Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Legacy of Censorship at UW

The decision of the University of Wyoming to destroy a work of art after receiving complaints from influential contributors and politicians was far from the first time it exhibited a penchant for censorship. Don’t blame President Buchanan. Unlike most institutions calling themselves a university, censorship is deep in U-dubb’s DNA.

Historian Phil Roberts chronicled the time our university sought to censor textbooks. It was 1947. After being told economics professors used books espousing a “clearly Communists doctrine” that budget deficits were not evil, the board of trustees appointed a committee to “read and examine” textbooks to determine if they were “subversive or un-American.” The law school dean was appointed chair of the witch-hunt.

When faculty members cried that academic freedom was at stake, one member of the board responded that “academic freedom” was being used as an excuse for “practicing subversion.”

Criticism came raining down. Arthur Schlesinger called it a “crude” investigation by “ill-informed trustees.”  The St. Louis Post Dispatch called it “an insult to the good sense and patriotism of the faculty” and “an affront to the intelligence” of the students. Newspapers in 20 communities followed suit, heavily criticizing the trustees. But the book-burners would not be moved. Eventually a compromise was struck. A committee of 15 was appointed. They read 65 books and assured the trustees they found nothing subversive.

During this time it was alleged some of the trustees actually hired students to take notes during the lectures of a popular history professor, hoping to uncover “anti-American statements” that could lead to his dismissal. That professor was Gale W. McGee, who was later elected to the U. S. Senate, serving from 1958 until 1977.

The University’s next infatuation with censorship and the denial of civil rights was the Black 14 incident. It was 1969 and most of the nation was slowly moving forward on civil rights. Not so fast in Laramie. African American players at Wyoming had tired of the treatment they received when playing ball at Provo, Utah. BYU fans allegedly taunted them with racial slurs. It was claimed they turned on sprinklers after one game to “wash away the demons.” Black players said they weren’t permitted to stay in some Provo motels.

Rather than protect their players from that kind of treatment, UW sided with BYU when 14 members of the Cowboy football team said they planned to wear black arm bands during the 1969 home game with BYU. It was a soft, subtle protest, but far too much for a school with Wyoming’s legacy of censorship. The coach dismissed the players from the team. Everyone from the board of trustees to the governor sided with the coach and against the players. The incident destroyed the image of Cowboy football for a generation.

Next stop was a late Viet Nam war protest. When four students were killed at Kent State in 1970, a small group of Wyoming students wanted to protest. UW asked the governor to send in National Guard and state patrol to protect the university from these opinionated students. Some alleged UW even hired ag students to infiltrate the protesters.

More recently the school was “academic-freedom-challenged” when Bill Ayers was invited to speak on the campus. The GOP establishment had already cast him as evil in the 2008 campaign.  Large contributors demanded the university cancel Ayers’ speech. They did as they were told. A student filed a 1st Amendment suit. Instead of examining the law, the university trashed the student. UW lost the suit just as any first-year law student could have predicted. But they had taken their stand for big contributors and influential alum and against civil rights.

And now the school has once again sold itself out to the highest bidders. By destroying a work of art to which mining corporations and the legislators who serve their interests objected, the University of Wyoming has carried on a tradition as important to them as “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.”

Friday, August 24, 2012

UW - Censorship is more emblematic of the school than is Steamboat.

Plato wrote The Republic 350 years BCE, expressing a decidedly negative view of the arts. Plato thought art often misrepresented Greek heroes and ideas. That violated his notion of the ideal. He didn’t believe free people had the right to artfully critique its leaders and those with influence. Aristotle disagreed. He thought the expression of ideas and opinions through art was a critical element of a healthy society.

Plato vs. Aristotle. The University of Wyoming takes Plato’s side. In so doing, Wyoming’s only four-year school abdicated the right to be considered a university. In order to understand how horrifying this new round of censorship is, you must understand what a real university is supposed to be. The classic definition of a university includes the assurance that the institution will provide an environment that facilitates free thought. A university is supposed to be a place where inquiry by students and faculty is an essential element of the mission, where scholars have freedom to teach, learn, and communicate ideas, including those that cause influential and powerful contributors and political groups to squirm.

Academic freedom is essential to an institution’s claim to be a university. Academic freedom, i.e. the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members, is essential to the growth of the faculty, the students and the community they serve. Art is fundamental to expressing thoughts and ideas in a free society and must, therefore, be allowed, and even encouraged, especially in a university.

The University of Wyoming is no longer a university by any of those measures. Clearly that does not trouble the governor or others in charge. They are the censors of free expression, not its protectors. Over the years censorship has become so prevalent that it has become a chief characteristic of the school. Censorship is more emblematic of the school than is Steamboat. The most recent example is the decision to remove a sculpture that the powerful Wyoming mining industry and their legislators didn’t like.

