Why The Fuss?

As pretty much everyone knows by now — even our good friend Lisa in far-off Ecuador — growing numbers of NFL players are refusing stand for the national anthem before football games and this has caused a great uproar. The roar was barely heard until the President stuck his oar into the mess and decided to stir it up. Most recently he has threatened to eliminate all tax breaks for the NFL to hurt the owners where they live and force them to insist that their players behave themselves. This has brought about a quantum leap in protest, much of it directed to the President’s insensitive manner of addressing the issue.

In all this confusion the central issue has somehow been lost. The President himself fails to make the distinction, as I mentioned in a previous post, between protesting the flag and protesting racial injustice. The latter is the real issue here and it has become lost in the emotional reaction of a great many people, including refusal to attend or watch games and even the burning of team jerseys, to what they regard as “unpatriotic” behavior.

The obvious question is why the hell do we insist on saluting the flag and singing the national anthem at sporting events? But I shall ignore it to focus instead on the reason there is protest, a protest that started with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem in a pre-season football game over a year ago. Kaepernick has apparently been ostracized from professional football as a result and, in any event, is currently unemployed. But his protest started the ball rolling and it got a huge push from the President’s mindless threats to the players and owners.

We need to bear in mind the sort of prejudice the Blacks face every day. Think of the Jim Crow laws in the South that would disenfranchise them from the body politic; the existence of the KKK and white supremacists and their loud support of our sitting President who is himself a Racist (with a capital “R”); the  looks these folks get every day and, if the have the courage to marry or even date a white woman or a white man, the thinly veiled hatred they see all around them, especially in the South. And, of course, there is the seemingly random shooting of unarmed Black men by anxious policemen that seems to have become a growing problem in our Inner-Cities.

When I was in high school in Baltimore many years ago I worked in a grocery store after school each day with two Black men who drove the delivery trucks. We had a number of interesting talks and for the first time in my life I began to see the world a bit through their eyes. They would tell me, calmly, about the glares, the derision, and the contempt they experienced every day, and I recall one of the men saying in a plaintive voice how he just wished he could take his family out to a meal in a nice restaurant, so many of which had “No Colored” signs in their windows — even in the mid-1950s.

This was Baltimore, folks. Not the deep South. Maryland was neutral during the Civil War even though their sympathies were for the most part with the South — after all there was a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore prior to his assuming office which ended with him entering Washington in disguise and protected by Pinkerton men. It became a standing joke, but it was no joke. In any event, Baltimore was a Southern City and even in the 1950s there was wide-spread prejudice against folks of color. When school integration was ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954 there was considerable unrest and protest by groups of white people in the streets of Baltimore which reflected a deep prejudice that had been agitating just below the surface.

There is no way I can fully understand what it is like to be a Black person. But I can imagine, and I can sympathize. The current protest is over injustice and whether or not we agree with the methods that have been chosen to make that protest we need to keep our eye on the central issue. And we might want to recall that it is a peaceful protest and that this country was founded on protest and a concern for justice. There may have been a better way to draw attention to the problem, but at the very least the manner chosen seems to have brought about a discussion that was simply not taking place. And steps are being taken, small ones, but steps in the right direction. There is now dialogue occurring in many cities across this land to erase the tension between the police and the folks they are sworn to protect and serve, and in general to see what can be done to make things better for those who have to carry the burden of prejudice with them throughout their lives.

Eventually the dust will settle and folks will start going back to NFL games — after all they crave diversion! But one must hope that the steps this protest have initiated will get longer and stronger and the injustice that is being protested will be at least somewhat abated. It may never be totally eliminated (Lincoln thought it would not),  but we need to live together and America, we are told, stands on the principle of fairness to ALL.

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Right, Not Might

The earliest statement of the doctrine of “might makes right” that I know of comes in the first book of Plato’s Republic. In that book — which I think stands apart from the rest of the Republic and is pretty much self-contained — Socrates is politely discussing with an elderly man, Cephalus, the nature of justice. The conversation is moving along slowly and without incident when, suddenly, Thrasymachus, a brash and confident young man, breaks into the conversation in the following manner:

“He bawled out into our midst. What balderdash is this that you have been talking, and why to you Simple Simons buckle and give way to one another? But if you really wish, Socrates, to know what the just is, don’t merely ask questions or plume yourself upon controverting any answer that anyone gives — since your acumen has perceived that it is easier to ask questions than to answer them — but do you yourself answer and tell what you say the just is. And don’t you be telling me that it is that which ought to be, or beneficial or the profitable or the gainful or the advantageous, but express clearly and precisely whatever you say. For I won’t take from you any such drivel as that!”

