The Problem of Refusing Service to Bad People: A Not Completely Right Teaching Analogy

Two wrongs don’t make a right. I’m against all policies that boil down to “we don’t serve your kind,” even when “your kind” are bad people. And like the education industry, I think one of the challenges of the hospitality industry is an obligation to serve everyone– up until they give you a good reason to not serve them.

Most of my students either lean kind of left (thanks to youth and many of them are coming from working class backgrounds in Southeast Michigan) or they are kind of apolitical, so this problem is more hypothetical for me than real. But if a student signed up for my class and it became obvious that he (and it would almost certainly be a he) was all about “Make America Great Again” and whatever, it would be a huge problem if I told him “look, you need to drop because I refuse to teach you, read your writing, or give you a passing grade no matter what you do.” I’d probably get in a lot of trouble and it would just be, you know, “wrong.”

But honestly, I’m not convinced I’m right about this analogy.

Look, I get it. I think these people are deplorable too. I completely sympathize with the owners and staff of the Red Hen restaurant refusing to serve Sarah Hucklebee Sanders and her people– because by all accounts (including from Sanders in her official government tweet) this wasn’t a situation of a group being “thrown out” so much as it was about the owner politely asking the group to leave and the group politely doing so. I don’t fault the owner for this, and if I had been in their situation, I might very well have done the same thing. I am okay with the public protests that have greeted these public figures when they’ve done stuff like go out to dinner or to the movies or whatever because they are horrible people doing horrible things and when they go into public, the public is allowed to express their feelings. That’s protest, and protest is never “polite,” and I think there’s a difference between people protesting outside the restaurant versus proprietors of a restaurant protesting. I’m a little less okay when the protest actually goes into the restaurant or movie theater, but still. Anyway, like I said, I get it.

And I’m not that interested in “civility” per se, though I think the “yeah, well, Republicans have done all kinds of uncivil things too like a baker refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding, so they deserve it” argument strikes me as a version of “I know you are, but what am I?” For me,  this isn’t so much “Us good liberal people should continue to be civil” but rather “Us good liberal people should try to not be stupid.” The conservative hypocrisy here is thick. But while the self-righteous feelings that come from refusing awful people like this service or yelling at them is satisfying in the moment, it’s ultimately kind of gross.

Plus there’s the bigger picture politics. These public shamings are like pouring gasoline on the Trumpster fire and they do nothing to change minds. Just the opposite. This is all part of the Trump chaos/bully playbook. The bully taunts his victim into doing something stupid, essentially “What are you gonna do? Wanna hit me? Huh? I dare you! Go ahead, hit me!” The victim lose their temper, hits the bully, the bully has the green light to be a bigger bully (because hey, who’s the victim here now), and that’s how the Democrats manage to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory in 2018. 

Plus plus this all seems to me to be just another example of how Trump is starting to make liberals crazy and turn on each other.  I’ve seen signs of this on social media with left-leaning folks being driven slowly insane by a never-ending news cycle dominated by a never-ending series of stories that are some version of “this affront against decency is completely unprecedented” and/or “Trump is going to kill us all.” I read Amy Siskind’s Weekly List.  I think Trent Reznor is right when he noted “the disregard for decency and truth and civility is what’s really disheartening. It feels like a country that celebrates stupidity is really taking it up a notch.” At the same time, there are just too many liberals trying to out-liberal each other, trying to create unnecessary distance amongst themselves over issues with which we fundamentally agree. I write these posts mostly for myself and the tens of others who read them, but there might be a few left-leaning folks reading this right now who think that I’m wrong because what I’m writing here doesn’t fall into the “party line,” so to speak.

And increasingly, I think that Trump et al are gleefully rubbing their hands together as these liberals argue with liberals and cackling “Just as we planned. It is all so easy…”

Anyway, all I’m saying is I think people on the left side of the spectrum– everyone from pretty middle of the road and old-school Democrats to “Bernie Bros” to folks on the more radical left– need to find ways to push back against the Trump administration while not taking the bait. That shit didn’t help Hillary in 2016 (though why and how she lost is a much more complicated matter of course), and it ain’t going to help the Democrats in 2018 or 2020. And that shit gets super real when things happen like Anthony Kennedy retires and you start to realize that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is freakin’ 85!

But back to where I started. Two wrongs don’t make a right, I’m against policies that boil down to “we don’t serve your kind,” and one of the challenges of both the hospitality and education industries is there’s an obligation to serve everyone who comes into the dining room/classroom. But also like I said, I’m not sure I even agree with myself about this.

For one thing, I don’t think it’s illegal to refuse service to someone because of their politics or who they work for, though I honestly do not know where the legal line is. It’s illegal (I presume) to refuse service to a person because of their race, but it is legal (I presume) to refuse service to that same person because you believe they are a shitty person. When it comes to teaching, I don’t know exactly if it’s illegal for me to kick a student out of my class before it even begins based on their politics or their boss or even their race, but it is certainly “wrong,” it would probably get me in trouble with EMU (there are limits as to what even a tenured professor can get away with), and it might get me on some sort of “liberal watch” right wing web site.

Hospitality businesses have other ways to refuse service– dress codes immediately come to mind– and it’s also reasonable for these kinds of businesses to ask people to leave if they start behaving badly. I have thrown students out of my classes for bad behavior, though not often and I’ve never taught someplace where there is some kind of dress code (and there have been some controversial stories recently about what can go spectacularly wrong with dress codes in college courses).

Then again, I might be wrong about this.

I wish we lived in a time where we didn’t have to deal with any of this nonsense.

Veering out of my lane into the immigration crisis (with Geraldo)

Lawrence Lessig had a good post the other day about the zero tolerance on immigration policy of the Trump administration. Lessig said he generally tries to “stay in my lane” in terms of what he blogs about/writes about: that is, Lessig’s area of expertise and interest is focused nowadays on “fixing democracy” with issues like campaign finance reform, and also issues having to do with copyright in the age of the internet (he founded Creative Commons, for example). But “the child separation policy crosses the line for me.”

