Total Pageviews

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Spinning the Truth: The Needle in a Modern Information Haystack

A couple of days ago, I saw a striking headline that Target was suing a man who had heroically saved a teenage girl from a knife-wielding attacker. Now, as with cat and dog persons, the world divides into Target or Walmart people and I shop at Target when forced to choose the lesser of two evils. So naturally, this click bait headline worked it's siren magic and drew me in to read the story. What was immediately obvious was that the article, on the Federalist website, was highly abbreviated and could not be treated as a news report at all. Using the meager details gleaned from the Federalist story, I searched for more background and was able to find out a little more.

The story, as I understood it, is basically this: a mentally ill man, Leon Walls attacked a man near a Target store in Pennsylvania. Michael Turner who Target is suing, and some friends including the stabbed man chased after Walls as he ran into the Target store. At some point, Walls then sized a teenage girl as a hostage and apparently was demanding that he be allowed to leave unmollested when someone jumped him from behind. In the ensuing fracas, the girl first broke free but then Walls lunged forward and stabbed her before being finally subdued. Till here the article in the Federalist is not in any disagreement with the facts, though it does suggest that Walls stabbed the teenager first while other articles suggest that he was trying to use her as a human shield and escape. Where the truth gets lost totally however is in the characterization of the lawsuits - the Federalist suggests, but its tone and omissions that Target is suing a hero out of vindictiveness but conveniently leaves out the fact that the family of the teen sued Target first alleging that the store failed to protect them and Target responded by counter-suing both Turner and Walls. This distinction is crucial, because the omission hides the fact that Target's suit is a sad but typical part of American civil justice. If Target were to fight the suit brought by Allison Meadows' family, they would almost certainly lose or have to settle out of court - we are after all the same people who agreed with a plaintiff that McDonalds was in the wrong when the plaintiff burned herself when she spilled the hot coffee she's just bought over her legs while exiting the drive-through lane and since then we've had lids that remind us that hot coffee is in fact and contrary to what we may believe, actually quite hot - and so they counter-sue the other parties involved so that they may present the full story before a jury and muddy the waters enough to avoid paying the full demanded amount. They do not expect to collect any money from Turner, and certainly not from Wells who was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, but they do hope to show a jury that the attack was caused by others and was not solely their fault, and avoid paying damages.

Now the rights and wrongs of this case are beyond the scope of my little rant here, but the story is illustrative of one of the greatest problems we face in today's world. We are drowning in information, but it's so much that we cannot really handle it all. Conveniently, there are numerous organizations, like the Federalist, Slate, Mother Jones, Breitbart and others that package it into bite sized pieces. Or rather they pick out the stories most likely to interest their target audience. While this might still leave a void in our overall understanding of the world, it would be no major problem. But many of these organizations do not stop with picking and choosing the news they highlight for their audience - instead, like this article from the Federalist, they go several steps beyond and snip out key elements and spin it to suit their own agenda. And unfortunately, their audience is blissfully unaware of or willingly blinded to the actual facts. In this case, a quick perusal of comments by the Federalist's readers showed that they had accepted the narrative that the author wanted to project, and this despite the open attempt to tie this case (from 2013! ) to Target's recent decision to extend equal privileges to members of the LGBT community as to its heterosexual patrons. In this case the author was not particularly subtle in her spinning of the story or omission of the pertinent facts. Yet her readers, with their political views already in tune with hers looked past all inadequacies in the reporting and treated it with the same reverence that my family did the BBC World Service when I was still in short clothes.

Let's ignore for a moment the fact that a likely libertarian-leaning group is somehow against a decision by Target to extend freedom and equality to all members and instead demanding that we regulate the use of restrooms through government action. Let's look past the omission of the facts of the story that the judge sentencing the attacker knew that the man needed medical treatment but in the face of program cuts had no choice but to incarcerate him in prison instead. Let's treat, for the sake of argument, as spurious or irrelevant,  Target's claim that Turner and his friends chased Walls with baseball bats (even if they had good intentions to simply hold him till the police arrived) and that they helped create the conditions that led to Allison Meadows' stabbing. What we are still left with is a website that purposely disseminates only a portion of the truth, spinning it to suit their own narrative and very knowingly hiding any and every fact that works against their position. And their readers, in many cases will take this story as one hundred percent fact and base their future positions and actions on that very suspect foundation. This is a problem that cuts across all ideological lines. Since Michael Turner is a black man, The Root also weighed in with their own version and did as bad a job of presenting the facts as the Federalist. I didn't find the story in any of liberal-leaning news sites I usually use, but that is less a bias on their part (though the lack of story would confirm that bias in the eyes of most hard line conservatives) as a reflection of the lack of any actual story here. Not to mention that it is actually a three year old story and that it centers on the most common of American behavior - person suffers loss, person sues anyone and everyone trying to get compensated for loss.

But in a world where we are forced or at least led by way of least resistance to choose our sources of news, it's worth reflecting that the news we obtain is all too often not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Equally unfortunately, we tend to believe our preferred sources and see all conflicting views as biased and untruthful. In this case, the gaps and untruths confirm my inherent suspicion about right-wing news sites, but rationally, I know that conservatives would find similar if hopefully less striking cases on liberal sources. And in a world of deep partisan bias, one man's truth is another's lies  and sources that I see as impartial and honest such as the Associated Press, Reuters and the New York Times are regarded with deep suspicion on the opposite side of the political divide. In the end, all one can hope is that more people would draw their news from a wide spectrum of sources and paradoxically question all facts that match their own views  - the more the story presented fits our narrative, the more we should question it and seek additional contrarian (but trustworthy) sources. Those sources may often present a viewpoint that challenges our cherished view of the world and in doing so does us more service than a hundred corroborating stories.


