Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Undiluted religion

Christopher Hitchens is a writer best enjoyed as he seems to enjoy himself -- usually with a stiff drink and an understanding that he is going to come at you with both barrels blazing. Sometimes I agree with him, sometimes I don't, sometimes I find him shocking and offensive and sometimes I think he's on to something.

He had an interesting piece in Slate yesterday on that magazine's search for a "moderate" Muslim to offer a perspective on Islam as part of a discussion on that faith. Hitchens asks this: Why are mainstream organizations that organize these sorts of panels always on the lookout for voices that won't offend their audience? I'll let him answer that.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

The religious boomerang

For a country so proud of its heritage of religious oppression, oops! . . . I mean, religious tolerance, there is something very discomforting about watching Mitt Romney, the ex-Massachusetts governor now running for the Republican presidential nomination, having to defend his lifelong and obviously sincere adherence to the Mormon faith. Hillary Clinton hasn't had to explain the mysteries of the Methodist tradition; no one has asked Barack Obama to promise that he will not make the teachings of the United Church of Christ the law of the land; nor has anyone asked the not-so-devout-Catholic Rudy Guliani to choose between the Pope and the Constitution. In fact, the major presidential candidates -- and that includes John Edwards and John McCain -- have been pushed to establish their religious bona fides, to reassure voters that they are indeed "people of faith," that their religion provides an important moral compass in how they plan to lead the country.

Romney, on the other hand, has been singled out by the establishment media since the moment he announced his interest in the 2008 nomination to reconcile his membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with his political aspirations. This is terribly unfair. Romney's Mormonism is no more or less sinister than any other candidate's religious faith. Too many Americans still make the unfortunate mistake of ranking religious legitimacy based on the number of adherents to a particular denomination. Once you make the leap from reason, skepticism and empiricism to a belief-system rooted in faith and celestial intervention, it doesn't matter how many people belong to what church, synagogue, mosque or one-room shack off in the woods. Belief is belief; superstition is superstition. The extent to which we see a religion as legitimate, even normal, is how well its principles square with our secular sense of right and wrong. For the Mormons, the public fascination with their history of polygamy is what forces Romney to "defend" his faith. No one has asked Guliani about whether the Catholic Church's exclusion of women from the priesthood means that he will exclude women from cabinet-level positions in his administration. A reporter who asked Guiliani a question like that would be rebuked by his or her peers. And deservedly so.

Since Jimmy Carter announced that he was a "born-again" Christian when he campaigned for the 1976 nomination, presidential candidates have offered their fair share of "God-talk" on the campaign trail. Ronald Reagan openly courted the New Christian Right in the 1980 campaign, and he won their votes by promising to honor their social agenda and stick it to the Russians. Bill Clinton made inroads back into the Christian world in 1992 by invoking his Baptist upbringing to Christian African-American and white audiences alike without scaring Catholics and Jews, something that no Democratic nominee had ever been able to pull off. Bush's success in attracting conservative Christian voters -- and his relentless, often obnoxious emphasis on religion as his administration's operative handbook on everything from approving birth-control drugs to conducting foreign policy -- has been such that they have become the primary nominating base for the Republican party. You certainly do hear much talk about how the Democratic party abandoned its New Deal roots in favor of the politics of identity, and become a party dominated by liberal feminists, environmentalists, gays and racial minorities (read: African-American) at the expense of mainstream America (read: white Americans concerned about taxes and "values"). Like all stereotypes, there is truth and fiction in that. But if you really want to see a party that has changed over time, compare the Republican nominating base of 1952-1976 with the activist element of today.

The religious boomerang may well hit the Republicans in the 2008 presidential campaign. Mitt Romney shouldn't have to answer for his Mormon faith anymore than Barack Obama should have to answer for his "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ. Should the Republicans nominate Romney -- not a given, at this point -- and find the attention on his faith annoying, distracting and irrelevant, they'll have every reason to be mad. But they should also remember that they started all this, and, to borrow from the scriptures, you reap what you sow.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Pinnochio Gonzales

By now, Alberto Gonzales's stand-up, or sit-down, routine before Congress is familiar to anyone who has watched his performances or read the transcripts.

Either Gonzales (a) doesn't remember what he doesn't remember, assuming he has any recollection of what he did or did not say; (b) remembers what he doesn't remember, stating clearly for the record that he might have misspoken on a unfounded accusation that he doesn't remember remembering, except for that one time when he misspoke about a recollection he doesn't recall having; (c) has stated for the record that he said something that he didn't say, reminding a Senate or House panel that the question he answered was not posed in a way that allowed him to recall the recollection that he remembers not remembering, a matter about which there is no dispute; (d) recalls quite clearly that he doesn't remember being in the loop on a matter that he had delegated to another loop, which was not within his realm of responsibilities as Attorney General, a position that does not require him to be in the loop on policy questions involving loops that more properly within the scope of the White House counsel's office, an office that is responsible to the president and not the Attorney General, who is responsible to the American people, assuming that the American people understand that they are not part of the loop to which the Attorney General reports ; or (e) simply denies recalling the recollection that is beyond the scope of his duties as Attorney General, something about which he clearly told the truth in a previous appearance about his lack of candor in answering questions about the candor of his answers to questions about his lack of recollection, assuming he could recall that matter.

The Washington Post reports this morning that Gonzales's serial incapacity to remember anything he has ever said or state accurately for the record anything he may or may not have said goes back to his days as a lackey as George Bush's lackey in Texas.

New links

I am in the process of adding (and, in some cases, deleting) links located on the lower right-hand side of this page. Suggestions are always welcome, and you need not include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Baseball done right

I started to compose a tribute to Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn last night and then remembered that I had written something about them after they were elected to the Hall of Fame back in January. That piece said pretty much what I would say again, so here it is.

The timing of Ripken and Gwynn's induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame is particularly ironic, with Barry Bonds one home run away from tying Hank Aaron's record of 755 career homers. Remember, too, that Mark McGwire was on the ballot with Ripken and Gwynn, and received just 23.5% of the votes necessary for induction. Rarely have fans had such a chance to witness the differences in character of baseball's great players. The McGwire story is sad, as here was a decent guy who succumbed to the steroid culture of the era. Bonds, uh, not so much, a first-class jerk who will never understand why almost everyone outside of San Francisco is groaning that he will own the most treasured record in American sports.

Forget Bonds for a moment. A toast to Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, two great players of great character.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

A lawyer for every stem cell

Think your kid should be praying in school or your neighbor should not have the right to consensual sex with another person of the same sex in his own home? Look no further.

It turns out that pro bono causes are not just for the inner-hippie in all those young associates taking jobs in the nation's big law firms. The American Lawyer reports that more and more firms are taking up conservative causes because many of their new attorneys have spent time in conservative politics or became active in the conservative legal movement through the Federalist Society. An interesting development.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Poor little rich lawyers

Oh, the horror of it all. Slogging through those awful, boring lectures . . . sometimes at 9.00 a.m., even! Really, who wants to hear about the evolution of contract law when there are sooo many more interesting topics out there in the law to learn about, like ERISA, the doctrine of tortuous interference and, of course, corporate finance!?!

And there are the hours and hours and hours of assignments to complete, often on topics of little or no interest to anyone other than the professors who teach them. Add to that the competition for law review, moot court tournaments, a part-time job with a local firm that sometimes pays only three to four times the minimum wage and you have, well, what do you have other than a rough, tough life? Damn that Hobbes! Life is poor, nasty, brutish and short. Can you imagine what Hobbes might have thought had he gone to law school?

So it's fair, absolutely fair, for law students who land summer jobs at the most prestigious law firms in Washington to earn their $2,700-3,100 per week. Just ask Vincenza Battaglia, a rising third-year law student working as a summer associate for Steptoe & Johnson. "I feel like I deserve it," she said about her compensation, which, over a year, amounts to approximately $140,000. "We work really hard in law school."

Thank you! It's about time somebody stuck up for the right of law students to go out and earn. And what about the janitorial staff emptying her trash baskets, or the employees in the firm's cafeteria, or the Metro operators driving buses and trains and maintaining the tracks, or the guys on the street selling hot dogs and coffee or all the other people tending to her and her colleagues' needs? Do they deserve to make $2,700 per week? Hell, no -- because they didn't go to law school, much less a top 25 school, much less finish in the top 10-15% of their class!

And are the little people of the world saddled with $100,000 in student loan debt? No! Are they guzzling lattes (courtesy of their Visa or Amex cards) to maintain their wits as they bear through that final assignment in civil procedure? No again! Let's not even get into those fools finishing up their masters degrees in social work, education or child psychology, many of whom are also financing their educations through loans. So they'll probably be poor, trying to save the world or busy teaching 4th graders how to read and write. That was the life they chose. They could have gone to law school and vaulted into America's only natural aristocracy (that's Tocqueville, not me). But they didn't.