I can relate to this. I am all over the place in what I post on platforms like Facebook and Twitter (maybe I shouldn’t be), but generally speaking, my blogging is about academia, MOOCs, writing, rhetoric, scholarship, and EMU, along with entries about my “life” that are mostly about food, travel, and gardening. Sure, there are a few posts over the last couple of years about politics and other things, but mostly I stay in my realms of expertise.

So posting about immigration policy and what the U.S. should do about this mess is going way outside my lane, and doing it while referencing a series of tweets from Geraldo Rivera is way WAY outside my lane. But I thought it was a worthwhile thought/blog experiment because (pretty much like every other American) I have opinions about all this, and also because I wanted to demonstrate how much I actually agree on this with a Fox News celebrity “journalist” who is (IMO) kind of a nutjob overall. And if Geraldo and I can mostly agree, then surly there is room for compromise and discussion on the problems of immigration in this country.

Before I get to Geraldo’s tweets:

  • The Trump administration “zero tolerance” policy is torture, full stop.
  • If I had my way, I’d let in a lot more people into this country. Congress should pass the Dream Act, there ought to be a path to citizenship (or at least legal status) for the 10 or 12 million undocumented people living in the U.S., there ought to be some kind of visiting worker program, and while I do not know how many immigrants we let in from other countries around the world, I am sure that number needs to be higher. Or what Brett Stephens said here: the U.S. really needs more immigrants as the population ages, as rural areas empty out all over the country, and as the demand for labor– particularly entry-level/low skill labor– increases.
  • Sure, we need to have boarders to be a country and we need to have some sense of security around those boarders. Then again, we don’t have any security around state boarders and that seems to work out fine, and within the European Union, crossing the boarder between different countries is usually pretty trivial.
  • It sure seems to me like a lot of Trump et al’s efforts at cracking down on immigration is just fear of brown people. If there was some kind of crisis going on in Northern Europe or Russia akin to what’s going on right now in Central America (which is why a lot of these people are trying to get to the U.S. in the first place), Trump and his ilk would be holding “welcome to America” parades.

Okay, on To Geraldo Rivera’s tweets:

Yes on all of the above.

The issue of more housing (family and otherwise) and immigration judges, social workers, and lawyers to help resolve cases where people are seeking asylum is perhaps a more conservative position compared to most of my liberal friends who might argue that’s just putting these people into “camps.” But the system dubbed “catch and release” that encourages people to disappear into the underground of America doesn’t seem like a great idea either. So I think housing these folks for a while is okay if we can figure out a way to hold both immigrants and asylum seekers (and their families, of course) in a humane and supportive way until the legal stuff gets figured out, assuming it can be figured out reasonably quickly (which is why we need more judges and lawyers and social workers and help from NGOs involved).

Well, three out of four here, Gerry.

The border wall is just dumb. It would cost way too much money, take too much time to build, it would cause a ton of environmental damage, and it’d be too easy to get around (ever hear of a ladder?) I honestly think that Trump wants a wall because China has a wall and he thinks it’d be cool if in 100 years people up in space look down on the earth circling below and they’re able to point out both the Wall of China and Trump’s Wall.

But everything else Geraldo is suggesting here is true. We need to do the opposite of picking fights with Mexico– and now Canada and those tricky Canadians coming into this country to smuggle back shoes!— and that “Marshall Plan” idea for Central America is really important too. Most of the people trying to get into the U.S. nowadays aren’t Mexicans just hoping to earn a better living. Most of these people are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and they are literally running for their lives. I don’t know all the details of the problems there and I am sure individuals have slightly different reasons for trying to get out. But It only takes a teeny-weeny bit of empathy to imagine that the situation must be pretty shitty. I mean, how bad would it have to be for you to grab what you (and your kids) could carry and then just start walking for 1400 miles to the U.S. boarder, hoping for the best?

Instead of spending $25+billion on a wall that wouldn’t work anyway, we should be trying to do what we can to aid and support the countries these folks are trying to escape so they stop coming here.

He kind of lost track of his numbering system here, but generally speaking, sure, this seems about right.

Absolutely, though there are two issues here that aren’t exactly points of disagreement so much as they are explanations as to why too many Americans are against this idea. There’s a lot of fear and racism that has to be overcome before far too many Americans are willing to remember what we “share” with our southern neighbors, and I presume that our southern neighbors who have been treated like shit by the U.S. for decades might feel the same way. And while I agree we should welcome foreign college students here, the “maybe they’ll invent (the) next google” line I am sure makes too many Americans afraid that that means “THEN THEY’LL TAKE OUR JOBS!”

Finally:

Well, we might have to agree to disagree with that shining city on the hill/beacon of hope/hugging the flag bullshit, but the general picture is about right.

So look: immigration is a hard issue and our system for dealing with it in this country has been a mess for decades. Even Trump is right about that. And there are some major points of disagreement that are going to be hard to resolve– particularly the call for a wall and the not so subtle racism behind all this. But if a liberal like me can agree with 11 out of 12 Geraldo points, well, isn’t the solution to this problem possible?

