Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Ghost of Thanksgivings Yet to Come

It’s Thanksgiving in the United States, so blogs, Facebook, and any other communications medium you can think of is full of people telling you what they’re thankful for. That’s great, and I’m thankful for quite a few things myself. Fortunately for you, most of them are none of your damn business, and I’ll express my gratitude directly to those who should receive it instead of boring you with stories of how much I love my wife/daughter/parents/brother’s family, appreciate my health, or enjoy the NHL’s Center Ice package. (That’s Centre Ice for our Canuckistan readers.) I do all of those things, and make regular and sincere expressions where they matter, to the people involved. (Or by paying the extra charge on my cable bill.) You’ll see enough of that today. You don’t need me piling on. (This provides the obligatory Thanksgiving football reference.)

What I’d like to do this Thanksgiving is to provide something you can all be thankful for in years to come, so people will know to be aware of it, thus increasing its likelihood. So here—courtesy of PolitiFact—is a list of things everyone can stop forwarding in emails and on Facebook because, frankly, they’re pissing me off.

The messages in question are usually easy to identify through their heavy reliance of exclamation points and CAPITAL LETTERS!!!! Emails are most often sent by conservatives; liberals are more likely to use Facebook. The medium is less important than the bullshit quotient. PolitiFact has evaluated over one hundred of the most “popular” messages. Over 80% were rated either “False” or “Pants on Fire.” Only four percent earned a “True.” (The PolitiFact scale runs like this: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, Pants on Fire.)

Without further ado, here is a partial list of things I don’t ever want to see again. Senders will be subject to retribution.

  • Obama complained that the troops were whiners (Pants on Fire)
  • He refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance (False)
  • He wants soldiers to take a loyalty oath to him rather than the Constitution (Pants on Fire).
  • Because of "Obamacare," monthly Medicare premiums will more than double by 2014 (Pants on Fire)
  • Home sales will be taxed 3.8 percent (Pants on Fire) to pay for the new health care law
  • Obama's finance team is seeking a 1 percent tax on all financial transactions (Pants on Fire).
  • Members of Congress get full retirement pay after one term (Pants on Fire)
  • Congressional staffers and members don't have to repay their student loans (Pants on Fire).
  • The public option for health care coverage would have required everyone to be implanted with data-storing microchips (Pants on Fire)
  • Government had mandated everyone must get rid of their existing light bulbs (Pants on Fire)
  • You must list your guns on your tax return (Pants on Fire)
  • One percent of Americans are millionaires compared with 47 percent of House members and 56 percent of senators.( Half True)
  • Republicans in Congress have introduced dozens of bills on religion, marriage, abortion and gun control, but zero bills on job creation. (Pants on Fire.)

As PolitiFact points out, these messages have one thing in common: they’re spread by people who are passionate about their political beliefs. Here’s the key thing to remember: “passionate” should not equal “stupid.” The same Internet that has increased the speed of stupid to almost light speed also has easily found and highly respected resources that can tell you how much bullshit you’re spreading before you make an ass of yourself and bore/incite your audience. PolitiFact is one. Snopes and Truth or Fiction are just as good.

Everyone would be thankful, and the whole country would be better off, if our passionately held beliefs had a basis in fact. Let’s see what we can do to improve the level of civil discourse by promising to be more discerning in what we pass off as facts. Then at least I won’t be such a prick all the time.

(Thanks to the Show Tunes Correspondent for pointing this article out to me.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pay Attention, Conservatives

Last Friday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made the following statement in the Senate Budget Committee:

“This country does in fact have a serious deficit problem. But the reality is that the deficit was caused by two wars—unpaid for. It was caused by huge tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country. It was caused by a recession as result of the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior on Wall Street. And if those are the causes of the deficit, I will be damned if we’re going to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick, the children, and the poor. That’s wrong.”

Sanders isn’t just right; he’s Right.

Something else to consider, seen after Occupy Wall Street was evicted from Zuccotti Park:

“If they enforced bank regulation like they do park rules, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.”