Yes, poor little law student. You deserve it all. You deserve to earn more than the men and women who taught you in elementary and secondary school, more than the professors in college who were dumb enough to pursue their interests in English literature, history, economics, art history, criminology, music and, yes, even political science so that you could prepare yourself for law school, sometimes even with our recommendation! You deserve all the consumer durables you have ever wanted! Forget the crushing debt that you took out rather than work or delay your decision, the limited career choices that await you, the burnout, the fatigue, the personal compromises you'll make every day, that you're entering a life that will see 70% of you gone within five years . . . forget it all and enjoy your medallions of veal and box seats at the Kennedy Center. You deserve it because you went to law school and worked really hard!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Ward Churchill is not a First Amendment martyr

Until 9.11, Ward Churchill was the type of college professor of little interest to anyone other than his students and conservative commentators who loved to cite him as a case-in-point example of the nutty, "politically correct" liberals that supposedly dominate the academy. Churchill has taught at the University of Colorado in Boulder since 1991 and served for a time as the chair of the department of ethnic studies. His specialty, as far as I can tell, is writing provocative, sloppy and lightweight essays and books that criticize the United States for its historical and current treatment of Native Americans at home and how it has carried out foreign policy against every other country on Earth, and presumably against those planets yet undiscovered in the cosmos. Churchill has never been taken seriously as a scholar. This is someone who, on his 41 page curriculum vitae, includes dust jacket blurbs among his published works. But Colorado chose to hire him, tenure him and then make him a departmental chair. Departments are supposed to read and evaluate the work of their job candidates before they interview them. They are supposed to read the work of professors up for tenure before they make a decision to hire or fire them. Tenure candidates also are required by most institutions to have their work read and formally evaluated by outside reviewers. The same is true for a candidate up for promotion from associate to full professor. Having been through all three stages in my academic career, I can tell you that internal and external reviewers sometimes offer little more than a general assessment of a candidate's work and sometimes pick a person's work apart with a sand-tooth comb. I have also served as an outside reviewer in numerous tenure cases. Sometimes my assessment of a candidate's work has been consistent with the university's decision, and sometimes it has not. In the end, the responsibility for a candidate's fate rests with the university making the promotion decision.

Ward Churchill would still be wowing his students with tales of American misdeeds in relative anonymity today had he not, shortly after 9.11, published an inflammatory essay , later published into a book, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens, that said, more or less, that the United States got what it deserved. Churchill's essay was known to very few until January 2005, when, after accepting an invitation to speak at Hamilton College in New York, a student publication unearthed Roosting Chickens when it was preparing an article about his visit. Students protested and his lecture was canceled. But the incident vaulted Churchill into the limelight, and he has played the "celebrity professor" card for notoriety and profit ever since.

Churchill's 112 page "book" was published by a vanity press in Oakland. Roosting Chickens was not subject to any critical or outside review. Although Churchill portrays himself as an authentic spokesman for Native American causes, the American Indian Movement has long disassociated itself with him, and the tribe to which he claims kinship has called him a "fraud."

The comment that put Churchill into the public consciousness was his characterization of some of the World Trade Center victims as "littleEichmanns," a reference to the Nazi general who helped shape and and carry out the Holocaust.

A few weeks after the Hamilton students made Churchill's comments public, the University of Colorado convened a special panel to consider two fundamental questions: (1) Were Churchill's published comments and public speeches protected by the First Amendment? (2) Did Churchill commit academic fraud by misrepresenting facts in his academic and popular work, plagiarism in his published articles and other acts of "academic misconduct?"

On July 24th, the university announced that it planned to fire Churchill for academic fraud. It did not, however, find that Churchill's incendiary statements crossed the line protected by the First Amendment. The Colorado Board of Regents made clear in its report that its decision to fire Churchill was not based on his controversial speech, but because of "research misconduct."

Churchill has remained defiant, stating that he will not leave his post. He has assumed the mantle of victim, claiming that he was fired for his controversial comments. Churchill, of course, has insisted that his "research" is all on the up-and-up, even though, as so many external critics have demonstrated, it most certainly is not.

* * * * * * * * * *

So, is the Churchill "case" an easy one? Yes and no. Here's the easy part: Churchill can be fired for academic fraud. Falsifying research is the equivalent of legal or medical malpractice. Making a claim that something is "true" based on research methods that are fraudulent undermines the scholarly enterprise. Deciding what is and what is not "true" is much more complicated than academic and political ideologues make it out to be. For example, in political science, concluding that support for abortion rights by a Republican in a particular congressional campaign actually helped that candidate by pulling votes from a Democratic candidate who supported abortion rights may or may not be true. But the data collection and reporting methods, the statistical instruments chosen to analyze that data, and the degree to which finds can be generalized are subjected to more objective standards. Does this mean that all political research begins with an objective base? Not at all. Assumptions are inherently biased, especially when dealing with the political world. But that doesn't mean that a researcher is precluded from conducting research that is subjected to the scrutiny of colleagues. Falsifying data, asking "leading" questions, misreporting results or just plain making stuff up is fraud, and a professor can be fired for failing to heed to the scholarly norms of a discipline.

On to the harder part. Can a professor be fired from a state university for having opinions that strike most observers as racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist and so on? In the particular case of Churchill, did the university have the power to fire him because of comments he made that were anti-American and, without much of a stretch, anti-Semitic? Clearly, Churchill's comments were what began an investigation into his career, including the charges of academic forgery. Remember, the university said his comments were not what got him into trouble. But suppose the university had concluded that his comments were over the line, that they exceeded the boundaries of discourse suitable for intellectual exchange? Could they have fired him?

The answer is, yes, they could have. The First Amendment does not automatically extend to universities and the professors that teach and work within them. Universities choose to grant their faculty the freedom to purse their interests generally without restriction. And contrary to what many conservatives believe, including those still beating the antiquated "political correctness" drum, universities are inherently conservative institutions. Believe me, you are not going to find many Ward Churchills working in American universities. The system to which most academic disciplines are wed precludes professors from saying outlandish things or conducting research that is counter-intuitive to the established convention of a field. For an assistant professor looking for tenure and promotion, the path to success is to operate within the prescribed parameters of the published scholarship. I know many academics who look forward to tenure and promotion, for no other reason that it will allow them to pursue more interesting and adventurous research, or to widen their intellectual dexterity or to attempt to engage the public debate on topical issues through informed commentary. The careerist straight-jacket imposed by the convention of the modern academy, though, is a separate matter, and one that I will save for another day.

What to make of the Ward Churchill "controversy?" Good luck to the attorney representing him. Universities do not make decisions to terminate tenured professors easily. Based on my reading of the evidence submitted against him, the Colorado Board of Regents had every right to fire Churchill for academic misconduct related to fraudulent research. Churchill presented certain conclusions as true without bothering to cite to established evidence. To say, as Churchill did, that American commanders deliberately introduced smallpox into Indian communities to wipe out their populations without offering any historical data to support that conclusion is a serious matter. Of course, university authorities have their questions to answer, such as why it took his 9.11 comments to bring an issue to light that should have caught before. Still, fraud is fraud, whether then or now.

Firing a professor for offering an opinion that American commanders engaged in deliberate genocidal conduct against Indian communities, and that the introduction of smallpox was part of the overall strategy to murder the Indian population, is a separate question. Is that a firing offense? No, not to me. It's not even close. But upping the ante to comments that chill a classroom or impede the learning process does not mean that a professor can depend on the First Amendment to come to the rescue. None of these questions are as easy or as black-and- white as many commentators seem to believe they are. They require nuance and deliberation, something sorely missing from the comments of crackpots like Ward Churchill -- and sometimes the decisions of universities, too.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Glam rock is rocket science, after all

Brian May, the guitarist for Queen, the glam-rock band that all but defined the genre, has finally completed his doctoral dissertation in astrophysics, "Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud," at the Imperial College, London.

Congratulations, Dr. May. As a graduation present, may you never, ever have to play, "We Are The Champions" again, an awful slur on someone who was actually a great guitarist with a very original and distinctive sound.

Dumb jocks, dumb fans

In the two days since I posted a short comment on the bad behavior of professional athletes (and their "amateur" colleagues in college and high school sports), this morning's sports pages again offer a window into the insanity of America's (and, in fairness, the world's) addiction to competitive athletics.