Some things I haven’t heard reported (yet) about arming teachers and professors

Of course arming teachers is a terrible idea. This is mainly a crazy plan focused on K-12 schools, but there have been shootings on university campuses and talk of arming faculty-types too. So here are a few random thoughts I haven’t seen reported/discussed elsewhere yet I thought I’d share:

  • Here I thought being an academic was the least stressful job there is precisely because they didn’t have the life and death stresses of people who really do need to carry a weapon for their work, jobs like cops and soldiers. Oh, and as if there weren’t enough other reasons why young people are deciding that going into K-12 teaching is a bad idea.
  • There were a few stories after the Parkland shooting of teachers and other “grown ups” fleeing the scene ahead of students, and these stories had a bit of a whiff of “look at those cowards.” I have no idea what I would do in a shooter situation and I hope to never find out, but I have a lot of sympathy for those fleeing teachers. I love and care for my students, but not so much that I’m willing to “take a bullet” for them.
  • It is easy to imagine the headlines in a world with armed teachers. “Professor/Teacher Accidentally shots self (or co-worker or student).” “Armed Teacher Surprised and Attacked by Angry Student; 10 killed.” “Angry Professor Snaps, Shoots Administrator.” And so forth.
  • And the lawsuits, my God, the lawsuits! Suppose a legally armed teacher– one who is encouraged or even required to carry a concealed weapon by her school or university– were to accidentally shoot an innocent student. Suppose an armed teacher or professor fails in protecting bystanders from a shooting, either because he tried to use their gun and missed or shot a student, or because he just ran for cover like a sane person would. Who is suing who?
  • Is this all some sort of long-con plan by the educational technology industry, maybe with some help from some social media start-ups? I mean, one “solution” to the dangers that exist at schools and universities from guns and other violence is online courses, and when everything is online, why do we need those pesky teachers and professors? Does Academic Partnerships have any connection with the NRA?
  •  I don’t think Trump’s “plan” (which I guess he says wasn’t really his plan either) to train teachers to shoot would-be attackers is going anywhere. While the energy and passion we’re seeing in the media from high school students speaking up for sensible gun control laws gives me some optimism, I don’t think that’s going anywhere either– at least not until it’s time to vote, and we all have a way of forgetting these shootings that only make the news when they get into double-digits.
  • But if faculty were encouraged or required to be armed and if there was an increased expectation that the work of educators includes the kinds of duties assigned to cops or soldiers, then I’m out. I’m all for making the university a “safe space,” but I am not willing to risk my life to do that.

Remember that racist vandalism at EMU? It’s Complicated

About this time last year, I posted here and here about what came to be called the “racist vandalism incidents,” which involved some spray-painting on the side of a building on campus (and some other writings in different places) the “N-word” and such. Well, now the police think they have their vandal, and it turns out to be an African-American man. He’s Eddie Curlin, he’s 29, he was a student at EMU from 2014 to 2016, and he’s currently in jail for something else. Here’s a link to the mLive article, though the Washington Post had probably a better article here.

Needless to say, this revelation complicates things.

As I wrote on Facebook, I guess it’s a good thing that the perpetrator isn’t a bent on violence and devoted white supremacist/hate group type of guy. Though when I think about it for a moment and consider some of the other racist incidents and such that have cropped up on college campuses around the country, crude graffiti hasn’t really been their M.O. It seems more common to see some variety of racist flyers or cards on campuses (we’ve had some of that at EMU and at U of M)– though I wouldn’t want to ignore the Richard Spenser-led/inspired gatherings/riots at UVa and the University of Florida recently. Scribbling “Go Home N-word!” on a wall or whatever seems more the actions of a a drunk frat boy or, in this case, some vandal seeking attention.

But as I also wrote on Facebook, I think it’s more complicated than what EMU police chief Robert Heighes said at the press conference for this. To quote:

“As far as motivation for this, it was totally self-serving,” Heighes said during a press conference Monday. “It was not driven by politics, it was not driven by race. It was an individual item done by one individual for all three of the major graffiti incidents on our campus.”

When asked what factors may have led to the acts of vandalism, Heighes said that information would come out eventually. He believes Curlin was the only perpetrator of the vandalism incidents.

“That will come out at the trial,” he said.

I don’t know Curlin’s motivations, obviously. Maybe he did this because of some deep-seated self-hatred; maybe he has the same sort of compulsions/mental illness that motivates arsonists; or maybe it’s some combination of all of the above (or, least we not presume guilt, maybe he didn’t do it).

But even if we don’t know Curlin’s motivations– even if Curlin didn’t know his motivations– Heighes is wrong that this was not about politics and race. And I don’t mean that in an academic way, as in “all language is about politics and race.” Curlin (or whoever) scrawled “Go Home N-word!” in a public space to provoke a reaction that is obviously rooted in politics and race. Curlin didn’t spray-paint “EMU sucks!” or “U of M sucks!” or “Eddie is great!” or anything else like that because he knew that no one would have cared. He picked his words carefully (well, carefully enough) to know his words and actions would get a reaction. He might not have anticipated the extent to which the EMU community reacted or the level of news coverage these incidents ended up receiving, but he knew it’d get noticed.

Worse yet is that the idea this graffiti was a “hoax” has blossomed all over the place– in the comments of the news stories I link to here, but also in predictably conservative to alt-right sorts of web sites (which I won’t be linking to here). The gist of these articles is “Here’s another example of racism that turns out to be fake news– what are these people complaining about?” As if we can all stop worrying about racism because all of these kinds of incidents have been hoaxes.

And let’s also not forget that the actual racist graffiti incidents were just the beginning of the disruptions on campus. Most notably, the EMU administration went way too far to punish students (notably black students) for protesting these racists incidents on campus. Here’s a post/video about this from early January 2017. So again, the impact and motivation of this graffiti wasn’t just self-serving, wasn’t devoid of politics and racism. It’s a lot more complicated, which might make getting past this incident all that much more difficult.

Will Richmond and Monument Avenue be next?

I lived in Richmond, Virginia from 1988 to 1993, while I was in the MFA program in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University and then while working at a “real job” for a few years before I entered the PhD program rhetoric and writing at Bowling Green State. I didn’t go to Charlottesville much and I don’t know anything more than what has been reported about the terrorism from various “White Power” groups this past weekend. The catalyst for the KKK/Nazi/etc. violence was  supposedly the removal of a statute of Robert E. Lee, though I’ve also heard commentators say that issue was merely an excuse for the Robert Spencers and David Dukes of the U.S. to bring their hate shows to what is otherwise a pretty left-leaning college town. Doesn’t hurt that Trump seems OK with these kinds of folks being part of their base.