After a few moments during which Socrates pretends to be overwhelmed by this sudden onslaught and worries that Thrasymachus has loaded the dice by telling him what he cannot say, Socrates manages to ask the man himself (“It is easier to ask questions rather than to answer them!) what he thinks justice is, to which Thrasymachus replies:

“Hearken and hear then, said he. I affirm that the just is nothing else than the advantage of the stronger. Well, why don’t you applaud? Nay, you’ll do anything but that.”

Socrates first says he must understand just what it is that Thrasymachus has said, clarify his use of terms — a typical Socratic move — and he then proceeds to tear Thrasymachus’ definition to little pieces in his typical fashion, with irony, and understatement. In the end, he forces Thrasymachus to admit that the unjust man is not truly happy and that justice cannot be a matter of mere strength and position in society. Thrasymachus leaves the group with the whimper:

“Let this complete your entertainment, Socrates, . . ..”

The rest of the Republic — which is Plato’s largest work, consisting of ten books — is taken up with the attempt by Plato’s nephews, Glaucon and Adimantus, to convince Socrates that he must indeed define justice and not resort to trickery or easy sophisms. But, as I mentioned, the thesis of Thrasymachus in that first book stands alone as the first attempt, so far as I know, to articulate the view that might makes right. And it is a view that has a great many followers and adherents today. “Justice is the interest of the stronger,” “might makes right.” These are themes we hear again and again.

The problem is that the notion of “right” is a moral precept and the thesis of folks like Thrasymachus is insisting, in effect, that society has no place for justice and right; it makes room only for the interest of the stronger and more powerful. Clearly there is some truth in the claim that the wealthy and powerful rule the roost in this and many another society. But what is not clear is that they have any right to do so, that it is “right” that they do so. In a republic, for example, the right thing is for the citizens to rule, not special interests or the wealthy with their hidden agendas. Like so many after him, including the infamous Machiavelli, there has been a consistent attempt to make politics a matter of expediency rather than morality, to collapse the “ought” into the “is.”

These lessons are important today as we see our republic in tatters, threatened to be destroyed by the wealthy and the corporations that have not-so-hidden agendas of increased profits and endless wealth for the few. And they would pull the political strings that control the “elected representatives” who are supposed to be working for the citizens but are intent instead on doing what they are told so they can be re-elected and continue to hold onto their lucrative and cushy jobs. But doesn’t this make Thrasymachus’ point? Isn’t this exactly what he was saying to Socrates centuries ago? It would seem so. But Socrates’ point, which he takes great pains to spell out, is that this may be the way things are, in fact, but it is not the way they are supposed to be. “Might” is not to be equated to “right.” The two are different and it is the hope — if not the expectation — that a republic would pursue the latter and not the former. It cannot allow the two to collapse into one: they are not the same at all.

Greek Wisdom

The Greek poet Aeschylus wrote a trilogy usually referred to as The “Oresteia.” It centers around the revenge death by Orestes of his mother who had killed his father Agamemnon after his return from Troy. Orestes is hounded by the Eumenides (the Furies) who represent the ancient concept of justice as “an eye for an eye.” In the third play, “The Eumenides,” Orestes flees to Athens where he seeks the protection of the goddess Athene. His advocate is Apollo who, at the urging of his Father Zeus, had urged Orestes to kill his mother, and her lover as well, because she had taken the life of a Greek hero.

Athene suggests to the Eumenides that rather than hound Orestes to madness or death he should be tried by a jury of twelve Athenian citizens. She will play the role of Judge and in case of a tie vote she will cast the deciding vote. After the two sides have presented their view of the matricide (during which Apollo presents the curious argument that the father is the true parent of the child; the mother merely carries the seed) the jury votes and their decision results in a tie which Athene breaks in Orestes’ favor. The message is clear: the new laws of Athens have replaced the barbaric laws of justice, represented by the Eumenides, and Athens herself now stands before the world as representative of civilization itself, defender of true justice. As Athene says in her summing-up:

“. . .In this place shall the awe of the citizens and their inborn dread restrain injustice, both by day and night alike, so long as the citizens themselves do not pervert the laws by means of evil influxes; for by polluting clear water with mud you will never find good drinking.

