Saturday, December 12, 2009

Education, Disabled Students, Fairness

A recent post and comments over at the Volokh Conspiracy, along with my efforts to deal fairly with my students who struggle with various disorders have got me thinking, again, about the whole problem of learning and behaviorally/psychiatrically disabled students.


A. The discussion at Volokh centers on a case , Metcalf-Leggette v. Princeton University 3:09-cv-05428, brought by a Princeton U. first year student to whom the university refused extended time on her midterm exams. Ms. Metcalf-Leggette has been diagnosed with:

• Mixed-Receptive-Expressive Language Disorder, which limits her ability to comprehend language, express language or recall material.
• Disorder of Written Expression, which leaves her ability to communicate in writing below the level expected based on age, intelligence or life experiences. When she writes, she has to repeatedly re-check what she has composed.
• Developmental Coordination Disorder, which leaves her ability to spell, punctuate and form sentences below the level expected based on age, intelligence or life experiences. She needs to read material several times over, isolate key words and highlight them so she can locate them again. Also under this disorder, her visual-motor processing skills are in the sixth percentile, "far below the average person, let alone the typical Princeton University student." She also suffers eye strain when taking tests and needs periodic breaks because of the way she reads passages over and over.
• Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which limits her ability to focus. When reading, any distraction requires her to go back to the beginning of the passage. [quoted from]

Princeton offered a ‘distraction free’ testing situation and 10 minute breaks for every hour of the exams as well as a guarantee of only one exam per day, but the student was not satisfied, noting that a poor performance on the exams will do her ‘irreparable harm.’
The court refused a preliminary injunction for the midterms, but Metcalf-Leggette could receive an injunction prior to final exams if her attorneys can persuade the court that she has a plausible claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. That determination is due on January 11; Princeton finals begin a week later.

B. My own hypothetical ‘case’ involves a student –let’s call her/him ‘Q. ’[i] I present Q’s case as an example of the kinds of problems that confront many professors. Let’s imagine that Q has been diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive and hyperactive and may also suffer from some degree of attention-deficit disorder. Suppose our office of disability support services approved extended time on exams for Q - who nonetheless assured me that s/he was unlikely to need it.

It is likely that Q is a very intelligent young person. Q’s thinking and writing abilities are above average, although Q has trouble focusing on what is central to the problem or topic under consideration. As a bright and well-read person, and with OCD, Q always wants to disclose everything s/he knows on the topic. Q is also highly argumentative, has difficulty not speaking out in class and dominating the class, and seems either unaware of her/his peers or indifferent to them. (I recognize that I am probably combining a number of distinct disabilities, here.)

I like Q and have [mostly]enjoyed having Q in class. The problem is that Q cannot turn in work on time and according to requirements. Almost every assignment is encumbered in one way or another by special requests, demands, or difficulties. I give extensions, make allowances, pursue late work, and … so on.

Ultimately, a piece of work is over 3 working weeks late. Q had promised me to get it in (late) by a certain date and did not do so. I have reason to believe that Q was deceitful with me – perhaps not for the first time. Of course, I recognize that the recourse to deception is largely due to the desire to be perfect – at least in someone’s eyes.[ii] That the final paper for the course is due within several days only aggravates the problem for me. How late will that paper be? And, given Q’s habit of skipping class when not wanting to face up to matters at hand, how can I be sure Q will show up for the final exam?

In the meantime, I have students who have been ill with serial infections, whose parents are getting divorced, who are starring in the major theatrical productions of the semester and have been required to attend every rehearsal, or who are applying for major awards and going through our excellent, but exhausting, vetting process.

The Questions

1) Given that our own disabilities support staff say professors ought to consider ‘fairness’ at some point, but offer no principles as to how or when we should consider fairness to other students – or what it means - how should I decide when the fairness line has been breached?

a) How am I to determine principles of my own that I can rely on as capturing fairness between non-disabled and disabled students?
b) As far as that goes, how can I arrive at principles that achieve fairness in dealing with students whose disabilities are of diverse types?

2) To what extent should it matter to my decisions that our students are, for the most part, children of relatively privileged and highly-engaged parents? (Not, perhaps, comparable to the parents of Ms. Metcalf-Leggette, whose LD brother also attended Princeton, but privileged in comparison with most other families in this country.)

a) In other words, should I be concerned about the inequity in the situation of the majority of my students’ situations relative to that of the majority of college-age Americans? In dealing with Q, should it matter to me that less wealthy and/or less engaged parents would not have sought the diagnoses and accommodations for their children that Q’s parents sought for her/him?

b) What if some of my own students are of less-privileged status than Q? Am I to sort and weight all these differences out and take them into account? What if I know that Z was told s/he probably suffers from some disorder, but her/his family decided Z should not seek an official diagnosis or accommodations? This means I am not required to treat Z with any special consideration, but why should I not do so if I have reason to believe Z is just as in need of accommodations as Q?

As far as I can determine, the usual answer to Question 1 and its corollaries, is something like, “Just do the best you can.” In other words: there is no principled position possible. A principled approach is impossible because, despite all the science involved in diagnosing these various disorders, we don’t have the information we would need to arrive at principles.

Of course ,we do have some rough guidelines. If Susie is diagnosed with a specific disorder that manifests in certain ways in her case, the support folks determine that giving her ‘time and a half’ on in-class exams is appropriate. Or, perhaps they recommend she take her tests in a distraction-free setting (as was offered to Ms. Metcalf-Leggette). I do not know how those in charge select these accommodations, but I can easily make them.

But what about Q and Ms. M-L? Q struggles with real problems. So does Ms. M-L. She wants more accommodations than Princeton’s support folks think she ‘needs.’ With respect to Q, I am encouraged to ‘keep in mind’ her/his difficulties and to ‘try to make reasonable accommodations.’ But, I do not know what the standard of reasonableness is. Even in cases like that of Ms. M-L., where someone knowledgeable has set out what they believe to be reasonable accommodations, those accommodations are rejected by students and families as not reasonable.

I believe a significant barrier to answering Question 1 and its corollaries is that we have not, and are afraid to, answer Question 2 and its corollaries. If we do seriously confront the latter set, we will discover that we have hidden from ourselves the most fundamental question of all: What is our purpose in making allowances for learning and behaviorally/psychiatrically disabled students, and how does that purpose justify altering the rules of the educational game for them and only them?

All that is for the next post.

[i] Not to be confused with any individual student of mine.
[ii] Of course, I come down hard on non-disabled students who attempt to deceive me.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Anger at Academe, Part Two

2. The second line of complaint we can call the ‘But you did not tell me’ critique. This comes in two versions, the first of which reflects an abdication of personal responsibility that is both unsupportable and increasingly apparent among students at all levels.

This (a) version runs as follows: an applicant might be accepted to institutions/ programs, and have their tuition accepted, to ‘discover’ that the institution/program does not offer or support the student’s desired area of specialization.

I do not know much about online ‘universities,’ but I know that almost every other college/university in this nation provides catalogues that fully describe available programs, majors, and courses. In most cases, this information is on-line. Certainly, any applicant could contact the program/department in question and ask whether her/his particular interests can be met.

How does anyone apply to – far less enroll – anywhere without finding out if a very specific academic interest cannot be pursued at that place? And, if one has been so unsophisticated/lazy/sloppy to find oneself in such a situation, why not suck it up for the time being and then move on – the wiser for the experience? At any respectable institution, one can withdraw with minimal or no penalty for the second semester.

Perhaps these poor folks did not enroll at a respectable institution. Nonetheless, it seems to me that they might figure that out and not turn their own experience into a general condemnation of ‘colleges and universities.’