Saturday, May 7, 2016

Broken Promises and Secrecy in a Dangerous World

Eight years ago for reasons best known to themselves and perhaps including a Scandinavian middle finger to George Bush, the Nobel Prize Committee decided to award the Peace prize to the new American president. One wonders how much they have rued their choice since as Barack Obama has continued the American policy of fighting wars around the world. To be sure, he's engaged in fewer wars, less intervention and overall backed away from the worst parts of the earlier "war on terror" but he nevertheless continued to keep the US deeply engaged in wars abroad. It is unknown what the Nobel committee expected of him, but it is unlikely that his actions would meet with their unqualified approval or that he would be even considered for the honor today. I felt back then that it was foolish to award so prestigious an honor on President Obama before he'd had a chance to live up to his idealistic declarations or our ridiculously high expectations. But like the committee, I too anticipated much of the new president and like them (I imagine) I look back at those dreams and wonder how I could have been so mistaken.

Barack Obama was not just the man who'd opposed the US-Iraq War from the start (while he certainly claimed that badge of distinction to implicitly criticize his opponents, it was far easier for the junior liberal Senator to take a progressive stance when there were no eyes on him and his opposition had little practical impact), but he was also the candidate who raced to the pole position on a slew of promises that promised a liberal utopia. And when faced with the greatest challenge to his candidacy in the controversy over Jeremiah Wright's positions, Obama found a way to spell out a wonderful and uplifting explanation that enunciated our shared progressive ideals. But above all, he promised an end to the bloody and violent policies of the last presidency and raised hopes of a return to best ideals of America, from ending extrajudicial detentions to closing the shameful chapter on torture. Alas, the rhetoric and ideals of the candidate that were deemed worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize proved utterly powerless to sway the actions of President Obama. To liberal supporters of the president, including myself, this is the single greatest failure of Obama's presidency. There are plenty of other issues that have not advanced as we might have wished, from single payer health care and universal coverage to gun control to reformed taxation and long term solutions to the budget deficits and financial imbalances to his signal failure to shut down the Guantanamo prison. But on those issues, it must be acknowledged that Obama lacked the support in Congress and on many of the issues also had insufficient popular support among the general populace to sway his opponents in Congress (and given the oddities of American electoral politics, a majority of support means little if it is concentrated in urban, generally more liberal areas) and was therefore highly constrained in his ability to effect change on a grand scale on any or all of these matters. A defter politician or a less polarizing figure may have been able to manage some incremental change but the deck was generally stacked against Obama on all policy issues dear to liberals, and faced with a stubbornly obstructionist opposition party, he had no choice but to accept that his ambitious agenda would never reach fruition.

However that makes Obama's war policy so much the more frustrating since this was one area where his legion of critics and opponents would generally hold that he has not gone as far as they would have liked and yet he has committed the US to military action around the world. In other words, this is one place where he was not trying to force action in the face of opposition but rather was heading down a path that suited the rightwing and hawkish portions of Congress. While the libertarian wing of the GOP objected to any intervention or continuation of prior engagements, they generally represent a smaller and less influential side of the party and Obama would have actually had more support from his opponents in Congress if he'd been more warlike than less. From a liberal perspective, it would be far better to see the president criticized for not going to war at all than for entering a war but failing to commit to killing enough of the enemy or for failing to sacrifice enough in American lives.

However, in all fairness to the president, there are some extenuating circumstances. The famous if inaccurate Pottery Barn analogy continues to drive our policy in Iraq. And given the former Administration's dreams that the Iraq model would spread and transform the whole of the Middle East, it was difficult for Obama to truly disengage from conflicts in Syria, Yemen and even Libya when it was US policy in Iraq that destabilized and changed the entire region. Sadly, the Iraq model is playing out across the Middle East, but it is the blight of instability and civil war rather than the bloom of liberal democracy that has spread far and wide. In retrospect, Obama has had little choice but to remain deeply involved in Iraq and has been further enmeshed in the region as the instability in Iraq has exploded outward and drawn nearly every major nation into a complicated and contradictory web of conflict. It may even be to Obama's credit that he has resisted deeper involvement and that he has tried to limit US intervention even when his own rash statements (the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons) or his allies' interests (Libya, Yemen) have forced his hand. Even his most controversial policy - extensive use of remote strikes with precision weapons or drone strikes, in common parlance - is more than anything else an attempt to keep US service personnel out of direct harm's way.

In the end, I guess I can respect his foreign policy decisions. Muddled and contradictory as they seem and as they have been described by his critics, they are in reaction to a muddled and contradictory world and if all the advice and preferred policy of his critics (including my own) were to be assembled, the picture painted would be as muddled and contradictory, if not more so. But there is one striking failure, both on the part of the president and his staunchest critics in Congress and that is the lack of explanation or information on US intervention. Just this past week, the Defense Department admitted that US forces - probably Rangers, Green Berets or some other Special Forces units -  are on the ground in Yemen. This is unbelievably disturbing - not only is Yemen one of the most confused conflicts where there no "good" or "bad" guys (by a long shot) but our interests run wildly contrary to the intentions and interests of our closest "allies" in the region, and there are no good outcomes to be expected of US intervention. However the greater problem is that our involvement is revealed only by chance and that not only does the President consider it unnecessary to tell his own citizens that he has committed troops to a foreign conflict but that Congress has never truly demanded or pushed for a clear report on US involvement abroad. Today, while some (if not all or even a startlingly small percentage of) Americans may be aware that their country is still deeply involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq, a much smaller group would be aware that US forces are involved in both Yemen and Syria. Worse yet, we have no way of knowing just how many other places we may be involved in "training" and "advising" local government forces in conflicts against forces that we consider dangers to us. Are we involved in Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, Chad, Somalia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and/or the Philippines? What about Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica? Perhaps Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia have US forces "helping" them? Are US forces involved in countries like the Ukraine and Georgia or Azerbaijan?

As a liberal, I would wish that the world was a better, more peaceful place and that we could solve our problems in more civilized ways. But I understand that the realities of the world actually around us often require violent answers. But the least one should expect from the government is honesty to its own people of where it chooses to put its citizens in harms way and why. Governments will always claim that openness would jeopardize their policy aims, but with all due respect this is nonsense - in a democracy, the power is supposed to lie with the governed not the elected representatives and the least those regents should do is be honest of where they have chosen to entangle the nation, no matter their reasons. And if this honesty would truly hurt the chances of success of the policy than perhaps the policy is flawed. But when the policy is hidden there is no chance to even evaluate it, much less make an informed decision of support for that policy that is being carried out in the name of the entire country.

