Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Those About to Be Tased, We Salute You

Amidst all of the coverage of Britney Spears, O.J. Simpson, and other crap passing for news on most major media outlets, some of you may seen the story of John Meyer, the University of Florida student who was tased by police officers at a lecture by John Kerry.

This video
shows the question leading up to the police harassment. The video quality is poor, so here is a transcript:

Meyer: I first and foremost want to thank you for your time. You spent a lot of time talking to us. I want to thank you for coming and being open and honest. You recommended a book to us earlier. I wanted to recommend a book to you. It’s called Armed Madhouse. It’s by Greg Palast.

Kerry: Yeah, I have it.

Meyer: He’s the top investigative journalist in America.

Kerry: I’ve already read it.

Meyer: And he says you won the 2004 election! Isn’t that amazing? You won in 2004. In fact, there were multiple reports on the day of the election of disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida and Ohio.

Kerry: So what’s the question?

Police officers step aside of Meyer.

Meyer: Thank you very much. That’s my question. [Says something indistinct to police officers aside of him.] He’s been talking for two hours. I think I can have two minutes. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Kerry: So what’s the question?

Meyer: I’m going to give you my question. I’m going to inform people and then I’m going to ask you my question. So there are multiple reports of disenfranchisement of black voters on the day of the election 2004. There’s also voting machines, electronic voting machines, in Florida that counted backwards. So amidst all these reports of phony, bogus stuff going on how can you concede the election on the day?

Scattered applause in the background.

Meyer: How could you concede the 2004 election on the day? In this book it says there were five million votes that were suppressed and that you won the election. Didn’t you want to be president? I’m not even done yet. I have two more questions.

The crowd murmurs.

Meyer: If you are so against [invading] Iran how come you’re not saying, “Let’s impeach Bush now. Impeach Bush now before he can invade Iran?” Why don’t we impeach him? Clinton got impeached for what? A blowjob? Why don’t we impeach Bush? Also were you a member of Skull and Bones in college with [George W.] Bush, the same secret society?

And then this happened:

John Kerry has released a statement on the event and in usual Kerry fashion, he muddles his statement into political sludge, refusing to take any discernable position on the brutality of the police officers, the questions posed by Meyer, or even present a thought on why this happened.

In other developments, Greg Palast, the author of the book that got this student in so much trouble, has written about the incident on his website and includes an excerpt from Armed Madhouse. Also, Salon.com writer Farhad Manjoo has written an interesting piece on the use of tasers by campus police officers across the nation.

While the blatant infringement on Meyer’s freedom of expression and the brutality of the police officers certainly inspires vitriol, it is the vacant compliance of his fellow students that really bothers me. This man was pinned to the ground by at least three officers, screamed and pleaded for help, and no one moved. A few cries can be heard by sympathetic voices and apparently a few rose to get a better look, but no one dared to challenge the police officers even as they repeatedly tased this unarmed student. A few even applauded as he was removed from the hall.

In a way this video is a very appropriate microcosm of the culture in which we now live. Politicians and other public figures take to the stage and tell us what we want to hear, sometimes even telling us some inconvenient truths, but are always careful to stop short of moving us to action. The political process becomes a spectator sport to be discussed on blogs, on talk shows, and made into documentaries, but never actually entered into. The unspoken agreement between officials and the public at large is to never require actual commitment or suggest action that might alleviate the status quo. Andrew Meyer broke this agreement and asked John Kerry some relevant questions and demanded accountablity for his (in)action. To put it another way, Meyer participated in the democratic process, and for that he was violently silenced.

I’ll admit that Meyer crossed the line between asking a question and giving a speech and he certainly could have used a little more brevity. But the authority’s response to him was unjustified and illegal and Meyer was completely within his rights to resist. He wasn’t being placed under arrest. He was being attacked.

I hope Meyer fights charges of resisting arrest and I further hope that he files a counter suit against the school and the police officers. But what I really hope is that this video becomes the equivalent of the image of Kent State students shot by National Guardsmen while protesting the Vietnam War, because that is exactly what this is.

It is time to stop tolerating politicians who are unable or unwilling to lead us into a better future. Difficult questions need to asked and those in positions of power need to be held accountable. Our academic institutions need to be taken back from the sedentary, lowest-common-denominator flavor of humanism that has infected it in recent years. In the end, it will be those of us strong enough to resist the threats authoritarianism and the temptations of status quo comforts that bring about actual change.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Sally Field's Emmy Speech

At last night's Emmy Awards ceremony, Sally Field made an antiwar statement that was censored by Fox. Here is the uncensored speech.

Using the word "goddamn" in her speech was apparently the cause of most of the controversy, although more of her antiwar comments were cut by Fox. Personally, I don't think the speech was any great statement, more a vent of the frustration that many of us feel about the war. Her full comment, "If the mothers ruled the world there would be no goddamn war," is over simplistic, untrue, and fairly stupid. But it makes for easy applause.

Monday, September 03, 2007

"Academia at Its Worst" by Tony Palmeri

Tony Palmeri, a former professor of mine at UW Oshkosh, has published an essay on the myth of the liberal higher education establishment titled "Academia at Its Worst." In it he talks about the firing of Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado and denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein and Mehrene Larudee at DePaul University. Churchill gained notoriety for calling the victims of the World Trade Center attack "little Eichmanns" in an essay. Finkelstein had published numerous books and articles on how the Holocaust had been exploited for political gain and Larudee was one of the few people who came to Finkelstein's defense.

