Still, if we were to fire everyone who ever said, “inartfully,” something that wasn’t intended to be offensive but could be interpreted that way, the unemployment rate in the country would be pretty damned close to 100%.

Georgetown, of course, suspended Shapiro almost immediately, with law school dean William Treanor writing that “The tweets’ suggestion that the best Supreme Court nominee could not be a Black woman and their use of demeaning language are appalling.”  Let’s look at the two halves of that statement.  The first part is technically true: if Shapiro thinks the best candidate is an Asian-American man, that pretty much means anyone else—black woman, white man, even a different Asian-American man, is “lesser.”  But “demeaning language”?  Clumsy, sure, but demeaning?  Only if he meant it to be.  (Curmie clings to the vestiges of modernism.)  

Lost in the furor, of course, is the fact that Shapiro’s comments about an “intersectionality hierarchy” are, alas, pretty accurate.  There are those, traditionally disenfranchised, whose omission in the past must be compensated for in the present… and those who can, irrespective of skills and qualifications, we in our Wokeness can still cheerfully ignore.

It’s important to note here that the central issue here is not constitutionality: as a private university, Georgetown is not required to allow freedom of expression.  Rather, the question is whether they uphold their own proclamations—that, for example, “To forbid or limit discourse contradicts everything the university stands for.”  To say that Georgetown failed to abide by their own pieties is to err rather more on the side of understatement than of hyperbole.

Anyway, after innumerable headlines, tweets, memes, and other forms of pseudo-argumentation, Shapiro was re-instated… but on a technicality.  He wasn’t actually working at Georgetown yet, you see, when he had an original thought defied Woke orthodoxy tweeted something that should be protected by the university’s claim to academic freedom expressed his heinous opinion.  Therefore, he couldn’t really be terminated.  Sure.  

It is a decision born of cowardice, stupidity, ideological tunnel vision, and a willingness to make up some implausible rationale to avoid (the university hoped) an inevitable lawsuit… people who can be offered leadership positions at Georgetown Law tend to be aware of legal remedies to problems, after all. 

Of course, less than a week after the suspension was lifted, Shapiro quit.  Of course, he didn’t just resign: he sent a four-page, single-spaced letter to the dean and—oh, yeah—made sure to send a copy to FIRE (at the time, the acronym stood for the Federation for Individual Rights in Education; it’s now the Federation for Individual Rights and Expression, expanding the organization’s scope beyond the boundaries of academe).  

That letter is quite a read, with passages like “the IDEAA [Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Affirmative Action] Report—and your own statements to the Law Center community—implicitly repealed Georgetown’s vaunted Speech and Expression Policy and set me up for discipline the next time I “transgress progressive orthodoxy” and “no reasonable person acting in good faith could construe what I tweeted to be ‘objectively offensive.’” 

What’s really problematic is that he’s right, even about condoning even more “objectively offensive” tweets by liberal faculty: it’s difficult to find Shapiro’s tweet more problematic than this one from Christine Fair about the Kavanaugh hearings: “Look at this chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine? Yes.”  Yet Georgetown invoked their “free expression” policy for that one (as they should have, as both Ilya Shapiro and Curmie agree).

Of course, Shapiro promptly got another gig; he was hired as Director of Constitutional Studies at the Manhattan Institute less than a week after his grand-standing departure from Georgetown.  Someone of cynical disposition might suspect that this change of employment was a). precipitated precisely by the Georgetown kerfuffle and b). in the works long before his suspension at Georgetown was announced.  One suspects that the move, described by one libertarian columnist as “failing upwards,” will provide Shapiro with enough income that he can supersize his #3 combo meal from time to time.

Of course, conservative writers pounced all over this incident, claiming it demonstrates the chilling of free expression on university campuses.  And they’re right… sort of.  Curmie would refine that critique a little, to suggest that university administrators increasingly narcissistic and hypocritical: anyone who disagrees with their divinely inspired religio-political beliefs is disruptive, and therefore subject to disciplinary action, irrespective of pesky little obstructions like the US Constitution or official university policies.  

Whereas many, probably most, of these incidents involve censorious asshats on the left imposing their will on those of the right (Curmie does recommend a piece written by FIRE intern William Harris for a well-written, interesting, and important overview of the historical relationship between free speech concerns and progressive politics), the converse is also true, as a glance at FIRE’s “recent cases” list demonstrates.  

There, we see attempts to suppress dissent from the left or to withhold support from organizations reasonably linked to liberal ideologies: politics and sexual identity at Hood College, criticism of alleged anti-Semitism at San Diego Community College, complaints about including works by BIPOC and queer authors at Soka University of America, revoking sponsorship of a popular student drag show at Texas A&M... and that’s just in the last six weeks or so.

But there’s another take-away that gets lost in the partisan finger-pointing, a variation on a theme Curmie wrote about over a decade ago in discussing the cases of University of Wisconsin-Stout professor James Miller and Nacogdoches (TX) high school soccer coach Farshid Nourimand.  Both were disciplined by idiot administrators after having done literally nothing wrong.  Both were eventually restored to their positions.  But both had an advantage: not only fans of the short-lived but much-beloved TV series “Firefly” and two of its stars—Nathan Fillion and Adam Baldwin—but also a good many of the 1.6 million Twitter followers of popular novelist Neil Gaiman rallied behind Miller.  Similarly, Clint Dempsey, surely one of the half dozen or so greatest American-born soccer players of all time, made a trans-Atlantic phone call in support of Nourimand. 

Ilya Shapiro has already landed on his feet.  But he was already a big deal, and his case got a lot of press in national media.  But if you’re merely very good at what you do and your case doesn’t get national attention except in places like the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed, if you’re just someone who criticizes your school’s COVID policy or dares to suggest that the DEI folks are over-reacting to a stimulus that isn’t really even there at all (Curmie wrote about both these stories last October), then you might be in real trouble.  

Not so long ago—well into Curmie’s career, in fact—the presumption was that faculty had the same rights to freedom of expression as everyone else, provided that they didn’t masquerade their opinions as facts and expect their students to agree with them.  Curmie remembers the Political Science department at a place he once taught.  One professor was the county chair of the Republican Party; another successfully ran for Congress as a Democrat.  As far as Curmie could tell, they liked each other, and both were apparently great in the classroom.  That’s what is supposed to happen.

