Friday, April 18, 2014

Fire, Blood, and Curmie Contention

Curmie has a Word document consisting exclusively of links to stories he’d like to write about when he gets a chance. At the end of every calendar year, he purges the list of topics and starts again. There are two categories—education and everything else. Sometimes the line is kind of fuzzy: where to put a discussion of the NCAA, for example.

What with a hiatus of over two months, there’s quite a backlog of stories just from 2014—big enough, to be sure, that I’ll never get to them all. Right now, there are 17 in the “education” category and 32 in the “other” group. But if there’s one thing I feel I owe you, Gentle Reader, it’s discussion of legitimate contenders for the 4th Annual Curmie Award, to be awarded in January of 2015 for transgressions committed this year. And we’ve got a couple of doozies.

Today’s contender comes from Bergen Community College in New Jersey, where a professor was suspended for posting a photo of his daughter to his Google+ account. No, not because it embarrassed the school that one of its profs is so uncool that he uses Google+. The Censorious Asshat Brigade objected to the “threat” associated with the 7-year-old’s t-shirt, which quoted a catch-phrase from the popular “Game of Thrones” series of books and television episodes. Yes, really.

I trust that you're as terrified by this as Curmie is.
This story, which seems to have been first reported by Inside Higher Education’s Colleen Flaherty has found its way across the Atlantic (here’s the story in The Independent), and to the snarksite AV Club. As might be expected, the folks at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) are already on the case, as is the inimitable Ken White at Popehat. Curmie can’t improve on Ken’s analysis, but he can at least repeat some of it to ensure that the Bergen idiocracy will receive full consideration for a Curmie Award next January.

The case immediately reminded me of the events at the University of Wisconsin-Stout about two and a half years ago. There, the Offending Object was a poster from the short-lived but much-beloved “Firefly” television series. The idiot campus police chief (that’s not quite a redundant expression) decided that it was a threat (it was, in fact, the exact opposite), and doubled down on her petulant ignorance, wrapping herself in righteous dudgeon that her right to violate free expression, to exercise power for its own sake, and to be dumber than a corndog in the process, should be open to criticism.

Naturally, the administration’s “Threat Assessment Team” (I think that’s the name of their comedy troupe), led by Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen, Provost Julie Furst-Bowe and Vice Chancellor Ed Nieskes (and the Office of General Counsel, who were at least smart enough to keep their names out of the headlines), backed the inanity of the cop-who-should-have-been-fired-on-the-spot rather than the faculty member (or the 1st amendment, for that matter).

I was smart enough to yield to Ken at Popehat then, too:
If a rational person wouldn’t take it as an actual threat of violence, then it’s not a true threat that can be censored, however much the hysterical, irrational, nanny-stating, coddling, or professionally emo think about it, and however much university chancellors would like to believe otherwise….

A system in which what we can say is premised upon the likely reactions of the mentally ill and the undernourished pussywillows of the world is a system that encourages suppression of all unpopular, forceful, interesting, or challenging speech. The irrational and the morally and mentally weak are not entitled to have their feelings protected through the force of law, however prevalent they are on campus….

If your “UW System Legal Counsel” told you that these posters could be censored based on their content, then stop hiring lawyers out of the back of a bait shop.
Anyway, things finally got back to normal after the university was embarrassed in the national press and the likes of “Firefly” stars Adam Baldwin and Nathan Fillion joined the chorus. (Baldwin actually tweeted a link to Curmie’s article, helping to make that story the most-viewed ever on this blog until a Russian bot zeroed in on another piece.)

This case may be worse. As was the case at Stout, even someone completely unfamiliar with the specifics would still know in an instant that the expression being used—in this case, “I will take what is mine with fire and blood”—is a pop culture reference. I’ve never read the Game of Thrones books, and I’ve never seen the TV series. But I can recognize mass-produced merchandise when I see it. And that inevitably leads to the presumption that maybe what I’m seeing as a threat might just be a line from a TV show or something. If I’m really curious, I can pop that sucker into a search engine and find 387,000 links (if I use quotation marks; over 28,000,000 if I don’t). My search engine also suggested that I might be interested in the 2 million links to “I will take what is mine with fire and blood t-shirt.”

But that, you see, is what a sensible person would do. It’s different if you’re a dean at a juco in New Jersey. So… Francis Schmidt, a tenured professor of art and animation, is a big “Game of Thrones” fan. And, in anticipation of the trailer for the forthcoming season, he posted a pic of his rather adorable daughter in a show t-shirt. The Google+ post clearly includes not only the photo but Schmidt’s comment, “Trailer for the new season coming out.”