Some excerpts:

Hank Brown and the Colorado Board of Regents insist Churchill’s firing had nothing to do with his controversial statements, but with research misconduct uncovered by a university committee. They claim instances of plagiarism, falsification, and fabrication can be found in Churchill’s scholarly writings. Though admitting that the extensive review of Churchill’s writings (his work has been examined more thoroughly than probably any scholar in the history of academia) would not have taken place were it not for the media backlash against his 9/11 statements, Brown still claims with a straight face that he received fair treatment.

* * *

Finkelstein’s work naturally attracts vehement condemnation, the most vocal and strident from Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. Finkelstein’s 2005 book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, provides evidence that parts of Dershowitz’s 2003 The Case for Israel were plagiarized. Dershowitz proceeded to distribute a dossier of materials to individuals involved in the DePaul tenure decision, identifying “Norman Finkelstein's most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations, and distortions."

The department and college personnel committee, both of which found Dershowitz’s criticisms of Finkelstein’s scholarship to be baseless, granted positive recommendations for tenure. But the Dean of the College along with university president Dennis Holtschneider parroted Dershowitz’s accusations of Finkelstein’s “unprofessional personal attacks” and voted to deny. Holtschneider’s tenure denial letter, available on the web, provides little evidence that he had independently read any of Finkelstein’s work.

* * *

The DePaul Administration abandoned fairness and academic freedom principles not only for Finkelstein, but also for professor Mehrene Larudee. She was called an outstanding teacher and scholar at every level of review but denied tenure by Holtschneider. Her sin? Publicly supporting Finkelstein.

While some might say that this is to be expected in the "real world," I would have to agree with Tony that these kinds of egregious attacks on free speech are hurting the academic environment. The potential chilling effect this may have on academics in all fields is significant and I believe it is very relevant to note that these comments were made via publication, not in the classroom. The advancement of knowledge depends on people willing to present unpopular ideas, even wrong or objectionable ideas, to the marketplace. Without that, professors, especially those without tenure, will end up taking the safe and well worn routes and scholarship across the board will suffer for it.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

“What do I labour for? If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true.” -- Mother Teresa

Time magazine has published a cover story on the letters of Mother Teresa, in which she confessed that she did not believe in God and thought the whole Christian myth was a sham. Teresa had wanted these letters destroyed upon her death, but the Church and others close to her knew that there was more money to be made in publishing them, even if their contents shatter Teresa's image as a woman of unwavering faith.

A few observations about the letters and their publications:

1. Those in positions of power in the Catholic Church will do anything for money, even sacrificing the reputation of a woman who is on the fast track to sainthood. The church has always been a tenacious beast, looking out for its own survival. That is how it has survived the Enlightenment, the Reformation, two World Wars, and over 1500 years of sexual abuse by its clergy upon children.

2. Even the most ardent believers cannot get around how empty the Christian faith is and the harder someone tries to believe in what is so obviously a lie, the more damage they will do to their mental health. Teresa records quite a bit of pain in her letters and they are that distinct pain of someone who tries so hard to believe but her reason will not let her slip completely into self deceit. At one point Teresa even received an exorcism as an attempt to "cure" her of doubt. It didn't work, at least not in the long term.

3. Despite her doubt, Teresa kept on working as a poster child for the Catholic Church, especially its fight to stop the spread of contraceptives (namely condoms) and sex education throughout the third world. Stopping the distribution of STD protection and education came during a critical time when HIV was starting to become a crisis and continues today. Now, one in four people carry the HIV virus in parts of Africa. While Mother Teresa is not solely to blame, she was part of the problem. And given her doubts, she should have known better.

Some atheists have taken glee in the publication of the letters, claiming Mother Teresa as one of their own while believers have argued that her willingness to believe despite her doubt makes her a model of faith. In the following debate, Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, and Bill Donahue, of the Catholic League, debate this very point.

In a sense, they are both right. But they are also both wrong, although Donahue is more wrong than Hitchens. Mother Teresa did have doubt and could be counted among disbelievers like Hitchens but the fact that she refused to stop and speak out against what she knew was nonsense is reason enough to refuse to acknowledge her as worthy company to the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins, Freud, Einstein, and other atheists. Doubt is an inevitable obstacle for intelligent believers and her ultimately futile struggle with it does make her a model of faith, as Donahue would assert, although she is not a model that should be followed. As Hitchens asserts, she is an example of the ways believing this nonsense can cause psychological damage and how the church uses and abuses its own membership.

Further, given what Hitchens exposed about Teresa in The Missionary Position, that her organization took in millions of dollars and apparently none of it went to the people who needed it, that she accepted donations of stolen money from Charles Keeting and then wrote a letter to the prosecutor in Keeting's defense, makes her behavior all the more unforgivable. What the letters expose is a woman who exploited the Church and its well meaning membership as much as it exploited and continues to exploit her. While it might be true that deep in her heart she knew that she was wrong, the fact that Teresa continued to stick with it does not make her a hero. It makes her a fraud.