Congress shows such tenacity in investigating some issues, especially when the name Clinton is involved and has now spent over two years over the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi (without ever finding any evidence of criminal wrongdoing or even negligence) and has now expanded their probe into matters far removed from the original question. Now, whether Secretary Clinton was ill-advised in some of her actions, there is no rational reason to believe that she ever acted with intent to harm the country and the investigation is almost transparently an attempt to destroy her bid for a historic presidential bid and possibly even more historic presidency. Yet those very driven Congressmen have spent little energy questioning how many places the US may have troops involved in undeclared wars. Senator Rand Paul who was willing to filibuster the Senate over his concerns that US drone strikes were targeting American citizens and denying them due process is far less concerned that the US is engaged in war (in everything but name) when those same strikes kill non-Americans. Congress has happily voted billions of dollars to fund military operations around the world but the details of those operations are hidden to the taxpayer citizens who pay for them, and no one in the halls of Congress or the vital Fourth Estate or even amongst the same taxpayers seem really concerned with compelling a response from the people who commit their country to potentially unending wars with the well-intentioned but nonetheless concealed stroked of a pen.

Ultimately, unless the people clamor for an answer and make it clear to their representatives that they deserve to know what their government is doing in their name, the secrecy will continue. Ironically, US involvement is not so very secret in the ranks of her enemies and lacking believable declarations from the US government, is probably greatly exaggerated even to the point where every injustice suffered at the hand of their own rulers is added to the account of the Americans and becomes just another reason to hate the US. The American people are often bemused as to why they are hated in so many corners of the world, not realizing the actions of their own government that contributes to those emotions. And while their government acts in secrecy, the account of hate and bitterness continues to compound, also in secrecy till it explodes upon us. These matters, the actions of ones government should concern all of us for we all live with the consequences and it is only fair that actions taken in one's name should be debated openly. The final definitive lesson of the Obama presidency - and the contrast of its actions to the idealism that preceded its actions -  is that whether the White House incumbent is liberal or conservative, rightwing or leftwing, hawk or dove, the inertia of the establishment will ensure that the veils of secrecy remain intact and the apathy of the citizenry and their watchdogs of the Fourth Estate will keep things unchanged.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Race Is Not Always To The Swift

Augustus Fink-Nottle memorably explained this concept at to the scholars of Market Snodsbury Grammar School, but minorities in America may well wonder if it is always to the white. The Black Lives Matter movement has torn aside the curtain that hid the simmering discontent amongst Black Americans and forced the nation to confront uncomfortable concepts like White privilege. While I generally dislike the BLM approach towards their nominal allies - do you gain anything by interrupting and insulting Bernie Sanders, Mike O'Malley or Hilary Clinton? - I can understand and empathize with some of the frustration within the community.

Critics of the movement, and they are legion and for most part shielded by the anonymity of the internet, have two main arguments against the protest cry. Firstly, why do only Black Lives matter? And secondly, why doesn't the community clean up its own act and quit blaming the whites for all the ills that bedevil them. They also level a number of other arguments, but most of those are of a straw man variety, arguing against aspects and positions that are not represented by the BLM activists. Even the main criticisms are easily addressed. The logic of the argument rests on the struggles faced by other ethnic groups that have faced adversity and yet do not blame the majority for their problems. But this ignores the most basic difference between African Americans and all other minorities. The ancestors of today's African Americans were brought in against their will as slaves; all other groups have arrived on American shores by choice. They may have fled economic hardship or persecution, or in my case, boredom and a lack of wheat beer, but they were never forced into America against their will. Also significantly, the Africans came from a vast variety of countries, regions and ethnic groups across the vast swath of continent but were lumped together by their new overlords with scarce a though or nod to their deep differences. The identity as a single ethnic group was forged in the fetters of slavery, and later, even after the 13th Amendment, in the shadow of Jim Crow laws. The damage wreaked upon this group through two hundred years and more of oppression cannot be easily undone; more significantly, the ethnic and cultural history that other groups could fall back upon for solace in the face of injustice and suffering was denied the African Americans - their history and ethnicity, to all extents and purposes, started with their enslavement. In my opinion, this makes it so much harder for them to overcome the roots of the problem in a way that was possible for the Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese and even the Mexicans. It's also why newer African immigrants have a widely different experience.

The oppression did not end with the Civil War, nor even with the Civil Rights movement. Subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle prejudicial policy continues to damage the community and to be sure, in some cases, well meaning policies have hurt as well. The building of the interstate system facilitated the flight of affluent whites to the suburbs setting the stage for the decay and impoverishment of urban centers. In slowly dying cities the vicious cycle was set in motion whereby poor communities are denied education advancement, trapping them deeper in poverty and furthering the deterioration of the city and its amenities. No other community has faced quite that same level of challenges. Which brings one to the second argument against the validity of BLM's angst, that the majority of violence is perpetrated by Blacks against Blacks and that they are focused on a tiny fraction of killing by the police. Regardless of the reality of the statistic, what is missed here is that the not only are the police not supposed to kill unarmed Black men, but that they are actually supposed to serve those communities and protect them from the violence of their own misguided members. Instead the police have unwittingly become a wall between these urban ghettos and the "good" suburban communities, and have become enemies of the ghetto communities rather than their partners and servants.