Anyway, with all this talk of the removal of statues of Confederate “Heroes,” I have to assume that one of the next hot-spots is going to be in Richmond along Monument Avenue. Apparently, a “Confederate heritage organization” has asked for a permit to march around the Robert E. Lee statue there on September 16.

Let me back up a bit:

Growing up in Iowa, the Civil War, the Confederacy, and issues of race in general were mostly absent. The Civil War was a topic that was covered somewhere in Junior High history class and that was about it. The town I grew up in, Cedar Falls, was (and I think still pretty much is) very very white. I graduated from high school in 1984 from a school that I had about 1200 students, and I can remember exactly one black kid. This is not to say there were no African-Americans in the area– it’s just that they all lived in Waterloo, which was the larger and much more gritty factory town that Cedar Falls bordered. But Iowa as a whole is very white, and people of color in the state make up a disproportionally large percentage of poor and working class people.

When I decided to go to VCU and move to Richmond, I thought I was moving to the East Coast. After all, Richmond is only about a two and a half hour drive to DC. Little did I know that I was actually moving to “The South,” and (just to give you a sense of how clueless I was) I was moving to the capitol of the Confederate States of America no less!

Richmond oozes with the sort of history that was foreign to my midwestern and suburban upbringing. The joke always was “they fought all around here.” I remember going on a tour of the state capitol building when my parents were visiting and the tour guide pointing out that the statehouse had been both the capitol of the state of Virginia and also of the country of the Confederate States of America, and that we did not in fact fight a Civil War but rather it was The War Between the States. A lovely place to visit in Richmond is Hollywood Cemetery, which is the final resting place of Jefferson Davis and hundreds (thousands?) of Confederate soldiers buried near the Monument of the Confederate War Dead. The grave markers are stone squares stamped “CSA.” There is a ton of stuff like this in and around Richmond. They really did fight all around there.

The other big change for me was demographic. I moved from a town (Iowa City) that was about 80% white to a city four times as populous that was about 40% white and over 50% African-American. A “cultural shift,” to say the least. But while people of color also made up a disproportionate percentage of poor and working class people, there was (and still is) a large African-American middle class population in Richmond, not to mention the fact that the city council and mayor’s office has had an African-American majority for some time.

Monument Avenue is a wide and long boulevard that runs from near the VCU campus to the west, beyond the city limits and near to the University of Richmond. The most famous part is in a historic neighborhood called “The Fan District.” This ten or twelve or so block section of Monument is lined with enormous multimillion dollar mansions and (as wikipedia puts it) “punctuated by statues memorializing Virginian Confederate participants of the Civil War Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, as well as Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native and international tennis star.”

For the five years I was in Richmond, I lived in many different apartments within walking distance of this section of Monument Avenue. The statues on Monument vary in size and grandeur (the Robert E. Lee statue is 60 feet tall, including the pedestal) and I used to know all sorts of details about what it meant that different statues faced different ways and different horses had their feet up or not. Taken as a whole, the statues and the houses and churches that line Monument are stately, grand, and– well, “monumental.” I didn’t think a lot about how the statues honored the oppressive leaders of the oppressive and racist Confederacy– mostly because I just didn’t think a lot about such things at all back then. Rather, Monument Avenue was to me a good example of the strange contrasts and close proximity of things in “the big city,” because while Monument Avenue itself was home to the stately mansions paid for with old money, Grace Street (just a block away) used to be known for prostitution, drugs, drunks, and crime. I knew a couple of different people who were mugged within a block or two of Monument Avenue.

Though there was one time early in my years in Richmond where race and monuments met. Back in the late 1980s, the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday was just being adopted by all the states, and in Virginia during my first winter there in 1989, they celebrated “Lee Jackson King” day. Because I was an idiot, my thought was that there must have been some civil rights activists named “Lee” and “Jackson” that Virginia decided to honor along with King, or maybe even just one guy, the civil rights activist “Lee Jackson.” While wondering about this when out and about on my first “Lee Jackson King” day and I happened to see Confederate reenactment guys marching around the Lee statue. Aaahhh I said to myself.

Like I said, I didn’t think about this stuff a whole lot back then. I certainly think about it more now.

What’s next for Monument Avenue? There was a pretty good article that summed things up in Richmond’s weekly Style magazine, “Is Monument Avenue Set in Stone?” back in April. As this article points out, this has been an on-again/off-again issue for a while now. According to this article (also from Style), “Mayor Stoney Announces a Commission on Monument Avenue Statues.” Stoney’s position (at least based on this article published in late June 2017) seems to be that while the statues are bad and the commission ought to recommend ways of “adding context and correcting alternative facts,” moving the statues is not something “on the table.” Just last week (and before the tragedy in Charlottesville over the weekend), the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article about the first and apparently out of control meeting of the Monument Avenue Commission, “‘It’s theater of the absurd’: Monument Avenue Commission’s first public hearing borders on chaotic.”  If I could, I’d link to my friend Dennis Danvers’ post on Facebook about this because I agree with his argument– “It’s time to haul away the many Confederate monuments that litter the Commonwealth”– but as the comments suggest, this opinion is far from universal.

Anyway, I don’t know what should happen next with Monument Avenue. The statues should probably be taken down and replaced, but those are decisions that are going to have to be made by Richmonders and Virginians. I do worry that whatever happens on September 16 along Monument Avenue will more than simply intensify the debate though. Here’s hoping it’s not a repeat of this past weekend.

Bruni should visit and write about the other 99%

There have been a number of articles/commentaries lately about the delicate and precious and “PC” state of today’s college students, mostly written by people who haven’t spent time on a college campus since they graduated 20 or 30 or more years ago. For the most part, these critiques haven’t phased me much, in part because one of the historic constants in critiques about education is the terrible state of “today’s students,” whether that “today” is in 2017, 1917, or 517 BC. As an aside and a nice round-up column that refutes many of these critiques, I’ll refer you to John Warner’s “On Political Correctness as the New Campus ‘Religion'” in Inside Higher Ed. Spoiler alert: Warner is spot-on when he points out that “Political Correctness” is not the “religion” on “today’s” (and yesterday’s) college campuses; rather, it’s sports.