But we have now entered the age of the Infallible Administrator (just ask them), and of imposed orthodoxy and homogeneity.  That’s not good for universities, and it’s certainly not good for the country.  Curmie misses his students, but is kinda glad to no longer be working full-time in a profession that has so demonstrably lost its way.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

The More You Pay, The More It's Worth

There are indeed no fewer than four stories concerning the art world buzzing around Curmie’s brain-box at the moment: the cake-flinging incident involving the Mona Lisa, the millions of dollars of damage at the Dallas Museum of Art caused by a young man “mad at his girl,” and the remarkably amateurish and possibly mischievous restoration of Prague’s Orloj Clock. Curmie has little to add about this last item, and may or may not get to talking about the first two. All of which leaves this item for today’s piece:

An under-appreciated Don McLean song, “The More You Pay, The More It’s Worth,” popped into Curmie’s head unbidden this month. One reason, I suspect, is that a little under three weeks ago, Sotheby’s, the New York-based auction house specializing in high-end artworks and similar items, had a little sale. “Little,” of course, is a fungible term, in this case suggesting that a mere $408 million (well, OK, a little more than that) changed hands in a single evening. 

Picasso’s “Femme Nue couchée”
Leading the way was a Picasso painting, “Femme nue couchée,” in which the famous cubist imagined his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, as what the Guardian described as “a multi-limbed sea creature.” That seems pretty accurate, although the prose of Sotheby’s blurb is somewhat purpler:
A crowning achievement of painterly verve, energy and manipulation of the human form, the present work succinctly synthesizes the artist’s groundbreaking achievements of the late 1920s and early 1930s into one colorful, dynamic canvas. Here, in the seclusion of his new country home in Boisgeloup, the nude figure of Marie-Thérèse reclines in a highly abstracted space, her biomorphic figure imbued with fertility, sexuality and grace.
Well, OK, then.

Anyway, people seem to think it’s a pretty impressive painting. Curmie’s not here to disagree with that assessment. Indeed, were you to move the decimal point on the sale price of $67,500,000 a few places to the left, and Curmie might be interested. Indeed, Curmie really likes Monet’s “Le Grand Canal et Santa Maria della Salute,” which sold on the same night, but not, perhaps, to the tune of $56,600,000. In all, some ten paintings sold for $10,000,000 or more apiece, just that one night.

Of course, the Picasso wasn’t even close to being the highest-priced artwork to be sold this month. Andy Warhol’s “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn,” went for almost three times as much at a Christie’s sale only eight days earlier. Yes, really: $195,000,000.

What would possess someone—anyone—to spend that kind of money on a single painting? The most obvious answer is conspicuous consumption: you spend millions of dollars on an artwork to show the world that you can. Another possibility is as an investment: what you can buy for a mere $195 million today might double in value, even relative to inflation, in just a few months. Of course, it might not, but if you’ve got that kind of money to spend on a painting, you can afford to take a gamble. Occasionally, the buyer is a museum rather than an “individual collector.” As a regular person with an interest in art, you like these folks. You might need to travel to Paris or London or New York, but you can actually see that masterpiece.

Of course, a lot of people go to those museums to say they’ve been there. Curmie remembers two trips to London’s Tate Modern: one in December of 2010, one in May of 2019. The special exhibitions on those two visits were of, respectively, Paul Gauguin and Dorothea Tanning. The former was, as might be expected, more expensive, ridiculously crowded, and peopled by a lot of folks who gave every impression of not wanting to be there. To some extent, Curmie was one of them: he likes Gauguin, but isn’t a huge fan, and the exhibition wasn’t of (Curmie’s personal opinion of) the artist’s best work.  Curmie’s claustrophobia didn’t help, either.

Tanning’s most famous painting,
Birthday”
By contrast, Curmie could show up at the ticket booth for the Tanning exhibition, buy a ticket at a reasonable price, and walk right in, instead of having to wait for two hours. There were other patrons there, but there was room to move around, and everyone was actually engaging with the art, stopping to examine this painting, stepping back to get a different perspective on that one, actually reading the posted descriptions. Curmie confesses he’d barely heard of Tanning prior to seeing that exhibition; a couple of the pictures in the promotional materials looked interesting, so he gave it a try. Curmie is now a fan. That’s what is supposed to happen: you check something out, and you like it. (Or it’s not to your liking; that’s OK, too.)

The point is that people swarmed the Gauguin exhibition not because they’re Gauguin fans, but because Gauguin is famous. And there’s no absolute guarantee that you’re looking at an authentic Gauguin, anyway, as a couple of stories from the last couple of years demonstrate. Here’s one about alleged Gauguins at the Getty Museum (this piece is now admitted to be a fake), the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. And here’s one about a fake in the Tate’s own permanent collection.

Curmie’s suspicion is two-fold: that the average person (Curmie included) couldn’t tell the difference, and either liked or didn’t like these works based on personal, idiosyncratic taste, independent of issues of authenticity; and that such an average person would be less likely to visit a museum or pay extra for a special exhibition if one or more artworks were believed to be forgeries or even (honestly) misattributed.

This might be the time to remind you, Gentle Reader, of the now-famous episode of world-famous violinist Joshua Bell putting on a baseball cap and a t-shirt and busking in a Washington, DC, subway station, playing a multi-million-dollar Stradivarius. Virtually no one paid any attention, and he made a total of $32, over half of it from a single contributor who actually recognized him from having paid a lot more than that to see him perform a night or two earlier. As blogger Harvey Reid puts it, “It’s hard for people to believe there is something amazing going on when there is no crowd, and nothing telling you to pay attention. There is a lot of context and provenance involved.”

Also of interest is the rationale for the Toledo Museum of Art’s sale of Cézanne’s “Clairière” (“the Glade”): “to establish an endowment to fund art acquisitions.” The painting sold for $41.7 million, so their endowment is off to a good start. More to the point, the management in Toledo seems to think that owning 400 paintings worth $100,000 apiece might be better than having one painting worth $40 million. Curmie nods in agreement.

Of course, the visual arts aren’t alone in this. COVID—both the pandemic itself and the still-extant regulations regarding mask-wearing (a restriction that has passed its sell-by date for most people) have actually made live theatre much more affordable. I just checked: I could get a ticket for Hamilton, once in the $600 range, on Tuesday night for less than $150 on Broadway, or for about $60 in the West End. The play I’d most like to see in either of those cities, Girl on an Altar, has good seats available all this week for £20, or about $25.

Theatre prices will skyrocket again once the industry finds its footing again.  (There was a brouhaha in London recently when tickets to Cock hit £460, or about $575, counting absurdly high processing fees.) Curmie has seen a lot of commentary from friends based in New York that it is becoming increasingly difficult to get New Yorkers to come to the theatre,  Tourists make up well over half of Broadway audiences already, and that percentage seems to be growing.  If Broadway is to ever again be a place where something other than already-established musicals can thrive, it will have to be the locals that make it so.  And that means prices that middle-class New Yorkers can afford.