“Neither Anarchy nor tyranny shall the citizen defend and respect, if they follow my council; and they shall not cast out altogether from the city what is to be feared.

“For who among the mortals that fears nothing is just?

“Such is the object of awe that you must justly dread, and so you shall have a bulwark of the land and a protector of the city such as none of human kind possess…”

The Athenians are urged to take pride in their city which stands now as a beacon of justice in a barbarian world where once the Eumenides had reined supreme — higher even than the gods themselves. The Eumenides themselves are argued into submission after taking exception to the decision of the jury and Athene herself by the promise of becoming themselves helpful guardians of the city with a place of honor. They are appeased and they say near the end of the play:

“This is my prayer: Civil War fattening on men’s ruin shall not thunder in our city. Let not the dry dust that drinks the black blood of citizens through passion for revenge and bloodshed for bloodshed be given our state to prey upon.

“Let them render grace for grace. Let love be their common will. . .”

Two things strike the reader at once: love is to replace hate and the laws replace brutal justice, laws that properly speaking demand our respect and even our fear. They define the state and they create a civilized world apart from the world of those who cry for blood.

I have thought recently how different Athene’s world is from ours of late. We have selected as president of this country a man who is well known to bend and at times to break the laws, believing himself to be above the laws and incapable of error. A man who faces a trial for serial rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. His loud and obnoxious followers wave their weapons of death high and shout hateful epithets; they thirst for “black blood of citizens through passion for revenge.”

We express our surprise, for some reason, as the man now proceeds to select like-minded men and women to surround himself with as president during the coming years, small-minded men and women who, like him, live in a small world filled with hatred and suspicion — even paranoia. Hatred seems to have displaced love as the central emotion in this new world which appears to be splitting into two halves; fear is directed toward the unpredictable behavior of this man and his cohorts rather than to the laws and the Constitution of the land that has heretofore defined this civilization as in many ways superior to those that surround it. Gone is even the faintest echo,”let them render grace for grace. Let love be their common will.” How many of those who voted this man in are now beginning to have second-thoughts?

Ours is indeed a Brave New World. The Eumenides would be delighted.

Justice?

Albert Camus, the novelist and member of the French Underground during the occupation of France by the Germans, died at the young age of 46 in an automobile accident. Throughout his life he was opposed to capital punishment. He sensed that his opposition would be ineffectual, but he thought it worthwhile none the less. Indeed, he championed the view that despite the absurd nature of human existence one ought always to fight against what one thought was evil. Once one stops fighting he simply takes up space. He thought capital punishment was evil.

A clue to the depth of that feeling is found in his autobiographical novel The First Man, which was published after his death by his daughter, working from notes scribbled in the margins of the hand-written manuscript. In that novel he tells of an experience his father had early in the child’s life when he went to a public hanging of a man who was reputed to have killed his employers and three children. There was widespread hatred directed toward the killer and the trial was quick and public hanging was the verdict. Speaking of himself in the third person, as “Jacques,” Camus describes the scene afterwards:

“. . . Jacques’s father was livid when he came home; he went to bed, then got up several times to vomit, and went back to bed. He never wanted to talk about what he had seen. And on the night he heard the story, Jacques himself, when he was lying huddled on the side of the bed . . . choked back his nausea and his horror as he relived the details he had heard and those he imagined. And throughout his life those images had followed him even into his sleep . . .”

I have written about capital punishment before though it is a topic that seems to be only of mild interest to people for the most part — perhaps because we don’t have public executions — yet. There has been discussion of such a possibility, but even in this blood-lusting culture so far it has remained only a dream in the hearts and minds of those who think justice is all about revenge. Because, in a word, that is was capital punishment is: revenge. It is assuredly not justice, especially in an age when we discover growing numbers of cases of false identity and miscarriages of the legal procedures that incarcerate (and execute) men, mostly black men, only to discover that they were innocent. Indeed, it is precisely the likelihood (and I stress that term) of human error that undermines any possible argument for taking the life of one human being because he presumably took another or other lives. If humans were infallible, which we assuredly are not, there might be a case for capital punishment. But because we are not and because we tend to let our passions and raw emotions dwarf our judgment, there can be no possible argument for taking a human life to avenge another life.