But for some reason, I found this piece in The New York Times by Frank Bruni, “The Dangerous Safety of College,” particularly irritating.

Bruni is ostensibly writing about a protest that got out of hand at Middlebury College when Charles Murray, author of the book The Bell Curve and a racist the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a “white nationalist,” came to campus to have a “debate.” I’m not going to rehash the specifics of that event because those accounts are easily found elsewhere by Googling “Charles Murray Middlebury” and in a lot of ways, I don’t disagree with Bruni: campuses should be a place to foster pointed debate about uncomfortable issues, no doubt about it.

Though I do disagree with one observation Bruni makes in passing about the specifics of this incident: “A group of conservative students invited Charles Murray to speak, and administrators rightly consented to it.” First off (and I’ve seen this same point made elsewhere), the idea that “any student group” can automatically invite anyone they want to an official campus event is nuts. Of course the administration should do some basic vetting of campus speakers, especially if the college/university is paying for it and/or hosting the speaker as an official event. Second, if a college is going to allow someone who has been labeled by a credible advocacy group as a “white nationalist” to come to your extremely liberal campus to speak, then that college might want to prepare with additional security and the like.

But what Bruni really is complaining about is the so called “emotional coddling” and “intellectual impoverishment” of all college students. You know, the kids today.

The internal logic of this piece irritates me. For example, in his second and third paragraphs, he writes:

Somewhere along the way, those young men and women — our future leaders, perhaps — got the idea that they should be able to purge their world of perspectives offensive to them. They came to believe that it’s morally dignified and politically constructive to scream rather than to reason, to hurl slurs in place of arguments.

They have been done a terrible disservice. All of us have, and we need to reacquaint ourselves with what education really means and what colleges do and don’t owe their charges.

Well golly, aren’t you really describing the middle-aged to senior-citizens amongst us who have caused the polarization of politics in this country for the last couple of decades? Isn’t this the demographic that has a dangerous inability to compromise, fueled and exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party and then the alt-right and now Trump? Honestly, can you really say with a straight face that the “kids today” ought to be “reacquainted” with the ability to see the world from different perspectives– even perspectives that are potentially offensive– relative to the generation in charge right now?!

Then later on, Bruni quotes from the CNN commentator Van Jones (who, as an important tangent that perhaps speaks to Jones’ judgement, is the same guy who lost all credibility with me when he said “Trump became president” during a speech in which Trump’s main accomplishment was he was able to sound like a normal human for an hour). Jones said:

“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically,” he told them. “I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity.”

“You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he added. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.”

Okay, but (setting the violence at the Murray event aside), isn’t this exactly what the students/participants at that event did? They were confronted with some hateful ideals and they dealt with it. Wouldn’t just sitting there and listening politely been a sort of passivity that seems at odds with that?

But I guess the part that just gets me the most is this paragraph:

Middlebury isn’t every school, and only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved. But we’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call, because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education.

Please.

Why is it that whenever the MSM wants to make sweeping generalizations about higher education, they always seize upon things that happen at the most elite and exclusive institutions in the country? Why are all of the examples of students generally being “coddled” drawn from colleges and universities that cater to the 1%?

Consider the statistics from The New York Times on the economic diversity of students at Middlebury versus where I work, Eastern Michigan University. The median family income at Middlebury is $244,300 a year, which is fourth highest among all 65 “elite colleges.” The median family income at Eastern is $75,800, which is 204th among all 377 “selective public colleges.” Our students are closer to the students Sara Goldrick-Rab describes in this article I happened across today on Twitter, “Student Aid Perspectives: The Case for Expanding Emergency Aid.” Among other things, Goldrick-Rab cites a study of “70 community colleges in 24 states (which) revealed that 33 percent of those students had the very lowest levels of food security, associated with hunger, and 14 percent were homeless.” I don’t think our numbers at EMU are as high as reported in that study, but I do know we have students who are homeless and we have students who rely on the EMU food pantry.

I could go on, but the point is this: Bruni et al are literally making a generalization about college students today based on the 1 %. That’s dumb.

If Bruni et al really wanted to see if we were facing a dramatic “wake-up call” because of the demands students are making and ideological conformity gone too far, then they’d show up at a place like Eastern once in a while and look around. Oh sure, we have elements of what Bruni is getting at on our campus, but it’s not exactly “the norm” nor is it particularly new. We’ve had some protests on campus this year too, some as a result of Trump’s elections, but most as the result of a racist graffiti incident that happened in fall 2016 (I’ve blogged about that here and also over at EMYoutalk.org here). The student-led protests have not been without controversy, but for whatever reason, they aren’t “the problem” these commentators have with campus climates.

The truth of the matter is many of our students are not particularly “young” (we have a lot of returning students at EMU, so it’s common for me to see a twenty or more year range for even a small class), and we don’t have a lot of students who are likely to be the “future leaders” of a Middlebury or what-have-you. We have a lot of students who are up to their eyeballs in debt who are are working a couple of jobs, trying to have some version of a family life, and going to school full-time. When you come from a family where the median income is what it is, you don’t have a lot of time to be coddled and you don’t have the safety net of Mumsy and Paw-Paw to finance your lifestyle.

Wouldn’t it be nice if someone making sweeping generalizations about higher education in this country nowadays actually had some connection with average/in-the-trenches/middle-to-working class universities and colleges?

A few brief thoughts on high school, locker room showers, and transgender

On NPR’s “Morning Edition” this morning, I listened to this, “Ex-NC Gov Pat McCrory Offers His Take On Transgender Rights.”  NPR was talking to McCrory because he was the governor who oversaw the North Carolina “Bathroom Bill.”  McCrory basically said that the reason why this law was important was because of some variation of the dangers of the locker room. If you didn’t have a law like this, McCrory said again and again, how are boys going to feel with a girl who now thinks they are a boy in the same bathroom? What’s to stop a boy from saying he is a girl so he can shower in the girl’s locker room? When will the chaos end?