And the head shot, seen periodically on the Internet:

“Remember when teachers, public employees, Planned Parenthood, NPR, and PBS crashed the stock market, wiped out half of our 401ks, took trillions in taxpayer-funded bailouts, spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico, gave themselves billions in bonuses, and paid no taxes?

Yeah, me neither…”

Yet those are the people—along with the previously mentioned elderly, children, sick, and poor—who are expected to make it right.

Lest Christian conservatives think their alleged moral high ground gives them special dispensation, here’s a quote attributed to Stephen Colbert, though its accuracy renders moot its source:

“If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

It’s way past time to pull your heads out of your asses, conservatives. Your mother was right: do it for too long and it will grow that way.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Political Nihilists

The Tea Party used to be a mildly sympathetic group, people short on facts who deserved empathy because everyone understands the frustrations of watching the country go down the shitter and feeling powerless to do anything about it. They brought an additional voice to the political debate in this country, one that was not parroting the same vague promises that brought us to the point where they felt the need to step up.

Their evolution has, however, been backward, moving back along the spectrum as though humans had devolved past monkeys toward more simple, mindless vertebrates. The Tea Party’s policy proposals have moved from conservative to reactionary to nihilistic.

What does the Tea Party propose to balance the budget? Eliminating the Department of Education, Energy, Commerce, and Housing; allowing opt-outs for Medicare and privatizing Social Security; letting people use gold-backed currency; and eliminating all federal student loans and farm subsidies.

These people aren’t stupid; they’re willfully stupid, reveling in the grotesqueness of their ignorance unlike anyone outside of Lyndon Larouche supporters. In a nation where upward mobility has fallen dramatically, they propose cuts bound to ensure things get even worse. They call themselves patriots, yet would erect barriers that can only make the pursuit of the vaunted American dream more difficult.

No compromise is permitted. Tea Party candidates negotiate only by backing off of their original positions to make them even more stringent. Democrats are complicit in their success rushing to meet them more than halfway, no matter where the halfway line has been moved.

Money has flowed to this “grassroots” movement like oil through a pipeline, much too fast, and in too large of chunks, to pass muster as a groundswell of support. The Tea Party exists now to harden the divisions that already exist, front line soldiers in maintaining the elements of the status quo that promise to reduce our stature even more than it has already. Their efforts to undermine the foundations of a developed society border on treason as they function as the shock troops of the 1%. It would be funny—many of their ardent supporters would be among the most to lose should their proposed reforms ever come to pass—if not for the fact they’ll take the rest of us down with them.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Sole Heir Rides Again

Few things are more boring than listening to someone else go on at length about how his kid won the refrigerator drawing contest at Millard Fillmore Elementary School for the fourth week in a row, a new third grade record. Unless he shows you photographs of all the drawings on his iPhone. With that in mind, I don’t spend a lot of time promoting The Sole Heir. She knows what I think of her. Frankly, it’s none of your business.

Once in a while, though, she does something that merits special attention. A junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, she has been accepted into a five-week undergraduate pre-med program in Nice, France. She’ll stay with a nice Nice family, attend classes, observe doctors, and generally build on the experience she gained from watching her father get his eyes sliced open. She gets to do this while spending the late spring in the south of France, less than an hour’s drive from Cannes while the film festival is underway. (That’s less than an hour in kilometers, so it’s even closer than it sounds.)

As far as we know, TSH is the first St. Mary’s student to be accepted into this program. (This opinion is based largely on the fact the interviewer had never heard of the school before reading TSH’s application.) She’s excited, and the entire family couldn’t be prouder of her.

She’s already thinking of what she’ll need there. I have told her, no matter how prepared she thinks she is, something will come up she hadn’t expected. For example, in the immortal words of the poet-philosopher Steven Martin, in France a street is a rue; a hat is a chapeau; a house is a maison.

Those French have a different word for everything.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Final Comment on JoePa

This is from Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback column in Sports Illustrated.

I asked Emily Kaplan, a friend of mine from New Jersey, a Penn State junior, and a writer for the campus paper the Daily Collegian, to write something about how the campus was dealing with the Sandusky/Paterno crisis. Her report, filed Sunday night from State College, Pa.:

The origin of the iconic "We Are ... Penn State" chant, the school's signature slogan on and off the football field, is believed to have occurred the same year Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. In the pre-Paterno year of 1947, SMU didn't want to play Penn State because of PSU's two African-American players and wanted to negotiate a compromise. "We are Penn State," said captain Steve Suhey. "There will be no meetings."