The art, Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around,” was a 36-foot-diameter vortex of pine-beetle killed logs set atop a bed of coal. The artist, a Brit named Chris Drury, said his creation depicted the connection between Wyoming's extractive industries and damage wrought by climate change, which experts say is responsible for a devastating pine beetle infestation across the West. 

The past tense describes the sculpture because the un-University of Wyoming destroyed it after being cowed by threats from legislators and influential folks with ties to the mining industry. The larger logs have apparently been removed to UW’s  “bone yard,” where scraps that may have a future use are stored. The smaller logs were sent to the Laramie dump. The coal, rather ironically, was burned in the school’s power plant, pointedly increasing the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide and contributing to climate change. The site on which the sculpture once sat was sodded over. It’s now just a bad memory for those who hold sway over UW.

The school, formerly known as a university, will provide all sorts of nonsensical explanations but once again, as this institution has done so many times, they sold out academic freedom and the principles of a university to the highest bidder.

One of the coal industry’s most influential legislators is Tom Lubnau of Gillette. Lubnau says UW shouldn’t countenance art that may be interpreted as anti-mining because the state derives so much of its budget from mining. The tail wags Tom’s dog. Before Wyoming became their colony, the people, not the mining companies, owned the mineral resources. Now they take them as they please, send us the few measly bucks the law requires and make their fortunes. Oh yeah, sure…those “few measly bucks” add up to hundreds of millions but are so far less than the value extracted as to be relatively measly.

And for that they bought themselves a university. Wyoming…like no other place on earth!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Bachmann continues to lie...and...crickets from Wyoming

In 1952 a senator from Wisconsin with so little credibility among his colleagues he couldn’t land a committee assignment of any significance became a household name. Joe McCarthy claimed to have a list of 205 names of government employees known to be communists. McCarthy could never prove any of it. Nonetheless the Red Scare was borne. The lives of countless innocent Americans were ruined as this unprincipled demagogue continued unabated making similar untrue claims.

It finally ended in 1954 when two-thirds of the senate voted to censure McCarthy for his unseemly behavior. Only then did people ask how it could have happened. How could a member of congress be permitted to lie and defame innocent people, drive them out of their jobs, destroy their reputations and hound some into suicide while those in power stood by silently?

It’s the same silence we hear from Wyoming’s congressional delegation on the latest unfounded, irrational and deceitful charges made by U.S. Representative and former GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann. With absolutely no evidence, employing her patently bizarre notion of logic, Bachman demanded an investigation into her politically partisan claim that “there are individuals who are associated with the Muslim Brotherhood who have positions, very sensitive positions, in our Department of Justice, our Department of Homeland Security, potentially even in the National Intelligence Agency."

Bachmann has long made political investments in her deep paranoid schizophrenia and her anti-Muslim bigotry. Like McCarthy, she has, as a result, achieved an elevated status in her party and developed a following among equally disturbed Americans.

In the 1950s, not many were willing to speak out against McCarthy though they knew he was a liar. Why? His own party benefited greatly by the fact that he had a large, loyal following. His headlines stirred American fear leading directly to the defeat of many senate Democrats. McCarthy called them “Commie-crats.” Across the country, several Democratic senators were defeated as McCarthy charged they were “soft on communism.” One was Wyoming senator Joseph O’Mahoney. McCarthy campaigned hard against him in 1952. As a result, O’Mahoney lost to Frank Barrett. Barrett returned McCarthy’s favor by being one of only 22 senate holdouts to vote against the McCarthy censure two years later.

By that time, O’Mahoney was back in the senate, having been elected in 1954 after the suicide of Wyoming’s other senator, Lester C. Hunt. Hunt’s death was integrally related to McCarthyism. Interestingly, Lester Hunt was one of the few politicians willing to confront McCarthy and his lies. Hunt said McCarthy used the “big lie” and that Republicans were unwilling to speak out because he helped (to use a contemporary term) “energize their base.” Hunt sponsored legislation allowing persons defamed by a member of congress to sue for damages. He said the bill was necessary because congress was unwilling to discipline itself. Sound familiar?

That piece of Wyoming history is relevant in the current Bachman controversy. She’s a liar. Mike Enzi, John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis know it. So, why are they silent? Even House Speaker John Boehner and Senator John McCain, the last Republican nominee for president, have called Bachmann out on her latest indecency. McCain said Bachmann’s allegations were “ugly” and “sinister.” Boehner said they were “dangerous.” Indeed they are dangerous, which is why Barrasso, Enzi and Lummis’ silence is inexcusable.

Perhaps Lummis is too close to Bachman. She sits on Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus. Maybe Barrasso’s partisan role as vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference hobbles him when it comes to criticizing a fellow party member. Senator Hunt turned down a nomination to serve on the Democratic Steering Committee. He felt it would require him to take partisan positions that might not serve his Wyoming constituents. Regardless, both Barrasso and Lummis are in positions of leadership.
This is the time for leaders to lead.