Obviously, all of McCrory’s fears are complete bullshit and along the lines of the argument about what would happen if we didn’t define marriage as between a man and a woman (“why, people might end up marrying their dogs or their cars!”). What this is really about is a lack of acceptance of difference, a lack of tolerance, some kind of overly rigorous religious code, bigotry, hatred, and/or just general ignorance.

However, this story this morning did bring back memories for me of high school and showers. I never– and I mean never– took a shower at my high school. Not once.

Now, that was over 30 years ago, and I really have no idea if my experiences/memories are typical or not. I have no idea what the common practice is nowadays. Also keep in mind I was very much the opposite of a jock–debate, extemporaneous speaking, and the student newspaper were my jams– which is to say I never had some kind of coach telling me and my teammates to “hit the showers.”

My high school back then had a gym class option where you could take a special before school started version that met several days a week (maybe every day? I don’t remember) for a lot less than the full term. This meant I didn’t have to have a gym class in the middle and I could take real classes instead– and also as a senior, I think I was done with classes by about lunchtime. The before school gym class was full of fellow nerds like me, and like the rest of these folks, we all just changed out of our gym clothes into regular clothes and went to class. It’s not like we worked up some kind of vigorous sweat playing dodgeball or whatever for an hour.

And nowadays, do they even make kids go to gym class?

I still am not all that comfortable with my own nakedness in quasi-public situations. In college the showers had curtains, so it meant bathrobe on in my room, to the shower room, close curtain, take off bathrobe, shower, and repeat in reverse. The gym I go to has a nice locker room and has showers with glass doors, so for those very rare times where I get cleaned up after a workout (mostly I come home afterwards), I’ll wrap up in a big towel and be sure to close the door.

I don’t think I’m alone in this behavior. Again, I don’t use the locker room at the gym a lot so my sample size is limited, but in my experience, almost all of the men in there follow a similar routine of covering up, turning away, and trying to keep the “parts” as private as possible. Though I will say that I have seen some men in the locker room who seem a little too comfortable with their bodies and nakedness, just strutting around in a pair of flip-flops and arguing loudly about sports.  Often, this proudly naked-type is an old dude who probably should grab a towel.

Anyway, my point is this: I cannot begin to imagine what it’s like to identify as a gender other than my own or to be transitioning in some way from female to male (or vice-versa). But I have to think that the vast majority of transgender teens have at least some of the same insecurities and nervousness about their own bodies as the cisgender teens. The scenarios of locker rooms gone wild that McCrory is trying to “protect” us from just does not square with any experience I’ve ever had. Though again, I wasn’t in a sport that required me to “shower up,” and for all I know, McCrory is that too proud to be naked older dude.

Responding to DeVos at CPAC: Oh, if it were only that easy….

Among other things, US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said at the Conservative Political Action Conference the other day:

Now let me ask you: How many of you are college students?

The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.

As Secretary, I don’t think the Department of Education in Washington should have more power over your decisions than you do. I took this job because I want to return power in education back to where it belongs: with parents, communities, and states.

Ugh, I wish.

If my students did say what I told them to say and think what I told them to think, then teaching would be incredibly easy. Education generally would be a non-issue, just pour knowledge in. Do you remember that scene in The Matrix where Trinity calls and instantly gets a program on how to fly a helicopter? Man, I wish that’s how teaching worked. Reality is far different. Heck, I have students who don’t bother to read the syllabus, who don’t follow basic instructions on assignments, don’t do the reading, don’t show up to class. How am I supposed to just tell them what to say or think?!

Actually, that previous paragraph isn’t true. I wouldn’t want to tell my students what to say or think, and I don’t know any teacher at any level– certainly not at the college level– who would want to do that, regardless of that teacher’s/professor’s party politics. Part of a college education is to try to get students to learn how to think for themselves. (And yes, professors and higher education as an industry tend to vote for Democrats, but it’s a lot more complicated than assuming we all think the same thing and that there are no conservatives amongst us).

This is not to say that everything is fair game, that I’m all about students (or anyone else) saying and thinking whatever they want. Climate change is a real thing. Black lives really do matter, and there are good reasons to support that movement. We should base the arguments and claims we make in academic essays (and really, in the world in general) on research and reason and not “gut feelings.” CNN, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, and other news outlets that report things you don’t agree with are not “Fake News.” None of these statements should be controversial, though I suppose each is now in dispute with a group like CPAC and in the era of President Donald Trump, who has only been president for a little over a month but it already feels perfectly reasonable to describe these times and his presidency as “an era.”

I do tell students what to think in the sense that there are indeed facts that are based on conclusive evidence that cannot be dismissed by wishing them away or conspiracy theories or baseless assertions. Attendance numbers at Trump’s inauguration really were much lower than they have been for the last two inaugurations for Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton really did receive millions more votes than Trump did, there really were not millions of illegal voters, and Trump  really did not win the largest Electoral College victory in recent memory.

Fortunately for me, none of this is that controversial because where I teach, most of my students already know and believe this. Clinton won the county where I live (home to both Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan) by like 25 or more points, and the vast majority of the students at EMU lean politically left. That is, to the extent that they have time for any party politics at all– so many of my students are spending so much time working a couple of different jobs and dealing with life generally while going to school, I think there’s a significant percentage of them who cannot afford the “luxury” of partisan politics and protest. But yes, my students at EMU do not require a lot of elaborate and devious left-wing brainwashing to get them to question the way things are going with Trump et al. As far as I know, faculty weren’t really involved in organizing the “not my president” protests that popped up after the election, and it’s not like I made my students go to the various womens’ marches the day after the inauguration either.

And no, none of these students are getting paid or getting extra credit in my classes.