This strange generalization from a bad experience with one institution of higher ed is particularly odd when set against the “Why isn’t Higher Ed more like Business” critique. Again, I do not assume that all these critics subscribe to the same memes. I just find it intriguing that so many of us fault Higher Ed for its imperfections despite the far more frequent abuses we suffer at the hands of Business. Is it simply that we expect banks and credit card companies to screw us, while we have more lofty expectations of Higher Ed? Yet, even if we do, can we rationally expect Higher Ed to protect us from our own stupidity and ineptitude?

Caveat Emptor has a place in all areas of human interaction, particularly for those who DO NOT READ the materials presented in legible font size and absent obfuscating legalese.

Another version (b) of the ‘But you did not tell me’ critique centers on the practicalities of completing a program. I have far more sympathy for this than for the (a) ‘I enrolled in something about which I knew nothing’ version.

The complaint is that a student may find that required courses are not offered as needed or, worse, at all. I think this is a criticism of merit, assuming certain facts. The facts we need to assume are several and interrelated.

Institutions of Higher Ed face special difficulties in ensuring their offerings. Outside of a few urban areas or those, such as the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts, where several schools are located, the number of people immediately available to teach at the college level is limited. Hiring qualified faculty for a full-time position takes much longer than hiring someone for a job in banking or retail. This is because the hiring follows the academic year. There might be someone in the area who is not employed for the year or the semester, but there may well be no one.

If a faculty member departs at the end of one academic year, it can be very difficult to find someone with the similar qualifications for the Fall. No respectable program will simply replace a professor in, for example, bio-ethics with one who has never taught it and specializes in Marxism.

What can and should be done to help students fulfill the requirements of a program when something goes awry in staffing?

Many programs are loosely structured, with a number of options from which students can select; thus, students in the program are required to take a course from a set of several courses. A student may find she cannot take a course she wanted, but no institution can be expected to fully satisfy the desires of every individual.

However, some programs are very tightly structured, and this means that students in those programs have few options if there is no one to teach a required course. In these cases, the institution has a responsibility to arrange for students to complete their work.

If we are concerned with a program that is defined by the Faculty at that institution, then allowances must be made students when the program cannot provide what it requires. Any program that does not do this is a fraud.

If the program is one largely determined by outside agencies, the Faculty and Administrators at the institution should find someone who can provide the course[s] the students need. This might not provide the best educational experience for the students, but it will meet the program’s responsibilities. If no one can be found, then the institution should help the student[s] in the program find other places to complete their work and, needless to say, refund any tuition ‘not used’ by the student.

There is one thing colleges and universities could do to make sudden vacancies less problematic: they could pay adjuncts and professors taking on overloads decently. If there are no qualified adjuncts available, this will not resolve the immediate problem. But it is likely that full-time faculty members already teaching at the school could be enticed to teach orphan courses.

Probably some of those faculty be willing to do so for the students’ sake even at the insulting adjunct pay level [insulting to adjuncts and overloading full-timers] in an emergency. But they are also likely to resent the institution which, after all, is receiving the same tuition for teaching by adjunct and overloading faculty as it would if paying someone for a full-time position.

The fact is that Faculty are typically more concerned with the success of their students than anyone else on campus, at least at large universities. When those outside Higher Ed rail at the ‘pompous and arrogant’ Faculty because students are having difficulty completing programs, they are aiming at the wrong targets. Faculty do not set tuition and do not make the rules about refunds. Faculty are not always entirely in charge of program requirements and are most likely to try to help students of merit to manage obstacles created by requirements.

None of this is meant to set up Administrators as targets. Rather, I want to point out that Faculty have far less power than many outside Higher Ed realize. We work within the same systems as our students.

Are some of us pompous and/or arrogant? Sure. But that does not make all of us directly responsible for everything that can stand in the way of student success.
Now, if you want to fault me for my insistence on the use of paragraphs, O.K.

Anger at Academe, Part One.

Stanley Fish has yet another provocative blog post at the NYT. I will not address Fish’s post, but I am intrigued by some of the comments posted in response to it.

Now, no one in this country should be surprised that professors and institutions of higher education come in for a great deal of abuse. Professors are all, it seems, politically-correct-leftist oppressors of free thought, invulnerable victimizers of students, and just generally bad, pompous people. Colleges and universities are all money-grubbing, fraudulent, and indifferent to the needs and concerns of students. Did I mention arrogance?

Still, two lines of criticism struck me as worthy of note.

1. The first is common enough, but merits some response. Let’s term this the ‘Why isn’t Higher Ed just like Business’ critique.

Some who play this tune are unable to/unwilling to distinguish between Faculty and Administration. Many assume that academia can and should work like 'business' and fault it for not doing so sufficiently well. But, the most absurd hidden premise in all of this is that 'business' is a bastion of clear rules and rational management.

My spouse, formerly an academic, loves to regale us with tales of the political in-fighting, endured - often rewarded – incompetence, and outright skirting of the laws that he encounters as a consultant. In other words, we are not speaking of one badly managed company. And you know what? Most people victimized by this nonsense do not go to court. It is costly and risky in too many ways. The idea that businesses are run with impeccable attention to the law – far less morality – is absurd.

What I find really surprising about this meme at this point in our nation’s history is that so many people are railing against – yes, you got it – ‘Business.’ The business mentality of profits before everything, the callous treatment of employees not ensconced in upper management, the indifference to social good, the corruption and nepotism, and so on.

Of course, I do not know that those criticizing Academe for not being more like Business are among those criticizing Business for its own ills. Still, it is odd that no one seems to have noted this cultural cognitive dissonance. And this leads me to another point: the hostility of so many [inside and outside of Academe] to the system of tenure. How dare they think they should be able to earn tenure when the rest of us can be dumped on a dime!

But, ought we not to consider that being dumped on a dime is bad? Why are we not clamoring for a system that protects all workers, rather than playing the envy card? I think we should be working for decent treatment and reasonable job-security for everyone. It was not long ago that most Americans believed in this cause.

The situation of academics in higher ed is particular, to be sure. We spend years in graduate education, earning next to nothing and often incurring debt. Jobs are few and we have to go where the job-landed is. This makes family life extremely difficult, and most of us will never earn the money we might have if we had gone into law, medicine, etc.

So, I think an argument can be made that eventual job security is a necessary carrot to attract the best and most dedicated people. Nonetheless, shouldn’t every person be able to expect some degree of security for work well done?

Perhaps our masters have so thoroughly colonized our minds that we are more angry with one another for not all being in exactly the same miserable boat than with those who put us there.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Olympic Musings

Some are criticizing President Obama for his performance regarding the IOC and Chicago’s bid to host the next summer games. As far as I can tell, this was a no-win situation for him, particularly in light of the eagerness with which some will criticize him for anything and/or rejoice to see him fail.

What were the possibilities?

1. The President does not go to stump for the U.S., and is roundly criticized for not doing so.

2. The President goes and seems less than committed, and is roundly criticized for not giving it his all.

3. The President does go, gives it his all and either

a. we get the games, and critics say this was Chicago cronyism and will cost us millions


b. we do not get the games, and critics mock the President for his effort and blame him for failing.

Tough choice.

What surprises me is that anyone expected the U.S. to get the games. No South American country has ever hosted. The U.S. hosted in 2002 and put on a nationalistic performance at the opening ceremonies to which the IOC objected. The U.S. is in economic trouble, and many around the world blame the difficulties of the global economy on the U.S. Chicago’s reputation for transparent and above-board governance is … not the best. The USOC is at odds with the IOC.

I think the President made the right choice. I’m not surprised Chicago lost out. I’m glad for Brazil that it got the games and hope it can carry them off without significant loss of money.
UPDATE: I had forgotten about the scandal[s] surrounding the Salt Lake Olympics. Another count against us.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Anonymity on the Web

A commenter to my last post notes, indirectly, that I blog anonymously and that others do not. The implication is that I am not in a position to describe someone who blogs with his full identity as cowardly. I explained in my response to that commenter why I had mentioned 'cowardice' in the context of the post and that, in fact, I thought it was beside the point; so, I removed the term. But, I did think about the implication.