There are problems with the BLM, as there are bound to be in any anger-fueled movement. Lacking a clear leadership - or any leadership - each group of activists vocalizes its own views and interests rather than a coherent overarching message. While the majority of the movement embraces non-violent protest, there are always going to be those who have less patience. There are some who will challenge their biggest national supporters to draw a reaction, ignoring how it may help or hurt the movement in the long run. There are some who have so lost faith in the police that they see them as implacable enemies and advocate violence against them, or at least cheer and condone violence against police officers. These are the real problems with the movement, along with a failure to get the actual message of "Black Lives Matter" out to the wider world. They've certainly tried, and of course, some people will never accept the message and will seek to misrepresent them. But the lack of a national face to the movement does not help and makes dissemination of the message much harder. It's why both Clinton and O'Malley responded to the BLM activists with the statement that "all lives matter". On the face of it, that sounds like a reasonable response, except that it totally misses the real message of "black lives matter". It is not that some lives matter and some don't, it is not a dismissal of the importance of Caucasian, or Asian or Hispanic lives, but an agonized statement that one group in America is targeted for violence on sight, that they are guilty until proved innocent and that they suffer a disproportionate amount at the hands of law enforcement.

My buddy posted a video some years ago that showed reactions of the general public to the sight of a young black man, a young white man and a young white woman trying to force open a lock on a cycle in the park. Need I mention which person attracted hostility and a 911 call? That's why the slogan matters. Because a twelve year old like Tamir Rice was shot down for holding a toy gun and we're arguing about whether he had the orange cap on the barrel to designate it as a toy rather than admitting that he would have likely never been perceived as a threat if he was White or Asian. Because till today the media is obsessed over the disappearance and possible murder of a yound white woman on vacation in Aruba, while thousands of Black men and women are killed and are no more than a statistic. Because if I see a group of Black men standing by the side of the road, I'm nervous and will probably try to turn off before I reach them, but I'll walk right by any other ethnic group with scarcely noticing them. All ethnic groups get stereotyped to an extent, but African Americans are prejudged as trouble and danger and the risk of violence against them is dramatically more as a result. The fact that so much violence is within the community is not a matter to be ignored; rather it is wrapped up in the scream that "black lives matter".

This movement, like other activist movements that spring from a deep and real cause, will not go away quietly. The challenge is to transform themselves into agents of positive change - and that means accepting that everyone has an interest and stake in the issue and that other groups are capable of empathizing. Excluding all other groups or declaring that no one else may address issues like slavery or racial prejudice is counter-productive. Attempting to exclude allies is counterproductive. This is a moment when the BLM movement faces a critical fork in the road. Down one road lies frustration, probably increasing violence, radicalism, splintering and eventual irrelevance - excluding whites and others from discussions of problems in the Black community is an unfortunate step along that road. The hope rather is that they coalesce around a real agenda for realistic change and find a way to galvanize their activists into working towards a better tomorrow. There are problems and it is in everyone's interest that we address and solve them, or risk having a repeat of the race riots of the sixties and seventies.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

New Ways in the Old Country

I returned from my biennial vacation to the Old Country last week and the one thought that kept running through my mind was that misplaced nationalism, bordering on jingoism was alive and well and doing better than ever. I could be biased - after all, I am an avowed liberal living in the US, who visits India only once every few years and my perspectives are limited, at best. But there is a shrillness that runs through the rhetoric that harkens back to McCartyism even, which is more than a little ironic - historically India's political class has always railed against all things Western, but the country appears willing to borrow all the worst of modern American life and unfortunately very little that is good.

To be honest, there were some changes that were positive and unexpected - my (once-beloved) hometown has acquired a pub culture and love for microbreweries, and I could actually get a very good Hefewiessen at an Irish pub - words that I would never have dreamed of, much less been able to say when I lived in India some sixteen odd years ago. There is a new interest in fitness and state-of-the art modern gyms have sprung up across the more affluent sections of the city, a welcome change from the eighties when there were only a couple of antiquated weight rooms in a city of millions and even the colleges lacked any general fitness culture. For the first time, there were modern buses plying some of the routes and the city has introduced exclusive rapid transit lanes along some of the busiest roads.

But as in all things in my homeland, every step forward is accompanied by not just a step and half backwards but also a couple of giant dance steps sideways for good measure. Now this progress so reminiscent of a drunken ant would be mildly amusing if India had retained it's relaxed attitudes. But today India has awoken to it's potential position in the world and has decided to adopt the language and attitude of a regional power, even if its glittering facepaint hides its feet of clay - middle class India has convinced itself that the country is a superpower and is willing to talk the talk, even as hundreds of millions of its people remain trapped in a hopeless life. It is not that millions have not risen out of poverty, for they have - in fact that is one of the great and positive changes over the last quarter century. But the millions have risen out of a life of abject poverty only to find that all that awaits is air unfit to breathe and water unfit to drink (when one is lucky enough to get any) in cities choked and bursting with hundreds of shiny cars on streets too narrow to accommodate one tenth the number. And all the while the rural poor slide ever further back, left behind in India's rush to modernity and that feeling festers and feeds a huge (and generally non-discussed) class war (Naxalism) that threatens the very existence of India to a degree that her avowed enemy, Pakistan, could never hope to approach.

India has forever been a land of contradictions, and today's juxtaposition of wealthy yuppies side by side with starving farmers would not be cause for alarm - sadness and determination for change, perhaps but not fear and alarm, for India's citizens still retains a positive belief that they can provide a better tomorrow for their children and would rather build towards that future than tear down the upper classes. The cause for fear and alarm is the attitude of those who have and their blind attitude of extreme chauvinism and jingoism. They refuse to acknowledge the shortcomings of their country and instead wrap themselves in the tri-color and declare that any criticism of the way things are is unpatriotic. To be honest, they mostly focus on criticism of security and foreign policy more than domestic, but by creating an environment where nothing but praise for the country is acceptable, they stifle all freedom of expression and damp down very legitimate criticism of economic policy and the deep class divides.