Over the weekend, Jordan and Eric Staal, who play for the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Carolina Hurricanes of the NHL (that's the National Hockey League, you know, the sports league that is broadcast on the Food Network) were arrested at a Minnesota resort for, as far as I can tell, raising hell at a bachelor party. "I think that the incident itself is obviously regrettable and everyone involved is pretty embarrassed, as they should be," said their agent, Rick Curran. "It's an unfortunate example of what can happen when you get 15, 20 people together and there's loud noise." On the Sports Stupidity Richter Scale, the Staal incident registers about a -25. Jordan is 18 and Eric is 22. Both are great players who will only get better. Only because of a lack of talent, a lack of friends at that age getting married and a lack of money, do my less noble adventures in post-adolescent stupidity remain sealed. Then again, Jordan will make $850,000 this year and Eric will pull in $4.5 million. At Jordan's age, I made $1.10 per hour plus tips waiting tables in a delicatessen. At Eric's age, I made $4 per hour the summer before I started graduate school working as a "gopher" for a publishing company (which called my job an "internship). True, I did drive a 1974 Cadillac Coupe de Ville to my "internship," something that made me a cult figure within my office. But I was still nervous about getting in trouble, lest I lose the car, my job and the free room in my dad's house. Think boys, think.

* * * * * * * * * *

Over at the Tour de Steroids in France, four cyclists have been dismissed from the race for doping violations, including the race leader, Michael Rasmussen, who was fired by his own team for lying to them about his whereabouts during his team's pre-race training in June and, implicitly, the positive steroid samples that showed up in a recent test. The other cyclists suspended were from Italy, Germany and Kazakhstan. So score one for the Americans. We haven't had a cyclist dismissed from the Tour de Steroids this year. But remember what happened to Floyd Landis, the winner last year, who was accused of cheating after several blood tests came back showing something in his system? Nothing . . . yet. He still has his title, but no one really believes it was legitimate.

No sport is tested as openly and rigorously as professional cycling. What are these guys thinking?

* * * * * * * * * *

Boston Red Sox star pitcher and prominent George Bush supporter Curt Schilling wants the records of Jose Conseco, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and, of course, Barry Bonds, erased from the record books because of their confessed and alleged steroid use. And that goes for anybody else, too, Goddamnit!

"If someone wrote that stuff about me and I didn't sue their [butt] off, am I not admitting that there's some legitimacy to it?" the Bloody Sock man told HBO's Bob Costas.

The response from the always first-class Bonds? Costas is a "midget who knows [nothing] about baseball."

Uh, Barry, Costas is probably the most knowledgeable journalist covering baseball outside of Peter Gammons. And he's not a midget -- he's height-challenged.

And Curt, remember, back when Jose, Mark and the other juicers were doing the dirty, the MLB players union fought tooth and nail to ban drug testing from their employment agreements with the owners. I've never taken on the owners' side on any labor dispute in baseball. But on drug testing? Come on. A no-brainer.

Meanwhile, Patrick Arnold, a chemist for the now-scandalized BALCO, the outfit that allegedly provided steroids to Bonds and did provide steroids to many other athletes, said yesterday that Bonds did use the 'clear' in his strength-building "regimen" back in the early 2000s.

"My day will come," said Bonds.

You tell 'em, Barry!

* * * * * * * * * *

Meanwhile, one Ronald Flores was arrested yesterday on assault-and-battery charges after throwing a half-full water bottle at Oakland Athletics designated hitter Mike Piazza, who was waiting in the on-deck circle for his turn at bat.

"I'm pressing charges,'' Piazza told reporters. "He's going to spend the night in jail. He hit me right in the helmet. ... It's just inexcusable at a baseball game to throw a bottle at someone. Just a joke."

Piazza should consider himself lucky that he wasn't hit in the head or anywhere else by some drunk fueled on a day's pay worth of beer. Bad fan behavior is a long-standing tradition in the United States. Remember when a Chicago White Sox fan slapped the wife of mild-mannered Houston Astros star second baseman (and future of Hall of Famer) Craig Biggio after Sox player Scott Podsednik hit a game-winning home run? Didn't think so.

A few weeks ago, when I attended the Tiger Woods-sponsored AT&T National golf tournament, the beer tents started selling the "foam" (as opposed to the "clear") at 8.30 in the morning. Even in the days before a beer or two once a month became my regular intake, I never understood how anyone could drink a beer or anything else in the morning or afternoon, much less start pumping them down after breakfast. After attending a baseball or hockey game, or a professional golf tournament, I now understand why marijuana is illegal in the United States. Can you imagine the havoc some drunk would cause if he also got a little high? Or worse, can you imagine what might happen if someone who didn't drink smoked a little dope instead?

Shudder-shudder. At least the fans aren't using steroids -- that we know of.

* * * * * * * * * *

But there is good news. Tom Glavine won his 299th game last night. I hope he gets 300 on a different day than Puffed Up Daddy Barry gets 756. If, by some strange twist of fate, they achieve their feats on the same day, tie goes to the winner. And it's not Barry.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Fifth Dimension

Some people make New Year's resolutions -- to stop smoking, lose weight, start exercising, do something about their addiction to Internet porn, put back their neighbor's newspaper after they read it or learn their children's shoe sizes. Me? No time. Instead, I am a summer "resolution" person. Things slow down quite a bit for me then, so that's when I pledge to do things that, 95% of the time, I end up not doing.

I am making considerable progress in my home office, though. Getting rid of old books, worthless papers and neglected power company bills -- the feeling is great. And every so often you find a buried gem. Such was the case for me when I found an old cassette tape, "The Age of Aquarius," by the Fifth Dimension. Did that bring back some memories!

I grew up during the "stereo console" era. A little refresher: a stereo console looked like a big piece of furniture, except that the top opened and . . . ta-da! . . . a turntable lay underneath. And on that turntable for the better part of my 11th year was "The Age of Aquarius," which I am pretty certain my mother listened to 34 or 854 times a day, which meant I listened to it . . . a lot. But I have to tell you, even though I was getting to the point of listening to my own music, which did not include Broadway show tunes or Big Band jazz, I absolutely loved the Fifth Dimension, mostly because I absolutely loved Marilyn McCoo, who, along with Florence Larue, formed the female vocal front line of the group. Backing them were Billy Davis, Jr., who later married McCoo, Ron Townson and Lamonte McLemore. The men had come from St. Louis to Los Angeles to find their way into the entertainment business. McCoo and Larue were former beauty contestant winners who were formally trained vocalists who had also moved to Los Angeles in search of their big break. Their paths crossed, and they formed a vocal harmony group that yielded numerous AM hits: "Up, Up and Away," "Let the Sunshine In," "Wedding Bell Blues," "The Age of Aquarius," "Stoned Soul Picnic," and many more. Forget the male three-fifths of the Fifth Dimension: McCoo and Larue were gorgeous and could really, really sing.

Nope, the Fifth Dimension isn't a guilty pleasure. It's just a pleasure. Vocal harmony groups are really a thing of the past. The Fifth Dimension was one of the last great ones. Download any of the above songs or just buy "The Ultimate Fifth Dimension," which has all their great songs. You'll be hooked.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

More fun and games from Fredo

Read Emily Bazelon's article in Slate on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's latest testimonial adventure in front of the Senate.

Even after all these months of traipsing back and forth to Capitol Hill to defend his indefensible behavior, Fredo still throws up the bullshit without thinking twice.

Then again, his boss, The Decider, informed the nation today that we are in Iraq to defeat al-Qaeda, which is run by foreign leaders loyal to Osama Bin-Laden. The Decider pulled out one of his favorite rhetorical tricks, chastising the mysterious "they" who seem to oppose all things good and wholesome for America. Only The Decider knows.

Knows what? Makes me nostalgic for the Cheney presidency.

Zeebop at Chef Geoff's

Zeebop, the acoustic version, will play a private party for a departing American University colleague at Chef Geoff's tomorrow from 12-2 p.m. Chef Geoff's is located at 3201 New Mexico Ave., NW. If you're in the neighborhood, pop your head in the back and say hello. Joining me tomorrow will be the always brilliant Mark Caruso on guitar and the D.C.-area's reigning bass phenom, Justin Parrott.

And then there's me.

More dates are coming in August and September for the acoustic and electric versions of Zeebop. I will also be playing here and there with Ocio Jazz. Stay tuned for details.

Revenge of the professors?

The other day I mentioned to a colleague, "Would it be hilarious if there was a website called, RateMyStudents where professors could contribute their stories about stupid student behavior?"