The non-anonymous blogger in question is David Bernstein, who contributes to the group blog The Volokh Conspiracy. Normally, I post comments/replies to blogs which publish something of interest to me. Thus, if Bernstein allowed comments on the posts to which I took exception, I would have commented there. However, he typically does not open comments - a source of irritation to many who frequent VC - so I could not address his posts on Marc Garlasco on that site.

Enough back matter.

I assume that someone who shares his/her identity on a blog (1) has no reason to not do so, and (2) may have reasons to do so. As to (2), I can think of some possible reasons: a) if the author is posting on a group blog where all the other contributors reveal their identities, it might be uncomfortable to not do so ( it's possible that the owners of the blog require contributors to use their names ); b) in some cases, being known as a blogger might be advantageous - professionally or personally. Certainly, being a contributor to VC is considered a feather in one's professional cap among many libertarians and conservatives. Also, posts to a well-known blog could increase interest in one's articles, books, etc.

What about (1), the absence of reasons to remain anonymous? Let's invert it and consider reasons to remain anonymous. These reasons will vary from person to person, naturally. Some might think their blog views could endanger them professionally, or simply give rise to some professional complications. Others might not want friends or relatives to see whatever inner thoughts are disclosed online. Some simply may not be comfortable with being too open on the WWW - either because they are worried about cranks [or worse] tracking them down, or because they regard blogging as a way to try out and express views without worrying about who will read them, or because they are just not comfortable with that degree of openness to the world.

My own reasons for anonymity on the Web, both here and as a commenter on other sites, are a combination of professional concerns and old-fashioned discomfort with the insanely public nature of the enterprise. I do not worry about my employer or colleagues, but I do have some concerns about having my students 'hear' me at my least guarded. And, as I have no clear conception of what I might want to do on this blog in the future, I don't want to impose a cause for self-censoring on myself.

The old-fashionedness is probably self-explanatory. There may be another aspect to it: simply not being a person who desires publicity. Self-effacing on the downside, not self-promoting on the upside.

At any rate, why people do or do not prefer anonymity online is an intriguing question. I do not think everyone who prefers it is cowardly, by any means, although some may be.

But I was amused that the commenter who intended to imply my cowardice commented as 'Anonymous.'

Friday, September 11, 2009

Character Assassination and Faulty Reasoning

David Bernstein, at Volokh Conspiracy, has been posting repeatedly about Marc Garlasco of Human Rights Watch. Bernstein is, shall we say, not a fan of HRW because he thinks it is anti-Israeli. However, the posts about this particular individual are such outrageously fallacious attacks on one person’s character, that someone has to say something. As Bernstein typically does not permit comments on his posts, I’m doing it here. Please note that this is intended to be an exercise in exposing bad reasoning put to evil ends; I have no opinions about HRW or Mr. Garlasco.
Bernstein’s first post on Garlasco was entitled: Is Human Rights Watch's Marc Garlasco A Nazi-Obsessed Collector?...
Another (he keeps posting) is entitled: “Human Rights Watch Responds.”
Here is the full text:
“ It's only sporting to publish the response HRW's press office has sent regarding its Nazi memorabilia obsessed military analyst, Marc Garlasco [UPDATE: I think it's also fair to point out that the response, not surprisingly from HRW, is at best disingenuous. For example, it describes Garlasco's 400+ page book on German World War II "Flak" badges as "a monograph on the history of German Air Force and Army anti-aircraft medals," leaving out the World War II part.]

[The HRW post]

Several blogs and others critical of Human Rights Watch have suggested that Marc Garlasco, Human Rights Watch's longtime senior military advisor, is a Nazi sympathizer because he collects German (as well as American) military memorabilia. This accusation is demonstrably false and fits into a campaign to deflect attention from Human Rights Watch’s rigorous and detailed reporting on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the Israeli government. Garlasco has co-authored several of our reports on violations of the laws of war, including in Afghanistan, Georgia, and Iraq, as well as by Israel, Hamas, and Hezbollah.
Garlasco has never held or expressed Nazi or anti-Semitic views.
Garlasco's grandfather was conscripted into the German armed forces during the Second World War, like virtually all young German men at the time, and served as a radar operator on an anti-aircraft battery. He never joined the Nazi Party, and later became a dedicated pacifist. Meanwhile, Garlasco's great-uncle was an American B-17 crewman, who survived many attacks by German anti-aircraft gunners.
Garlasco own family's experience on both sides of the Second World War has led him to collect military items related to both sides, including American 8th Air Force memorabilia and German Air Force medals and other objects (not from the Nazi Party or the SS, as falsely alleged). Many military historians, and others with an academic interest in the Second World War, including former and active-duty US service members, collect memorabilia from that era.
Garlasco is the author of a monograph on the history of German Air Force and Army anti-aircraft medals and a contributor to websites that promote serious historical research into the Second World War (and which forbid hate speech). In the foreword he writes of telling his daughters that "the war was horrible and cruel, that Germany lost and for that we should be thankful."
To imply that Garlasco's collection is evidence of Nazi sympathies is not only absurd but an attempt to deflect attention from his deeply felt efforts to uphold the laws of war and minimize civilian suffering in wartime. These falsehoods are an affront to Garlasco and thousands of other serious military historians. [DB’s emphasis added]

[DB again] “ And here [go to Vokh to see the photo] is "serious military historian" Garlasco hanging out in his favorite "Iron Cross" sweatshirt, you know, the one that all the serious military historians wear, but that everyone thinks is a biker shirt (a screenshot from the German Combat Awards website)

After Garlasco posted this picture, the following dialogue ensued” [apparently from the website to which Garlasco posted his picture]:
Skip: Love the sweatshirt Mark. Not one I could wear here in germany though (well I could but it would be a lot of hassle)
Garlasco: Everyone thinks it is a biker shirt!
Skip: Yeh, were you come from but imagine walking around in Berlin with "das Eisene Kreuz" written across your cheat. Either you get beaten to pulp by a group of rampaging Turks or the police arrest you on suspicion of being a Nazi.

“UPDATE: By the way, I don't suggest that Garlasco is a Nazi sympathizer--as noted in my previous post, lots of people collect Nazi stuff for innocuous reasons. [Several readers have emailed me about the significance of the Iron Cross. As weird as it is to walk around in an Iron Cross sweatshirt, without the WWII-era swastika it's not a banned Nazi symbol in Germany. Indeed it was revived, in a denazified version, as the symbol of the German armed forces in 1957. However, the West German government stopped awarding Iron Cross medals after WWII--thanks Wikipedia! The Iron Cross medal, which the shirt seems to allude to, is still widely associated with the Nazi era in Germany. I take it that "Skip" thinks that walking around in Germany with an Iron Cross shirt that says "das Eisene Kreuz" is taken as a reference to the medal, not the modern German armed forces, which would also make sense for a medal collector like Garlasco.]
But Garlasco is much more than a casual hobbyist [contrary to HRW's release, there is no indication that Garlasco is an avid collector, in general, of American and German military stuff, as opposed specifically to WWII era German military medals, on which he wrote a 430 page book, and other WWII German stuff], and I think it's a rather strange obsession for a human rights investigator who spends much of his time investigating Israel for HRW. Strange, first, because human rights activists aren't typically obsessed with collecting mementoes of Nazi war achievements. As one blogger wrote, it's like an animal rights activist avidly collecting vintage furs. There's nothing inherently wrong, by most lights, with collecting such furs, but it's not the kind of thing you'd expect an animal rights activist to find enjoyable. Not to mention that in Garlasco's case, you wind up hanging around with the type of people who casually refer to “rampaging Turks" and make not-so-oblique references to their frustration at having to obey laws banning them from wearing Nazi regalia; or, as I saw on one memorabilia forum defending Garlasco, with people who refer to Israel as the "Jew country."
And strange because one would think that HRW, under fire for years for its anti-Israel bias, would not want to hire someone with this rather strange avocation given the obvious p.r. implications--all HRW really has, after all, is its reputation. But then again, if HRW was concerned about its reputation for objectivity, it would start by not hiring pro-Palestinian activists (and no pro-Israel activists) to run and staff its Middle East division. [Put differently, I think HRW poobahs think that being hostile to Israel is an objective position, one that any reasonable person would share.] Solomania has much more.”