Worse yet, the Modi government has conflated criticism of itself and government policy with criticism of the country as a whole. Somehow, it is now considered unacceptable to disagree with decisions of the Supreme Court; as though a court comprised of very human judges is incapable of error and should be treated with the same reverence usually reserved for gods. Whether one agrees or disagrees with a death penalty handed down by the court to a man accused of involvement in a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, every Indian should have freedom to express his opinion. But today, a vocal and aggressive faction of India's educated middle class has taken it upon itself to wage a social media campaign against anyone who disagrees with the current government. Back in the post-Bangladesh War heyday, the prime minister who led India to victory was hailed as the personification of righteous wrath, the Goddess Durga and a slogan was coined that "India is Indira and Indira is India", essentially conflating the entire nation with Mrs. Gandhi and launching the country down a path of sycophantic excess that culminated in the once great Indian National Congress party believing that policy and actions meant nothing so long as their prime ministerial candidate was named Gandhi. The resounding defeat of the Congress party and the overwhelming mandate to Mr. Modi to change the economic outlook and help Indians realize their dream of improving their lives momentarily suggested that India had moved past empty political theater and was embracing the politics of policy. Alas! that lasted only as long as the positive economic news and now India is back in a world where cheap emotion trumps substantial debate.

India has problems enough to debate from now until the twelfth of never, from out of control pollution, woefully inadequate infrastructure, income disparity and above all pervasive corruption. Instead, all discourse is focused on a handful of students who may have abetted some Kashmiri students raising slogans praising the above mentioned terrorist and some anti-India chants for good measure. One would hope that a strong nation would have nothing to fear from such behavior, little as one may agree with the slogans. Yet India's government has reacted with a bustle that would make Kim Jong Un proud, charging the bystander students with sedition (an old Colonial law that should never be invoked in a democracy). Worse yet, its supporters have reacted, violently against anyone who would support the students in some cases, and in general viciously against any and everyone who would oppose their action. The legion of social media warriors have manned the walls, flooding the forums with doctored video purporting to prove the seditious nature of the students and links to videos of speeches that support the government. The social media warriors would be acceptable, if they had eschewed false proofs and if they had shown just a little more tolerance to opposing views. But criticism of any government action is seen as an attack on India itself and the media warriors fly to thwart it with all the patriotic fervor as if they were defending Parliament from the terrorists. Greater fervor perhaps since they are generally happy to sit back in well paid civilian jobs while lauding the bravery and selflessness of the Indian armed forces.

And so, while the many real problems remain, as difficult and crushing as they were a year ago, India's elites close their eyes to the suffering of those with less, and seemingly oblivious of the very real issues that go beyond quality of life and threaten the health and life of hundreds of millions who cannot afford air-conditioned living spaces and bottled water instead tilt at the windmills of Fifth Columnists and traitors within the walls. They lambaste liberals for daring to question national policy and demand that students and institutions with socialist leanings be stripped of their privileges (there is a striking similarity in tone to the Tea Party rhetoric in the US). In nearly every way, by offering a smokescreen of outraged nationalism to obscure the very real issues at hand, they prove Dr. Samuel Johnson's famous words that "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel".

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Exorcising the Money From College Football

When first I set foot in the US, a decade and a half ago, I knew little of American football beyond a few vague perceptions gathered from comic books. But having chosen the Pennsylvania State University for my education, I found that a thorough grounding in football fundamentals was as important as a working knowledge of finite elements and infinitely more useful than differential equations. After all, even the most earnest of students typically do not discuss energy methods of analysis or solutions to polynomial equations when they get together outside class. And since football is the great secular religion of modern America and Penn State was one of its mega-churches, I learned fast, and well. I bled blue and white. I groaned when our backs were hit, and I roared in concert with a million lions when our linebackers wreaked havoc on opposing offenses.

But through it all, I clung to one great truth about Penn State's football: we were a school first, one that happened to play good football more often than not. In Joe Paterno, we had a coach who epitomized the finest qualities of the position, a man who demanded that his athletes pull their weight in class, that they grow as men as much as athletes. I was proud of our winning tradition, but I was prouder that we had the highest graduation rates of athletes amongst colleges. I cheered the wins that Joe Pa racked up but I cheered all the more his dedication to the school's libraries and core programs.  There was a deep pride in having one of the lowest paid head coaches in the nation, and certainly one who asked far, far less than anyone in his position. I supported him when we did well, but I was fanatical in my support when we lost and the coach put those losses in perspective: this was sports, teams lost and it was how the players carried themselves in victory and defeat that really mattered. Joe was not perfect - like any human being, he fell short of his and our ideals - but there was always a real feeling that he understood that colleges are educational centers, whose primary goal is academics, not sports and that success on the gridiron was secondary to succeeding in the classroom and in life. This was what college football was meant to be.

But Penn State was a school out of step with the rest of the world, and the days of our anachronistic attitudes were drawing to a close even before a shameless mass of innuendo and outright lies by the media drove Coach Paterno out of his job and hastened the end of his career and life. For the moment we may try to cling to our traditions, but the changes have come, the old days have ended and will never return. We may delay but already the attitudes are changing and in a few years we will be little different from the rest of our peers. At best we may settle down to be like Stanford or Notre Dame, or we may fall all the way to the attitudes of the average Division I school.

Perhaps a Golden Age never really existed when colleges sports were about extra curricular activities for students, but now there is not even a pretense about the aim of college football (basketball may be even worse, if anything, but is still a much smaller brother to football). Coaches are hired and paid to win games, not build their charges' character through sporting competition. They know that their jobs depend wholly on their record of wins versus losses and that nearly anything else will be tolerated if they can deliver those coveted championships and Bowl victories. With Nike as their patron, coaches know that fielding the most talented team is all important, and since the best athletes are not usually the best students (by inclination alone, even when intelligence is not the reason), they have every reason to ignore the academic achievements in favor of raw athleticism. Flaws in character are far less important than one's 100 yard dash time. And so they pay lip service to the ideals of collegiate sport while relentlessly chasing victory at all costs on the field.