But live music has gone in the opposite direction. An “Open Letter to Paul McCartney Regarding Ticket Prices” by Ryan Ritchie was published in Los Angeles Magazine a few weeks ago. A sample: “Call me naïve, but I don’t think any three people should have to pay $700 to attend any concert that doesn’t include Elvis walking onto the stage and confirming he faked his 1977 death. That is worth $700.”

It gets worse. Curmie follows the “Spring-Nuts” (Bruce Springsteen fans) Facebook page. The Boss, once the voice of the working class, recently released the European dates for a tour that won’t start until nearly a year from now. Many of those venues are already sold out, with tickets for even standing room running into the hundreds of dollars apiece, and that’s before the scalpers get in on the action. And a LOT of American fans are flying to Dublin or Amsterdam or wherever to see a concert. Curmie and Beloved Spouse would probably spend $500 or so, total, to see Springsteen live… but not round-trip airfare for two to Europe, several nights in hotel rooms (and meals in restaurants), and $400+ per ticket for standing room. Who will be at those concerts? Some die-hard fans, willing to drain their life savings to see their hero… and a bunch of rich people.

This isn’t good for the industry, or, more importantly, for the culture. If people are denied the opportunity to hear live music, or to see the detail of a great painting or sculpture, they’ll never understand that the actual art object is always superior in manifold ways to reproductions—recordings, photographs, whatever.  And they’ll either lose interest in the transcendence of great art, because they’ve never experienced it (notice that neither image included with this post does justice to the original painting), or, as in Plato’s cave allegory, they’ll try to convince themselves that the shadows are the real thing. Curmie isn’t sure which is worse, but he does know this: either way, we all lose.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

These Are Our Protectors. Alas.

Three stories from the past few weeks about the people who are allegedly protecting us.  No, this isn’t about the sorry excuse for law enforcement in Uvalde: everyone already knows about that gaggle of craven incompetents.  More to the point, we can at least understand their inaction, which seems to have been motivated by little else than garden-variety cowardice.  No matter how well you’re trained, no matter how much body armor you’re wearing, that guy in there has a semi-automatic rifle and an apparent desire to kill people: choosing not to be his next target is understandable.  We might hope for more from our police, but we shouldn’t be surprised at what we got.

Today, Curmie writes about different, less comprehensible, forms of unfitness for the job.  Sometimes it’s just people who are temperamentally ill-suited to perform the functions of the job.  Sometimes it’s a system ripe for corruption and a police force more than ready to exploit those opportunities.  And sometimes, well, we’re talking about a significant error of judgment.  It’s probably not true that the cop in question would come in third in a battle of wits with a dead chipmunk and an anvil, but one particular decision was, shall we say, particularly ill-advised.  

As usual in such posts, Curmie takes them in the order they crossed his path.  We begin, then, in Buffalo, NY, site of the last big mass shooting before Uvalde.  Notice the key word, “big.”  There were in fact 15 mass shootings (at least four people killed or injured, not counting the shooter) in this country, accounting for 12 deaths and 72 injuries between Buffalo and Uvalde.  There have been 22 mass shootings (that’s two per day), with 19 dead and 102 injured in the 11 days since Uvalde.  It’s almost as if there was an ongoing problem here.

Latisha Rogers

Eh bien, revenons à nos moutons: One of the survivors of the Buffalo attack was Latisha Rogers, whose misfortune it was to experience her second such shooting incident: the first cost her brother’s life.  This time, Rogers was working at the customer service desk in that Tops supermarket in Buffalo when the shooting started.  She took cover behind the counter, hoping not to be seen.  She took out her phone and called 911, whispering to the dispatcher that there was an active shooter in the store.

The response?  “What? I can't hear you. Why are you whispering? You don't have to whisper, they can't hear you.”  Right, because you can intuitively determine where the shooter is relative to Rogers’s location.  Then, in Rogers’s words, “She got mad at me, hung up in my face.”  OK: not being able to make out what is being said over the telephone by someone who is whispering—that’s completely understandable.  But you’re a freaking 911 operator, and it’s part of your training to understand that if someone is speaking very quietly, there’s probably a reason. What you don’t do is have a snit fit and end the call.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz described the 911 operator’s performance as “inappropriate” and “completely unacceptable.”  Ya think?  Of course, a different county mouthpiece said the law enforcement response time was not affected by the handling of Rogers’s call.  He might even be telling the truth, but Curmie wouldn’t bet the price of a small pizza, let alone the ranch, on the veracity of that statement.  Doing what you can to keep the county from getting sued is likely to trump integrity in situations like this.

The only good news to come out of this is that the still unidentified dispatcher was indeed fired, which is about all one can hope for.  There was no apparent malice, and nothing illegal about her actions.  But people like that ought to find alternative employment.  That’s obviously going to happen.  Curmie hopes so, at least, since he doesn’t want to spend a lot of taxpayers’ money on unemployment compensation.

Our second story suggests that not all cops are good guys.  Who knew, right?  Anyway… In Polish immigrants Justyna and MattKozbial bought a building, formerly a church, in small-town Highland Park, an enclave within the city of Detroit.  After securing some 13 separate licenses, they converted the space into a facility to grow medical marijuana.  Sometime later, on Christmas Eve of 2020, Mayor Hubert Yopp and Police Chief Kevin Coney showed up for a “fire inspection.”  Fire inspections, of course, should be conducted by jamokes like these two instead of… you know… people with relevant credentials, like, I don’t know… maybe someone in the fire department?

Upon entering the building, what to their wondering eyes did appear (Christmas Eve, remember?) but a bunch of marijuana plants?  Naturally, despite the baker’s dozen licenses, the (ahem) fire inspectors declared the site an “illegal narcotics operation” and seized the building under the state’s arcane forfeiture laws. 

Stupid laws like these allow corrupt cops and politicians (there’s another kind?) to exploit the system for literally millions of dollars of cash and material goods.  There are some (not enough) safeguards, such as the one which requires that such seizures be reported immediately to county prosecutors.  Guess who says they were never contacted…  But also guess who did nothing about it when they were, at least until the story went public.

It should be noted here that the Kozbials have not only never been convicted of any offense, they’ve never even been actually charged with a crime, making the seizure of their property even more outrageous.  And yet, things manage to get even worse. 

The city tried what the Kozbials’ lawyer rightfully calls a “shakedown with a badge and a lawyer.”  Highland Park officials actually told the Kozbials that they could get their property back in exchange for two police cars valued at nearly $70,000.  Really, it’s apparently right there in the city records.  In a just universe, Yopp, Coney, and City Attorney William R. “Terry” Ford would now be doing hard time with roommates named Mad Dog, El Diablo, and the Butcher.  Does this look like a just universe to you, Gentle Reader?

There are folks interested in reform of the system—the Mackinac Center, for example—but it’s a long and winding road ahead.  What passes for good news here is that the city conceded shortly after TV coverage from the Detroit ABC affiliate.  Of course, the shakedown artists at the center of the escapade are still in positions of responsibility and more than likely to try again. 