Let’s play rational person engaged in good-faith discourse. What would we make of Bernstein’s post?

1) Bernstein writes that the HRW post is disingenuous, because, For example, it describes Garlasco's 400+ page book on German World War II "Flak" badges as "a monograph on the history of German Air Force and Army anti-aircraft medals," leaving out the World War II part.]
Compare that with the HRW response: Garlasco is the author of a monograph on the history of German Air Force and Army anti-aircraft medals and a contributor to websites that promote serious historical research into the Second World War.
Perhaps if one is functionally illiterate, one might not be able to connect the dots between the references to the monograph and to the Second World War. Or, wanting to see the HRW post as disingenuous blinded Bernstein to what any honest reader could easily make out.
2) Bernstein mocks HRW’s reference to serious historians and calls Garlasco’s inclusion in that group into doubt by, yes, showing a picture of Garlasco at some outdoor event wearing an Iron Cross sweatshirt. Apparently, one’s choice of clothing is an important test of one’s bona fides as an historian.
3) Bernstein disingenuously looks to people who correspond with Garlasco on the collectors’ website as evidence of Garlasco’s views and beliefs. Because, obviously, what ‘Skip’ has to say about the likelihood of wearing said sweatshirt in Germany and ‘Skip’s’ xenophobic crack about Turks in Germany tell us all we need to know about Garlasco.
4) Bernstein seems to sound the voice of reason in noting that one might collect Nazi memorabilia and not be a Nazi sympathizer – but only to undermine that possibility in Garlasco’s case. He asserts that Garlasco is much more than a casual hobbyist.
The evidence for this claim? Well, Bernstein says there is no indication that Garlasco is an avid collector, in general, of American and German military stuff, as opposed specifically to WWII era German military medals, pretending to supply meat to this empty assertion by repeating the number of pages in Garlasco’s book.
Further, Bernstein ‘argues,’ Garlasco’s being a collector of WWII Nazi memorabilia is a rather strange obsession for a human rights investigator who spends much of his time investigating Israel for HRW. Pay attention: a) Bernstein thinks it is a strange obsession - so, it seems Garlasco’s being obsessed is no longer in question; b) it is a strange obsession for someone who has investigated possible human rights violations in Israel; c) it is a strange obsession for one who does such investigations for HRW – which Bernstein constantly accuses of an anti-Israeli bias.
Bernstein claims that human rights activists aren't typically obsessed with collecting mementoes of Nazi war achievements. Don’t let the absence of data distract you; it is the "Nazi war achievements" that does the intended work, here. Because, now we realize that Garlasco does not collect memorabilia; rather, he is, again, obsessed and in fact obsessed with collecting Nazi trophies in celebration of Nazi achievements.
But if this is too subtle for you, Bernstein has an analogy from ‘a blogger’: it's like an animal rights activist avidly collecting vintage furs. There's nothing inherently wrong, by most lights, with collecting such furs, but it's not the kind of thing you'd expect an animal rights activist to find enjoyable.
Students, this is a very, very bad analogy.
Imagine you believe animals should not be killed, as a general rule, and certainly not so humans can wear the skins of animals killed entirely for that purpose. Collecting furs would be, in effect, supporting the killing of animals and the fur trade to which you object. Now, compare that with collecting war memorabilia used by an historical group. Are you supporting said group or its actions? Does your being a collector indicate that you approve of the motivations or beliefs of said group? Think about a different war: the U.S. Civil War. If you collect Civil War memorabilia, either including or even limited to those from the Confederacy, does this imply that you think the Confederates pursued a just cause? That you are in favor of slavery as an institution? That you support or would have supported the Slave Power or are a racist? You get the idea.
And, then, of course Bernstein comes back to the guilt by association meme: Not to mention that in Garlasco's case, you wind up hanging around with the type of people who casually refer to “rampaging Turks" ….. or, as I saw on one memorabilia forum defending Garlasco, with people who refer to Israel as the "Jew country." The last is especially egregious. Now, Garlasco is to be faulted for having a hobby that others who refer to Israel as the ‘Jew country’ also have. Well, there you are; not exactly ‘hanging out’ with any of these people, mind, but apparently good reason to pick your interests carefully – and to be careful of who defends you in your absence or without your knowledge.
5) And, then, finally, Bernstein writes, And strange because one would think that HRW, under fire for years for its anti-Israel bias, would not want to hire someone with this rather strange avocation given the obvious p.r. implications--all HRW really has, after all, is its reputation.
As written, this would suggest that Garlasco’s hobby is a strange one for him, because it is strange that HRW hired someone with such a hobby. When I get something like this from one of my undergraduates, I say helpful things such as, “Now, see, you’ve changed the subject, really haven’t you? You are no longer talking about why/how X is Y; you’ve started talking about why/how Q is Y. And, that’s different, isn’t it? Just remember to keep track of both sentences and paragraphs.”
On the other hand, as Bernstein’s interest in Garlasco seems to be grounded in his antipathy to HRW, perhaps confusing what is ‘strange’ for one with what is ‘strange’ for the other is, well, not so strange.

Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

So, it’s 2:45 am, and I am .. AWAKE... - primarily because I seem to have some spreading, itchy rash on my neck and arms: an ROU [rash of unidentified origin]. No accounting for it.

Beyond that – and in order to have something other than being itchy to think about – I am stewing over movies (films, for the cognoscenti). This was initiated by my stumbling across a firestorm on Rotten Tomatoes over a review of the movie I saw earlier tonight (or rather, yesterday), District 9. The controversy spilled over a bit to Roger Ebert’s site, where Ebert first posted in moderate defense of the reviewer at the center of the storm, only to recant after commenters gave him further food for thought.

The [apparently] offending critic is Armond White. His review infuriated a surprising number of Rotten Tomatoes and New York Press followers. I’m happy to say I was unable (okay, I didn’t try very hard) to read the comments on RT and only skimmed the 47 pages of comments at NYP. I did read the comments at Ebert’s site.

Now, honestly, I have no dog in this fight.

I thought White’s review seriously missed the mark, as it seemed to focus on the film’s metaphoric references to South African apartheid (director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp is a native South African). In his review, as I read it, White seems to be incensed that the film does not fully examine apartheid, but rather uses apartheid merely as a metaphor in the pursuit of a science fiction movie about prejudice and the twin human capacities for bias-camouflaged evil and boundary-crossing decency. The aliens are, by contrast a mix of not-too-bright ‘drones’ and some very smart, very gentle beings.

To those of us who enjoy sci-fi films, this is a relatively novel stance. Apart from Close Encounters and Alien Nation [followed by the television series Alien Nation ], few films depict extra-terrestrial visits to this planet in other than terms of invasion by evil, repulsive beings bent on the destruction or colonization of Earth and/or the annihilation or subjection of its human inhabitants. (I am not counting E.T Come Home, as I think of it more as a kids’ fantasy film than a sci-fi film.)