Testing the Difference Between “Fake News” and “Unsubstantiated Reports” with Provenance and Plausibility

I’ve been thinking a lot about “fake news” versus “alleged” or “unsubstantiated reports” lately– heck, anyone who has been paying any attention to last week’s news about Donald Tump has surly been thinking about this too. And it’s not just Trump labeling BuzzFeed and CNN as sources for “Fake News;” it’s other “news” people like Chuck Todd and the mainstream/traditional media across the board— at least that’s how they responded to the claims about Trump in Russia when they first broke. Within twenty-four hours of that initial story, even the New York Times was reporting on it.

Trump is going to label anything that doesn’t support him as “fake news” or coming from “losers” or being “sad” or whatever, and maybe BuzzFeed shouldn’t have published something that was as “unsubstantiated” as the stuff that was in this report. The journalism ethics here are complicated, though I have to say I think the MSM response has less to do with the question of when is proper to publish something and more to do with the “icky” factor of the alleged “golden shower” shows. BuzzFeed’s editor Ben Smith has been pretty smart about responding to the criticism– here’s a link to an interview he did on CNN. And once again, Teen Vogue has had excellent reporting/thought pieces on Trump, as in this piece “So You Read That Scandalous Report About Donald Trump and Russia– Now What?”

Anyway, in writing now about this, I’m not that interested in the ethical question of whether or not BuzzFeed should have published this in the first place. I’m more interested in playing around with/thinking about what sorts of strategies and processes can any of us use in evaluating these kinds of stories, and not just between something that is “fake” versus something that is “true,” but also between something that is “fake” versus something that is “alleged” or “unsubstantiated.” I think these are two different things and need to be treated differently: that is, something that is “fake” does not necessarily equal something that is “unsubstantiated,” and vice-versa. And as a rhetorician who has been influenced by a lot of postmodern/post-structural theories, this is also important to me because I kind of feel we’ve painted ourselves into a corner by the ways we have tended to academically approach “Truth.”

A simple example: in recent years, I’ve been very fond of showing a video called “In Defense of Rhetoric” that was put together by graduate students in Professional Communication at Clemson University in 2011. I think it does a very good job of explaining the basics of rhetoric for an audience who has only heard of the negative connotations– as in “that’s just empty rhetoric,” or (as an example from the video) the “art of bullshit.” But I have to say that this semester, in light of everything that has happened with the election and what seems to be a rise of a “post-truth era,” I did wince a bit when, at about the 10 minute mark in discussing “Epistemic Rhetoric,” the faculty interviewed here talk about how reality itself is constructed by rhetoric, about how everything we decide is based on judging between claims. I agree with this in theory, but the problem is this approach to reality is part of what’s enabling “Fake News” in the first place. It certainly has enabled Trump and his supporters to dismiss a story he doesn’t like as “fake” because if reality is based simply on how I see it being constructed rhetorically or on simply competing claims, why do we have to choose the same thing?

So how do we evaluate these claims of “Fake” versus “alleged,” and how should the press report the “unsubstantiated,” if they should report it at all?  This is what I am getting at with this idea of the tests of “provenance” and “plausibility.” By provenance, I mean an understanding of the origin of the story. I’m thinking here in particular of the way that term is used in the art and antique world to help determine authenticity and value. An antique that is accompanied with documentation that traces the history of an object is a whole lot more valuable than the same object without that documentation, and forging those documents is always a problem. (As a tangent here, I’m reminded of the novel The Goldfinch). By plausibility, I mean the potential that a story might be true based on the other things we know about the story, such as the people and places involved, when it supposedly happened, and so forth. I think I mean something here like ethos, but I think it is beyond just the individuals or even beyond the available evidence. Plausibility for me doesn’t mean whether or not something is (T)rue, but more along the lines of the odds that it’s (T)rue.

A sense of provenance and plausibility probably exists on a spectrum of “truthiness” I’ll call Fiction and (T)rue, and here I am mostly thinking of part of what Derek Mueller and I talked about the other day and/or the way that Bruno Latour talks about “black boxes” in Science in Action. I am far from a Latour scholar/expert so this reading might be a bit off, but basically, Latour points out that new discoveries/theories in science always depend on previously made discoveries/theories that are now presumed to be “(T)rue”– not in a “Platonic ideal across all space and time” notion of “Truth,” but in a “we’ve done this experiment a lot and gotten similar results so now presume it is a fact” sort of (T)rue. Geneticist are not running the experiments to determine the structure of DNA anymore because that is now just (T)rue and tucked away into a “black box”– which is to say there could be something we learn about DNA later that changes that and thus reopens that discussion.

To tease this all out, let’s compare the “fake” news that has been dubbed “Pizzagate” versus what I think is an “unsubstantiated” story about intelligence the Russians have about Trump.

“Pizzagate” was a conspiracy theory which claimed members of the Democratic Party– lead by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta– were running an elaborate human trafficking and pedophile sex ring housed in the basement of a a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant called Comet Ping Pong (apparently, you can play table tennis while eating pizza).  Snopes.com has an extensive entry about the controversy here, and the Washington Post also published this article tracing the origins of this story here, too. In my mind, this is about as extreme of an example of “fake” as it gets, but I think it’s an especially important example in at least two ways. First, the story spread through social media via ‘bots along with other conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones. Millions of people (and machines) reposted/retweeted this. Second, this story had real life and potentially very dangerous consequences since a North Carolina man named Edgar Maddison Welch, convinced the story was true, showed up at the pizza place with an AR-15 ready to free the children. Here’s a story from Mother Jones about Welch.

The allegations released by BuzzFeed about Trump were contained in a document supposedly a part of an intelligence report/briefing about stuff the Russians have on Trump to potentially blackmail or otherwise compromise him. Here’s a link to the original BuzzFeed story that contains the entire report. As a slight tangent: much of the sensationalism has to do with the practice of “urolagnia,” which is sexual excitement associated with urine. I’ll admit, I find the idea of “golden showers” both gross and, as it has been reported, darkly funny. But a) this is far from the most unusual “kink” out there, and b) hey, if it’s between consenting adults and no one gets hurt, who am I to criticize anyone’s sex life? What is frankly more troubling in these allegations are the other things that the Russians supposedly have on Trump in terms of real estate deals, grooming Trump as an “asset” to Russian intelligence, and the communications between Trump’s campaign and the Russians during the election cycle.