Once again, another brilliant idea a day too late. My erstwhile colleague just sent me the following link. I kid you not.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Professional sports are not games

So . . . at least one NBA referee -- and maybe more -- might have conspired with reputed mob bosses and other low-level gambling figures to "fix" the outcome of games he officiated. Michael Vick, a star quarterback for the NFL Atlanta Falcons and erstwhile pitchman for Nike, Coca-Cola, Rawlings and Kraft, has been indicted on charges stemming from his involvement in an illegal dog-fighting racket. The current leader of the Tour de France, Danish cyclist Michael Rasmussen, is biking his way through the French moutains, roads, valleys, towns, cities and wine regions under a dark cloud of suspicion that he uses illegal performance-enhancing drugs. And, of course, there is the odious Barry Bonds, three homers away (as of this afternoon, July 24th) from breaking Hank Aaron's all-time record of 755 home runs. Looking like the bad result of cross-breeding between an Oompa-Loompa, Frankenstein and an Atlantic City pit boss, Bonds nonetheless continues to deny charges that his late-career feats of strength can be attributed to illegal steroid use, charges that have followed him since the early 2000s, when, in his late 30s, he began hitting home runs more often and further than when he was younger.

And these are just stories from the last two weeks.

Naturally, the sports press has been filed with stories that alternate in theme from "Gee, I can't really believe that our nation's role models to youth would electrocute underperforming pit bulls sent to kill each other in cage matches" to "Gosh, perhaps we should look a little harder for the few rotten apples who are spoiling a good time for all." Not to dip into a cliche -- isn't that itself a cliche? -- the question here isn't, "How can people making so much money, performing in the public eye and revered as heroes do such stupid things?" but "Why are sportswriters and the public so surprised that athletes paid inversely to their social utility don't do such stupid things more often?"

Let's go back beyond the last two weeks and review just a few of the more ignoble moments in American sports history:

The 1919 World Series "Black Sox" scandal; fixed professional boxing matches that were part of the sport from the beginning; the "barnstorming" adventures of baseball and football players in the 1920s and 30s who played in rigged games sponsored by gamblers; the mob-sponsored point-shaving scandals in college basketball in the 1950s (the 1951 New York colleges); the 1972 Olympic men's basketball final between the United States and the Soviet Union; the final admission by Pete Rose that he bet on baseball; the cocaine scandals that rocked major league baseball in the 1980s; the cocaine scandals that almost led to the NBA's demise in the 1970s; the indictments against members of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics organizing committee for bribery in connection with bringing the event to Utah; the French judges who handed the Russian ice skating pairs a gold medal during those same Olympics based on "pressure" from certain members of the IOC; the Tonya Harding/Nancy Harrigan fiasco from the 1994 Olympics; the false documentation of Danny Altmonte, a 14 year-old, so that he could play in the Little League World Series, which limits participation to 12 year-olds.

That's no misprint. The Little League World Series.

One more time. The Little League World Series.

College sports, believe it or not, are worse. The corruption that runs through big-time college athletics is simply staggering, and our society's way of dealing with it is simply to deny that it exists. Think of American campaign politics applied to college sports. Americans don't want to admit that money and political influence are intimately connected. All the talk of campaign finance "reform" is just the equivalent of applying a band aid to a malignant tumor. Same with college sports. The biggest revenue sports, football and basketball, draw their athletes from the least affluent demographic of the college population, while small or non-revenue sports draw their athletes from middle and upper-class families. Add to that the lunatics so deprived of anything meaningful in their lives that seeing their alma mater win games is worth any amount of money to them, and you have a recipe for disaster. The list of colleges that have had parts of their athletic programs placed on probation because of ethics and/or financial shenanigans is too great to list here. And those are just the programs that get caught. Yet, well-heeled alumni, the gamblers, the sports marketing, sporting goods and sports broadcasting industries keep lining up for more . . . more . . . more . . . and more. More Americans, I am convinced, know how much money Michael Vick was making per year or which endorsements he might stand to lose than how many American soldiers have died in Iraq since March 2003. Something ain't right.

Listening to sportswriters and broadcasters go on and on about these athletes and their "regrettable" choices would be comical if the deeds weren't so dastardly. Enablers to the extreme, the sports media complex builds up the jock culture in the United States and then feigns shock when the Michael Vicks and Tim Donaghys blow a hole in this superficial veneer. Yesterday, cleaning out my home office, I found the October 5, 1998, edition of Sports Illustrated, with a beaming Mark McGwire celebrating his 70th home run on the cover.
Although I'd forgotten I had it, I saved it, apparently, because I wanted to remember the 1998 baseball season -- McGwire's 70 home runs, the class he showed during the chase (which steroids can't erase), Sammy Sosa's 158 RBI, Kerry Wood's 20 strike-out game and Barry Bonds becoming the youngest player ever to reach the 400/400 mark in home runs and steals. McGwire, in the inside photos, looks like Paul Bunyan; Bonds, on the other hand, appears noticeably smaller. Not small, mind you. But not the he-man he became subsequent to that season.

Just seven years later, Mark McGwire is a forgotten man. Despite Hall of Fame credentials, he has no chance of getting into Cooperstown. The sportswriters who once worshiped him on bended knee now refuse to acknowledge the phenom they helped create.

Tom Verducci, one of SI's best baseball writers, tells the tale of the 1998 baseball season as if we had just witnessed the karmic coming-together of warring nations laying down their arms in the name of world peace and a better hope for mankind. Not once in his article does he mention steroids. Less than four years later, Verducci wrote a cover story for SI on the "worst kept secret" in baseball -- the use of steroids to build strength and enhance performance. He also compared steroid use in baseball to amphetamine use, something that "everyone" knows has been around since the 1950s. Why didn't anyone mention this before? Because the entertainment value of a 450-foot home run is too great to jeopardize by unearthing the dirty side of sports.

Athletes who make decisions -- and these are decisions, not coerced activities -- to abuse drugs or get involved in gambling operations or assault women or other illegal or unethical behavior bear responsibility for their actions. But we need to take a closer look at the sports media complex that props them up and pays them millions and billions of dollars to play games. Americans would rather debate the nuances of Ichiro Suzuki's new multi-year $90 million contract than whether Congress should pressure President Bush into funding a government program to provide health care for poor children. One is definitely more important than the other. Unfortunately, most Americans don't seem to know which one.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Recommended reading

My colleagues over at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies have begun a new blog that combines a description of their programming, findings from sponsored research, links to blogs and articles of interest (mine is notably missing, so you can rest assured that this is serious enterprise!) and comments from American University faculty and graduate students on American politics and other invited guests.

The CCPS is directed by Jim Thurber and Brian Schaffner, colleagues from the Department of Government, and is staffed by graduate students Jennifer Singleterry and Alicia Kolar Prevost.

Read, learn and enter the fray.

On a separate topic, I have just finished Kevin Merida and Michael Fletcher's book, Supreme Discomfort: The Divided Soul of Clarence Thomas, a superb acccount of Clarence Thomas's strange personal and professional odyssey that culminated in his nomination to the Supreme Court and continues to perplex so many in the African-American community. I'll have more to say on this later in the week. In the meantime, if you're looking for an interesting book to pass the time while you're waiting on the cable guy or until the first presidential primaries, look no further.

Dick Cheney gets the key to the executive washroom

Dick Cheney, international man of mystery and the wild card in our constitutional separation of powers, joined the executive branch for 2 1/2 hours Saturday. Here's the rundown of what happens when the president transfers power to vice-president.

On Saturday, my daughter spent the afternoon loading water balloons and my son asked me for a paint ball gun for his upcoming birthday. Any coincidence?

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Persecuted Christians?

The next time you hear a far-right, self-identified "Christian" candidate running for public office talk about the "persecution" that "people of faith" face in American politics, ask one of them this:

"Mr. Forehead/Ms. Big Gold Buttons, how do you square your position that Christians are being "persecuted" in the United States, that persons who profess their allegiance to the Lord, that any "person of faith" operates at a disadvantage in our liberal, secular culture, with the most recent survey conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which reports that 63% of Americans are less likely to support a candidate who "doesn't believe in God" compared with 4% who feel the same way about a Christian candidate?"

"Did you know that 39% of Americans are "more likely" to support an identified "Christian," compared with 3% who are more likely to support an atheist?"

"Did you know that the only trait more attractive to American voters is military service? And the difference between Christians and military veterans is less than the statistical margin of error?"

Voters are more likely to support gays, confessed adulterers, cigarette smokers, candidates in their 70s, those without a college education and . . . are you ready for this post 9.11 America? . . . Muslims? Looks like we are making progress on the diversity front.