Even The Day the Earth Stood Still is a film about aliens coming to destroy us; that these aliens are in some ways admirable and have superficial good cause to eliminate humanity from the Earth is, ultimately, beside the point. It turns out, of course, that these alien hasty-generalizers do not comprehend the full range of human achievements and possibilities. Once they comprehend human capacities for goodness, love, and progress, they will back off – with serious warnings – and let us find our better selves. If Lot had bargained with one of these extra-terrestrials rather than his god, Sodom and Gomorrah might have been spared.

Indeed, how ever often the depiction of human frailty is affirmed in sci-fi films and television series, it inevitably turns out that our very humanness is a lesson to the extraterrestrials. They learn that we are passionate and have depths of feeling beyond theirs. They come to understand that, despite our limited powers of reason and many lapses into injustice, we have better natures – natures which, it often seems, they do not have, precisely because they are so perfectly, coldly rational or perfectly evil. And, all too often, they are instructed by us to discover their own more ‘humane’ inclinations.

One cannot help but recall, with a wince, the many occasions on the original Star Trek television show when Kirk’s powers of manly seduction melted the cold heart of some alien beauty. That Spock was constantly being dressed down for his lack of feelings by Scotty was a less squirm-producing but equally heavy-handed message.

Once in awhile on a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode the aliens would be proven superior to the humans, morally and or emotionally. But, as a rule, in sci-fi We are good and They are bad. So, District 9 is refreshing in at least that respect. It also has a clever plot that plays into the problems of prejudice and perspective, cool but not over-the-top special effects, and an interesting mockumentary framing.

It seems all of this was lost on Mr. White. But the furor over his critique of the film is not due entirely to this one review. Rather, it seems that Mr. White is a repeat offender among film critics: one who typically praises what others, including other critics, dismiss and aggressively pans what others laud. Most of the commenting about his District 9 review focuses on his standard style [harsh] and his pattern of contrariness (from the perspective of his readers). That he often denigrates other critics does not help his reputation.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tiller, Part Three


Third, and finally, I am interested in the use of violence in the pursuit of moral ends. I do not agree with the extreme anti-choice view, by any means, but I can recognize that some who are of that view genuinely believe that abortion is the killing of a ‘person.’ In other words, I recognize that some of the anti-choice advocates believe they are trying to end the killing of innocent humans, and that is certainly a ‘moral end.’
I have argued, elsewhere, that the use of violence to bring about a sufficiently important moral aim may be justifiable when all other efforts have failed. This principle is an extension of the familiar principles of self-defense and defense of others. The same requirements of proportionality – that the violence done be proportionate to the violence thwarted – apply in all cases. So, I do not suggest that killing is a justified means of preventing mere injury or suffering, anymore than brutality is justified as a means to prevent dishonesty. The end, here, really must be of such weight that the otherwise forbidden means can be justified. Generally speaking, this entails that violence be used only to prevent worse violence.
John Brown’s seizure of the armory at Harper’s Ferry and his planned ‘uprising’ of slaves in the area is an example in point. Brown hoped to bring about the end of slavery in the United States by inspiring slaves to use their superior numbers to free themselves and, ultimately, to frighten slave owners into giving up the ‘institution.’ It was a desperate plan, and if Brown is to be faulted, in my opinion, it is for the doubtfulness of success. Without meaningful likelihood of achieving the good ends, the use of violence as a means is less justifiable. Still, because Brown sought the freeing of 4 million human beings from lives of enslavement, forced labor, degradation, and – yes – violence, and because he reasonably saw no end to slavery as matters stood at the time, I do think the decision to use violent means was justified.
Predictably, when I have argued for this defense of Brown, I have been met with this rejoinder: “But, then, don’t you have to accept violent means on the part of anti-choicers and others with whose moral judgment you disagree?” My answer is, “No,” because the situations are morally distinguishable.

Let’s start with the easiest points of distinction.

I criticized Brown’s full choice of means for the improbability of its success. He not only chose to employ violence, but also to do so with a woefully inadequate number of forces and at a location that would be difficult to hold once he had seized it. (Federal armories are places of considerable concern to the government and its military. ) Justified means must be rational means – rational in the sense that they can be reasonably expected to serve as effective means to their intended end. The seizure of the armory and the plan to rally local slaves to its defense was not completely irrational, but it was extremely risky, and all chances of success depended on events outside of Brown’s control.
How might we assess the rationality of the killing of individual abortion providers as a means to end abortion? Of course, one less provider might mean some fewer abortions, in the short run. And, the acknowledged aim of many anti-choice groups to make the lives of abortion providers so miserable that they will quit and others will not replace them could certainly be advanced by making the role dangerous. Someone tough enough to stand up to constant harassment might quail at the possibility of being murdered. But, I think the rational connection between the killings of abortion providers and ending abortion in our country is tenuous. So, I have serious doubts about the causal efficacy of the violence, and that efficacy is important for justifiability.

The question of efficacy is related to another point of distinction between Brown’s actions and the killing of an abortion provider: proportionality. Whether or not the means are proportional to the ends turns, in part, on whether the ends can be achieved by the means. Given the limited violence of Brown’s own conduct in seizing the armory and the great good to be achieved by freeing even the local slaves, Brown’s choice seems to meet the requirements of proportionality, if we give him the benefit of the doubt as to efficacy. Justification of killing an abortion provider, by contrast, is weakened by both a less plausible claim to efficacy and a deep question of proportionality. That deep question is of the moral equivalence of a thinking, feeling human of reproductive age and something between a zygote and an unborn fetus at some stage of development (after the 9th week of pregnancy, which begins in the 10th to 14th week).
And this, of course, is the point at which we find ourselves returned to the moral convictions of anti-choice activists. The central question is whether, and at what point, a pregnant female and, perhaps, others in her life, is of no more considerability than a yet-to-be person? Choosing terminology is difficult in this context. Of course, a human zygote is something human and a human fetus is closer to being a living human person. But, language aside, I simply cannot comprehend the idea that a living, thinking, feeling human of age to become pregnant is of no greater considerability than a zygote, a morula, a blastula, or a gastrula (early embryo). At 9/10 weeks, what we call the ‘fetus’ is still without a developed brain or lungs; arm and leg bones, ribs, and the skull begin to form at 13 weeks. And so on for skin and ears and bone marrow and so on. A pregnancy is not considered ‘full-term’ until the 37th week.
But, I do not want to argue the question of the timing of what I would call ‘personhood,’ here. I would not persuade anyone seriously committed to the moral equivalence of a fetus and a pregnant girl or woman. I want to focus on the justification of violence to ‘end’ or inhibit abortions.
There could have been no rational doubt in the minds of slave-owners that the slaves were living human beings. Of course, many referred to their slaves as ‘animals,’ but their conduct gave the lie to that metaphor. We do not entrust our own infants to other animals for nursing or care; nor do we have them serve as midwives when we give birth. We do not have sexual relations with other animals, normally, and we certainly do not dress them up and install them in our homes as mistresses. We do not have them prepare our meals or help us run our affairs. We would never be afraid that they might learn to read and revolt against us, so we have no need to keep them in ignorance.
Slave-owners treated slaves in these ways and others that clearly indicate they knew the slaves were not simply ‘animals.’ They might have convinced themselves that the slaves were inferior humans, even very inferior, but they knew they were humans: men, women, and children who could feel pain, feel emotions, think, speak, and act on their own.
Even a completely healthy newborn must continue to develop to attain the level of personhood of the people were held as slaves in John Brown’s United States. However connivingly the slave owners and pro-slavery advocates might have tried to think of the slaves as ‘not persons,’ they knew the truth. But perfectly rational and honest-minded people can and do disagree as to the personhood of a fetus, especially before the 37 week mark. This is a matter of real controversy and genuine doubt.
This brings us back to proportionality and what might be called the ‘moral numbers-game.’ Suppose one is not convinced – as killers of abortion providers must not be – that to kill any person is wrong, no matter what the good ends to be achieved by killing. In other words, suppose one is not an absolutist about ‘human life.’ There are two conceptual options: 1) one disavows any intentional killing of another human for any purpose, however good; 2) one disavows only the killing of ‘innocent’ persons. Clearly, those who believe it is correct to kill abortion providers embrace the second option. Nonetheless, to take it upon oneself to judge the innocence or guilt of others and then simply to kill anyone on the basis of that judgment would demonstrate a remarkable moral hubris. So, we turn to the numbers-game: how many innocent lives will be saved if this purportedly non-innocent life is ended? Well, that depends in the context of abortion, on what one regards as a person [innocent or not].
The conviction of some anti-choicers that a fetus (or, worse, a zygote) is a person fully comparable to a living, thinking, feeling, speaking, person with a life underway and friends and family, is problematic when we come to the numbers-game. Of course, if I imagine myself able to save the lives of thousands of beings who are unquestionably full persons,[i] then – as I am not an absolutist – I will say the killing of the person who threatens their lives is justifiable [at least, in principle]. But, how are we to assess the intentional killing of a full-grown adult for the purpose of saving the ‘lives’ of entities whose personhood is a matter of such dispute and uncertainty? This is but one point, yet the crucial point, on which the justification of the killing of abortion providers founders.

