Tuesday, November 6, 2012

With Gratitude

I love the coincidence of timing that places Election Day in the month when we devote ourselves to being grateful for what we have.  Today I am grateful that I live in a country where voting is, at worst, an inconvenience, and usually not even that. I live in a place where I can vote on my way to or from work.  My poll is in my neighborhood, in a safe location, and indoors.  It opened early this morning and will be open tonight as I am trying to herd my son into bed.  If I go at a peak voting time, I will wait outside in the cold for, at most, 15 minutes.  Polite, quietly spoken people, some of whom are my neighbors, will offer me glossy pamphlets, book marks, and nail files in a last minute plea for me to consider voting for the candidate they support.  They will smile kindly and thank me whether I take the proffered items or not. It will take a small fraction of my day, and in return I will be given a sticker proclaiming that I have fulfilled my duty as a citizen and several area businesses will reward me with coffee or dessert for wearing my badge of participation.

I live in a country where I will not be harassed or assaulted for trying to exercise my right to be counted.  I will not risk my health or safety to get to my polling place or to wait there for my turn.  I will not wait for hours on end for my chance to be heard. I will not be dragged out of line or followed home.  No one will harass or threaten my children in an effort to keep me from voting.  No one will intimidate me in order to sway my vote.   The most threatening thing that will be offered to me will be the ubiquitous nail file.  I will not even have to dirty my hands to stamp my thumbprint in ink.  The process, for all that we like to complain about how contentious politics have become, is remarkably civilized.

And perhaps that is the problem.  Our voting process is so civilized, so simple, so easy that we have left taking it for granted in the dust long ago.  Now, we see it as a terrible imposition; something to be endured or avoided, like going to the dentist or getting our tires rotated.  It’s a hassle.  We have forgotten that people fought and died, and will continue to fight and die, to allow us the opportunity to express our opinion.  We have forgotten that the rights we cherish and demand be honored—free speech, gun ownership, equal protection under the law—come at the cost of our participation in the process.  We trade a few moments of our time on one day a year for the rights and privileges of citizenship.  It is a bargain a thousand times over and one for which we should be grateful.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Give Me Liberty.... and a side of fries