And speaking of persecuted Christians, Tammy Faye Messner passed away over the weekend at the age of 65. Her persecution didn't come at the hands of the American people, who embraced her as sort of a camp-televangelist pop star, but by virtue of her marriage to Jim Bakker, who, by the early 1980s, built a business empire around televangelism (The PTL Network, or "Praise the Lord" was Bakker's creation, a religiously-themed amusement park and various other snake-oil enterprises. Bakker fell from God's good graces in 1989, when was convicted on federal charges of bilking supporters out of $125 million by offering them "lifetime" vacation privileges at his Heritage USA theme park that he could not provide. He also was found guilty of steering approximately $3.7 million of proceeds slated for the Lord's work to supporting his fleet of Rolls-Royces, luxury homes and, of course, an air-conditioned dog house for Tammy Faye's dogs. Bakker was ultimately sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Let us not forget the domino that began Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's demise: the 1987 public confession of Jessica Hahn, a former church secretary to Bakker, that she had been lured into a hotel room, drugged and then raped seven years by this man of God and had later been paid $265,000 to keep quiet about it. Down on her luck but still filled with the Spirit, Hahn decided that God had willed her to Hugh Hefner, the Playboy enterprises magnate, who invited her to live at the Mansion in California. Hahn moved to Beverly Hills, posed twice for Playboy, and later pursued a brief career in B-movies and a "special guest" on such high-quality television programming as "Married With Children." Still religious and still looking to set things straight with the Bakkers. Oh, and she's even indicated that she's ready, at 48 years old, to pose nude again.

Jim Bakker was released from prison after five years for good behavior. The Constitution is silent on the question of whether a convicted felon can run for president or any other public office. But the good news for Bakker is that, should he decide to enter public life, he has a better chance to use the Oval Office to do the Lord's work than someone who doesn't believe God is in the details or anywhere else.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Still walking on the moon

Twenty-four years after the Police called it quits, I finally got to see them last night at Hershey Stadium in . . . yep, Hershey, Pennsylvania . . . yep, THAT Hershey, as in Chocolate World and Hershey Park.

Just like Sandy Koufax in 1966, the Police walked away from pop mega-superstardom at the absolute top of their game. Unlike Koufax, the Police were not arthritic and facing the choice of whether to keep playing or risk a chronic disability that would prevent them from picking up their instruments again. By 1983, the fragile cord that bound the egos of Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland finally came unwound. No other band since the Beatles had vaulted from anonymity to world-wide fame and then dissolved than the Police. But in those five years from 1978 to 1983, the Police managed to define a sound that had never been heard in rock before -- the rawness and energy of punk, the pulse and shoulder-popping reggae beat, cliche-free sing-along melodies that were cordoned by atmospheric guitar and bass interplay that drew upon jazz chords and progressions, all backed by the most original drummer to play rock music since . . . when? Leaving the Beatles aside, is there another band that was as consistently great from the beginning to the end of its career, that managed to grow by leaps and bounds musically with every album without losing their popularity? Steely Dan?

Sting, at 55, still has that distinctive, choir-boy-with-an-edge voice that carried the band to fame almost thirty years ago. He hit most every note the music called for, offering up a great reading of, "Message in a Bottle" to start the show, then moving quickly into "Synchronicity 2," his voice going from gentle to edgy without a hint of difficulty. He settled in nicely, never once causing the audience to wince over a strained high-note he was unable to hit. On the tunes that might have challenged him a bit, such as "Roxanne," "Walking on the Moon," and "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," the band slowed down the tunes and rearranged them, giving them new life and letting their superior musicianship breath even more space and warmth into them.

As the front-man, chief songwriter and lead vocalist, Sting was always the Police's most publicly recognizable -- and later, annoying and supremely egotistical -- face. And his solo career after the band's breakup, better in the beginning than towards the more recent past, certainly eclipsed in popular terms the subsequent paths taken by Copeland and Summers. But make no mistake. The Police never would have been the band they were -- and still are -- if not for the polyrhythmic drumming and percussion excursions of Copeland and the understated, tasteful and always swinging guitar of Summers. Copeland is a showman as well as a world-class drummer, and has no shortage of admirers professionally as well as in the musical fandom. But Summers, because he doesn't play conventional rock guitar chords and rarely takes solos, was always the band's "invisible" member. After last night, no one can doubt the importance of Summers's role in the Police. He was every bit the equal of his more flamboyant but not more talented bandmates. The pulse he laid down in the medley of "Voices Inside My Head" . . . "When the World is Running Down," the offbeat, often jarring chord sequences circling around a combination of tight riffs and dissonant, displaced single notes and high harmonics . . . was not something any other guitar player would think of, much less pull off like Summers. Sting is, as I have written before, one of the greatest popular songwriters of the last 50 years, displaying a gift for melody and composition within the pop form that comes within radar distance of Paul McCartney, no small accomplishment. But Sting's songs would never have come to life as they did without Copeland and Summers to interpret them. The Police were truly -- and still -- a great band, a whole that is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. By the time Sting, Copeland and Summers finished their second and final encore, "So Lonely," these extraordinary musicians had left nothing on the stage. They sensed, it seems, that 50,000 or so people who stood up the entire show really, really wanted to hear their music, and they gave us everything we could have wanted and more.

Friday, July 20, 2007

All aboard the Hillary-tanic?

Just the other night a friend and I were talking about a so-far unmentioned issue in Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign: who will she select as her vice-presidential nominee?

I am not one who believes that a presidential nominee's vice-presidential selection matters. Any notion that a vice-president matters was put to rest in 1988, when George H.W. Bush selected Dan Quayle as his running mate. Quayle was spectacularly unqualified, a pampered, immature and overgrown fraternity boy who had slipped into a political career largely because of his privileged background. The Bush-Quayle ticket was perhaps the most unnatural pairing in modern presidential campaign history, more so than even the John F. Kennedy-Lyndon Johnson ticket of 1960. But Bush-Quayle had the good fortune of running against Michael Dukakis, a smart man and decent-enough governor of Massachusetts who had about as much charisma as a funeral home operator on Valium. As much as the Dukakis campaign tried to make the Quayle vice-presidential selection a campaign issue, the public wouldn't bite. Why would it? Just the image of Michael Dukakis riding in a tank, looking like Snoopy unhinged, was enough to make most people vote for Bush as often as they could.

In Hillary Clinton's case, though, her vice-presidential nominee might well matter, if her campaign gets that far. If she picks a woman, that will certainly leave many men already uncomfortable with her but willing to hold their nose and vote for Hillary even more put off. If she picks a man, she risks alienating well-educated, professional and affluent women, the demographic that compromises her base and is responsible for her running her campaign. The most recent New York Times/CBS News poll continues to demonstrate the high negatives that saddle Clinton's campaign. A slight majority of women between the ages of 45-64 have a negative impression of her; 40% of men and 28% of women say they will not vote for her. Thirty-one percent of all women have a negative impression of her. Strangely enough, the 80% of respondents believed that Clinton would win the Democratic nomination and 63% believed that she would win the presidency. Taken together, this means . . . who the hell knows? The math doesn't add up.

Gail Collins wrote recently in the New York Times that John McCain's downfall demonstrated the wisdom of Hillary's rope-a-dope campaign strategy. McCain has been punished by voters for taking "candid" stands although unpopular stands on immigration and Iraq. I don't agree. McCain has been punished by taking the wrong positions on immigration and Iraq to please a mysterious group of voters who support harsh measures to detail with immigrants and want to stay in Iraq to flail away on behalf of a hopeless cause. Voters want someone to lead them and to have clear ideas about how to do so. McCain is simply not that person; nor has he ever been.

The Hillary-tanic has not been without its problems so far in its presidential voyage. I still believe that Barrack Obama will give her a serious run and ultimately eclipse her in terms of appeal, especially when the field narrows and his charisma simply overwhelms her robotic, lifeless persona. Don't tell us how Hillary is warm, witty and connected in private. That doesn't matter. What matters is how well Hillary can convince that 40% of the American electorate that won't vote for her today that it should a year and a half from now. But I think the sleeper issue in all this is her vice-presidential choice. Hillary is not hesitant to play the "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" card (the old Helen Reddy 70's hit single should have been her campaign song, not Celine Dion's awful "You and I"). What is she going to tell men already reluctant to vote for her because she's a woman that they should vote for an all-female ticket? What is she going to tell women who expect her to pick another woman that she isn't? This puts the Hillary-tanic between a rock and an iceberg. Certainly, this is a position, because she is a woman, that no other candidate confronts. No, it isn't fair. But that's the way things are, and I think how she chooses to resolve this dilemma will matter more than in presidential campaigns past.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Shootout at the Supreme Court?

A little late on this, but . . . the D.C. government has decided to appeal a decision earlier this spring by the federal D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals striking down Washington, D.C. law that prohibits residents from keeping handguns in their homes to the U.S. Supreme Court. The appeals court ruled that the law violated the Second Amendment rights of D.C. citizens. The Court has only ruled once on the Second Amendment. That came in 1939, when, in Miller v. U.S., the justices held that the Second Amendment regulated militias, and did not establish an individual "right" to own a gun.