Let me recap. To justify the killing of someone like Dr. Tiller, one must show, minimally, the following:
1) The use of violence is something close to a last resort (it is ‘necessary’ rather than discretionary);
2) The ends to be achieved outweigh the evil of intentional killing;
a) Thus, they must be proportionally significant.
b) Where human life is at issue,
i) the numbers of lives to be spared ought to exceed the lives lost,
ii) and/or [ii] the lives to be ended must be of clear evil-doers

(not based merely on a judgment of ‘guilt’ open to reasonable dispute).
3) The violence must be plausibly efficacious towards attaining the good end[s], i.e., rational as a means.

If we give the benefit of the moral doubt to those who kill abortion providers, we might say that their choices satisfy requirements 1 and 3 (necessity and rationality). I can see that the ‘necessity’ argument for the ending of abortion – if one accepts the moral equivalence of fetuses and adult humans – is comparable to Brown’s argument for the necessity of ending slavery: the hated conditions persist and there seem to be no prospects for political relief in sight. I do have some doubts about the efficacy claim, but let’s grant it for present purposes.
It is the complex questions of requirement 2 that distinguish the case of Brown from the case of Dr. Tiller’s killer. I assert that Brown had incontrovertible evidence that the slaves were persons fully equivalent to the slave owners. His conviction was not the consequences of any particular religious or metaphysical view; it was an accurate representation of evident facts. Thus, the good to be gained – the number of lives to be saved and improved [made human] – far exceeded the loss of lives of all slave-holders and their families, if it came to it. (Brown did have another end-in-view: cleansing his country of a great moral blight in the eyes of the god he worshiped, but that is not a necessary element in the justification of his actions.) Four million enslaved human beings certainly outnumbered the few hundreds who enslaved them.
Further, we must note that the deaths of any of those hundreds were not central to Brown’s aims. If he could have merely frightened the ‘Slave Power’ into abandoning its evil institution, he would have been satisfied. Even at Harper’s Ferry, he hoped slavery could be undone without significant violence. The killer of an abortion provider is precisely that: the intended and deliberate killer of a person. One or more persons are to die; if others are frightened into acquiescence that is a happy side-effect of the killing. The deaths of one or more are not unfortunate side-effects of an effort to save others; rather, they are the precise means selected for that end. (For Catholics and many deontologists, this is a crucial distinction summed up in the Doctrine of Double Effect.)
Last, there is the question of ‘innocence,’ ‘guilt’, and judgment. Much of the demonization of Dr. Tiller that I noted in the first and second installments of this discussion was directed toward painting him as a man who knew that he was ‘murdering innocent humans.’ That Dr. Tiller not only had a different view as to the personhood of fetuses but also perceived a moral and professional obligation to help women, men, and girls, in the most dire straits, is nowhere admitted in the attacks on him. He was not depicted as a professional with a view of personhood or moral obligation different from the views of those who demonized him. He was, simply, either a [godless] mercenary or a witting evil-doer. That Dr. Tiller might have honestly had beliefs about personhood and/or his obligations as a doctor that were not those of the anti-choicers was seldom, if ever, suggested. Rather, he was a ‘Nazi,’ a murderer, a monster who would do anything to make money.
It is a serious moral undertaking to judge as to the views and intentions of others. I do not think we ought never to ‘judge,’ as many relativists seem to recommend. But moral humility is a great virtue. When the requirement for humility is conjoined with reasonable doubts about one’s own moral-factual beliefs – such as whether a fetus is morally equivalent to a here and now person – then, I truly believe, one ought to tread very carefully. Might one conclude that an abortion provider is committing ‘murder’? Of course; although I think even that judgment of another moral agent should be circumscribed with care and charity, such private judgments are largely to our moral discretion. But to kill another human being on the basis of such disputable judgments is a dreadful exhibition of moral and epistemic pridefulness.
If, as in the case of Dr. Tiller’s murder, there are reasonable doubts about the good ends to be attained [saving ‘lives’] and the determination of proportionality, then no one should be quick to kill an in-the-flesh human being. If we add, at this point, both concerns about the lack of clarity as to the good ends to be achieved [what, exactly are the ends?] and doubts as to the efficacy of the means selected to the ends, the case for justification fails.

There are initial reports suggesting the man arrested on suspicion of murdering Dr. Tiller is mentally ill. If so, his actions might be morally and legally excusable. But excuse of the actor is not justification of the act. The act in this case was murder.

[i] I am not sure that newborns are ‘full persons,’ but I do think I could justify killing someone who, purely maliciously, would try to kill one or more newborns.
[ii] Whether it is ever justifiable to kill an ‘innocent’ person to save a greater number of innocent lives is a distinct problem.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009