I have often thought about this on a deeply personal level: how would I react if my wife or my sons were killed and the killer was caught and brought to trial? Would I want that person executed in order to right a wrong? It’s hard to say, but I expect I wouldn’t be thinking clearly and would simply want someone punished and punished soundly for what they did. But that would be my emotions taking control. In my mind, when it is clear, I know that it would be wrong. Taking a human life under any circumstances is wrong and cannot be justified. It can be rationalized, we can find bad reasons for doing what we want to do on a visceral level, but it cannot be justified.

Sweet Revenge

I have blogged in the past about the inherent problems with capital punishment — chiefly the fact that humans who are inherently fallible make the decisions that determine whether another human will die for a presumed crime. But the recent conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 22 year-old found guilty of participating in the bombing of innocent victims in the Boston Marathon in 2013, raises the issue anew. This is especially the case since the young man was found guilty and sentenced by a jury in Boston, Massachusetts, presumed to be a liberal and enlightened city in these United States.

Recall with me a quote from Francis Bacon who said at the turn of the seventeenth century:

“Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to the more ought the law to weed it out.”

The presumption Bacon makes here is that the law should “weed out” the human tendency to revert to revenge, that revenge is not something we humans ought to be motivated by and it can and should be inhibited by civil law. And yet what possible justification can there be for capital punishment, even in the case when it is crystal clear that that human has taken another life, or lives, except revenge, pure and simple? The usual problem with capital punishment, that human beings are prone to error, especially in moments of stress, cannot be raised here. There is no question of Tsarnaev’s guilt in this case. Three people were killed and many more injured seriously. The question is whether death by injection, as ruled by the court, is called for in this case in a country that prides itself on being humane and civilized.

As Bacon suggests, revenge is a kind of “wild justice” and certainly not worthy of rational, civilized persons who claim to be obedient to the rule of law. Presumably the civil law is consonant with the moral law and if it is not we have no obligation to obey it — as Martin Luther King reminded us many years ago. It is precisely the civil law that is supposed to help civilize us and make us more amenable to the softer virtues of compassion and sympathy for our fellow humans. And, if Bacon is to be believed, law also ought to curb our desire to get revenge on those who do us harm. When we ignore these tenets we lower ourselves to the level of those who live by “wild justice.” Revenge may be sweet, but it is not something we ought to lower ourselves to if in doing so we risk doing irreparable damage to ourselves in the process. Toward that end, law ought not to encourage capital punishment; it ought to “weed it out.”

At a time when those who are pledged to protect and serve the cities in which we live are charged with unfettered and unjustified violence toward, in many cases, innocent civilians, we naturally begin to question the legitimacy of civil law. But there is a difference between respect for those laws when they promote the common good and the human beings who occasionally abuse the privilege of enforcing them. For myself, I think those who abuse the position of protectors of law and order should be punished and punished soundly. But we cannot turn our backs on the law itself when it is precisely that which separates us from brutes — which is what we become when we insist that revenge is lawful. Bacon was right.

Cover-up?

I am sure you have heard the latest in the sad and truly unsettling story of the Baltimore Ravens’ running-back, Ray Rice, who was recently suspended from the NFL for “domestic abuse.” In fact, the case goes back to July when a CCTV video clip showed Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée from an elevator in an Atlantic City hotel. Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner who claims unlimited power in these matters, suspended Rice for two games as punishment for the deed and then the proverbial shit hit the fan. The outrage over the film clip that was shown widely followed by the slap on Rice’s wrist was loud and clear. In light of the flack he had stirred up,  Goodell reneged and issued a new policy statement on Domestic Abuse with stiffer penalties that seemed sensible and calmed the waters somewhat.

But very recently another film clip was released showing Ray Rice striking his fiancée in the elevator, knocking her against the side of the elevator and falling unconscious to the floor. After this, he dragged the unconscious body out of the elevator and lowered her unceremoniously to the floor of the corridor outside. Suddenly the shit started to fly once more. Big Time! This time The Ravens football team cut their ties with the player and Goodell suspended him “indefinitely” from the NFL. Iron-Brain Mike Ditka, former Chicago Bears head coach, worried about Ray Rice’s future “earning power,” while others raised serious issues. One of those people was known to remark that the NFL seemed to be “reacting” rather than being “proactive.” Further, many wondered, were they reacting to Rice’s brutal behavior — or to the public reaction to that behavior that was becoming widespread with repeated showings of the film clip in television (ESPN has been known to exploit such incidents, ad nauseum)? It seemed clear that the latter was the case and many people expressed their disgust, not only with Rice, but with the NFL as well. But, for the most, part talking heads shied away from pointing the finger straight at Goodell and the NFL.