The stains of McCarthyism are too deeply a part of Wyoming history to allow political leaders to sit quietly while another demagogue roams the landscape, trampling the truth and destroying lives.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm sixty-four?

Recently I wrote a column intertwining my thoughts with lyrics from a Stephen Stills song, “For What It’s Worth.” One reader suggested that a theologian could have done better quoting academics and philosophers rather than some songwriter from the 1960’s. Another said Stills and I were both socialists! Uhg, as though being a liberal wasn’t bad enough?

The words and tunes of the music of the 1960s come easily when thinking of today’s political, theological, economic, or social issues. This week I turned 64. Beatles lyrics are on my aging mind.

When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I'd been out 'til quarter to three, would you lock the door?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I'm sixty-four?

When Lennon and McCartney wrote those words, I was a 19-year-old disc jockey, spending my days spinning records including Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on which this song appeared. Our generation bought the records that made icons of bands from Britain and others whose 60’s music still commands a huge market.

We were a part of a generation that defined a national ethic about war, civil rights, the environment, equality for women, freedom, and more. Because we were passionate about those things, so were the artists of the day. Contemporary music says much about contemporary concerns.

We were all under thirty when someone said, “Never trust anyone over 30!”  Now that we are all over sixty, we wonder whether to trust anyone under thirty. The admonition against trusting anyone over 30 has been variously attributed to Bob Dylan, Jerry Rubin, the Beatles, and Pat Boone (go figure…Pat Boone was over 30 the day he was born). Actually, I recall all of us saying it in unison one day in 1968.  It was after we watched the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Robert and John Kennedy, and Malcolm X, the war in Viet Nam taking life after life though most Americans opposed it, four little girls killed when a black church was bombed by white racists, the Cuyahoga River caught fire metaphoric of the pollution of the entire planet, police loosed their dogs on protesters in Alabama, Mississippi and Chicago and children denied entrance to a school by a southern governor who encouraged whites to spit on them.

Now we are referred to derisively as the “boomers.” We’re easy targets. Through no fault of ours, the troops came home after winning World War II and started having babies, lots of them, 76 million between 1946 and 1964, the “baby-boomer” years. Paul Begala, the CNN talking-head and adviser to Bill Clinton, America’s first baby-boomer president, wrote rudely in an Esquire Magazine article years ago, “The Baby Boomers are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history.”

Unfair? It’s a mixed bag. One wag wrote recently in the New York Times. “Our ranks include the outsourcers of Bain and the wizards of the Wall Street casino, but also the entrepreneurial genius of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.”

They’ve turned on us because one of us reaches retirement age every 8 seconds, imposing an obligation on the Gen-Xers to pay for our Social Security and the other entitlements of old age. Fellow boomers, the truth is unavoidable. By our sheer numbers we’re putting extreme demands on a federal budget that cannot sustain us.

Willingness to sacrifice is a boomer characteristic. It’s time for us to be a part of the solution. Let’s model what we want from the wealthiest of the Gen-Xers. There are reasonable ideas we can support without pulling the rug from under the truly needy, e.g. raising the retirement age, reducing cost-of-living increases, means testing benefits, ending the temporary payroll tax decrease. If we do something, maybe the “self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent” generations that followed us will make sacrifices as well.

Together, we could be talking some real money.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

You may be more of a Sikh than you think

Last Sunday as my congregation at Highlands Presbyterian was talking about religious tolerance, an American was killing people in a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. Like a growing number of Americans, the shooter was long on hate but regrettably short on education.

We discussed how the world’s great religions probably share 80% of our beliefs.  The point was made using a survey asking 25 questions about our deepest beliefs on God, salvation, scripture, the afterlife, etc. and offering a summary of how your beliefs align with other religions.

Interestingly, a slightly higher percentage of my beliefs were Sikh than mainline Christian. Scores aligned me with a dozen other religions ahead of mainline Christianity. Readers might find the same true about themselves. We can label others, and ourselves but we have a harder time labeling our deepest beliefs.

I learned more about the religions with which my beliefs overlapped. Sikhism quickly became most relevant. Sikhs are the 5th largest religious group in the world. Eighty percent of their 30 million members live in India. A million or more live in North America. Look at their core beliefs. You might also find yourself part-Sikh.