Marc Deldin, the Kozbial’s attorney, makes the cynical but accurate observation that “There’s clearly no respect of the constitution or people’s rights. But there appears to be a fear of the media, because it took a call from you and a story for them to do the right thing….  That should have been done 17 months ago.” 

Curmie is no fan of the media in general terms, but sometimes they do some good.  This would be one of those times.

Finally, we move on to a different kind of incident at a Texas elementary school: a career day.  The day after the Uvalde shootings, a Tarrant County Deputy appeared at a career day at E.M. Daggett Elementary School in Fort Worth.  After the formal presentation, a student asked the deputy what kinds of weapons his vest protected him against.  The deputy then did a Google search, thereby projecting images of AR-15 rifles onto the classroom screen.

Even if, as is likely the case, this was just a moment of not paying attention to the circumstances, it’s a little strange to want to show kids pictures of any kind of guns in answer to that question, irrespective of the timing.  When we add in the fact that those kids are the same age as those killed by essentially that weapon, in that state, the day before… well, that’s a remarkably stupid thing to do. 

But for the brighter kids in the class, the lesson is even more traumatic.  They’ll put things together: “yes, my vest will protect me from the very weapon that killed 19 kids your age yesterday, but the police there didn’t do anything to rescue those children.  These vests are to protect us, not you.  If the same thing happens in this classroom, don’t expect any help from us.”  OK, that’s a little harsh, but you see what I mean, yes? 

The Uvalde police had riot gear, but did nothing for what must have seemed an eternity for those still alive.  Could moving faster have saved one or more of the victims?  Maybe.  But whether it would have made a difference is pure moral luck.  The lives of schoolchildren in Uvalde were deemed insufficiently important to demand an immediate intervention by police. 

There were probably fewer students in class in elementary schools across the country, let alone in Texas, the day after Uvalde: one of Curmie’s Facebook friends, a teacher in Texas, reported that only about a third of her students were physically present that day.  And then to remind the ones who were there that even Kevlar-protected cops wouldn’t necessarily come to the rescue—this may be an appropriate lesson for junior high kids. But for elementary students, the Sheriff’s Office apology that described the incident as “insensitive and a profound momentary lack of judgment” leans more to the side of understatement than of hyperbole.

The good news here was that the reports Curmie saw that the Deputy had brought an actual AR-15 to the school were false.  That’s something, although it also highlights how easily false information can spread.

So there you have it, three stories about people who are supposed to keep us safe: a 911 dispatcher ill-suited for the job; a conspiracy of cops and other city officials to screw over private citizens who had done nothing wrong, and a moment of extreme if unintentional callousness.  All in all, not a good look.

 

Friday, June 3, 2022

Ceci n'est pas un poisson.

Not a fish.
This will be a considerably shorter post than usual for Curmie, but I can’t just let this go.

The Sacramento Bee (who else?) reports that the state of California has determined that bees qualify as fish. 

This all stems from a series of bills designed to protect endangered species.  So far, so good, right?  Well, the legislation specifies “a native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile or plant.”  Notice that bumblebees, or indeed insects in general, don’t qualify under that rubric.  But, given the need to protect pollinators and the disastrous effect some pesticides have had on bee populations in general, it appears to have been someone’s bright idea to allow for their protection by including not merely snails and similar creatures, but bees, under the category of “fish,” since they are invertebrates (!).

Of course, as anyone who passed high school biology (or, probably, 4th grade science) knows, fish aren’t invertebrates.  Curmie can’t tell whether the California officials are that ignorant or simply convinced that people will decide that since their deception is for a good cause, no one will care.  The obvious solution—getting the legislature to include insects and other invertebrates in the wording of the act in question—never seems to have occurred to anyone.

California has long been the bête noire of the American right, who often make themselves look foolish in the process.  This is not one of these times.  Calling bees fish because it is convenient to do so is stupid.  And little Johnny, not the brightest star in the firmament, is already appealing his Biology grade.

Sigh.

 

SCOTUS Won't Protect the Innocent

Barry Jones

The SCOTUS “ruling” that’s gotten all the press over the last few weeks isn’t really a ruling at all, at least yet.  Lost in the controversy surrounding what appears to be the imminent reversal of Roe v. Wade is the case of Shinn v. Ramirez, which may have the most horrific consequences of any decision in recent history.  We can disagree about RvW, but there are competing claims there, centered, as Curmie recently argued, on when in the progression from fertilized egg to childbirth a collection of cells becomes a human with rights equal to the mother’s.  And whereas Curmie has argued for some significant limitations on the availability of semi-automatic weapons (for example), at least the Bill of Rights does guarantee the right to bear arms.   

Curmie concentrates here on the case of Barry Jones (whose case was lumped in together with that of David Martinez Ramirez, accounting for the title of the case).  It’s not news that the Supreme Court is more interested in legal niceties than in actual justice (see, for example, Curmie’s commentary on Walmart v. Dukes some eleven years ago).  But usually this manifests in preventing a group of people from filing a class-action suit instead of individual suits, procedural stuff like that.  But SCOTUS sees no legal impediment to allowing the state of Arizona to execute Mr. Jones despite the fact that he is almost certainly innocent.  Yes, really.

The central issue here pertains to the 6th Amendment guarantee of “the Assistance of Counsel,” a phrase that has always been interpreted by the courts as effective counsel. It doesn’t count if your weird Uncle Howard sits by your side and offers advice.  It doesn’t even count if Curmie, who is perhaps only marginally less weird, but a good deal better educated, than Uncle Howard does so: Curmie’s knowledge of criminal law consists of a one-day stint as a juror and considerable experience watching TV courtroom dramas (many of which were set in England).  No, you need an actual lawyer who does his/her damned job.

Jones was convicted of the 1994 murder of his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter, Rachel Gray.  As Justice Sotomayor argues in her dissent,

The State argued that Rachel died as a result of an injury she sustained while in Jones’ care. Jones’ trial counsel failed to undertake even a cursory investigation and, as a result, did not uncover readily available medical evidence that could have shown that Rachel sustained her injuries when she was not in Jones’ care. Having heard none of this evidence, the jury convicted Jones and the trial judge sentenced him to death.

Jones’s appeal was similarly mishandled, so he was again denied his 6th Amendment right to effective legal counsel.  Indeed, quoting Sotomayor again, “Arizona state law sets minimum qualifications that attorneys must meet to be appointed in capital cases like Jones’, but the Arizona Supreme Court waived those requirements in Jones’ case, and the state court appointed postconviction counsel who lacked those qualifications.” Holy Star Chamber, Batman!