This is not a knock on the men who coach those teams. Though they are not above reproach as a community, many of them genuinely care about their young charges and truly rejoice in their success; unfortunately, they have bought into an idea that success for their athletes is a National Football League career and nothing less. More importantly, they know that their own career depends solely on the number of games won and on taking their teams to prestigious Bowl games. And that means fielding the most talented and skillful set of players they can recruit. Coaches also know that their greatest recruiting tool is selling their high school marks on a career in the professional football league. Though less than two thousand players will earn an NFL paycheck at any given time, every athlete is recruited on dreams that he will make it. Around eight thousand athletes play at the college level, yet only around 250 will be picked in the annual drafts, but a vast majority of those college athletes will have been sold on the dream of a professional career. The colleges have become little more than a farm development for the professional league, all the protests of the college administrators to the contrary. It's been long recognized that money drives the college sports world, and that colleges are totally addicted to the money they generate off their athletes. To be sure, when students ask for a piece of the cake, the national and college administrators are quick to tout the amateur status of student athletes and trot out tired cliches about how students are in college for an education. But their policies give lie to their words. If education was paramount, student athletes would not be allowed to leave for the pros till they had graduated; current eligibility rules are but a fig leaf that allows our colleges to pretend that their athletic programs are about academic excellence. If this was about education alone, colleges would not be paying multi-million dollar salaries for big name coaches, whose sole virtues are good recruiting and/or detailed knowledge of football plays. And most importantly, colleges would not fire coaches for failing to win games. Or to win enough games. Or to win the big games. All these excuses are used, and accepted as routine, when a program decides on a coaching change. Never once is a coach released for failure to mold his athletes into mature and responsible men. Or for failing to challenge his team to outstanding academic performance. Or for not inspiring his team to be better people. Perhaps even worse, every coach knows that success in the latter group would never, ever save his job if he failed at the former goals.

The root of the problem of course, as in so many problems that plague modern American life, is an over abundance of money. Both professional football and collegiate sports are awash in money, from sponsors and media broadcast fees. In addition a winning team draws in fans, fills stadiums and generates massive amounts of profit off concession fees, parking and merchandise. And since success in college football is strongly co-related to strong recruiting, and strong recruiting requires selling prospective students on their chances of being drafted to the NFL, colleges are quite content to play along as a farm system to the pros. Addicted to money generated from their athletes, colleges can no longer afford to hew to the ideals they espouse and claim to revere. The only way to bring back a modicum of old school idealism to college sports is to divest it of the money that corrupts it.

Easier said than done, of course, but the key lies with the public. Especially with the alumni of the various schools. We have a louder voice than the students (and incidentally, the students are far less fair-weather fans than their seniors) by virtue of our numbers and our power of purse. We need to stop making our support for our alma mater dependent upon its winning record. But that is not the real battle, though it would be a good first step. The real key is to challenge our schools to eschew the money that goes with game telecasts. Maybe we use our influence with our schools and College Conferences to abrogate million-dollar telecast deals and instead make the games available online for free, or nominal charges to cover only cost of broadcast. We push our schools into accepting only such game fees as are needed to cover the basic costs of travel. We demand that our schools make academic achievement more important than winning, and we require that no student receiving a college scholarship be allowed to enter the NFL draft before graduating; those that wish to leave early must pay back their scholarships before entering their names (this will force students to truly evaluate their chances at making the professional rosters).

But the biggest changes need to come outside the college system. The NFL honors the pretense and hypocrisy of college sports because it provides them with a farm system of talent development for free. In reality, the idea that a player can enter the pros only after a couple of years in college is indefensible. Attending two, or three years of a four year program, especially with no requirement that the classes taken be tied to a reasonable degree provides no benefit to the players. But it does provide a training above high school and weeds out, though failure or injury, those who are not desired in the NFL. Football is a violent sport, and young players need to reach their full physical development before entering the rigorous professional world - colleges find the best high school prospects, train and develop them, and then send them on to the pros just as they finish the majority of their physical growth; the NFL gets all this for free. To really save colleges from the plague of monetized sport, we need the NFL to stop honoring the academic requirement - let them find, recruit and train talent on their own. And most importantly have the patience to hold those kids back and not rush them into play in hopes of short term gain. European soccer clubs already do this -  Arsenal nurtured Theo Walcott, Barcelona famously paid to have special growth hormonal treatments to let a certain Lionel Messi grow to normal height when he was just twelve years old and entering their academy and one might say it paid off quite handsomely. In the US even, baseball has a form of this and hence college baseball is not wracked by the same glut of money as football and basketball.

Let's stop pretending that these athletes gain much from their college education. The top athletes currently find themselves treated as superstars, courted, coddled and cozened through college, a class apart from their fellow students which is unfair on the remaining students and unhealthy for the athletes. An academy, or series of academies attached to the NFL teams, would surround the players by their peers and remove them from the bubble of hero worship they enjoy on college campuses. If they enter a more focused training system, perhaps fewer of them will reach adulthood dreaming of finding the pot of gold. And since, inevitably, they will be paid to commit to the training maybe fewer of them will live a rags to riches story when they sign their full-time NFL contracts. The league could also provide some management training so that those who do find the pot of gold do not fritter it away unknowingly. There are many aspects that would need to ironed out, but this would move the development of tomorrow's players away from college fields and into the hands of their future employers, which is how it should be, for the good of colleges and athletes. Some teams will be foolish in one or more phases - recruiting badly, hurrying their players through development and signing them to action before their time. Others - the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots seem likely candidates - will take their time and stay ahead of the game. And colleges can go back to being just centers of learning where average athletes compete on Saturdays for fun, pride and a break from studying.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Casting the First Stone

One of the cornerstones of modern criminal law is the concept that one is innocent until proven guilty, built bit by bit through centuries of English, British and now US legal history and precedent, till it has become so firmly entrenched in popular understanding that any watcher of Law and Order or The Good Wife could explain all the finer points and nuances absent any formal legal training. However, this concept is peculiar only to court proceedings, and other forums especially the extra-judicial court of public opinion has no qualms in pronouncing instant judgement on any and every case that passes before it. My affiliations with the Pennsylvania State University and the New England Patriots bring constant reminder that the wider public is willing to forego the niceties of trial in favor of a swift and satisfying public excoriation; if a trial must be had, the public would rather it be held, in true through-the-looking-glass manner, after the sentence has been served.