So, how do these stories stack up in terms of “provenance” and “plausibility?”

The provenance of both stories have already been explored and reported in some detail and the difference between these two examples are quite clear. Pizzagate emerges as a combination of pure fiction and rumors; in contrast, the allegations about Trump and the Russians was part of an intelligence dossier that has apparently been in the hands of a variety of folks (including journalists) for months. This is not to say that the allegations against Trump are accurate or even close to (T)rue; however, we know a lot about the origins of this story.

The plausibility of these two stories is also quite stark. As even Edgar Welch discovered once on the scene at Comet Ping Pong, it’s just not possible because of the building itself– never mind the craziness of the rest of the details. On the other hand, the allegations of Trump’s behavior in Russia strike me as completely plausible– although it probably didn’t actually happen. After all, Trump really did make a trip to Moscow when this is said to have happened (this was during the “Miss Universe” pageant). Further, we already know that Trump has made some cameo appearances in Playboy videos,  has bragged about grabbing women by “the pussy,” and, as reported just this morninghe is being sued by a former Apprentice contestant for sexual harassment and defamation. Obviously, these past activities don’t prove the allegations of his behavior in Moscow; however, I do think these past activities do help explain the plausibility of these allegations.

In my mind, this test of provenance and plausibility also works if we change the actors in these stories. I think it is implausible that Trump and Kellyanne Conway were running a pedophile sex ring out of a pizzeria pretty much for the same reasons it was implausible for Clinton and Podesta. But I think the plausibility changes a bit with the Russian allegations, particularly the specifics of the “golden shower” show. I think these allegations brought against politicians like Hilary Clinton, Obama, or either of the Bushes would be dismissed as just not plausible. However, would we be as quick to dismiss this kind of story if it were about Bill Clinton?

Anyway, I don’t know how useful it is to think of fake news versus allegations versus real news this way, as on the spectrum of fiction and (T)ruth, as being about measuring provenance and plausibility. I’m not sure how necessary this is either given that there are lots of schemes and advice out there for testing the “truthiness” of news of all sorts, particularly as it manifests in social media. I do know one thing: we’re all going to have to get a hell of a lot better at thinking about and describing the differences between the fake, the alleged, and the real.

FWIW, some thoughts on the 2016 presidential election

As I type this (I started writing this at almost 2 am and now I am finishing it at 6:30-ish, realizing the worse has come to pass), I’m watching the cluster-fuck/train-wreck that is the showdown of the presidential election. I was hoping to go to bed about 11 last night. I was hoping and assuming (had the polls had been correct, as I’ll get to in a moment) to be in bed hours ago, satisfied with the inevitable of Hillary Clinton as president-elect. As I type, not so much. Ugh.

So, some thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Fuck the pollsters, fuck the 538s of the world. Fuck all of them. I don’t know what happened, I’m sure we will hear more about it all in the coming days and weeks, and the problems of relying on “big data” alone are clear here. We can and will debate the details, but I will never look at 538 or a similar site and say “hey, they’re predicting a 90% win for Clinton, I guess that’s all good.” These sites are useless. My hope (and expectation, frankly) is they will go out of business, which is what Nate Silver and his smug-assed types deserve. As Mike Murphy (an NBC politico) just put it, “tonight data just kind of died.” Well, where is this data coming from? The data didn’t die as much as the data collectors. Fuck those people.
  • This election result makes too clear that the U.S. is a very very racist and sexist and divided country, even more so than I thought before. Too many white people fear non-white people, and too many Americans (mostly men, I assume) are afraid of the idea of a woman being in charge. And we are a very very dumb country in that we have managed to elect someone with no experience and slogans that make Pedro’s run for student council president seem entirely about him being a policy wonk, someone who bragged about grabbing pussy, someone who is involved in countless lawsuits and is likely to be involved in many many more scandals and messes. This is disturbing.
  • I don’t worry that much about me or my family, but I worry about the people around me. A few hours before I settled in to write this, I wrote about a crazy situation where some African-American students are potentially going to be expelled for conducting a peaceful protest against some hate speech painted on the side of some buildings on campus. I could not believe that this was the path EMU administrators were taking. But now, just a few hours later, this seems like the kind of thing that is going to happen over and over into the foreseeable future.
  • Media and technology matters. Trump won because he understood and used Twitter better than anyone, and he was also able to convince the mainstream media places that it was just fine to call in for interviews and so forth. Journalism wants to be a revered “fourth estate,” and they simultaneously want to make money from the celebrity of Trump. I know they can’t be taken seriously at the same time.
  • There are a ton of “what-ifs” that are interesting yet futile to think about. What if the Republicans had nominated a reasonable candidate, say a Jeb Bush? What if Sanders had actually gone after Hilary on her emails– would Bernie had been the candidate? And would he had won? What if Joe Biden had gotten in and made a run at it? No idea. Anyway, we could go on and on and on.
  • I’m unbelievably proud of my son who has thrown himself into the college Democrats at the University of Michigan. He worked really hard on trying to make a difference here, and I hope he doesn’t stop that. If anything, I hope this result motivates him; it certainly makes me think that I need to get motivated and to be a little less complacent and cynical about how these things work.
  • Hell if I know what’s going to happen next. I want to believe that our political system of checks and balances can prevent the worse and that Trump will govern differently than he ran. I want to believe that we are in for four or more years of what I have described as a “hot mess” of a presidency– scandals and controversies and criticism of Trump from both sides. The left and the likes of me are obviously not going to be happy, but when Trump is unable to fulfill any of his major campaign promises about deporting foreigners or building walls or whatever, the nut-job majority that got him into office in the first place is going to revolt as well.
  • I think I might just go back to bed for a few years.