Some would argue, as Ian Millhiser does on Vox, that SCOTUS is ignoring its own precedents.  Still, it may be true that in purely legal terms the SCOTUS ruling in Shinn v. Ramirez not to allow a federal lower court to initiate an evidentiary hearing is the correct one.  Nevertheless, such a decision cannot be abided in terms of justice.  There is no judicial equivalent to the Hippocratic oath’s admonition to “first, do no harm.”  Were such a stricture in place, we wouldn’t have the usual suspects on the Supreme Court of the United States calmly wiping away any impediments to the execution of Barry Jones.

When the stakes are this high—not merely for Mr. Jones and his friends and family, but for the very significant collateral damage to the citizenry’s perception of justice in this country—the Supreme Court needs to exercise leadership, to pay heed to Ben Franklin’s famous line (possibly riffing off Voltaire and/or Sir William Blackstone) “That it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approved.”

This notion, which dates back centuries, has long been touted as one of the bedrock principles of American jurisprudence—Curmie remembers hearing about it in elementary school in the 1960s, and has taken it as an article of faith ever since.  Those who disagree with this idea tend to be authoritarian rulers like Otto von Bismarck or revolutionaries like Che Guevara—neither of them heroes to the average American. 

That said, one of the more chilling aspects of Curmie found while doing a little research for this essay was a poll conducted by the Cato Institute in 2016, which shows that only 60% of Americans think it’s worse to punish the innocent than to let the guilty go free… not in the 100:1 ratio invoked by Franklin, but in even numbers.  Yes, 40% of Americans, and an even more terrifying 52% of Donald Trump’s “early core supporters” responded to the question of which is worse, “having 20,000 people in prison who are actually innocent; or, having 20,000 people not in prison who are actually guilty” by selecting the latter.  Whereas Democrats were slightly more likely than Republicans to protect the innocent rather than punish the guilty, the real difference is between the authoritarian and the libertarian.  Still, only 75% even of Bernie Sanders’s supporters chose to keep the innocent out of prison even at the expense of failing to incarcerate the guilty.

So Curmie’s initial response that the American people would be outraged at the callousness of the SCOTUS ruling seems to have been misplaced.  This observation would seem to support the commentary of H.L. Mencken about nobody going broke underestimating the intelligence of the “great masses of the plain people.”

But the phrase that haunts Curmie the most is the smug assertion by the insufferable Justice Antonin Scalia, surely the most over-rated jurist in a very long time indeed, that “actual innocence” (his quotation marks) is not grounds for even re-opening a case. Curmie remembers writing somewhere (perhaps on the Facebook page?) that Dickens’s Mr. Bumble may or may not be correct that “the law is an ass,” but that Antonin Scalia certainly is. 

Scalia’s infamous line appears in his dissent in the case of Troy Davis.  SCOTUS ordered a federal court Georgia to consider whether new evidence would clear Davis of a murder charge.  For good or ill, the original verdict was upheld.  Curmie wrote about that case on the eve of Davis’s execution.

What’s different here, however, is that whereas Davis was quite likely innocent, Jones certainly was innocent: the fatal injuries inflicted on Rachel Gray could not, according to three independent experts, have occurred when Jones was even in proximity to the girl.  It’s reasonable that the burden of proof shifts after a verdict: a defendant is not guilty until proven otherwise beyond the proverbial “reasonable doubt.”  Once convicted, however, that person now must prove innocence: not merely that it can’t be proved he did it, but that he can prove he didn’t.  But to shut down the possibility of appeal when there’s evidence not of “probable innocence,” but of “actual innocence,” corrupts the system beyond recognition.

There’s one more thing.  Curmie suspects that he has certain advantages over Barry Jones: he’s almost certainly better educated, very likely more intelligent, and probably in a better financial situation.  Yet Curmie has hired two lawyers ever: one didn’t do something he should have been certain to do, and the other committed an act of colossal stupidity.  With luck, these errors, one of omission and one of commission, will cost Curmie only a few dollars.  At worst, it could be more than a few dollars, but they certainly won’t cost his life.  But if Curmie can hire not one but two lawyers who didn’t get the job done, he finds it difficult to blame Barry Jones for doing the same.

Of course, however much we might like to blame SCOTUS for the brouhaha, there’s at least an argument that they’re just enforcing pre-existing rules.  (We’ll casually avoid mentioning that decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson were once considered inviolable.)  The real blame here falls directly on the Arizona authorities who, presented with real, documentable evidence of both Jones’s “actual innocence” and the incompetence of his defense team, doubled down on their own laziness, corruption, and dereliction of responsibility.  

Curmie was just hoping, rather forlornly, that SCOTUS would protect the innocent instead of the obviously guilty.  No, huh?

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Career-Ending Consensual Affairs

Two somewhat related stories have caught Curmie’s attention of late.  What they have in common is that elite universities are now punishing scholars for romantic/sexual affairs with students or colleagues, relationships which have long since ended.  The cases differ in significant ways, too, with the result that Curmie can’t decide which is worse.

Joshua Katz

Let’s take them in the order they appeared on Curmie’s radar.  In 2006, and apparently for some time thereafter, Princeton Classics professor Joshua Katz engaged in a romantic/sexual relationship with a student.  Apparently, the affair began when the young woman was a junior and continued until after her graduation.  OK, so Katz would have been pretty close to twice her age, so there’s a little bit of an “ick” factor, and it’s not at all unreasonable for a university to forbid even ostensibly consensual relationships between faculty and students.  

In this case, apparently, the student in question was Katz’s senior thesis advisee, so that complicates matters considerably.  Katz claims “It was a consensual relationship. It did not involve — nor has anyone ever suggested that it involved — any coercion, harassment, or quid pro quo.”  This may be true, but it’s still not unreasonable for the university to raise a skeptical eyebrow in response.

But it’s not until 2018, over a decade later, that Katz was punished for the affair: a one-year suspension without pay.  The now-former student apparently refused to participate in the proceedings.  (What inspired the investigation to begin with is unclear, at least to Curmie.)

OK: what follows next may look unrelated, but go with me here…  In 2020, in the immediate aftermath of the Great George Floyd Kerfuffle, a group of Princeton faculty—literally hundreds of them—signed an open letter to university officials, demanding that the university “publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus.”  It’s pretty predictable fare, including both important aspirations and ridiculous, even illegal, demands like automatically granting black faculty course relief and summer salary.  Particularly noteworthy in Curmie’s mind was the complaint that faculty of color are “routinely called upon to exert influence in hiring committees.”  It requires little imagination to guess what the complaint would be if this were not the case. 

Anyway, in a published response on Quillette, Professor Katz had the audacity to suggest that the Faculty Letter might have been something less than the divinely inspired.  Katz argues that there are four potential reasons for affixing one’s name to that document:

(1) They believe in every word. I suppose this is true for a few, including, presumably, those members of the faculty who were the initial drafters.