The appeal carries a risk. An adverse ruling will certainly jeopardize efforts by state legislatures and Congress to regulate handgun ownership.

I don't know if the Court will take the case and, if it does, have any idea how it will rule. I will say this much: I won't be surprised if it takes the case and I won't be surprised if it recognizes a "right" to own a gun. Stay tuned.

Are students the new East German judges of higher education?

Finally, two months after the spring 2007 semester ended, I am now able to answer my friends and family when they ask me, "So, how did your classes go last semester?" without a moment's hesitation.

"6.28, 6.33 and 6.57!, unadjusted for wind or difficulty factor! Now, go ahead . . . ask me the capital of Missouri -- Jefferson City!"

And there you have it . . . a semester's worth of preparation, haggling, negotiation, grading, individualized consideration, pointless, random email with 3.44 a.m. time-stamps, questions such as, "Does a croissant count as food?" and "Will you really lower our grade if we don't turn in the work?"-type questions in response to specific written policies on the course syllabus stating that no food is permitted in class and I will deduct half a letter-grade if you miss more than a certain number of classes . . . boiled down to numbers more familiar from figure-skating and gymnastics competitions than suitable to how well professors teach their classes and how much students learn in them.

American University modified the student evaluation form before the fall 2006 semester, so that now we are evaluated on a scale of 1-7 rather than 1-6. The evaluations ranked us from poor to superior. Since I was on sabbatical, this semester was my first experience with the new system. Now, the numbers translate to "One of the Worst" to "One of the Very Best." I have no idea why the university changed the system or why it believes the new survey will yield a more accurate assessment of the "student classroom experience." But this much is clear: the student evaluation process, completely unscientific, hopelessly biased, lacking accountability and unable to capture nuance or account for important differences in how teachers teach, is more powerful than ever in determining whether untenured faculty -- whether on tenure-lines, renewable contracts or teaching as adjuncts --get to keep their jobs. The student evaluations are also central in determining promotions for faculty below the full professor rank and in allocating raises. Besides the obvious problems that exist with the surveys and their administration, there is one more -- perhaps the most bizarre -- element to this charade that goes undiscussed on my campus (and on others, to judge from my colleagues who teach in other universities). Professors are, as far as I can tell, the only employees on campus whose fate rests in the hands of those they supervise. Our administrative superiors do not visit our classes. No system exists for "peer evaluation" of professors by professors. We have something here called The Center for Teaching Excellence. As far as I can tell, the Center functions more like a charm school for professors than a place that tries to hold the line against the "customer service" mentality that now pervades the management of colleges and universities. All that the committees and academic officers have in their hands when they determine my "teaching effectiveness" and whether it merits a cup-of-coffee a week or a latte-a-week raise are the results from the bubble evaluations. Since I cannot ascend any higher in professorial rank, I can afford -- literally and figuratively -- not to take seriously a process that doesn't merit serious thought. But my colleagues still working their up through the system do not have this luxury. An unintended consequence of turning over such a large degree of power to students over their professors is that it diminishes academic standards in the classroom and discourages professors from pushing their students harder than they are willing to go. From grades K-12, one parent after another (or this one, anyway) gives their kids the "I don't want to hear about how 'unfair' your teacher is; until you speak Spanish as well as she does just shut up and do the work" speech. In college, the reverse is true. Not getting a good grade? Complain, complain, complain, or just slam your professor on the course evaluation. In the end, the student wins because the student, like the modern American consumer, is always right.

* * * * * * * * * *

Professors are also the only employees in the university whose performance reviews -- another phrase we have borrowed from corporate America -- are available for anyone with a university email account to see. Around 5 or 6 years ago, the university began putting the teaching evaluations for all courses on line. I still do not know who made this decision or whether there was every any faculty input. Had anyone asked me, something I don't remember happening, I would have said no, for no other reason than we -- professors -- are not permitted to see the evaluations of staff (from academic advisers to physical plant employees) or the periodic "reviews" conducted of the university's academic officers (from academic deans to the university president). Over the years, I have been asked in surveys to rate the performance of my academic superiors )deans, chairs, university officiers) and interviewed for my "narrative" opinions of the strengths and weaknesses of the same. I have never seen the results of these reviews. Nor has any other professor I know. Placing our teaching evaluations on-line encourages colleagues to snoop on each other. Since our reviews, in part, are based on the student teaching evaluations, any professor who believes he or she was undervalued -- we are ranked in percentiles -- might want to know how a colleague was evaluated by students to get a sense of fairness. How do I know that colleagues of mine have looked at my evaluations? Simple.
They've told me.

My colleagues tell me it's strange that I spend so much time criticizing a system that has, by and large, been kind to me. Since I began teaching 20 years ago, the results of my student surveys have been remarkably consistent: about 90% of my students have a positive experience in my classes, some so much so that they have told me that my classes are their favorites. They like the fact that I am honest and straight-forward, that I will answer a question about pretty much anything as long as the question is thought-out and reasonable, that, as a political science professor, I have opinions on . . . gasp! . . . politics, just like they do, and that has nothing to do with how I treat them or evaluate their work, that I make them work for their grades, that I don't reward students who don't come to class or do the work and that, for the most part, I try to treat like young adults by teaching them that they can actually talk to a professor about topics other than what we cover in class without confusing the teacher-student relationship. As for the other 10%, well, they want me driven to the county line and dumped on the side of the road, preferably in a body bag, so badly beaten and burned that I'm identifiable only by my dental records. In almost every case, pissed-off students are generally not good ones. Their comments about me and my classes are never constructive, but, instead, always personal. Never has one of these students come to see me during the semester to discuss a problem they're having in class. Instead, they seem almost resentful that I'm not going to stamp their hand, thank them for their time and send them along with an A. Better yet, they're angry that other students seem to enjoy my classes, leading to accusations that I "favor" some students over others, or that I don't do this or that, or do this or that too much. These students have never spent any time with me outside of class, never asked me how I prepare for class or why I approach my subject matter the way I do, never asked me Word One about my views of the world and how or why I came to develop an interest in what I teach and write about. In short, these students have absolutely nothing to add to a class and should not -- should not -- have a say-so in whether I do my job well or not. But they do. In the contemporary world of student teaching evaluations, an angry mob has, in some cases, veto power over a professor's career. Professors, to keep their jobs and earn raises, must cater to the lowest common denominator to avoid angering more than 15-20% of their students, which, at American, is considering the maximum percentage of a class that can rate you below superior or very good.

Tell me how that makes sense.

Professors, though, are not immune from this game. Now and then, I will hear from a colleague that the reason my student evaluations must be, for the most part, very good to superior is because I give away trips to the Bermuda over Winter Break, sneak beer into class and don't ask for an I.D., show re-runs or Internet bootlegs of their favorite TV shows or do any of a number of things that have nothing to do with class. My colleagues have told me that, unlike them, they teach "serious" material in their classes whereas I don't. Or I'm just running a current events discussion class with no real requirements other than just showing up and talking. Or doing something or another that has nothing to do with real knowledge. I'm not sure how any of my colleagues know what I do in class since, just like every single other academic officer (or, for that matter, colleague from another department), not one has ever seen me teach a class. But that's the result of a system that, whether the university intends it or not, puts peers in competition with each other. This system is not just unhealthy for the professor and student; it is equally unhealthy for professorial collegiality. Ironically, my colleagues will criticize what they believe is my "teaching style" because it appears to reward me (which isn't necessarily true), when my efforts, which I have all but given up, to reform the system are motivated by a desire to help the good, conscientious teachers who may not be as comfortable standing in front of 30 or 50 students as I admit I am.

* * * * * * * * * *

Professors are not permitted open access to student academic records. From time to time, I will discuss a student's performance with an academic adviser to get a sense if an issue I am having with that student is unique or indicative of his or her academic performance. But can I go into an adviser's office and troll through student files? No. University rules and federal law accords students privacy rights over their records. A professor's classroom record, on the other hand, is the equivalent of a menu posted outside of a restaurant. That's a more charitable description than saying we are nothing more than prostitutes sitting in an Amsterdam storefront, allowing our customers to size up their preferences before plunking down their cash.