So began the battle cry of unity, as all Penn Staters, to this day, consider ourselves part of a special family. Suhey's son Matt starred at Penn State in the 1970s, and Matt's son Joe played fullback for the Lions Saturday against Nebraska. Walk into a crowded room and shout, "We are ... " and any Penn Stater would know how to respond. The chant represents pride, respect and tradition.

Today, we are Penn State ... but we are ashamed. We are ashamed that our leaders who preach doing the right thing and "success with honor" dishonored all of us with their inaction over an alleged child-abuse scandal. We are embarrassed by the way we are being portrayed, as a football-centric school that would let a child molester walk if that meant our name would stay clean. We read the grand jury report and we are just as disgusted as anyone -- if not more. We are praying for the victims and hopeful they will find justice. We are heartbroken that this could happen here.

But as a Penn State junior, I can tell you this: We are going to be OK. We are not going to let an assistant football coach, apparently a very sick one, or a few university suits define us. For a moment, we lost our identity. We felt sorry for ourselves. We sulked that we were the victims of media scrutiny and that this scandal tarnished our school. But we are not the victims. The children are. So we will move on, working on repairing our school, while honoring those kids along the way.

Already the scandal's ramifications are swirling around campus. Four students apparently lost their spring internships because companies didn't want to be associated with Penn State. Corporate sponsors are supposedly pulling out of THON, Penn State's annual dance marathon, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, which has raised more than $78 million for pediatric cancer. If all true, it's sad. If people don't want to wear their Penn State garb anymore, it's their decision. But this I know: We are a school with a glorious tradition, a school dedicated to doing things the right way. Our longtime father figure, Joe Paterno, taught us that.

Look, I'm no Penn State apologist. I can't condone the stupid tantrum some of my classmates threw Wednesday night after Paterno's dismissal. Nobody condones the arrogant decisions some of our leaders made. I've also heard the criticism against my school. Happy Valley is in a bubble. Penn State is too image-conscious. JoePa is too deified. The riots give some credence to that. So did the presence of 100 students at Joe Pa's modest off-campus home, many teary-eyed, waiting for him to come out Wednesday night so they could say goodbye and thank him. On the surface it seemed ridiculous. How could students still support this man who didn't do enough to help abused children?

Truth is, if not for Paterno's philanthropy and moral code (until his fatal lapse of judgment), I and thousands of others wouldn't be here right now. If not for Paterno and his grand experiment -- creating a national powerhouse football program with high academic standards -- Pennsylvania State might still be an agriculture school and State College might be lucky if there were a Wal-Mart within a 30-mile radius. Paterno made a huge mistake, but that doesn't mean he's not a good man. When he emerged from his house Wednesday night, I was there when he addressed the gathering. One of the first things he said was, "Go study."

So we will study at Paterno Library, a place Joe and his wife made happen, we will eat Peachy Paterno ice cream and we will remember the lessons he taught us about integrity and honor. We will also remember his mistake, and make sure we never repeat it.

We will fund raise harder than ever for THON, we will work harder than ever in the classroom. Our president, our athletic director, our football coach, will not be around anymore. But we will be, and we will start to rebuild our university's shattered image. Whoever our next football coach may be next season, we will stand behind him and our players. Because we are Penn State. And like the hundreds of thousands of alumni around the country, we always will be.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

JoePa, Part 2

Doug and Charlie are wearing me down; Paterno definitely should have done more. (See Charlie’s excellent piece on his blog, Temporary Knucksline.) What I'm still upset about is how institutions mete out justice today, in the interest of a politically correct vision of "fairness."

Right now there are five principals on the radar: Sandusky, Curley, Schultz, Paterno, and McQuery. (Fired President Spanier doesn't really enter into this part of the discussion.) Let’s see how things shake out with each of them.

