Charlie Hebdo

If you are male and have not always been a hulking brute of a fellow, chances are that sometime in grade school you were challenged thus:

“You sayin’ something about my mother?”

Probably, but not necessarily,  you knew the challenger, at least by reputation. It’s unlikely that you ever gave a thought to his mother, however, much less honored her with a remark. But suddenly there you are, on the wrong side of an affaire d’honneur.

Now that we’re grown up we recognize the scenario for what it was:  a piece of street theatre, produced by the challenger in order to amuse and impress his invariably moronic followers.

In our victim-happy age it is too often forgotten that offense is taken rather than given and that taking it is a conscious choice. There are those who thrive on taking it in order to have occasion to demonstrate what they believe is their morally superior position.

Whereas sayin’ something about the schoolyard bully’s mother can get you a beating, sayin’ something about someone’s prophet can get you dead. The other difference is that you might be able to squirm out of the beating with only a slight loss of dignity, while you can avoid the death penalty only by yielding your liberty.

Some say that the liberty of speech and publication that is at stake ought to be seen as more theoretical in nature, subject to the very practical consideration that pushing it too far can lead to disaster. It’s a fair argument but, I think, a flawed one. It grants a veto to the crazed and violent among us, and a veto once granted to one species of insanity will surely be sought after by every other species.

Those who use satire and ridicule to keep the corrupt and the lunatic at bay merit our thanks, no matter how tasteless we in our secure fastidiousness may find their work.


Rah! Rah! Bah!

The college football bowl season is just about over, leaving me, who watched hardly any of the games, nonetheless vaguely curious what a “Duck Commander” is, that it should sponsor one, and who or what “Belk” might be. And, naturally, I am still chuckling at the thought of a marketing genius who believes that a name like “Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl” or “R + L Carriers New Orleans Bowl” or “Taxslayer Bowl” will really pull in the Nielsen numbers. (On the other hand, I find “Famous Idaho Potato Bowl” quite homey and sweet.)

If I have counted correctly there were 39 bowl games this time around. That’s 78 teams. There are so many bowl games that schools with losing records are drafted to fill out the lists. Quite an honor, that is. But when you’re staging an orgy, you can’t be too particular about who might wander in.

When it comes to considering what is wrong with college football, the first things that come to mind are, of course, the ridiculous salaries paid to the top coaches, followed by the coaches and administrators who conspire to ignore, excuse, minimize, or cover up bad behavior by their unpaid and often unsocialized workers.

But there are other, lesser offenses against taste and good sense that might conceivably be open to remediation, if enough people complained of them. Herewith, in no particular order, a few such:

1. TV timeouts. If you only watch games from the couch, you probably don’t notice because you’re in the kitchen or the bathroom, but if you’re in the stands, these are increasingly tedious and annoying. And surely the game officials must resent having to stand idly about waiting for some headsetted nobody on the sideline to wave that they may resume play.

2. Sideline posses. Who are all those people? And why are they allowed to get in the way continually? Backup players I understand, and a couple of coaches, and even the waterboy or -girl. But there is always a hefty crowd on hand. Agents? Bail bondsmen?

3. Preening and praying on the field. Imagine what would happen if every time a baseball fielder snagged a fly ball he doffed his cap and tried to leap into the bleachers. Or if a batter got safely to first and then celebrated by a mad leaping dash around the outfield. Absurd, you say, and you are right. My old Coach McCrary wouldn’t have stood for the chest-pounding and sky-pointing, I can tell you. “You did your job; that’s it. Now shut up and prepare to do it again!” I can hear him say (I’ve bowdlerized a bit).

4. Camera shots of idiot fans. Yes, they exist, like acne; we don’t need to see and are not improved by having seen.

5. State police. Why do some coaches think they need the same protection as the President? Is this a form of conspicuous consumption (in this case, of public rather than private funds)? Or just plain old vanity? I suppose it follows by some sort of logic from the salaries. And My! don't they look fierce!

6. The SEC. I know -- there’s nothing to be done. (But I’m sorry that the University of Missouri has chosen to keep such low company.)

The old joke about building a university that the football team can be proud of seems pretty quaint nowadays, doesn’t it?


John Evans and the Indians

Earlier this year, Northwestern University issued a lengthy report on the life and career of one of its chief founders, John Evans. The report was occasioned by a tide of criticism that the university had, over the years, failed to acknowledge Evans’ alleged complicity in the Sand Creek Massacre of November 1864. A panel of eight senior and distinguished scholars from within and without the university prepared the report.