* * * * * * * * * *

And then there are the "narrative" evaluation forms professors distribute to supplement our quantitative assessments. These are little more than venting sessions, sometimes for good sometimes for bad, and sometimes just plain weird. They have absolutely no value as evaluative instruments, since the committees and individuals charged with assessing our teaching effectiveness do not read them. I know plenty of professors who just pitch them without even bothering to open the envelope, and I understand why. Since the process is anonymous, an aggrieved student can just let loose in extraordinarily personal and vindictive terms. And sometimes they do, letting us know that we're "stupid," "full of worthless shit," "a dick," or offering a psychological profile, i.e, telling us what we think, who we favor or don't favor and why, questioning our life outside of our professional responsibilities. Professors have no similar tool their disposal. We can't make comments on papers and projects that read:

"Your essay begins well. You offer a good and coherent thesis. But you do not develop your thesis's main idea as well as you could have. We discussed Author A's position on this in detail, and we spent two class periods discussing the differences in Cases A & B. Also, by not discussing Author B, you do not provide evidence that read her book, something you were asked to do. Worst of all, though, you continue to wear Birkenstocks to class despite that big black toenail that stares at me throughout the 75 minute class period. And what is with "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt that you wear every other class period? Have you ever thought you were stupid? Please . . . please . . . please . . . take shower once in a while. You smell like beer and Doritos. It's evident that what drives this dysfunctional relationship is the strained relationship you have with your mother. No wonder you don't have a girlfriend."

But students can. And they do.

For comic relief, though, nothing tops RateMyProfessor, the website where anyone in the country can leave a comment about any professor teaching at any university in the United States. You don't even have to attend a university, much less actually take the course you want to rate. If I wanted, I could, as a professor, select at random a professor teaching at any university, also selected at random, and leave a comment about that person. There is no control over comments, although the site reminds posters not to leave "libelous" comments about the professors they rate. Mmm-hmm, and the Supreme Court has said that sexually explicit material, taken as a whole, that lacks literary, artistic, political and scientific value, can be considered obscene and not afforded constitutional protection. Do a quick Internet search for sexually-explicit material and then tell me exactly what isn't permitted.

Here's one for you. A person left this comment, my all-time favorite (more so than the one that says there is a "special place for him in hell") on my RMP page last week, two weeks after I finished teaching my summer graduate course of 10 people:

"Greg Ivers epitomizes the 'cool' professor. Young girls drool over his every word and spend most of class fantasizing about one of AU's few profs with tenured-DILF credentials. Unfortunately he knows it, and spends most of the class reveling in his rock-star status. Ivers has a LOT to offer, but sadly keeps most of it to himself."

Like, OMG! Where to begin with this one?

1. I spell my name with two g's on the end.
2. The only people who drool over anything I say are the seniors who play scrabble at the Jewish Community Center. That's usually in response to my asking, "Is anyone using this chair?" In fairness, they drool pretty much over anything.
3. A DILF? That's a new one. All I can conclude is that this person has just recently been released from a long jail sentence or just returned to land after an extended submarine tour of Anartica. There can be no other explanation.
4. I am not a rock-star. I don't have the hair, the tatoos, the jail sentence, a secret X-rated home video or the stint in rehab necessary to qualify. Plus, I'm not rich, nor have I ever lost my fortune to shady business managers. I am a jazz drummer who loves funk and the blues. I must confess, though, I do have a weakness for progressive rock and complex time-signatures.
5. I don't share my medical records and the confidences of friends and family with my students. Besides that, I don't really keep much else to myself.

But the strangest thing of all is this: this post wasn't written by a student or even anyone in my class. Remember, nothing written in cyberspace in truly anonymous.

I did, however, receive a smiley face.

* * * * * * * * * *

Is there hope for a more reasonable assessment of teaching performance than the system we have in place now? I don't think so. That isn't to say that better choices aren't available. We could distribute the bubble and the narrative surveys so that a student's name and university I.D. number appear in the top corner. Our registrar could provide a correlation between a grade received and the score a professor receives. For the narrative portion, our dean's office could redact the names when they give us the evaluations to hide a student's identity. If the narrative contained abusive or inappropriate language, a professor could request to meet with the student or have someone from the dean's office do the same. If a student knew that he or she could be accountable for profane comments, the odds are they would never put pen to paper. We could also conduct peer review by asking professors from neighboring institutions to sit in on classes taught by professors in similar fields. Naturally, that might only work for one or two classes here and there. But it would at least permit professionals to evaluate professionals, something this is absolutely lacking now.

Don't look for any of this to happen anytime soon. Universities are businesses with a product to sell and customers to please. We might not have a pianist performing on the mezzanine while shoppers go about the business of buying and returning. But we are much more similar to the modern department store than the classical university model where professors once reigned supreme.

Justice Scalia: a wolf in wolf's clothing

Dahlia Lithwick has a (typically) terrific piece in Slate suggesting that Justice Antonin Scalia's penchant for making bold, opinionated and sometimes controversial comments in extra-curricular speeches and interviews isn't necessarily a bad thing. Better a wolf in wolf's clothing, as I wrote in my post analyzing the Supreme Court's 2006 Term, than a getting your pocket picked by a wolf in sheep's clothing, i.e., Chief Justice John Roberts.

Since coming to the Court, Scalia has taken public stances on euthanasia, the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance and abortion rights. Sometimes he'll make the "this-is-not-for-judges-to-decide" argument to defend his position, and other times he'll just come right out and say that something is wrong or "stupid." Next up on the Scalia hit-list: New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the landmark libel case. Scalia, apparently, is ready to place that decision, along with God knows how many others, on the chopping block.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I'll have the heart attack special, with a side of processed cheese

In a world full of danger, sometimes the most dangerous developments of all have a way of falling through the cracks . . .

IHOP -- yes, that IHOP, a place where no reasonable person treads after (and then, only with chidren) 9 a.m. or before 2 a.m. (and then, only to sober up before the drive home) -- announced that it will buy Applebee's, -- yes, the same awful how-many-pieces-of-flair-are-you-wearing emporium immortalized as Chotsky's in Office Space.

Forget Michael Chernoff's "gut feeling" that the United States faces an "imminent" terrorist attack this summer. This is scarier. America's waistline just expanded upon hearing this news. IHOP? This is a restaurant chain that proudly disassociates itself from smaller portions and healthier eating as means to reduce the number of walking Macy's blimps stalking our towns and cities. IHOP doesn't even publish calorie and diet information on its menu.

Applebees? Haven't been to one in many, many years, and then only in duress. How different is it from any other brass-and-glass death-by-fried appetizer restaurant that attempts to kill its customers by taking everything, including lettuce, and dipping into a deep fryer? Tell them to stay away from Hardees, which has recently introduced the Thickburger after taking salads off the menu, and Denny's, which just unveiled the Extreme Grand Slam Breakfast, much to the delight of recently paroled prisoners and disoriented wild bears preparing to return to the woods for hibernation.

Can't somebody do anything about this? This is scary. Really scary.

No privacy rights for the poor?

Last April, the en banc panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied a petition by lawyers representing welfare recipients in San Diego asking the court to reconsider an earlier decision holding that unannounced visits by county officials into the homes of beneficiaries did not violate their Fourth Amendment rights. Known as "Project 100%," the program does not require welfare recipients to allow officials into their home to search through their medicine chests, dresser drawers, laundry baskets, kitchen cabinets or anywhere where they believe evidence of crime or fraud exists. But if they don't permit such searches, welfare recipients will have their benefits terminated. The searches are warrantless and unannounced.

Seven judges dissented from the 9th Circuit's decision, including Alex Kozinski, who was appointed to the appeals court in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan. Kozinski is often eclectic and displays a strong libertarian streak in his opinions; but in no sense is he a liberal in disguise.

Since the introduction in 1996 of the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families Act, the centerpiece of President Bill Clinton's "welfare reform" agenda, state and local governmental authorities have much greater discretion to condition the receipt of public benefits. The 9th Circuit case, Sanchez v. City of San Diego (2007) illustrates the distinction that courts have historically drawn between public welfare assistance and subsidies that underwrite farmers, corporations, homeowners and other, more upstanding members of the citizenry. Read Adam Liptak's more comprehensive story from today's (July 16) New York Times, where I found it buried in the back of the front section.

Another point raised by lawyers interviewed in Liptak's article is worth mentioning here first. Lawyers for plaintiffs are reluctant to appeal the 9th Circuit decision to the Supreme Court because they fear a negative ruling. If the Fearsome Five on the Court rule that public welfare beneficiaries in San Diego have no Fourth Amendment rights to refuse unannounced and warrantless "visits" from local authorities, a similar rule could bind recipients anywhere in the nation. Cases like this offer a valuable lesson in the power the courts have to intimidate individuals from even bringing cases, thus locking unfavorable precedent below. Sometimes, what a court refuses to hear is almost as important as what it does decide.

New Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, July 16, 2007

You mean John Roberts is really conservative?