At the risk of offending those who believe everyone is innocent until proven guilty, Sandusky is a piece of shit. Assuming he’s found guilty, put him in gen pop, make sure the rest of the cons know who he is, and let nature take its course.

McQuery was the only other person who could have done anything material. He not only failed to do so, he had to ask Daddy what he should do. I was willing to give him a pass because of his age at the time, until I remembered my own oft-spoken scorn for such arguments. We have men and women of the age McQuery was then making life and death decisions under fire on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a quarterback, he was trained in leadership skills. They didn’t take.

Paterno was summarily fired after 62 years of service that put Penn State on the map. This is not such a huge story if it happens at Coastal Carolina or Guilford. It’s a national sensation because it happened at Penn State, and Penn State is such a big deal because it’s one of the most successful programs in the country and graduates over 80% of its football players, with nary a hint of a recruiting violation. Why are all those things true? Joe Paterno. Penn State fired him for making the school look bad, when no one outside of State College would have cared about the school looking bad had not Paterno put it on the map in the first place.

Curley and Schultz had the same information as Paterno, and are under indictment for perjuring themselves before a grand jury that had no issue with Paterno’s testimony. Schultz was allowed to retire; Curley is on administrative leave while he defends himself against the charges. Should we assume he will get his old job back if he is found innocent? Let’s hope not. In that case, why not fire him now?

The reason that will rise immediately to the top is that you shouldn’t fire someone who has not been proven guilty. This is a bogus argument. Penn State has made it clear being under indictment is not a firing offense. Curley should be fired for the same reason Paterno was, for not doing more to stop Sandusky. His perjury is but a piece of that.

Now that I’ve had time to think about this, Paterno had to go. This happened on his watch. He as much as acknowledged that when he announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season. What still bothers me is how none of the good he’s done over the past 62 years seems to matter anymore.

Announcing his retirement after the season may have been a tactical error. He should have consulted with the Trustees first. Come to an agreement. At least then they would almost have to have had some kind of joint announcement of how and when he’d go. As it was, since he had already announced he’d leave, they were in a position where they had to show the media and PC Police they took this seriously. (Finally.) The result was a “don’t let the door hit you on the ass” firing.

Curley and Schultz—and even Sandusky—will get their days in court. Paterno—whose offense is not that he did too much wrong but not enough right—gets to fall on his sword. No one cares about his side of the story anymore. It is not a defense of child abuse to say that he deserves better.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Joe Paterno’s sixty-plus years at Penn State have come to an end. Like so many long tenures, it ended badly. Paterno, who has long resisted all attempts to retire him, announced he would leave at the end of this season and was not even allowed that, fired by the Board of Trustees last night.

Let us begin with what should be obvious: nothing that has happened, or will happen, to Paterno is in any way comparable to the damage that has been done to the young men molested by former assistant Jerry Sandusky. Assuming he is, in fact, guilty, there is no court with the authority to punish him severely enough. Athletic Director Tim Curley and University Vice President Gary Schultz have also earned their doses of infamy.

The preponderance of public invective has fallen on Paterno. Maybe that is as it should be; he is the leading public figure in this scandal. Still, the level of vitriol is surprising. Is it deserved? Unlike the vast majority of those who have heaped their scorn upon him via the internet today, I have actually read the grand jury report. I know using actual evidence violates the spirit of the web, but let’s give it a try.

Then graduate assistant (now assistant coach) Mike McQuery was in the Lasch Center (which houses the football offices) on a Friday evening to put new sneakers in his locker and pick up tapes for an upcoming game when he heard suspicious sounds coming from the shower. He took a look and saw former defensive coordinator Sandusky sodomizing a boy about ten years old. They saw each other, and everyone left.

McQuery, distraught, calls his father, then goes to his home, where his father tells him he has to tell Paterno. The next morning, McQuery goes to Paterno’s home and does so. Paterno said in his testimony McQuery was visibly upset. Paterno found his story credible enough to call Curley to his home Sunday morning and tell him what McQuery had seen. It also seems clear the language Paterno used was somewhat toned down from the description McQuery had given, though he definitely said Sandusky had been seen doing something of a sexual nature with a young boy. (Paterno at the time was in his mid-seventies. It is not surprising his language would not be as strong.)