(2) They signed without reading it. I would not ordinarily believe this, but I am aware of a similar petition, not at Princeton, that people were asked to sign—and did so!—before knowing what they were putting their name to.

(3) They felt peer pressure to sign. This is entirely believable.

(4) They agree with some of the demands and felt it was good to act as “allies” and bring up the numbers even though they do not assent to everything themselves.

Katz believes that #4 was the principal reason many of his friends signed on.  Curmie suspects #2 and #3, as well.  I just hope that few professors at one of the nation’s greatest universities fall into category #1.

Katz then launches into a lengthy, more or less point by point, decimation of the group’s demands (which are far longer than Katz’s response).  You can read it for yourself, Gentle Reader.  Curmie merely calls attention to two important elements: 1) that Katz supports some of the points raised by his colleagues, is neutral about some, and opposed others. 2). He is unequivocal in his belief that his fellow faculty are free to believe and indeed to say what they choose about their concerns: “To my colleagues who signed the Faculty Letter: If you signed it independently and thoughtfully, good for you.”

Oh, one more thing: Katz describes “Black Justice League, which was active on campus from 2014 until 2016, [as] a small local terrorist organization that made life miserable for the many (including the many black students) who did not agree with its members’ demands.”  This rather expansive use of the term “terrorist,” a locution he subsequently defended (here), of course, allowed those who disagreed with Katz to ignore the substance of his essay and to concentrate on what they labeled as racist commentary. 

Shortly thereafter, calls began to have Katz censured or, despite his tenure, fired.  Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber argued in a statement to The Daily Princetonian that “While free speech permits students and faculty to make arguments that are bold, provocative, or even offensive, we all have an obligation to exercise that right responsibly.”  

That student newspaper also reports that “University Spokesperson Ben Chang said in a separate statement that the administration “will be looking into the matter further.”  Well, that’s certainly not chilling of free expression, right?  Notice that there’s no similar denunciation of those who call Katz a racist.  (It is hypothetically possible, of course, that Eisgruber did indeed say something of the like, but the editors of an undergrad newspaper sort of casually forgot to include that part.)

Eisgruber finally, a few days later, issues another statement, this time affirming free speech, and even granting that other parts of Katz’s essay are worthy of consideration.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) responded: 

FIRE applauds Eisgruber’s message, but has to ask: What took so long? Free speech is a founding principle of higher education, eloquently enshrined in Princeton’s own regulations with such forceful statements as, “[I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive[.]

Good point.

Anyway, there’s more—a lot more—but you see where we’re going here, don’t you, Gentle Reader?  We jump ahead in time to 2021, when, for undisclosed reasons, the young woman with whom Katz had had a fling over a decade earlier suddenly decides to share information about that old relationship with university officials.  Apparently she gives them emails (Katz says they were de-contextualized) and accused Katz of trying to dissuade her from seeking counseling while the relationship was going on or cooperating with the 2018 investigation.

So now, to use a term that appears not infrequently in criminal cases involving double jeopardy, Princeton wanted, and got, another bite of the apple.  The university, of course, contends that these were entirely new allegations, thereby freeing them to pursue their witch-hunt punish Katz for being insufficiently Woke legally and ethically take further action against Professor Katz.  Oh, and of course none of this has anything to do with Katz’s criticism of the “anti-racism” initiative.  (Curmie’s mantra: if you have to tell me, it ain’t so.)

Predictably, Eisburger urged the university’s Trustees to fire Katz (reminder: he had tenure); they obediently complied earlier this month. 

Take-aways:

1). Trustees, Regents, Councilors, whatever they’re called at a given university, will always, and I do mean always, rubberstamp any truly idiotic idea from the administration... unless, of course, their de facto job is indeed to be a rubberstamp (hiring faculty, tenure and promotion decisions, honorary degrees, etc.), in which case they consider themselves free to interfere.

2). The relationship between Katz and the student was consensual, albeit uneven in power dynamics.  Were this a criminal case (which Curmie understands that it was not), it would be thrown out for not one, but two, irrefutable reasons: not only double jeopardy, but also timing.  Whatever we think of Katz’s actions, they fall well short of forcible rape, the statute of limitations for which in New Jersey is seven years.  Katz’s relationship with the student took place over a decade ago.

3). Had Dr. Katz been fired instead of suspended in 2018, it would have been reasonable. This was not.

4). It is possible that the two cases are, as President Eisburger describes them, completely unrelated.  It is also possible that the Nigerian prince who promises to reward me handsomely in the future in exchange for a short-term loan of only a couple thousand dollars is entirely on the up-and-up.

David Sabatini

OK—moving on to the second case.  MIT biologist David Sabatini was fired after having an affair with a considerably younger colleague, Kristin Knouse, who claimed he “groomed” and “coerced” her into a sexual relationship, according to a report and court papers.

There’s an extensive overview of the to-ings and fro-ings of the relationship here.  A few points to highlight: Dr. Knouse was 29 years old, a grown woman, when the affair started in 2018.  And she’s obviously intelligent: people with a PhD from MIT and just short of finishing an MD from Harvard (she finished that degree a few months into the affair) tend not to be stupid.  Does anyone else think that’s a little too old and a little too worldly-wise to have been “groomed”?

Moreover, although they both worked at MIT, she did not work in his lab or report to him in any way.  So there’s little if any possibility of a quid pro quo.  As NYU Medical School Dean Robert Grossman puts it, “If people are close minded to the idea that there can be a consensual relationship between two adults, I’m afraid we can’t make any traction.”

To be fair, there was a change in HR guidelines at MIT while the affair was underway, prohibiting lab heads from sexual relationships with co-workers.  It’s unclear whether the continuing affair, or Sabatini’s failure to report it, really constituted a violation of the new policy, as they weren’t really co-workers, per se.  Moreover, things were “fizzling” in the relationship, so it seemed not to matter.

The chances are very good, Gentle Reader, that you will recognize this scenario: X and Y were once lovers, but the relationship fell apart.  X now regrets having entered into the affair at all, blames Y for its demise, especially if it was Y who broke things off, and does not harbor exclusively positive feelings towards the ex.  If Knouse is “X” in this scenario, she’d be joining about 98% of the rest of us.  Good people like you and I, Gentle Reader, wouldn’t stoop to trying to ruin an ex’s career, but not everyone is as ethical as we are. 

Sabatini further argues that he was denied due process:

I was not given an opportunity to hear the allegations made against me and was never informed of the true nature of the allegations that were being investigated. The names of witnesses were withheld, and I was forbidden from speaking with any colleagues about the matter. I was not initially permitted to have any attorney present during the process, although others were.  