      I’m going to let people in on a deep, dark secret.  I don’t like chicken.  I don’t hate it; I just don’t care much for it for a whole bunch of reasons.  I do like coffee.  Very, very much.  So the odds of me visiting Starbucks and not Chick-Fil-A on any given day are very high and have nothing to do with politics.  In that light, I think there are a couple of things folks on both sides should consider before everyone just sits down and shuts up already. 
  1. Yes, you have the right to express your opinion.  You, I, and everyone else in this country has the spectacular right to say whatever idiotic thing comes into our heads.  It’s what makes reality TV and 24 hour cable news networks possible (think about it—if people didn’t have the right to say stupid, mean, or obnoxious things, no one would watch either one of these programming formats).   You are allowed to say whatever profound, profoundly ignorant, mean, kind, or flat out wrong thing you want without—and here’s the important point—fear of government interference or reprisal.  You cannot be prevented from speaking your mind, except under very specific circumstances that would endanger others’ lives (fire in a crowded theater, for example) and the government cannot punish you for doing so.  This is why it’s legal to say horrible things about the President and why it’s still legal (and should remain so) to say you were a veteran if you weren’t.  Stupid? Absolutely.  Wrong? You bet.  But illegal?  Nope.  As one member of my family likes to say “It’s not against the law to be an idiot.” In that respect, the mayors of cities who threatened to block Chick-Fil-A from opening in their cities were wrong, and should have known they were wrong.  We are bound by law to tolerate the Klan rallies, the Occupy movement, and Chick-Fil-A.  It’s what allows me the freedom to say publically I don’t like any of them.
  2. Freedom of speech does NOT guarantee you freedom from others disagreeing with you, or freedom from reaction.  This seems to be the part where the wheels fall off the wagon for many people.  You have the right to say that you do not agree with businesses who serve shrimp because you take a Biblical view on dietary restrictions (look it up, I’ll wait).  This in no way guarantees that shrimp cocktail lovers will not unite in outrage and stage an eat-in at their local Red Lobster.  They have the right to disagree with you.  Vehemently.  And act on that disagreement, possibly with clever signs and annoying chants.  No one has prevented you from saying what you think, feel, or believe.  You still got to speak your mind.  Now they get to speak theirs.  That’s how it works.  Isn’t it great???  In this light, everyone screaming about Dan Cathay and how he’s being picked on for expressing his opinion and how oppressed he is, is wrong.  He’s not oppressed.  He said what he thinks. Good for him.  Now the rest of the country is allowed to say what they think, even if what they think is that he’s a mean-spirited fool.  The government can’t arrest him for saying what he believes, nor can they tell him he can’t open any more stores, but I CAN say my family and I won’t be eating there anymore if I want and that’s not infringing on his rights at all.  Which brings me to my next point… 
  3.  Money is speech.  The Supreme Court said so (again, look it up.  I’ll wait), which means that boycotts or “appreciation days” are themselves free speech.  All those people lined up last week to buy a mediocre chicken sandwich were exercising their right to show their opinion by voting with their wallets.  Fair enough.  You don’t get to cry about it when another group of people decides they do not want to spend their hard earned money on a mediocre chicken sandwich from someone who doesn’t like people who don’t feel like he does.  Well, you can cry about it, but you kinda lose all credibility if you do.  
  4.  There is no guaranteed right that you will never be offended by other people. In fact, in a society where every single person is guaranteed the right to say whatever fool thought crosses their mind, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be offended at some point.  You won’t like everything everybody says.  You know what’s cool, though?  You have the right to not listen.  Your tv changes channels.  Your computer has an off switch (honest, I swear it does!).  Your radio has a dial (or at least buttons).  If you have trouble understanding this concept, I know a room full of 3 year olds who would be more than happy to demonstrate this particular skill to you. 
  5.  “Free speech” and “hate speech” are not mutually exclusive.  Internet memes are, almost by definition, annoying, but perhaps the most annoying one to stem from the whole chicken debacle is the one that goes to the tune of “how-come-what-you-say-is-free-speech-what-I-say-is-hate?”  It is possible for speech to be both protected and hateful; see the aforementioned Klan.  Actually, it might be the one and only quasi-respectable thing about the Klan.  They aren’t running around whining “You can’t say we encourage hate; that’s infringes on our rights!”  Instead their attitude is an almost refreshingly honest “Damn Skippy we hate you and everyone else who isn’t us.  Deal.”  Hateful speech is usually the speech that is most in need of protection.  No one wants to stop you from saying “Puppies are fuzzy and cute!”  If you’re feeling defensive about this, it might be worth considering the following:  What if Mr. Cathay had expressed his agreement with the Biblical instructions on selling his children?  Or sleeping with your brother’s widow?  Or keeping concubines?  Would anyone be so quick to rush to his defense then?  Those opinions would be equally protected, even if none of us would care much for them.
It’s well within your rights to adhere to an unpopular, unkind, or unpleasant opinion.  The right exists to protect just such opinions.  You have the right to be offensive; and everyone else has the right to let you know that you’ve succeeded.

Now, if you want a chicken sandwich, go get a chicken sandwich.  Me, I think I could use a cup of coffee.  And maybe some shrimp.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

No Act of Ours

Walking to my office this morning, I once again marveled at the fact that the set up for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts took well over a week to put up, but has been mostly torn down over the last 24 hours.  It’s a metaphor with which no one here needs to be beaten over the head.

Since the release last Thursday of the Freeh Report on the institutional failings that lead to the Sandusky scandal, there has been increasing clamor for the NCAA to institute what has become known as “the death penalty;” that is, shutting down the football program for one year.  The argument goes something like this:  the NCAA has acted to sanction programs in which student athletes have been caught selling things or accepting payments or gifts and those are laughably small crimes compared to this.  It’s true; they are.  The logic of this argument, though, fails because in those programs, the crimes (small though they may be) were directly connected with the football program itself.  Think about it like this: if “Coach” Sandusky had instead been “Professor” Sandusky and a faculty member in the engineering program, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be calling for the engineering program to be completely dismantled.