Second, there are serious questions about free speech and incitement that should be touched upon, at the least. The law, of course, treads with great respect around individuals’ rights to freely express themselves on all matters. Whether this is the best interpretation of our constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression, or not, is a deep and distinct question. The law stands as it stands. My concern is a moral concern: to what extent should we, ought we, to hold responsible those whose exercise of their legal rights to free expression implicates them in inflaming the passions of those who are unable to control their passions, inciting to violence those who are unable to conform their conduct to law and basic moral constraints, or providing the informational means for violent action to those ready to engage in violence? If you want to see the several web sites that were devoted to demonizing Dr. Tiller, just go to Google. If you want to hear a well-known public pundit demonize Dr. Tiller and intimate that he deserved to die, go to UTube and search for Bill O’Reilly.
Unsurprisingly, most of the identifiable persons and groups who pronounced Dr. Tiller ‘Tiller, the Baby Killer,’ or compared his medical services to ‘Nazi stuff’ and the Holocaust, now condemn his murder. They are shocked, shocked. Shocked and appalled, no doubt. The anonymous haters trolling about on numerous websites do not need to be so condemnatory; they prefer to ask how much money Dr. Tiller earned through his medical practice, or to claim that the death of one man is not comparable to the deaths of thousands of fetuses, or to dismiss the anguished stories of women [and men] and girls who find themselves in desperate need of a late abortion.
These apologists for murder, however repugnant one may find their words, do not belong to the same moral class as those who fueled hatred and encouraged or facilitated violence. Perhaps the rhetoric of “Tiller the Killer’ can be attributed to the irrationality of rage on the part of a blogger here or there, but why would a public personality such as O’Reilly persist in that rhetoric? Surely, either he or his producers must have had some more rational, sober moments in designing their attacks on Dr. Tiller? Perhaps O’Reilly simply is the irresponsible blowhard so many believe him to be. But what purpose could there be in web sites showing maps of Dr. Tiller’s home and clinic? What could possibly explain, or excuse, the offering of private information about Dr. Tiller and his family on the Web? Perhaps those who provided that information simply intended to have the Doctor and his family harassed. Perhaps they really believed it would go no further. Yet, the man who is accused of murdering Dr. Tiller was known to Operation Rescue personnel (as was the woman who shot him some years earlier); indeed, Operation Rescue kept him informed of Dr. Tiller’s whereabouts.
There is a mental state [mens rea] in the law known as connivance. ‘Connivance’[i] describes the mental state of one who claims to not recognize that a trailer truck full of flat screen TVs with all numbers defaced - and no purchase receipts - pulled up to the back of one’s pawn shop is, in fact, a trailer truck full of stolen goods. But, connivance has a forward-looking mode , as well. When my son was about 6 months old and sitting in his highchair, my daughter – about four years old - stood before him, slowly and deliberately eating his beloved Cheerios. Staring him in the eyes, she put one Cheerio after another into her mouth and made loud sounds of relish . Imagine her ‘shock’ when he began to cry.
I think that ‘connivance’ is the apt term for the cognitive states that allowed people like Bill O’Reilly, Operation Rescue operatives, and numerous bloggers and ‘journalists’ to express – in print or vocally – views that painted George Tiller as a monster who deserved to die. Indeed, I believe that the rhetoric of many of these people, groups, and media outlets can only be explained as evidence of connivance, both personal and collective. (I reserve as a possibility, of course, the judgment that some persons and some groups were quite purposive in their design to incite the murder of George Tiller and any other medical professionals who would not acquiesce to their threats of physical violence or legal/social/financial blackmail.) But let me be clear: ‘connivance’ means ‘guilty ignorance.’ Connivers are not innocently ignorant. Rather, they connive to hide the obvious truth from themselves and, thus, to obscure their own moral fault.
I imagine there is a continuum of self-awareness among connivers, particularly among the kind of moral connivers who publically denounced and demonized Dr. Tiller. Some may be simply so limited in imagination or foresight as to recognize the effects their words and exhortations could have on others. Some, such as O’Reilly, might be so taken up with the need to be exciting – so as to support a lucrative career as a ‘public personality’ – that they obstinately refuse to contemplate the likely effects of their demagoguery. And, of course, it may be difficult to distinguish between genuinely innocent expression and expression connivingly expected – if not intended – to provoke criminal conduct by others. The questions that need be asked to make the discernment, however, are simple enough: ‘Why?” ‘ For what purpose?’ ‘To what end?’
For what purpose would a public ‘pundit’ repeatedly describe Dr. Tiller as a ‘baby killer’ or liken him to the Nazis? What end was served by publishing maps of Dr. Tiller’s home? More broadly, to what end would any person or group persist in targeting a single individual for harassment if that individual or group did not recognize that ‘harassment’ takes many forms – that it might range from ugly abuse to stalking and to violence? What kind of moral agent wants to single out any person for harassment? What fool is unaware that encouraging the harassment of an individual inevitably leads to much worse than ‘harassment’?
None of those who pilloried Dr. Tiller on the Web or on television or radio shows is responsible for the acts of the man who killed the doctor. They are responsible, however, for their own conduct. Putting aside questions as to the legal limits on freedom of speech, those who exercise their right to free speech are responsible for the content of their own expression. The internet makes it easy for ay one of us to express her/himself with little consequence. The significant benefits of becoming a popular figure through the media make it tempting to maintain one’s popularity through unethical behavior. But neither the ease of abandoning self-restraint nor the temptations of success can release us from the obligation to speak and write as responsible moral agents.

[i] 1. ‘Connivance’ may also mean something like ‘conspiracy,’ when there is more than one person involved, The conceptual relation is fairly clear: either (a) a person connives to ignorance on his/her own part or (b) a person connives to ‘innocent’ participation in the criminal activity of others.

The Murder of George Tiller in Three Parts
Let’s think about the murder of Dr. George Tiller, “Diplomat of the American Board of Family Practice and Medical Director of Women's Health Care Services.”
Dr. Tiller ran a women’s reproductive health clinic which, among other services, provided abortions. Over time, because Dr. Tiller was willing to provide ‘late-term’ abortions to women under legally defined circumstances and because his clinic gained a national reputation for gentle care and counseling, Dr. Tiller’s practice became more and more associated with providing abortions. In particular, Dr. Tiller was one of only 3 or 4 physicians skilled in and willing to perform difficult abortions in the late second trimester or third trimester – abortions which count for something along the lines of a maximum of 1% of all abortions performed in this country. The technique primarily used by Dr. Tiller in these late abortions was to inject a fetal heart stopping medication; after the inducing of contractions, the pregnant woman would then have to wait hours or a few days to deliver a stillborn .
Dr. Tiller’s late abortion patients fell , roughly, into four groups: 1) women or girls whose lives were endangered, or whose health was seriously endangered by the pregnancy, or who required medical treatment that the pregnancy made impossible; 2) often overlapping the first group, cases in which testing revealed serious – often dreadful – abnormalities or deformities in the fetus, other kinds of problems for the fetus or fetuses, or a dead fetus; 3) women or girls who were the victims of rape or abuse; 4) more rare cases in which the pregnant person was a mentally defective minor, herself.
The truly heartbreaking and tragic stories of women and girls who found care at Dr. Tiller’s clinic can, now, be found in many places. Sometimes, after all, people who have suffered a tragedy do not want to share their stories with others, in particular with a polarized public, but the murder of Dr. Tiller seems to have inspired many of them to explain what they endured and how they came to choose late-term abortions. Andrew Sullivan’s blog on The Atlantic has received any number of these terrible stories of women and men who looked forward to their babies only to have their hopes dashed by some of the crueler turns of Nature. The stories of girls – as young as 9 – who were victimized by relatives and became pregnant unawares, and whose pregnancies proceeded past the first trimester before others realized what had happened, are certainly no less painful to read.
For his service, Dr. Tiller was singled out by Operation Rescue (which now decries the killing of “abortionist Tiller”), by a site entirely devoted to disclosing Dr. Tiller’s personal information, and by the lawless Bill O’Reilly (who, also, now claims to separate himself from incitement to violence). Dr. Tiller had been shot, previously, and he and his clinic staff were the targets of email, mail, and in-person invective and bullying. He and his family lived in a gated community for protection. He was also targeted by a ‘pro-life’ Kansas Attorney General, who never won any of his actions against Dr. Tiller. On Sunday, May 31, 2009, Dr. Tiller was shot in the face at his church while serving as an usher.

Most of this is readily accessible online and through news outlets. So is the renewed firestorm of the ‘abortion debate’ in the United States. Here, I would like to address some other issues.

First, it must be noted that the murder of Dr. Tiller leaves this nation with, perhaps, two or three practicing physicians sufficiently skilled in the very difficult medical technique of late-term abortions. Many women and girls had to travel hundreds of miles to find help at Dr. Tiller’s clinic in Kansas where he frequently provided all services and counseling for free. Now, there is one fewer such doctor to help women whose desired pregnancies ended in agonizing choices to sacrifice the possibility of a safe birth for the mother’s life or health or in the wrenching decision to spare a newborn pain and suffering before an inevitable death. Now, there is one less doctor to help young girls who are victimized by rape and whose bodies, in some cases, are simply too undeveloped to carry a pregnancy to term – I note this last point recognizing that there are those so callous as to condemn a child to the torment of a pregnancy that results from [often, incestuous] rape.