I was given no opportunity to present any exculpatory material nor to present witnesses. There was no cross-examination or any opportunity at all to challenge the claims. Though I was promised the opportunity to review and respond to any report before it was finalized, I was never allowed to do so. To this day I am unaware of who made accusations against me and what exactly they said.

Certainly the report initiated by university, though voluminous, is notable primarily for its squishiness.  Sabatini didn’t really have power over Knouse, but had “indirect influence,” whatever the hell that means, over her.  There wasn’t even the suggestion of a quid pro quo, but he had “experience, stature, and age” over her.  (The question “So freaking what?” rises to the surface.)

The report claims that whereas “we have not found any evidence that Sabatini discriminates against or fails to support females in his lab, we find that Sabatini’s propensity to praise or gravitate toward those in the lab that mirror his desired personality traits, scientific success, or view of ‘science above all else,’ creates additional obstacles for female lab members.”  So success and focus are now specifically masculine traits?  Curmie thought Sabatini was the one accused of sexism.

Colleagues claim that words were put in their mouths by the investigating lawyers, that the characterization of Sabatini as lascivious and retaliatory is “deeply insane,” and, chillingly, that they are unwilling to go on the record in support of Sabatini not because they believe him guilty of anything, but because they fear retribution should they publicly support him. 

By all accounts, Dr. Sabatini is brilliant—described by colleagues as a “genius,” “one of the best scientists alive,” “a pillar,” and a prospective Nobel laureate.  Of course, none of this is relevant if Sabatini did in fact coerce sex from Knouse.  But it does mean that if he’s really innocent, as he claims, that the loss to the scientific community—and indeed to us all—is especially significant.  The chairman of the board of NYU’s Langone Medical Center described their vetting of Sabatini for a possible position as “exhaustive.” The fact that NYU ultimately didn’t offer him a job can legitimately be described as pandering to the mob an absurd excess of caution.

Based on unsubstantiated allegations, hearsay, and a process that could charitably be described as flawed, MIT cut ties with a universally-acknowledged brilliant scientist, leading to an unraveling of his entire career.  The level of evidence adduced here, even though in serious dispute, could legitimately be a reason to deny tenure.  It isn’t even in the ballpark of enough to revoke it.  Unless there’s a lot more to the story than currently meets the eye, MIT is in for a serious reckoning.

So, which is worse?  Firing a tenured professor for an offense he’s already been punished for (and masking the true reason—to eliminate someone who refuses to drink the Kool-Aid of politico-philosophical orthodoxy)?  Or firing a tenured professor because his ex doesn’t like him anymore?  Curmie can’t decide. 

Oh, one more thing these two cases have in common.  Sabatini is already suing; Katz is almost certain to do so.  It’s a good thing Princeton and MIT have deep pockets.  Curmie suspects they’re going to need them.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

A Little Rage about Uvalde

Curmie was going to respond sooner to the latest (please, God, let it be the latest) school shooting, the one in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday of this week.  But the interwebs were already cluttered with charges, counter-charges, conflicting timelines, and incessant posturing from politicians, cops, and everyday citizens.

On the one hand, there were members of the “do something” crowd, who had little but grief and indignation to offer.  On the other hand, there were the “price of freedom” brigade, the ones who really do seem to believe that a few more dead fourth graders is a reasonable price to pay for being able to strut around with a weapon designed for one purpose only: to kill our fellow travelers.

Curmie usually responds to these situations with great sadness.  This time, though, sadness took a distant second place to insensate anger.  I’m not sure why the difference—the proverbial last straw? the fact that Curmie has literally dozens of former students, many of them now close friends, who teach in Texas schools? or was it the coincidence of timing that this event happened as a virtual warmup act for the annual ritual fellation of the NRA by every GOP pol who can get to Houston this weekend?

Indeed, the comment that really struck home with Curmie was this one from one of those former students mentioned above.  (It was on a friends-only Facebook post, so I’ll not identify the author beyond that.) 

Teachers are sharing their active shooter kits and plans on social media so we can keep our students as safe as possible.  Remember that the next time politicians try to make us the scapegoats.  We are doing everything we can think of to stop the potential loss of life and they are getting ready for the NRA convention.

Police doing about the same thing at a makeshift memorial
as they did when kids’ lives were on the line.

Timelines about the series of events are now beginning to emerge.  What’s clear, above all else, is that the whole “good guy with a gun” scenario is unmitigated bullshit.  The Los Angeles Times claims that at 11:32 a.m., “Officers and Ramos exchanges [sic.] gunfire outside the school.  

A few hours later, ABC claims to have “confirmed” that Salvador Ramos was “approached by one Uvalde ISD school resource officer. No gunfire is exchanged.”  Guess what?  Either way, the people whose job it is to protect the citizenry allowed a teenager carrying a semi-automatic rifle and literally hundreds of rounds of ammunition to stroll into an elementary school.  (There are conflicting reports about where Ramos dropped a backpack containing more ammunition—just inside or just outside the building.)  

Parents and neighbors literally screamed at police to enter the school.  Why didn’t they?  Cowardice?  Certainly virtually every cop Curmie has ever encountered is a Big Damn Deal, at least in his own mind, if he’s the only one with a gun… but perhaps not so much under other circumstances.  Lack of a clear plan?  Well, welcome to the real world.  Or was it just coffee break time?  (Dammit, Williams, it was your turn to bring the donuts.)

Eventually, police “pin down” Ramos in a classroom (presumably the one in which he’d killed all the legitimate inhabitants), but they don’t enter the room until over an hour and a half later, in part because they can’t get the door open; eventually, a staffer with a key (what a clever idea!) lets them in.  How many of those kids bled to death or suffered injuries that would have been serious instead of fatal if the cops had their act together, entered the room immediately, and gotten the kids medical treatment?  (Remember, Ramos shot his grandmother in the face; at last report, she was in serious condition but still alive over two days after the attack.) 

Several of Curmie’s FB friends have alleged that at least some of the local cops got their own kids out of other classrooms after Ramos was “pinned down” before anyone did anything more than that.  There’s no link to a credible source that Curmie can find, but the fact that he even looked rather than dismissing the story as beyond credibility says something about Curmie’s respect for small-town cops in Texas. We can be grateful that the threat was finally eliminated, but no one with an IQ above room temperature is going to start singing “One Shining Moment” in honor of the cops on the scene.

Anyway, a good deal of the current round of finger-pointing centers on the fact that a kid who had just turned 18 was able to purchase two AR-15-style rifles and 375 rounds (that we know of) of ammunition.  He can’t buy a beer, but semi-automatic rifles are fine.  Priorities, after all.