Curley then contacted Schultz, under whose authority resided the university police force. They waited a week-and-a-half to speak to McQuery; Paterno was not present. Afterward they notified the police, but were apparently less than forthcoming. The grand jury summary says McQuery was “extremely credible.” Curley and Schultz were both described as “not credible.”

Could Paterno have done more? Absolutely. Should he have done more? Probably. Let’s look at what he did, and not what we’d all like to think we’d do in a similar situation.

McQuery played quarterback at Penn State, and obviously made enough of an impression on Paterno to be offered a graduate assistantship. He is entitled to a certain amount of credence. One Saturday morning, out of the blue, he tells Paterno he saw a man Paterno has worked closely with for over 30 years sodomizing a young boy. If I were Paterno, my first thought would be, “Kid, you’d better be pretty goddamned sure.” Paterno saw the McQuery was visibly upset, so he escalated it to his boss the next day. The grand jury finds no fault with this action.

The leading meme today has been, “Why didn’t Paterno call the police?” Let’s say he does. What does he tell them? “I have a grad student here who says he saw Jerry Sandusky buggering a small child.”

COP: Did you see anything?

JP: No.

COP: Send over the grad student.

They’re done with him. They need eyewitness testimony, and Paterno doesn’t have any.

The next argument I saw on a couple of comment threads was that Paterno should not only have gone to the police, he should have kept after them. These people watch too much television. I’ve made child abuse complaints twice, once when a woman shopping in a store where I worked refused to take her son for a free hospital exam after a nasty fall; the other occurred when child pornography appeared in my email. The police took my statement, got my contact information, and went on their way. They were clear that they’d call me if they needed me, but my role had ended. That’s what would have happened here. Police do not discuss open investigations with civilians. Period.

Another argument against insisting Paterno should have become a crusader for light and right is that State College PA is a small town. Its current population is listed at 39,898. Joe Paterno’s number is in the book. (Probably not anymore, but before this week it had always been.) Someone overhears on the police scanner that JoePa has called for cops, and what is still at that point an unsubstantiated claim is now public knowledge. He’s known Sandusky for a long time. He’s not likely to take the chance of ruining the guy’s life on one other person’s say so. What if it’s nothing? We know it wasn’t now, but Paterno wasn’t there when it happened; he didn’t see anything. He moved it up the chain, as he should have.

Put yourself in his position. You hear a similar story of a friend of thirty years. (For those who aren’t that old, think of a favorite uncle or mentor.) Is calling the police the first thing you do? Hasn’t that kind of relationship has earned the benefit of the doubt? Sure, you do something. Me, I’d urge the person who came to me to go to the police; he actually has evidence for them. If he’s afraid, then, yes, maybe I wander into the police station and make a statement. But maybe not, if I’m so high profile my appearance there–or the appearance of the police at my house–lets the toothpaste out of the tube.

I was then swatted with another argument, that the above statement only helps the guilty. We should go to the police with every such allegation we here. The presumption of innocence will protect against unfounded charges. Does anyone here remember Richard Jewell and the Atlanta Olympics? The Tawana Brawley case? McMartin pre-school? The toothpaste never quite gets put back into the tube, does it?

Maybe the worst thing I read today came from John Scalzi, a science fiction writer for whom I have had great respect. In the comment threads to his post demonizing Paterno, after a commenter said this:

“Meanwhile, all the rage at JoePa has taken the focus off the real monster.”

Scalzi’s reply:

“Alleged monster,” please. We should continue to remember that the alleged monster has yet to have his day in court.

Apparently for Paterno to get a fair hearing in the court of public opinion, he had not sinned enough; he needed to get himself indicted. Then a presumption of innocence would apply.

We all grieve for these children, and for Curley and Schultz to delay in their follow-up and then lie to the authorities is beneath contempt. What is disturbing is the levels of vitriol directed at someone who was not himself directly involved. It is true that all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing; that does not make them evil themselves, or cowards. It makes them human. Let’s please just tone down this casting of first stones.

The most valuable thing I learned today? How glad I am the readers of John Scalzi’s blog are not my friends.