I have addressed my disappointment with the rush to judge Joe Paterno and there is no need to add to my earlier notes. But recently, a couple of cases arose that gave me fresh perspective on this issue, while reinforcing my basic viewpoint. While Joe Paterno lost his job in undeserved disgrace and that may have hastened his death, the court of public opinion does not often render verdicts with quite as serious ramifications. However, in the end, even a true judicial trial is shaped directly or indirectly by prevailing public perception and opinions, and when the wider public unofficially and oft times unwittingly decides a case before the accused has his day in court, it cannot help but have a significant bearing on the eventual outcome. And occasionally, those prejudices can have far reaching effects. It would be tempting to accuse the news media, and admittedly, they often play a role in shaping perceptions, but in the end, they can only mold and shape opinions, and it is up to each individual to weigh the available evidence and reach his or her own conclusions. To be sure, the news media can exert influence in the way it presents information, but more often than not, in my opinion, we reach decisions that match our own moral view of the world and seek to conform the evidence to our own prejudices. And often enough, we need to feel a certain moral superiority to the accused, ignoring our own failings, even when they match the character of the accused to an uncomfortable degree' mayhap we are especially harsh on the failings of others when we secretly see those same weaknesses within ourselves and seek to convince ourselves of our own superiority by shining a particularly harsh light on the failings of the other.

An excellent study, I feel, was the singular case of the New York Cannibal Cop. Gilberto Vale was accused, and initially convicted, of conspiring to kidnap and murder women with plans to cook them. His own words buttressed the accusations, lengthy discussions and plans on online fetish forums dedicated to cannibalistic fantasies, in which he described exactly what he would like to do to his prospective victims, and discussed making those plans reality with other members of the forum, including with their assistance. Yet, a slightly closer look revealed that there was little reason to believe there was any intent behind his fantasies, as his online descriptions of elaborate preparations had no parallel in reality. And numerous planned D-days came and went without any further reference to missed dates. Vale appeared to get all his fun from simply fantasizing; his fantasies were somewhat different from the norm, it's true, but hardly worthy of a jail sentence. Yet a jury of twelve good citizens were so horrified at the implications of his fantasies that they were willing to convict him for what can best be described as a thought crime. Mayhap these good yeomen were driven by an "ick" factor, so disgusted that they felt he deserved to be locked away and off the streets. Or perhaps, as I suspect, they were scared to admit that his fantasies while darker than their own, were still a reflection of our universal failure to live up to impossible ideals and rather than acknowledge their own perceived shortcomings, would rather shut away the reminder of their human weakness. What I am suggesting, through my pop psychology, is that we all have dark fantasies, often thoughts that we are ashamed to divulge to anyone and we are then scared to show any sympathy for a man portrayed as a monster by the Press and prosecution, since to stand by him might raise suspicions about our own secrets. Few reporters covering the case ever focused on the lack of evidence of a crime or even of criminal intent and instead began the discussion with his monstrosity as a given. I can imagine that no juror would raise a voice in defense of him in deliberations for fear of the censure of his or her fellows within the chamber. And so an all too human, and basically innocent (in all but angelic connotations of the word) individual was found guilty of enjoying thoughts that make the wider public uncomfortable. Not too surprisingly, his conviction was overturned by a federal judge - when the emotions of jurors were no longer at play, the facts of the case were insufficient to warrant a conviction.

My point here is not that Vale was an ideal person. But then again, he has no claim to perfection nor any need to it. If our deepest thoughts were subjected to the same scrutiny, few of us would remain at liberty. But we are so unwilling to admit our own nature that we would rather send a man to jail than admit that his fantasies are not so very different from our own. Perhaps we don't care about cooking and eating our fellows, even in fantasy, but most of us enjoy various guilty pleasures in the secrecy of our minds. And if one man is guilty for his thoughts then so are we all. And sadly, rather than acknowledge that we are all subject to dreams and fantasies, be it of a threesome with Hayley Westenra and Taylor Swift (oh! the music we'd make) or the chance to throw Adam Sandler off a very tall building, and that such dreams are quite normal, and that to feel guilt over them is as foolish as feeling warm when standing on a street corner in Phoenix in July. We do far greater damage when we pretend that we are above such petty feelings, especially when we feel that the only way to hide our own thoughts is to be particularly harsh on anyone else unfortunate enough to have their secrets laid bare to censure. And, boy! do we like to censure!

The recent hack of the adultery relationship site Ashley Madison offered another opportunity to us to really indulge our inner censurer. Some people are fortunate enough to be with their soul mates, some are not. Of the latter, some have the fortitude to stay true to their to vows or walk away, while others seek a measure of happiness outside their existing relationships. We do not walk in the shoes of the individuals and we should leave them to their own decisions insofar as their actions do not impact us. Yet, when a sanctimonious vigilante group published the information of all the Ashley Madison patrons, in the swirling media coverage there was nary a word defending the privacy of the thousands of men (and women?). And the general attitude appeared that they deserved what happened for failing at monogamy, that they had merely got their just deserts, and the moral rectitude of the watchers was mixed with more than a touch of gloating. Yet, no one deserves to have their private life ripped apart and exposed to the ridicule of the rude masses. And in truth, only a few of us could survive that level of scrutiny, and it would behoove us to show less smug righteousness and more empathy. It's not that the patrons of the service deserve a free pass, but the responsibility of issuing that pass, for most cases, lies with their spouse or partner and we have neither the right nor even the moral authority to pass judgement on them.

It is comforting to feel superior to one's peers. But if we are honest with ourselves, which is far harder than we would admit even to ourselves and in secret, we are few of us above reproach and have often fallen short of the ideals to which we hold our less fortunate brethren. And especially, if we would hold people guilty for their deepest and darkest thoughts, then perhaps none of us deserve to even escape the death penalty. But we are not, and should not, be held accountable for stray, or not so stray thoughts. Nor should we answer to the world for our private lives, except to to extent that we make the world a part of our private lives. And above all, we should recall and live the words of Polonious that we should "take each man's censure, but reserve judgment".