Only NPR (so far) has had the sense to point out that the NCAA is not, in fact, a law enforcement agency.  Of the four men implicated by the Freeh Report, not one of them is currently involved with the football program.  Only two members of the football program staff remain from Paterno’s tenure.  Unless you’re part of the lunatic fringe that genuinely believes that anyone who is a student, employee, or alumnus of the university, ever was a student or employee, anyone who has ever been to a Penn State football game, has driven through State College on a football weekend, or even wandered through the tv section of your local Best Buy on a Saturday afternoon in October MUST have known this happened and is therefore guilty as sin, there is no credible evidence that either of these men knew anything about Sandusky’s crimes.  Any effect closing down the football program might have on the university will be completely lost on the men accused of coving up for him.  In my heart of hearts, I think what sticks in the craw of the NCAA most is that the one person they truly wish to punish had the audacity to die in January, putting him completely and forever out of their reach.

Nor will stopping football have an enormous impact on most of us who currently work here.  It will make me sad to see the football program I have loved since childhood go dark, but it will really only alter what I do for a couple of hours on a handful of Saturday afternoons.  In my house, the person it will impact most will be my three year old son, who loves PSU football and understands none of this.  He’s resilient, though.  He’ll find other things to do.  This will be true in most households.  We have children to raise, bills to pay, and work to do.  Life will go on.

Let’s talk about the people who really will be hurt by this course of action:
1.      The student football players.  Yes, the argument has been that those here on football scholarships should keep them and still go to school, and that’s the most important thing.  There’s no denying, though, that these kids came here to get to play football and do it in front of a national audience.  Many of them have aspirations of being professional players, and the way to get to do that is to get to play in front of crowds, journalists, recruiters.  Closing the program gives them one less year to do that. It’s hard to argue that this is a fitting punishment for young men who were in elementary school or younger in 1998; kids who are younger, mostly, than Sandusky’s victims.

2.     The students in the Blue Band and the Cheerleaders.  The Blue Band isn’t a show competition band. They play a small number of performances outside of the halftime football show.  The cheerleaders do compete, but most of their appearances are tied to the football games, too.  These kids get to travel and perform in front of national audiences because their activities are tied to the football program.  Again, only the loonies screaming for those security tapes from Best Buy could attempt to argue that these young people deserve to be punished.

3.      The stadium staff/employees.  A small army of people work in Beaver Stadium on football weekends; many of them as part time workers.  For a number of people in the community, working parking, security, concessions, sales, or assistance is the second job that helps put food on the table and pay mortgages.  For many students, it helps pay for housing, tuition, and books.  It’s unclear to me what the young woman selling Diet Pepsi at the concession stand has done to deserve to lose her job.

4.        Much of the local economy depends on the income from football weekends to sustain its workforce.  This includes locally owned restaurants, shops, and hotels.  Most of the people employed by these businesses have no affiliation with the university at all.

Aside from all of these people, though, there is another compelling reason why the NCAA should step aside here.  The NCAA intervening in a criminal case that isn’t actually about football sends a message, but not the one that everyone screaming for blood hopes it will be.  What an NCAA sanction says is that football is SO important to the school that ONLY sanctions from the athletic governing body can truly set things right.  Think about this for a moment.  What the NCAA is (inadvertently?) saying is that athletics are paramount and that until they’ve had the chance to mete out justice, justice can’t possibly be done.

There are a number of people who will argue that the world is not fair and that if some of these folks suffer as collateral damage in an effort to punish those responsible at Penn State, then so be it.  If this were actually an athletic scandal involving the football team as central players, I would agree.  I have yet to hear a reasonable argument for why this sanction should be meted out other than “It’s just The Right Thing To do.”  I haven’t yet heard who it’s right for; who it will help.  And here is, perhaps, the biggest risk in NCAA sanctions, at least to the NCAA and others.  If the program “goes dark” for a year, a year from now what you will find is that the university is still standing.  There will still be intercollegiate and intra-collegiate athletics going on. There will still be faculty doing nationally and internationally renowned research and teaching. There will still be wonderful staff working hard to make life better for all of us.  And there will still be students getting a world class education and doing the most incredible, amazing, selfless things to improve the world.  We will all still be here, doing our jobs and living our lives.   

Because to us, it was never really about football.  It was only ever about football to everyone else.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Legally Despicable

Today the Supreme Court struck down what has been called the Stolen Valor Law—an act that would make it illegal to claim to have received a military honor you did not, in fact, receive.  The name itself is a bit of a misnomer.  It’s not clear to me how valor can be stolen.  My husband is a veteran or the US Air Force.  I can think of no plausible way that someone else claiming, falsely or not, to have been decorated in combat takes away his valiant service.  Aside from the name, though, I am not at all sure how I feel about this decision.