The next topics I will adress in relation to Dr. Tiller's murder are Responsible Speech and the Use of Violence for 'Good' Ends.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Poets, Professors, and Their Students

Ruth Padel, recently named as the Oxford professor of Poetry and the first woman to hold that post, resigned after admitting that she had sent emails to news outlets and Oxfordites reminding them of Derek Walcott’s reported sexual harassment of female students. Walcott was one of Padel’s competitors for the Oxford poetry honor.

Walcott’s harassment of students consisted, as far as is known, of two instances. In the first, he propositioned a Harvard student and gave her a ‘C’ for the course after she refused him. After a university review, the student’s grade was changed and Walcott was reprimanded. In the second, a Boston University student sued him for asking her to trade sex for his assistance in producing a play she had written. The suit was settled out of court.

The professor in me thinks the universities involved might have dealt more severely with Mr. Walcott, although he seems to have had only visiting positions in both cases. So, their options would have been limited to not having him return.

The feminist professor in me is more appalled by the response of some commentators on Padel’s resignation and Walcott’s voluntary withdrawal from the competition for the Oxford position. Thus, in the NYT Books section, we have John Burns writing:

When Mr. Walcott quit the race, commentators in British newspapers noted the irony of hounding a distinguished literary figure on the basis of long-ago sexual transgressions when many of Britain’s greatest poets were social or political reprobates by the standards of modern-day Britain.

Michael Deacon in The Telegraph cited Lord Byron (“womanizer”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“drug fiend”), John Keats (“smackhead”), Rudyard Kipling (“imperialist”), T. S. Eliot (“lines that could be construed as racist”) and Dylan Thomas (“drank like a drain, begged and stole from friends”), among others, and concluded, “Not one of them, were they alive today, could hope to land the Oxford post — they just don’t meet the exacting moral standards set by people who conduct smear campaigns.”

And from Mr. Deacon, himself, we have this:

What do you need, these days, to be a successful poet? A gift for articulating the dreams and dreads of your age? The power to express universal emotions in unique language? A working knowledge of such mysteries as rhyme and metre, even if you would never stoop so low as to employ them yourself?

No. Those qualities are all very well, in their way, but there’s something more important. You need to be nice. You need to be blameless. You need to be as charming and innocent as Wordsworth’s daffodils.

Now, I do not know if Burns was merely reporting the views of Deacon and others or affirming them. That he closed his report on Padel’s resignation with those comments suggests the latter. Deacon, clearly, believes that Walcott’s harassment of female students is on a par with ‘womanizing,’ being a drunk, etc. And, of course, it was all in the past, which means that any who criticize Walcott for that conduct are simply moral prigs and/or PC activists bent on hounding a great man for a few past lapses of taste.

I don’t agree. A professor has a particular role in relation to his or her students. Perhaps back in the good old days men such as Walcott were given fairly free rein to use their positions of power over students to coerce sexual relations. Happily, we no longer believe that students, of either sex, are fair game for those who determine their grades and their futures.

Let’s be clear about what Walcott did. He tried to bribe and threaten students into providing sex. He tried, in one case, to use his authority as a professor to punish a student who rebuffed him. This is not being a womanizer. A womanizer, presumably, is adept at seduction, and whatever we make of seduction it is not equivalent to coercing or extorting sex through the abuse of power.

The other forms of colorful naughtiness that Deacon references – “[Dylan] Thomas drank like a drain, begged and stole from friends, fought with his wife in public, had affairs, and on at least one delightful occasion is said to have defecated on a host’s floor” – are of neither a moral nor a legal order with attempts to bully or bribe one’s students into sex. Nor is the fact that “Philip Larkin, who in private letters to friends and his mother wrote all manner of racist and sexist things,” relevant in comparison with Walcott’s abuse of his students. That Coleridge and others used or were addicted to various drugs is a red herring.

Mr. Deacon simply does not understand that there is a very great moral and legal difference between personal failings, illicit drug use, or illicit but consensual sexual relationships, and the use of a position of considerable power to get sex from an unwilling person a person to whom the power-abuser stands in a relation of educator/mentor to student. It is this which Mr. Deacon describes as “flirting with students.”

We have several distinctions, here: (i) between coercion and seduction, (ii) between abuse of power and manipulative relations among equals, (iii) between private conduct and professional conduct, and (iv) between privately ‘immoral’ conduct and conduct that harms others. All of these are lost in Mr. Deacon’s analysis.

Students are not professors’ toys, grading is not a tool for getting sex from them, and we professors have obligations to restrain our personal needs and desires in the interests of their education. Their families entrust them to us, and they entrust themselves to us, for their education. Period.

I do not care how great a poet Derek Walcott may be. A great university ought not to consider anyone who has behaved as he has for a distinguished professorship. Mr. Deacon may snidely suggest that “The young scholars of Oxford must be relieved that they no longer face the prospect of attending occasional lectures given by a man who may or may not have said something insalubrious a long time ago.” I think they should be relieved that they need not choose between not attending lectures on poetry by a named professor and attending those given by a man who sees them as fish in a barrel, ready for the shooting.

Pennhurst, Again

If you go to any place like Pennhurst, please do not vandalize. And, be aware that many of these sites and their buildings are genuinely dangerous: fallen in floors, asbestos, mold, broken glass, etc. If you are allergic to poison ivy, you should probably avoid Pennhurst altogether.

Second Pennhurst Trip

We went again this Memorial Day. Much more of the junk trees and weeds have been cleared away, and there appears to be some effort to prevent further vandalism.

Although more buildings are boarded, we found our way into others without doing any damage) into others and eventually into the tunnels that run underground between the main buildings. Sadly, the evidence of prior vandalism and misuse was all too clear in the buildings we visited this time.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

More from Pennhurst

More photos from Pennhurst.

Lost Places

My children and I like 'lost places.' I've used photos from one such place, the Belchertown School [asylum], on previous posts. Recently, my son, some of his friends, and I investigated another 'school' for children with various kinds of disabilities, the Pennhurst State School and Hospital - orignally named the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic.

Pennhurst, as it is known among explorers of abandoned sites, has a history much like that of Belchertown and other such institutions. It was founded by people with good intentions, people who hoped to make the lives of the mentally ill, retarded, or severely disabled better than they were when those people were left to the vicissitudes of life among the 'normal.' But time, limited resources, and expansion beyond the reach of any good will turned the place into a failure and a nightmare for many of its inhabitants.

In the late 1970's, a woman sued Pennhurst on behalf of her daughter and others insitutionalized there. The case was Halderman v. Pennhurst State School and Hospital (446 F. Supp. 1295, 1327 (E.D. PA. 1978). The Philadelphia NBC station produced a series of reports on Pennhurst, entilted Suffer the Children (viewable here ). Eventually, the legal process led to a Supreme Court case, Pennhurst State School v. Halderman. There were several other legal battles, up through the late 1990's, but it was the earlier decisions that sealed the fate of Pennhurst. As happened with so many other large insitutuions, Pennhurst was closed down and its patients were sent to smaller community care arrangements or to other places, based on individual assessments.

There are the usual horror stories of abuse and neglect at Pennhurst - of children molested and beaten, of people who spent their entire lives there, of people insitutionalized for no more reason than their being inconvenient to their familes. What moves me about Pennhurst and other such places is not the stories of mistreatment, but the poignancy of attempts to do good ending up badly. Pennhurst, in particular, was originally a beautiful place, modestly intended to provide schooling and vocational training for no more than 500-600 men and boys. All too soon, it became a site for 'custodial' care of children and adults who were not expected to ever return to 'normal' life. At one point, Pennhurst housed up to 3,000 'patients.' Skimpy state support, insufficient and untrained staff, and public indifference brought it to its inevitable demise. Abandoned to vandals and scrappers, as well as to the press of nature, much of it is now in ruins. And, yet, one can still see the beauty that was there and feel not only the sorrows the inhabitants experienced but also the hopes that inspired the founders.