As do Christians, Jews and Muslims, Sikhs believe there is only one God. They believe this God is the same for all religions. People of different races, religions, or sex are all equal in the eyes of God. Sikhs teach the full equality of men and women.
Like most of us, they try to practice a virtuous and truthful life while maintaining a balance between spiritual and temporal obligations. Sikh males grow thick beards and wear turbans, all of which apparently causes ignorant, intolerant American radicals to confuse them with others they hate. Since 9/11 Sikhs are often mistaken for Muslims. A 2011 Congressional report said that "half to over three-quarters of Sikh students" are targeted for bullying, harassment, or violence.
What fuels that dangerous level of ignorance? Demagoguery. Sarah Palin tweeted her followers a picture of a sign at a New York church which read: “The blood of Jesus against Obama History made 4 Nov 2008 a Taliban Muslim illegally elected President USA: Hussein.” In 2001, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham described Islam as evil and said last year that he found it to be “a very violent religion.”
People like Rush Limbaugh and the radio stations that give him airtime are also a part of the problem. Limbaugh traffic’s hate like the cartels traffic drugs and with much the same result. Rush complained recently about accommodations made by airlines for Muslim travelers. “Meaning,” he said, “they can't turn their back or face Mecca when they use the bathroom. What do they do on an airplane? Go to the cockpit and say, "I got some box cutters, and if you don't turn this airplane 45 degrees for the next two minutes I'm going to hijack you"?
The hate messages also come from local rightwing entertainers like those on KGAB. These are quotes from their website, just the surface of how much misinformation they spew.  “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.”
“Religions like Islam and Christianity stand SO far apart; they might as well be as far apart as Earth to Pluto.  One offered violence and the other offered salvation and peace.” *** “Both remain as compatible as a cat and a dog, as a razor blade and a jugular vein, as a pedophile and a kindergartener.”
Education and tolerance start at home. The irresponsible behavior of those who own KGAB is made possible by our community.
When I was completing seminary, I appeared before the Christian Church committee on the ministry before being ordained, explaining I had no problem with Islam or Judaism and believe we are all one. A frowning committee member asked, “Is there nothing you can’t tolerate?” I said, “Yes…intolerance.”
Change begins at home. If we tolerate the hate here, we cannot feign surprise when someone, somewhere actually takes it to the level of mass murder.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

An ode to waitresses and waiters

Recently I sat at a restaurant table, watching the waitresses and waiters work. They were busily taking orders, delivering drinks, clearing tables as some customers departed and preparing for those who were waiting, seating customers, and engaging in friendly banter. It was fascinating to watch. Theirs are complex jobs demanding genuine skill. On their feet all day, they balance heavy, hot plates on arms and shoulders, move gracefully between tables, serve food and pour water while keeping track of whose orders haven’t been taken and whose orders are ready for delivery.

There’s a bit of ballet in what they do and a whole lot of very hard work. It’s hard to believe there is a more difficult and demanding job.

Among those I watched was an older woman whom I guessed would have rather been enjoying her retirement. I really know nothing about her but for her appearance, yet I am guessing she does this hard work eight hours a day for one reason. She can’t afford not to.

Many were younger. Some were undoubtedly single parents. Females make up about 71% of food service workers. They are three times more likely to be single parents than their male colleagues. Most are working this job and at least one more to make ends meet.

But they are not making ends meet. Most work this hard for poverty wages. They take home little in exchange for those long, tough days. According to the 2012 Basic Economic Security Index, 9 of 10 female servers and three-fourths of male servers aren’t paid enough to enjoy basic economic security, which includes housing, utilities, food, transportation, child care, health care, emergency and retirement savings.

Few restaurants provide either health insurance or paid sick leave, much less a livable wage. If a worker or her child becomes ill, the parent suffers the loss of a day’s pay and incurs medical expenses far outside her household budget.

Most of these skilled workers are paid far below the minimum wage, itself a meager $7.25 per hour or about $15,000 per year for a 40-hour week. Because of a provision of federal law called the “tip credit” these workers can be paid as little as $2.15 per hour.  The minimum wage together with tips fails to provide 85% of food workers with a “living wage” adequate enough to pay for basic necessities like rent and food.
Forty-five states have established slightly higher sub-minimum wages. Wyoming is not among them. Efforts to repeal the state tip credit have been unsuccessful.
Those who serve your table are among the lowest paid workers in America. A recent study revealed that U.S. food industry workers are three times more likely to live below the poverty line than other citizens.
As a voter and a customer, there are two things you can do. One, ask your legislator to repeal the tip credit. Two, tip well. (The simplest to calculate is 20%. Move the decimal point one place to the left and double the amount.) Leaving an extra buck or two won’t break your bank but it might help her pay the rent.
Some years ago a banker friend and I went to lunch at a restaurant his bank had financed. The business was successful, tables full, a line at the door. After lunch, my friend drove me by the home of the restaurant owner. It was an impressive abode. My friend described the interior and all the expensive extras the house had as I looked at the beautifully landscaped outside. As we drove away, I said, “It is wonderfully generous of all of his employees to work so hard for such low wages so that their boss can live like that.”
But then, it has always been the slaves who build the pyramids.