Curmie will grant that many of those imploring authorities to “do something” don’t have a lot of specifics about what exactly to do.  But there are certainly things that can be done: outlawing semi-automatic weapons altogether would be Curmie’s preference, as they exist only to kill people (or to compensate for under-sized male appendages).  If we can’t to do that, then real, honest-to-God background checks, waiting periods, application processes, licenses, required training.  A Friend of Curmie noted in a recent Facebook post that he’d had to fill out copious paperwork, demonstrate personal responsibility, and wait three weeks before he was allowed to adopt a couple of kittens.  It should be easier to get a kitten than a lethal weapon.

Ah, but there’s a litany of responses from the gun-obsessed.  Let’s look at those arguments.

“They’re coming for our guns.”  No, that actually isn’t true.  Sure, there are a couple of outliers; there always are.  But Curmie has seen nary a politician call for the elimination of all guns.  Stop with the Straw Man arguments, please.

The Second Amendment!  Oh, puh-leeez.  Does Salvador Ramos seem like a member of a “well-regulated militia” to you, Gentle Reader?  Even leaving aside that troublesome phrase, there are a number of other problems with this rationale.  Curmie will grant that the US Constitution and the accompanying Bill of Rights is among the most important documents ever written.  Still, there’s not a lot of concern about quartering of soldiers (Third Amendment) these days, and the Seventh Amendment’s reference to values “over twenty dollars” rather expands the original meaning a little, given the roughly 3000% inflation since the ratification of the Bill of Rights.  Times change.  Slavery is outlawed now; women can vote. 

Weaponry has changed, too.  In the late 18th century, you had a rifle.  You fired it once and then had to re-load.  The revolver wasn’t going to be invented for nearly a half century.  Now, an 18-year-old kid can fire off 30 or more shots in less than a minute, with a weapon that has no value for hunting or sport.  No one takes an AR-15 into the woods to hunt for deer.  Perhaps the Constitution not only could, but should, adapt to the realities on the ground.  You know, like President Biden said: the Second Amendment isn’t absolute.

Biden, of course, caught a lot of flak from predictable sources for saying that, mostly because it’s true.  The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but still allows for prohibitions against the proverbial “crying ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” as well as libel, treason, and incitement to riot.  Similarly, although the gun lobby pretends not to acknowledge it, the Second Amendment still does not allow a private citizen to own a nuclear submarine, a tank, or surface-to-air missiles (among other things).  No one seems to be up in arms (literally or figuratively) about this.  In other words, there is no absolute right to own whatever weaponry an individual can afford to buy.  The line is already there; we’re talking about moving it, not inventing it.

But… but… Freedom!  Sigh.  Apart from the absolutism about the Bill of Rights argument, we get two variations on the theme: the fact that the US grants its citizens rights that other countries don’t grant theirs, and a parallel argument that those evil Democrats want to deny us our freedoms, just like they did with the response to COVID-19. 

OK, it’s true that as Americans we can do some things that our friends even in other First World countries cannot.  Usually, that’s a good thing.  But the freedoms in question could reasonably be applied to, say, the freedom to attend elementary school without fear of being shot.  No, huh? 

As for COVID-19, the brouhaha about masks and vaccinations can be traced directly to the Trump administration’s colossal mishandling of the pandemic, largely based on misinformation being propagated by POTUS himself.  Newsflash: the outbreak didn’t disappear on its own when the weather got warm two years ago.  But insisting that students be vaccinated against COVID was an infringement on personal freedoms akin to the Holocaust, to listen to some of the loonies on the right.  Of course, vaccination against meningitis to even enroll in college (let alone to appear on campus) is required by a law passed by Texas’s Republican legislature.  But that, you see, is a highly contagious disease that can lead to permanent damage to vital organs or even death.  COVID, on the other hand, is a highly contagious…  Oh… Wait.

But Gun Control Won’t Solve All the Problems.  Of course not.  The reason we have laws is to reduce the likelihood of bad things happening.  There are laws against murder, rape, and burglary: all those things still happen, and with grim regularity.  But, as has been demonstrated time and again with reference to this specific topic, those restrictions help.  There’s a meme circulating now about how there was a single incident in Dunblane, Scotland, some 26 years ago.  Britain tightened its gun laws, and there hasn’t been a school shooting since.  Curmie checked it out.  It’s true. 

In the US, there have been over 160 school shootings that resulted in at least one death since the turn of the century.  (This is from the Wikipedia list; some incidents may be included or excluded from what you might think appropriate, Gentle Reader, but this is a pretty good ballpark figure.)  Given that school shootings happen when school is in session, roughly 180 days a year, that works out to… pretty damned close to one every 26 days.  None in 26 years vs. one every 26 days.

Inevitably that means, according to the gun lobby and their minions in the GOP, that there’s literally never a good time to discuss gun control legislation, because we’re ALWAYS in the immediate aftermath of a lethal shooting.  Please note that the numbers cited here refer only to school shootings: if you get shot at the grocery store, or at a nightclub, or attending a country music festival, or literally any place that isn’t a school, that doesn’t count.

Plus, of course, we must remember the Onions greatest ever headline: No Way to Prevent This, Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.

Yes, But Freedom.  As noted above, there are many things to prefer about the American system than even those other countries where Curmie has spent a lot of time: the UK, Ireland, and France.  But this isn’t one of them.  We don’t have to join the EU to think that maybe, just maybe, they might have this one idea that works better than anarchy.

Well, He Was Mentally Ill.  Oh, OK, so spending more money on mental health concerns should be a national priority.  Oh.  No?  Theyre all faking it?  Got it.

You Don’t Even Know What You’re Talking About!  No, Curmie doesn’t know a lot about guns.  But the banshees have never had a student angry about a bad grade reach into their backpack and…  In Texas, I’m forbidden by law to restrict that student’s right to have a concealed handgun, even in my allegedly private office, and they can legally have one without a license.  More to the point, it’s reasonable to have an opinion about something without needing to be an expert in the field or being directly affected.  Men can have an opinion about abortion; atheists and religious zealots alike can have an opinion about the church/state relationship; pacifists can have an opinion about gun rights.

Curmie has even seen the argument that if you don’t know what the “AR” in AR-15 means, you’re not allowed an opinion.  Anyone?  Bueller?  No, not “assault rifle.”  ArmaLite Rifle, after the company that originally made them.  And if you didn’t know that… who fucking cares?  We all know what a USB port is, and what a URL is.  Perhaps you’ve invested a few dollars in a company that’s listed on the NASDAQ.  Surely you know the general terms of the PATRIOT Act, right, Gentle Reader?  But if you can tell me, without cheating, what all of those abbreviations stand for, you are, like Gunga Din, a better man (or woman) than I am.

But You’re Being All Emotional.  You’re goddamned right, I am.  That’s not all I am, but I sure as hell am that.  Deal with it.