Until Keith Olbermann got in front of the cameras.

As this piece of must-see TV makes clear, Olbermann pulled no punches. He held not only the NFL but also everyone involved in the case, including the courts, responsible for covering up the truth. He called for the resignation or the firing of all concerned. He expressed the notion that the NFL was simply out to save the image of what has become America’s favorite sport and a billion-dollar industry to boot, and not the millions of women in the country who face the reality of domestic violence every day. The NFL fumbled the ball, according to Olbermann and they (and these who supposedly enforce justice) deserved to be punished accordingly. One knows that this will not happen, of course, since the reach of powerful corporations and the incredibly wealthy individuals in this “democracy” is far and effective. Their reach, in fact, raises many questions.

Why, for example, did the NFL claim not to have seen the latest video clip from within the elevator until TMZ released it to the public? Goodell claimed that if he had seen the clip the initial punishment of Rice would have been swift and fair, yet the hotel said the NFL never contacted them about the clip of the event. Further, a complete description of what had happened inside that elevator (if not the clip itself) was available not only to the prosecutors but also to the NFL. Why did the prosecutor not proceed with charges against Lewis after seeing the clip despite the fact that Rice’s fiancée (now his wife, if you can imagine) was unwilling to press charges? When Goodell interviewed Ray Rice about the incident, why did he insist that the victim accompany him — which flies in the face of every known procedure for fair and impartial judgment? Olbermann even suggested that Lewis’ wife might have appeared in support of her husband out of fear of another beating, which is not beyond the realm of possibility. As has been pointed out by legal analysts, the state does not require that the victim press charges, especially when there is visual evidence such as the clip of the incident actually occurring in the elevator. But nothing happened until the clip was released to the public and outrage was heard from one coast to the other.

Reacting rather than pro-acting. Very well put. But one expects that is business as usual for professional sports where the bottom line is all that really matters. Olbermann put it well. The people involved were more concerned about saving face than doing the right thing. This strikes me as symptomatic of a much larger problem we have in this country that almost certainly stems from our Business Mentality. This is our inability to consider possible outcomes and take measures to prevent problems before they arise. Instead, we focus on the short-term (profit) and are habitually involved in cleaning up the mess afterwards. This does not bode well for the future, given the many serious problems this country — and indeed the world — faces.

Thick and Thin

One of the more interesting books I read in my checkered past was written by a sociologist. I say that because it is remarkable given the fact that the man had more interesting things to say about my field in philosophy, namely ethics, than most of the philosophers I have read since Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. The author, Michael Walzer,  begins with an anecdote and expands his argument into broader territory.

“I want to begin my argument by recalling a picture (I have in mind a film clip from the television news, late in that wonderful year 1989) . . . It is a picture of people marching in the streets of Prague; they carry signs, some of which simply say “Truth” and others “Justice.” When I saw the picture I knew immediately what the signs meant — and so did everyone else who saw the same picture. Not only that, but I recognized and acknowledged the values that the marchers were defending — and so did (almost) everyone else. . . .How could I penetrate so quickly and join so unreservedly in the language game or the power play of a distant demonstration?”

Imagine, I might add, we are sitting in our living room watching the news and we are confronted by a story about some folks on the other side of the world who are taken from their homes at night and locked up without a trial and never heard from again. Despite the fact that this is happening in another part of the world, we would not hesitate to judge that this is wrong. Walzer calls this part of “thin” morality — a few basic principles (he focuses on justice) that are binding anywhere and at all times. He makes a strong case, since any child can tell when injustice has reared its ugly head: just give one of them a smaller piece of birthday cake than their sibling! “It’s not fair,” they would shout! And since justice is essentially a matter of fairness, none would really argue with the child. That is the nature of thin morality: it is straight-forward and compelling to any open mind.

Of course, when it comes to morality we are not dealing with open minds. In this egalitarian age where all are regarded as equal in every possible respect and “discrimination” has become a nasty thing, we are admonished not to be “judgmental” and we are asked repeatedly “who’s to say” what’s right and what is wrong? Walzer argues that in the region of “thick” morality, namely those hundreds of morés that are peculiar to specific cultures, things are, indeed, relative. We don’t really care what the marriage customs are in far off countries, how people dress, whether they shave their faces, or whether kissing is considered unacceptable in public. Nor should we. It’s none of our business. In fact, when it comes to thick morality, the only people in a position to judge are those actually living in the culture making the judgment.