Jim Miller (not the same as the aggrieved faculty member James Miller of the Stout case), the Executive Director of Human Resources at BCC, hauled Schmidt in for questioning with a cadre of administrators including a “security official” because of a “threatening e-mail.” It would be impossible for Miller to be any stupider. First off, it’s not a threat, and no rational person could construe it as such. Second, it’s not an e-mail—the Idiot Miller has his Google+ account set to forward all posts from his “circle”; Schmidt was included, so his public post of his daughter in a t-shirt was regarded as a private threat because… well, because Jim Miller would have to evolve to have the intellectual acumen of a pollywog. Meanwhile, Security Boy (I picture him in a fuchsia lamé cape) intoned that the word “’fire’ could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.” Seriously, how do these people feed themselves? (I suppose it’s a good thing that Schmidt didn’t mention that the actual reference is to dragons, because Miller and his gaggle of incompetents would be calling out the Air National Guard to protect the campus from the imminent aerial reptilian invasion.)

But, as they say on the late-night infomercials, that’s not all. Schmidt explained to the dim-witted Miller and his minions that the quote was from “Game of Thrones.” He did a basic web search and showed the administrators the several million hits. They weren’t impressed. They don’t watch the show, so apparently no one else does, either. So, according to CBS New York, they went out into the hallway, where one of the secretaries promptly identified both the phrase and “the sigil of House Targaryen.”

Case closed, right? Administrators mumbled apologies and shuffled back to their offices, leaving Professor Schmidt befuddled but otherwise unaffected, right? Of course not. These are college administrators, and a significant percentage of these creatures are pathologically incapable of admitting a mistake.

So… several days after the meeting, at which anyone with the brains of a particularly stolid wombat would have been satisfied that there was nothing to worry about, the school suspended Professor Schmidt without pay, pending a psychiatric evaluation. At least he could pass one, unlike the cretinous yahoos who did the suspending.

And then the Idiot-in-Chief President B. Kaye Walter intoned that “she did not believe that the college had acted unfairly, especially considering that there were three school shootings nationwide in January, prior to Schmidt’s post. The suspects in all three shootings were minors targeting their local schools (although three additional shootings at colleges or universities happened later in the month).”
Schmidt is back at work now, but the damage is irreparable. Walter, who is already under fire (see what I did there?) for other reasons, should be gone. So should Miller. So should mouthpiece Larry Hlavenka Jr., who somehow thinks the following is relevant: “Since January 1, 2014, 34 incidents of school shootings have occurred in the United States. In following its safety and security procedures, the college investigates all situations where a member of its community – students, faculty, staff or local residents – expresses a safety or security concern.”

As Ken at Popehat points out:
There are at least two maddening components to this. First, they didn't just “investigate” — they suspended the professor and made him see a psychiatrist because he posted a picture of his daughter in a wildly popular t-shirt from pop culture. Second, the statement is an implicit admission that the college refuses to exercise critical thinking about the complaints it receives. There is no minimally rational connection between school shootings — or any type of violence — and a picture of someone's kid in a pop-culture t-shirt. The college is saying, in effect, “complain to us about your angers or fears, however utterly irrational, and we will act precipitously on them, because OMG 9/11 COLUMBINE TEH CHILDREN.” Shameful. Ask yourself: what kind of education do you think your children will get from people who think like this?
I hate to say it, but Ken under-estimates the problem. This is why I said earlier that this case is even worse than the one at Stout.

First off, the (ahem) “threat” didn’t come from Professor Schmidt, but presumably from his evil girl-spawn, who… uh… okay, she’s really cute. We should also notice that the involvement of the administration didn’t come in the form of covering up for a particularly inept campus cop as it had at Stout; the instigation for this entire round of inanity seems traceable directly to the administration itself.

Moreover, the punishment was handed down after the case had blown up in the administration’s collective gawping faces. It’s one thing to completely misconstrue the meaning of a text, over-react to what you mistakenly thought it meant, and threaten dire consequences to those heretical enough to comment on the emperor’s nakedness. It’s another to have your entire case destroyed by one of your own secretaries and still pursue it because you don’t have the maturity to admit that you fucked up royally.

Finally, and most importantly, James Miller’s “Firefly” poster was on his office door at Stout. True, no one with the intellect of an addlepated chipmunk would think it was a threat, but at least it was on campus. Bergen has no God-damned business interfering with what Professor Schmidt says or does off campus. If you’re really afraid, call the cops. The real ones. The ones who’ll laugh in your face for being a paranoid nebbish. Otherwise, perhaps it might be a good idea to heed the old adage about the superiority of remaining silent and being thought a fool than speaking and removing all doubt.

Professor Schmidt claims that the Bergen administration was retaliating against him for filing a grievance when his application for a sabbatical leave was denied. In this, I have no opinion. Perhaps he’s right. But petulance and petty vengeance aren’t the only forms of incompetence. The real problem at Bergen would seem to be that no one in the administration could do better than third place in a battle of wits with a barstool and an eggplant.

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