Saturday, June 27, 2015

When It Really is Black and White

This past fortnight capped a most tumultuous period in US history, with both moments of soaring hope and expectation and  deepest despair, as the US Supreme Court dismissed the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act and then followed up with a sweeping statement judgement that legalized marriage equality across the nation, while a troubled young man walked into a historic Black church and allegedly gunned down a number of worshipers, simply because they were of a different race from him. While very few, if any, are willing to offer open support for the killing of unarmed church-goers,  the one aspect of this troubled period that worries me most is that so many may harbor deep feelings about which of the above three events were tragedy and which were cause for celebration. However, glad as I am over both the referenced court decisions (though I would have preferred a narrower, less flowery and more legalistic reasoning for marriage equality), this post is not about either of those issues - the Affordable Care Act may face more challenges, but the reality is that it is now a fact of life, and is ever more embedded in the way we buy our healthcare and any disruptions to this in the future are in no one's interest, except perhaps the most committed of ideologues, while the right to equality before the state is now catching up to the tidal wave of public perception that has swept much of the earlier prejudice aside, and it is hard indeed to imagine this country or any other stepping backwards on this matter.

Race relations and prejudices, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. I have largely ignored the topic, waiting for time and distance to provide better perspective, but the slow burn begun when with the killing of Trayvon Martin almost two and a half years ago, were fanned and kept alive by a series of events, from the shooting of Michael Brown to the even more tragic shooting of Tamir Rice.  Less tragic, but still very much an issue to those on the receiving end, were events like the seemingly excessive force employed by Dallas police against a teenage girl. These events were not connected, but they betrayed a sad pattern of inherent racial prejudice - it is unlikely that any of the police involved were racist in the conventional sense of the word, but their prejudice colored their perceptions and actions. It is just as important to note that prejudice colored the actions of the victims in some cases as well. This is not a defense of the killings, just a statement of fact, and it should be noted that the attitudes of young black men towards the police and justice system are justifiably founded, but that collective history, uniformly negative, definitely prejudiced them against taking their chances with the system and set both sides on a track that could only end in tragedy.

While discussing a level of tragedy between cases that all resulted in death may be insensitive, not to add impossible, the killings in Charleston last week are definitely of a different magnitude. This was the only case where the killer had no reason to employ force, except to wantonly kill. And the reported statements of the alleged killer drip with a hatred that most of us imagined long dead. And yet, in the midst of tragedy, the killer may have transformed this nation in a way he never could have conceived - he shone a light on the darkest recesses of our collective soul and dragged into the open the kind of attitudes and behavior generally restricted to the comfortable anonymity of online discussion forums. The unbridled racism and (all too human) ferocity reported by the survivors left no room for lukewarm sympathizers to cloud the issue with speculative non-questions and strawman arguments, while even those more overtly in agreement were aware that he had crossed a line that they did not dare to follow him across.

In many ways, the dangers that every young black man faces daily were finally, and irrefutably on display. The previous events all had something that could be used to obscure that fact - Trayvon Martin was in a physical confrontation with his killer, Michael Brown has just robbed a store which was enough to cloud the issue, even without his reported lunge at the police officer, the man shot from behind in South Carolina was running from a routine traffic stop, and Tamir Rice was holding a realistic looking weapon which he refused to drop when confronted. All these cases could be written off by those who wished to as nothing more than a bit of excessive force, driven by fear on the part of the killer, and the common thread could be ignored, the evidence of racial prejudice could be ignored. But the church killings offer no such convenient escape - a man walked in and shot down nine people, executed them simply because of the color of their skin. He has reportedly admitted that it was difficult to do because of how nicely they treated him for the hour that he spent there before acting, but he found it in himself to go through with his intended plan - he was going to execute them allegedly solely because they were blacks and he was white, and nothing in their personal behavior was reason enough to "forgive" them that sin. And in doing so, he showed all the world the truth - people still die today because of racist attitudes. I have seen an interestingly coordinated attempt to point to some cases where black men killed white people - equally interestingly there are no links or details to these reported cases. In any case the more likely explanation is that a home invasion that results in deaths is just that, rather than an overtly racist plan by radical black men. It is always possible that racist taunts or insults were uttered - racism is not exclusive to whites, and all of us have these tendencies. But the one fact that no one can ignore (or at least must strain incredibly hard to ignore) is that nine black people were executed as a result of race and nothing else; and once we are forced to acknowledge that, we must also face up to the reasons and accept, even if grudgingly that racial prejudices do kill and that today the vast majority of the killing has young black men as victims.

Sometimes, it takes a deep cut to remove the obscuring damaged tissue and start the process of healing. The many cases over the last three years showed us that there was a deep wound in our soul, but it took the Charleston killings to slice away all else and reveal the tumor of racism that lived on beneath. And we have begun the process of healing already. Forced finally to admit the overt racist overtones of the Confederacy and its flag, America has turned away and finally that symbol of prejudice and outdated ideas (like a state's "right" to allow enslavement) is coming down  - from State Houses and monuments to merchandise and computer games. There will still be some - Phil Robertsons and Cliven Bundys of this event - who will cling to their emblems of the past, but they are a dying minority and their overt racism will drive them into isolation as no one with an eye to the future is willing to embrace them or their brand anymore. And we should leave them free to be - they have a right to wrap themselves in the flag, no matter how much it offends the rest of us. We should be content that the State's endorsement of their prejudices is done, and that we have no more reason to fear them - like Sauruman, their staff is broken and their power gone and they can be left in their isolated towers of Orthanc (it goes without saying that the willful defacement of memorials to Confederate dead must stop immediately).

Perhaps the greatest response to the racist murders of Charleston is the one unfolding across America today - a new recognition of the distance we still have to go as a nation. As the President has said, we have come a long way from the Civil War and Civil Rights movement and there is little doubt that the US is one of the most tolerant nations around, where one can transcend skin color to succeed, but to become a more perfect Union, we still have a long road to travel and thanks to a young racist in Charleston, we have begun that journey, not to the racial civil war he envisioned but towards equality and justice for all.