Given the subject matter -- the mistreatment of Native Americans by white settlers and their government -- there was never any chance that the panel would exonerate Evans. He was there, or somewhere, as territorial governor of Colorado and therefore somehow responsible. The connection to Northwestern is yet more tenuous. Evans, then a resident of Chicago, where he had made a good deal of money in real estate, organized a group of fellow philanthropists to found a university to serve the rapidly developing region. This was in 1850. After the university’s formal founding the next year he continued to contribute to its growth. His role was recognized in the naming of the town that grew up around it, Evanston. Evans was also a pillar of the Methodist Church and a strong supporter of the new Republican Party. In short, he was not a bad guy. In 1862 he was appointed governor of the Territory of Colorado by the president, a Mr. Lincoln of Illinois.

Thus far the report treats Evans evenhandedly. One can only assume that the report continues historically scrupulous as to fact. But once the story moves to Colorado the easy judgments and the tone of moral superiority begin to surface. A random example:

Serious trouble began on April 12, 1864, when the cavalry confronted a group of Dog Soldiers near Fremont Orchard, northeast of Denver on the South Platte. Each side later claimed that the other fired first, but the net results were four troopers dead and several Cheyennes wounded (one so severely he became an invalid)....

The reader is invited to try how many ways that latter sentence might be rewritten. Here’s one way:

...the net results were several Cheyennes wounded, along with a number of troopers (four of whom so severely that for the rest of their lives they were dead)...

No one disputes that the Sand Creek Massacre was a bloody horror, or that the soldiers who committed atrocities that day and the commander who directed the attack and countenanced the soldiers’ behavior deserve the harshest condemnation. Nor is it any mitigation to note that these things happen in war -- one need only mention such places as Dresden, My Lai, or Abu Ghraib -- because war itself is an atrocity.

But the question being examined is specifically what responsibility John Evans bore for what occurred. And despite the best efforts of the panel to sustain an air of suspicion, they find he had none. He did not plan or order the attack; he did not know of it in advance; he was not in the Territory when it took place. The attack was directed by Col. John Chivington, commander of the Military District of Colorado, who, on behalf of the army chain of command, had asserted and maintained full responsibility for the question of war or peace with the Native Americans of the Territory.

The concluding chapter of the report spends pages in considering, not what Evans did, but what he might have done. He had worked hard to pacify the tribes, to resettle them peacefully, to force the agents of the Indian Affairs Commission to deal honestly with them, and to separate the hostile renegades from the great majority of tribespeople. He did not succeed in these aims. Given that neither the federal government nor the army ever managed to develop and apply a consistent policy toward the mainly peaceful Indians in the West, this is hardly surprising.

At times Evans succumbed to anxiety about the possibility of full-scale Indian war, such as had happened in Minnesota in 1862. At times he was angry over depredations committed by Indians and made undiplomatic statements. He was sensitive to his position as an appointed official -- as, given his subsequent treatment by a congressional investigation, he might well have been. In the aftermath of a congressional investigation he was sacrificed to the political necessity that heads be seen to roll.

The panel feel that rather than saying this at some critical moment, he might have said that. And they seem to feel that had he said that, things would have worked out for the better. This is not historical judgment, it is hindsight, and presumptuous hindsight at that. But it is just what was required of this report, so that the critics might be appeased.

(It is interesting to contrast the panel’s attitude toward Evans with this passage:

Honor bound to do so, Lean Bear’s relatives sent out revenge parties in May along the Arkansas near Fort Larned, where they killed two American settlers.

“Honor bound.” That is, they could do no other. They did what they had to do. They were scarcely moral agents at all. No need to look back and judge them by some other standard.)

But, of course, the critics are not appeased. In any tragedy, as anyone innocent of the wisdom of the Greeks knows perfectly well, there must be a villain. A recent letter to the alumni magazine proposes a list of things the university ought to do to atone. Number 2 on the list reads as follows:

Northwestern should issue a formal written and verbal apology to the three Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes for any pain and suffering the University may have caused, directly or indirectly, from its association with Gov. Evans.

What is not explained is what any of this had to do with Northwestern University, sitting quietly in Evanston and educating its students. What is charged by the critics is, on the face of it, guilt by prior association.

“Who killed the Kennedys?” asked Mick Jagger, and he answered his own question, “Well, after all, it was you and me.” This is paradoxically comforting, for if we are all guilty, then no one is particularly guilty.

It follows in this philosophy that you and I are responsible for all the other awful things that have been done by man on Earth. A cloud of guilt hangs over us all and cannot be expiated. It can only be accepted and confessed, over and over, in cathartic orgasms of self-shaming. In these rites we are led by those who, thanks to their greater sensitivity to such things, feel just a little tiny bit less guilty than the rest of us and are eager to proclaim it.