On a personal level, I think anyone who has the audacity to lie about military service has, at the very least, some extended accommodations awaiting them in Purgatory.  It falls under a class of behavior that makes you a sorry excuse for a human being.  Included in that class would be telling children there is no Santa and cheating on your dying wife.  These things make you despicable, to be sure, but I’m not convinced they should make you a criminal.

In general, I am opposed to making it illegal to say things.  Those efforts usually start out well intentioned and end with people like Joe McCarthy.  The one broad exception to this would be saying things that are completely untrue IF that dishonesty could potentially cause demonstrable harm to someone.  For example, it is not difficult to foresee how someone could be caused serious harm or injury if I were to waltz into my local ER and pretend to be a medical doctor.  That should be a crime, and it is.  It’s called fraud.

If someone were to claim military service to collect a military pension, educational benefits, or VA medical services, then that would potentially cause harm by stealing services that you had not rightfully earned.  That would also be fraud.  Any potential, serious harm that could be caused by someone falsely claiming military service or honor would be covered by existing laws.  Being an awful person is not illegal, but does carry certain social sanctions.  These social sanctions are often more effective in controlling or altering behaviors than any legal sanctions ever could be.  My neighbors and I don’t have to meet any burden of proof to not talk to you at the neighborhood picnic; we just simply don’t have to talk to you.  What will stop me from claiming to my friends and neighbors that I have served in the military when I did not will be the same pressure that keeps me from claiming that I invented Post-Its, toured with The Bangles, caught a 40 lb. mackerel, or starred in an off-Broadway production of Oklahoma:  my friends and neighbors can easily find out the truth, and when they do I will be shunned and ridiculed.

Telling my neighbor I served in Iraq when I did not makes me contemptible, but it does nothing to negate or detract from the dedicated, selfless service of those men and women who did actually serve.  Making it a crime, ironically, does chip away at one of the freedoms that they pledged their lives to defend.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pomp, Circumstance, and Strange Shoe Choices

This weekend is Graduation Weekend here in Happy Valley.  The ceremonies over these three days mark the culmination of an academic year that started with an earthquake and lead to, in some ways, the end of our world as we knew it.  Here are just a few of my somewhat random thoughts about this year’s graduation:

1. I noticed something for the first time today that, once I saw it, I wondered why no one had ever done before.  Three resourceful families were tailgating graduation--one complete with canopy, plastic wine glasses, and champagne!  Genius!!!  You're going to be stuck there for a good while, you might was well start celebrating instead of complaining.  :)

2. I think I may have underestimated one of my male students all this time.  Today under his blue graduation gown, he had on a bright kelly green shirt with a very, very loud pink tie.  He was one of two boys not wearing a white shirt and blue tie or blue shirt and gray tie (the other was wearing a gray t-shirt and rumpled jeans and looked as though he rolled out of bed hungover, wearing whatever he went bar hopping in last night, threw on his gown and strolled off to graduation).  Again, genius!  His family surely had no problem picking him out.

3. As I was walking down to the Green Room before the ceremony, I noticed two girls walking in front of me wearing what had to be 5” stilettos.  I thought to myself that every year the heels seem to get higher and higher.  During the ceremony, a few of my colleagues made the same observation.  Some of the stilettos and platform shoes were so high as to be awe inspiring in a you-know-there’s-going-to-be-an-accident-and-yet-can’t-look-away kind of way.  This is one of those few days in your life when everyone really IS watching you; is it really the day you want to wind up in a cast from falling off of your own shoes???  The winner of the Most Female Graduates in Reasonable Footwear award goes to Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Management, in case you wondered.

4. At the end of the ceremony, during the singing of the Alma Mater, one of my colleagues nudged me and motioned for me to look behind me at our students.  The entire group of them was not only singing, but swaying back and forth to the song, arms draped around each other.  It was an adorable and touching sight.  During the 4th verse, their voices swelled to be heard above the pit band and the thousands of spectators.  They confirmed what I suspected at the fall graduation ceremony: that this new enthusiasm for the words and meaning of their school song has become a new tradition.  The refusal of these resilient young men and women to be cowed or shamed by others and their determination to hold their heads up to look for solutions to the problems they are confronted with is both awe inspiring and humbling.  I have never been more proud to be a teacher, and I will always be proud to have been their teacher. 

Congratulations, Penn State Class of 2012!