In September 2005, the "liberal" editorial page of the Washington Post offered an unqualified endorsement of John Roberts to be chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. Roberts personified then and now the Washington establishment figure so beloved by the Post. "He is overwhelmingly well-qualified, possesses an unusually keen legal mind and practices a collegiality of the type an effective chief justice must have," fawned the Post. "He shows every sign of commitment to restraint and impartiality. Nominees of comparable quality have, after rigorous hearings, been confirmed nearly unanimously."

And, then, in true Post fashion, it called for Roberts's confirmation "by large bi-partisan vote." Yes, indeed . . . the solution to all life's problems, or at least those that confront our politics, is just a bi-partisan vote in Congress away. In extreme emergencies, naturally, it is necessary to form a bi-partisan commission headed by Bob Dole and Donna Shalala to offer a "sensible" recommendation for whatever problem faces the Republic. If you've been paying attention lately, you'll notice that Dole and Shalala appear to be getting pushed out in favor of Leon Panetta and Sandra Day O'Connor. Oooh . . . wee! Some juicy gossip for The Reliable Source writers just waiting to be dished!

In the Post's editorial world, no one is ever really right or wrong, unless, that is, they occupy the "extremes" of the "Left and Right." Conservative extremists, as the Post sees it, are unrepentant Klansmen, public officials unfamiliar with the 1972 American Medical Association's rejection of homosexuality as a "disease," pre-1964 opponents of the civil rights movement and militarists who support invading foreign countries before obtaining a bi-partisan resolution in Congress. Liberal extremists include anyone who questions "free-trade," opposes military action even after the necessary bi-partisan resolution has been secured, believes Roe v. Wade is defensible as a constitutional matter, takes issue with "people of faith" getting their hands too dirty in politics and doesn't believe that Henry Kissinger holds the answer to our foreign policy dilemmas. Opinions are just starting points for the inevitable compromise "towards the center." No one wearing a blue suit and a red tie or a red two-piece skirt and jacket and big gold buttons with American flag lapel pin should be ignored, unless, of course, they are an "extremist."

And above all, respect "the process." For the Post, "the process," whatever it is, reigns supreme over the political universe.

The Post confessed that Roberts probably wouldn't rule as it would like on . . . let's see . . . presidential power, the restriction of civil liberties in times of crisis, civil rights laws, the power of Congress to regulate the environment, the economy and promote social policy through the New Deal exercise of police power. And the right to privacy? Not so good there either. But what the hell? He's smart, nice . . . and those adorable children nipping at his heels during President Bush's introduction of him to the public as Chief Justice William Rehnquist's replacement? Who could say no? "Judge Roberts," drooled the Post, "represents the best nominee liberals can reasonably expect from a conservative president who promised to appoint judges who shared his philosophy."

Compared to Janice Roberts Brown, Michael Luttig, the rejected Robert Bork and the now-deceased James McReynolds, I guess that's true.

So imagine the tears shed in the Post editorial conference room when its board two weeks ago admitted that the 2006 Term has been "disappointing," a word it used six times to describe the Court's rulings on school desegregation, abortion rights, executive power, free speech, anti-trust regulation and campaign finance reform. The Post also frowned upon the Court's fractured state (yep, those twenty-four 5-4 decisions suggest that something less than John Marshall-like consensus exists on the Court), and lamented its aggressive treatment of prior decisions that weren't begging for hollowing out or overruling. Remember when Roberts fashioned himself during his confirmation hearings as more of an umpire than an ideologue? Well, I remember an umpire named Eric Gregg, whose "strike zone" during the 1997 NLCS between the Atlanta Braves and Florida Marlins resembled a fun mirror from an old-fashioned amusement park, so distorted were its borders. Gregg's horrendous judgment handed the Marlins the pennant and a trip to the World Series. Granted, the Braves would have blown it; but umpires should never decide the outcome of a game. For the 2006 Term, Roberts deserves the Eric Gregg Award, not the John Marshall Award.

The Court's acceleration to the right this term was no surprise. Roberts had a trusty Watson to his Edison, Sam Alito, who also received the Post's endorsement. Alito and Roberts voted in near-lock step this term; their agreement rate of 94% was hight than any other pair on the Court. Even the Post admitted that Alito and Roberts did not split in any unanticipated way.

Yes, Post-ies, John Roberts is conservative. Very. Sam Alito is conservative. Very. They were nominated because of their conservative political values and their willingness to translate those values into the law, not because they held some sort of "bi-partisan" conception of the judicial "process."

Will the next few terms mean the end of abortion rights, a complete end to affirmative action, a reconsideration of the recent decisions carving out exceptions to the death penalty for the mentally retarded and juveniles? Maybe or maybe not. But can we all just put aside the talk about "process" and "umpiring" and "restraint" and all the other fig-leaf terms to describe what the law is really about: the extension of politics by other means.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Bud Selig's Frankstein

Sometime this week or next, Barry Bonds, the most unpopular player in major league baseball, will break Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. Bonds is currently idling at 751 homers; he needs five more to break Aaron's record of 755. And when he does, Aaron will not be present to congratulate Bonds. The reason is simple. Like almost every person connected to major league baseball, from players to managers to owners to peanut vendors to mascots to sportswriters, Aaron believes that Barry Bonds used now-illegal steroids to retool his body in mid-career and push his home run numbers into the stratosphere. Bonds hold the single-season records for home runs (73), and has hit more home runs per plate appearances since bulking up (sometime in the late 1990s, according to persons formerly in Bonds inner circle), than during the first part of his career. He has always been a great, great hitter -- just like, and I say this as a certified Bonds-hater -- just like he has been other-worldly in every other dimension of the game. Before age and injuries took their toll, Bonds was a great base stealer and a great outfielder.

Aaron's decision not to attend the game when Bonds breaks his record is not an old-timer's anger at seeing his place in history diminished. Aaron is not only one of the greatest all-around players ever (click here to see an earlier post on my feelings for Aaron, my favorite player ever), he is and always has been a man distinguished by his modesty and dignity. Aaron believes that Bonds used performance-enhancing steroids to bulk up and start banging home runs. He doesn't want to honor a cheater by being present when he becomes baseball's home run king.

Then there is Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, who has not yet said whether he will attend the game when Bonds is in the position to break the record. Selig goes back with Aaron a long way, back to the days when he was the largest minority owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers moved to Atlanta before the 1966 season, but Selig and Aaron remained close during all those years and remain so today. Unlike Aaron, though, Selig has no good reason to avoid Bonds. Selig has been commissioner since 1992. He presided over the steroid era, which peaked in the late 1990s when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire dueled over another one of baseball's most treasured records, the single-season home run record of Roger Maris. Sosa and McGuire endeared themselves to baseball fans by conducting their chase with great admiration for each other and the legacy of Maris. When McGuire broke Maris's record in September 1998 (against the Chicago Cubs, with Sammy Sosa playing in right field), the Maris family was on hand to applaud him. McGuire honored the Maris family by offering kind words in remembrance of Roger's great achievement.

And Bud Selig was there.

He took to the field to honor McGuire's achievement and noted that Roger Maris would be proud to have someone like Mark McGuire break his record. Selig couldn't get enough of McGuire and Sosa and every other slugger who had juiced up and started hitting balls distances that were once unthinkable. Baseball, in 1998, was still reeling from the strike of 1994, and the great McGuire-Sosa home run chased gave the sport a much-needed jolt to bring fans back into the fold.

My, how the world has changed since that September afternoon almost ten years ago. McGuire is long gone, a disgraced figure after his testimony before Congress three years ago in which he all but admitted that he had used steroids to fuel his achievements. Sosa is so diminished in stature since his "Baseball Very Good to Me" routine all those years ago that most fans don't even know he is still playing.

Bud Selig presided over the steroid era. He did nothing to discourage or investigate what was probably the most open secret in the sport. More complicated is the fact that the steroids that McGuire (and maybe Sosa and maybe Bonds) used were legal at the time. At some point, Selig is going to have to take a position one way or the other. He can't avoid the issue forever.

Until that day comes, or until Bonds is cuffed and read his rights, Selig owes it to Bonds -- I can't believe I'm saying that -- to attend the games when Bonds gets close and certainly the game after he hits 755. Bud Selig is the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Like him or not, Barry Bonds is about to break the game's most revered record. Go and shake his hand, Bud. And don't forget to pose for a picture with him, one that is Sports Illustrated's cover story in waiting. Smile. You two deserve each other.

ADDED: Sally Jenkins has a column in this morning's Washington Post Sports section musing on an ending to the home run chase that features Barry Bonds laying down his bat at 754 and walking away from the game. Jack Curry discusses the joylessness of Bonds's pursuit in this morning's New York Times. Dave Anderson notes that Bonds better hit his record-setter soon, or else he might end up breaking the record in Atlanta.