It wasn’t me who killed the Kennedys, and I very much doubt it was you. But once the notion of guilt is permitted to escape from the constraints of specific actions by particular persons, it quickly becomes in some minds a very useful sort of weapon against just about anything and anyone they don’t much like. The idea of collective guilt has produced some pretty nasty business over the ages, as in answering the question “Who killed Jesus?”

UPDATE: A friend was moved to create this work of art, which he calls "THE GOOD REVEREND CHIVINGTON BRINGS CHRISTIANITY TO SAND CREEK"



On Ferguson

Five years ago, before Henry Louis Gates was showing celebrities their family trees, he had a bit of a run-in with a policeman. I wrote a little essay on the incident, part of which I duplicate here:


[T]here’s a strain of civic cliché that requires us from time to time to pay lip service to the mythos of the “thin blue line” and the “serve and protect” motto on the door of the police car. This is all well and good when a policeman is killed in the line of duty, and the funeral procession marches down Main Street led by a pipe band, and all the surviving officers are Irish for a day. But….

Policemen are absolutely necessary. A dense and complex society would be impossible without them. But the police force is not a sign of our strength or virtue but of our weakness and viciousness, as individuals and as a collective. We have police because, in the end, in extremis, we cannot fully trust our neighbor to do right and not to do wrong.

In some societies there are classes of people who perform, or whose ancestors performed, necessary functions that were, nevertheless, considered unclean and shameful. The burakumin of Japan and the dalits of India are prime examples. If there were justification for such social stigmatization, policemen might well be so stigmatized. That they are not may be in large part a reflection of a deep sense of humiliation that we require their service to protect us from our own flawed nature.

That may also explain why we do not pay them enough to attract the sort of person we would actually prefer to have in a position of authority over us. For let us confess that the local police department does not, on the whole, attract the people we would like it to. If you live in a big city, the department doubtless has entrance exams and background checks and a training academy and continuing education and whatnot. If you live in a small city or a town, probably not; there, a stint in the military police or maybe just the infantry may be recommendation enough. And all this ignores the usual nepotism and cronyism that can guide the hiring for any public job.

So who becomes a policeman? Yes, some citizens who actually wish to serve and protect. The Officer Friendlies who come to school to put our fears to rest. But as often it is those who are attracted to positions of power; those who relish the thought of authority, especially armed authority – in other words, precisely those whom, if we knew their heart of hearts, we would never entrust with our safety. We all know this, and we all pretend not to most of the time. The notorious cases of abuse of authority we put down to a rotten few, the “rogue cops” as they used to be called. But it is the job itself, the terms of service, that makes abuses inevitable....

...Professor Gates forgot for a moment the lesson that we all learn early – don’t mouth off to a cop. He has a uniform and a badge and a gun. He may be right, in which case you are wrong; or he may be wrong, in which case he still has a uniform and a badge and a gun.


I'll Just Have the Pie, Thanks

A week or so ago the local newspaper ran a story about a nearby school district that was struggling somewhat with the idea of Thanksgiving. I write “the idea” in order to make the point that they hadn’t one. At least, they hadn’t one they could agree on and at the same time hope to avoid controversy over.

In their deliberations it was taken as given that the old story of Pilgrims inviting Indians to a friendly lunch was just so much Whiggish history, intended to underscore triumphalist white European male hegemony, etc. The problem was, once that story had been dismantled, what was left to celebrate?

Making Indian headdresses out of construction paper, with or without real feathers, is, of course, absolutely a non-starter: too much latitude for giving or -- much more likely -- taking offense. And don’t mention the food; who provided what to whom is too hot a topic to mess with. Under the scrutiny of unsentimental historians the great occasion has been whittled down to just another Thursday (if it was a Thursday). Of all those tales that once were taught to children -- Pocahontas, Squanto, the first Thanksgiving -- about all that is left is succotash and smallpox.

Human nature, taking its cue from its greater namesake, also abhors a vacuum, and for some there is no profounder vacuum than a day without shopping. And so it is that our great merchants, including Messrs. Target, Wal-Mart, and я Us, have moved swiftly to provide a reason to wake up on Thanksgiving:  The Pre-Black Friday Sale!

I can’t recall the last time I opened the front door on Hallowe’en to a small person in a homemade costume threatening some unspecified “trick” unless I came across with the goods. I miss the little bastards, and I miss imagining the Pilgrims and Indians starting in on their little nutcups while awaiting the great stuffed bird.

We as a nation probably owe a great deal to the social critics and, ah, educators who have over the last half-century so patiently dissolved the tissue of gentle lies that used to help children into their roles as citizens and parents, and I for one would be happy to see them get what they have coming. Perhaps some of them, at least, will be among those early birds who get trampled to death next Thursday morning.