And this is where folks go wrong: they lump all of morality together, thick and thin, and draw the hasty conclusion that it’s all relative — to particular cultures or even to particular individuals. It’s part and parcel of our anti-intellectualism that has fostered a deep distrust of experts and our unwillingness to acknowledge that some people know more than others and some things are simply wrong. In itself, this may not be a matter of concern. But when we reflect that the war in Iraq, as an example, was undertaken by a small clique of small-minded people who were on a power trip and who refused to confer with known experts about the dangers such a war would invariably entail, we can see how this sort of blindness can lead to tragedy on a broad scale — thousands of lives lost and millions more displaced or out of mind. The war was wrong from the git-go.

In a word, ethics is not relative and there are some who know more about the world and what things might lead to catastrophe (and are therefore clearly wrong) than others. I would only add to Walzer’s notion of justice as the central concept in “thin” morality the related concept of human rights, which seems a bit broader. It would rule out such things as lying to Congress and the rest of the country about so-called “weapons of mass destruction,.” since we all have a right to the truth.  In any event, human rights certainly include justice, since all persons clearly have the right to be treated fairly. This does not mean people are all the same, or that everyone knows as much as everyone else. It simply means that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to being treated the same way. It is a “thin” precept that is so simple a child can see it clearly.

Uncomfortable People

The removal of Jon Greenberg from his teaching position in a Seattle High School is disturbing for a number of reasons. Apparently, Mr. Greenberg taught a course called “Citizenship and Justice” that employed what is called the “courageous conversations” teaching method that encouraged honest confrontations among students about their personal experiences of racial discrimination and injustice. The course had been taught successfully for ten years but recently a student complained to her parents that the course made her feel uncomfortable because Greenberg “created an intimidating educational environment.” Her parents complained to the school board who removed Mr. Greenberg from his position and moved him elsewhere. The story contains a brief, but telling, comment by another teacher in the same school system who suggests that the move will have ramifications:

Teachers at the Center School are concerned that the school board’s disapproval of the Courageous Conversations engagement tactics will have a chilling effect throughout the school district.

Doug Edelstein, a teacher at another Seattle public high school says he worries how it will affect discussions about other controversial topics.

“That it will create a chilling effect is an understatement,” Edelstein told The Seattle Times. “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.”

There can be little doubt that the decision by the school board will have a “chilling effect” on the teaching of controversial subjects throughout the Seattle school system — if not beyond. Whenever a teacher is told that he or she must steer away from certain subjects, or teach the subject differently — by an administrator or the administrator’s superiors — the results will invariably be felt throughout the system. It is not simply a matter of academic freedom, which is a value recently honored more in the breach than in the observance. It is a matter of an open system that is designed to help students think for themselves as opposed to a system in which students are simply taught what to think and when to think it. In a word, it is the difference between a system that focuses on education, properly conceived, and education reduced to training. The people in Seattle should be disturbed by the fact that their school board seems to want their schools to turn out robots rather than thinking adults.

But there is a feature of this story that disturbs me even more: it is the notion that a student can complain to her parents and the result is that the entire weight of the Seattle school bureaucracy is brought down on the shoulders of a man who is, from all reports, a stellar teacher of young people. As Edelstein said, “Student discomfort will become the arbiter of curriculum.” No doubt. No one individual should have that sort of power. And those who call for more involvement in the schools by the parents might do well to think about the involvement of this student’s parents in this particular course. It’s not that unusual for the parents to side with the administration against the teacher (and vice versa) when they think their child has been mistreated.

Academic freedom is a precious and absolutely necessary value to defend in our schools at all levels. Teachers must not be told what to teach, though if what they teach turns out to be offensive there must be a way for the student to withdraw from that course without penalty if he or she is made to feel “uncomfortable.” But the truth often makes people feel “uncomfortable,” and we must be wary of those who want people fired or silenced simply because they make us feel uncomfortable. Our problem is, on the whole, we are much too comfortable and as Arnold Toynbee said years ago, humans cease to think when that is the case.

Double Standard

I must confess that despite the fact that I support affirmative action in principle and realize that innumerable past injustices must be remedied, the playing field made level, and the glass ceiling shattered, I do find myself bothered when I read about a young man who appears to lose out on a job opportunity because he isn’t a woman or a member of a minority. I had a number of students and a son who ran into this sort of reverse discrimination and I was never comfortable with it on an emotional level even though I realized that past wrongs needed to be corrected. There is, however, considerable strength in the argument that today’s young people shouldn’t have to pay a price for the sins of their predecessors. I am happy to see the native people buying back much of their native land with the money they take from gullible white gamblers, but that is a bit different from seeing even deserving women and  people of color get the attention and rewards they deserve and have been denied over the years if there is the least suspicion that there was any sort of discrimination involved in the process. In such cases, there  is always the suspicion that this is not really fair to the people who must step aside in order for others to get ahead. I didn’t like it when it was happening to the minorities and I don’t particularly like it when it happens to those in the majority — though (again) I understand why it happens.

Along these lines I read in the current Sports Illustrated an editorial telling about the dismissal of a black woman coach in Texas for having a sexual affair with one of her athletes while at the same time a white male coach at the same university is reprimanded for having sex with a member of his training staff, forced to take a leave of absence, and then rehired later at a higher salary. The details of the story make it clear that there is a double standard at work here since the two cases are practically identical in most of the particulars; yet the punishment in the two cases is as different as can be: one coach lost her job and the other gets a promotion and a raise in salary. One is a black woman, who was not married at the time, and the other is a white man, who was married and who just happens to have been a star quarterback on the football team — which, in Texas, carries a great deal of weight. The university in question is the University of Texas, reputed to be one of the great academic institutions in the Southern part of this country which is not known for its outstanding academic institutions (though we will find the occasional Duke University, The University of North Carolina, and The University of Virginia which tend to stand out). One would expect more of such exemplary institutions of higher education as the University of Texas.

In the end the matter will be decided in court since the woman who was fired has decided to try to make things right after many years. I am pulling for her with both my head and my heart. I hope she wins and draws attention to the injustice that is so easily recognized. Double standards are always just plain wrong wherever and whenever we find them.

Offensive Defense

Can you believe it? The story begins, SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The civilian attorney representing the U.S. soldier accused of murdering 17 Afghan villagers wants to replace the military lawyer assigned to the case after disagreements over how to handle his defense.

“You are fired, sorry, but we have much more experience than you,” Seattle-based John Henry Browne, the outspoken lawyer who has been the public face of the defense of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, said in an email to military lawyer Major Thomas Hurley.

One recalls Shakespeare’s pithy comment in Henry VI, Part II where Dick says “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” That seems about right. The man accused of killing 17 Afghan citizens in a blind fury and who might well have been suffering from brain damage and battle fatigue after seven tours of duty in two different war zones is now depending on warring lawyers to save his own life. How ironic. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. One of the lawyers was appointed by the military, the other selected by Bales himself; each has his own ideas about how to conduct the defense.

You have to love the way the firing of Major Hurley (which must be approved by Bales and the military before it becomes a reality) is accomplished by a terse, grammatically incorrect, self-promoting email message. And while the lawyers fight among themselves about the best way to save this man’s life, the accused is about to undergo a psychological examination to determine whether or not he knew what he was doing when he went out, twice, and allegedly shot seventeen civilians. The one bright spot in all this is that our system of law (despite the wranglings of the lawyers) still maintains a person’s innocence until proven guilty. Let’s hope the system prevails in spite of the lawyers. As Kant noted long ago: without courts of law we are barely above the level of the brutes.

Be that as it may, the story goes on, There was also disagreement over the decision to put Bales’ wife on the Today show, where she said her husband showed no signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, potentially damaging Bales’ most likely defense. What’s going on here? The defendant’s wife is dragged on a talk-show and attests that her husband seemed perfectly normal, though in an interview with ABC earlier she said he didn’t seem to know where he was or why. In any event, it is easy to understand why this must frustrate a lawyer who knows full well that Bales’ wife is not a trained psychologist and also sees that the best way to save his client’s life is to claim temporary insanity. But that’s the way we do things these days: we try the defendant in public while the public is still interested — interest does indeed wane rather quickly, as we know — and then we take the defendant to court.

So we have the man’s wife going on talk shows offering her unprofessional opinion about her husband’s mental condition. Meanwhile, wrangling lawyers argue publicly over the way to try their client who waits to see if he is found guilty, first in the public eye, then in the eye of 12 good men and women who are supposed to be impartial and presumably have not already judged the man before the trial begins. Again, if it weren’t so serious it would be funny — and if the families of the murdered victims back in Afghanistan weren’t waiting to see that justice is done.