Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for April 2007

Tragedy, gun control, and free speech in the classroom

Nicholas Winset lost his job yesterday.

He used a classroom demonstration to make a point about gun control, pretending to shoot six students with a magic marker before another student could take him out. Winset says “A classroom is supposed to be a place for academic exploration,” but Emmanuel College did not agree.

They gave the professor his walking papers, along with some helpful tips on filing for unemployement. Winset was an adjunct professor of financial accounting. Apparently his demonstration was supposed to segue into an assignment about the media's impact on financial markets.

Conservatives are quick to protest when liberal professors use their classrooms to push political points of view. I wonder how those critics will react now that Winset has turned the tables.

Is it appropriate to discuss gun control in an accounting class? Is it appropriate for a professor to make political points by dramatizing a massacre? The college won't say exactly why he was fired, leaving us free to guess.

I'd like to say he was fired for politicizing a national tragedy, but more likely, he was fired for being tasteless.

I'm inclined to cut professors a lot of slack on issues like this. I agree with Winset about free speech and academic exploration. Some of the most important lessons in my life have been learned from teachers who went “off the script” and shared things that they were passionate about.

Like it or not, teachers are human beings. We hold them to certain standards of objectivity and professionalism, but at the end of the day, we can't fire them for being human, for having opinions and sharing them — as long as their students are free to disagree.

Winset may deserve a reprimand, or a stern bit of professional advice, but I'm sorry to see him lose his job.

UPDATE: The college won't comment about Winset's termination, but the professor has decided to tell his side of the story on YouTube.

UPDATE: I am generally on Winset's side here, but one part of his position really bugs me. In the Boston Herald article, he's quoted as saying, “Just because everyone is portraying this as the national tragedy of the year doesn

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 24, 2007 at 09:41

Posted in Politics

Remembering Boris Yeltsin

James Lileks remembers Boris Yeltsin:

At the time he was a fresh wind, and he fit a Russian stereotype we hadn’t seen in decades. Instead of dour glowering technocrats or the tall Ivan-Drago Leninbots of fiction, he was a big rumpled Siberian who appeared to enjoy smiling for the simple human reasons. When he walked past us on the Mall on the way to visit at the Lincoln Memorial – yes, really – he grinned and rotated through the rock-paper-scissors gestures.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 24, 2007 at 08:40

Posted in Politics

And one for the geeks

I am continually amazed by Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick. This is a comic for everybody who played roleplaying games as a kid.

Rich writes about the real experience of playing Dungeons and Dragons. Not the ridiculous media version or the pathetic pop culture stereotype, but the quirky, funny, and surprisingly touching experience of solving problems and telling stories within this particular set of rules.

His latest panel is particularly poignant. His protagonist, blown out of the sky by one of the bad guys, is calling on every resource he can think of to save his life while plummeting to the ground.

An average writer would bend the rules or have the hero pull another trick from his sleeve, but Rich Burlew is an old-fashioned storyteller, and he knows exactly who he’s writing for.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 24, 2007 at 06:35

Posted in Comics, Games

Blaming the Victims at Virginia Tech

And while I'm dishing out praise for Ana Marie Cox, I think I might as well follow her out on a limb.

I've been holding my tongue for a few days, waiting until I had time to write a full post about the Virginia Tech shootings.

I wanted to write a neutral, balanced look from all sides of the issue, linking liberally to gun control and gun rights bloggers alike.

But AMC pushed one of my buttons , and I'm going to zip straight to the punchline.

There is a certain school of thought, common in right-wing circles, particularly common here in Texas, that wants to blame the victims for what happened at Virginia Tech. Some people think these kids died because they weren't “tough enough” because they didn't “cowboy-up” and charge their attacker en masse.

Maybe they could have. I wasn't there. I hope that if real danger struck at my school or my workplace I would have the presence of mind to charge in and put my life on the line.

But I've never been in that kind of danger, and I can't say how I would behave if I was. No one can. I have enough libertarian left in me to wish one of those victims had a concealed firearm, but I'm not arrogant enough to judge the character of unarmed kids.

For the record, I don't think stricter gun laws could have saved those students, and I don't think anyone has the right to judge the victims of this tragedy.

Bottom line: This atrocity was committed by one person, and blaming the victims is just as stupid as blaming the guns.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 23, 2007 at 16:16

Posted in Politics

Ana Marie Cox, on Imus

Here's one I missed from last week.

Ana Marie Cox, currently of Time Magazine, formerly of the Wonkette blog, posted a remarkably candid and straightforward explanation of why she would no longer do the Imus program, and why she overlooked his vulgarity in the first place.


I'm embarrassed to admit that it took Imus' saying something so devastatingly crass to make me realize that there just was no reason beyond ego to play along. I did the show almost solely to earn my media-elite merit badge. The sad truth is that unless you have a book to promote, there's often no other reason any writer or columnist has to do the show. If Rich wants to “talk in an informed way,” I'm sure there's an open mike at C-Span Radio, and if there's really a hunger for such adult dialogue, does it really have to be accompanied by childish crudeness?

A good question, and I'm scared of the answer.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 23, 2007 at 16:08

Posted in Politics

Voices from the Hellmouth, 8 years later

Today, eight years after Columbine, I'm reminded of one of the best examples of Internet journalism.

It happened on Slashdot, a haven for old-fashioned geeks and net-savvy teenagers worldwide. Slashdot is still popular, but in '99 it was the heart of the Internet. Jon Katz wrote a series of provocative columns called Voices from the Hellmouth. While the rest of the media was talking about kids, Jon was talking to them.

Kids who don't talk to anyone talked to Jon, in a forum where they felt safe.

Voices from the Hellmouth, April 26, 1999:

“People who are different are reviled as geeks, nerds, dorks. The lucky ones are excluded, the unfortunates are harassed, humiliated, sometimes assaulted literally as well as socially. Odd values – unthinking school spirit, proms, jocks – are exalted, while the best values – free thinking, non-conformity, curiousity – are ridiculed. Maybe the one positive legacy the Trenchcoat Mafia left was to ensure that this message got heard, by a society that seems desperate not to hear it.”

Jon projected human faces onto a pair of kids who had been dismissed as monsters, and whatever you think of his conclusions, I think his efforts were worthwhile, if only to generate responses like this:

“Yeah, I've had some fantasies about taking out some of these jerks who run the school, have parties, get on teams, are adored by teachers, have all these friends. Sure. They hate me. Day by day, it's like they take pieces out of you, like a torture, one at a time. My school has 1,500 kids. I could never make a sports team. I have never been to a party. I sit with my friends at our own corner of the cafeteria. If we tried to join the other kids, they'd throw up or leave. And by now, I'd rather die.”

Eight years ago, the Internet gave a voice to a group of kids who couldn't talk anywhere else. While parents and counselors were wringing their hands trying to think of ways to make these kids talk, they were on Slashdot talking to Jon — hiding behind keyboards and pseudonyms — sharing their anger and their fear.

Today we have another killer, another memorial, and another hate-filled manifesto. In '99, a lot of troubled kids sympathized with Dylan and Klebold. Columbine was seen as the symptom of a cultural problem.

But I'm not seeing a lot of sympathy for Cho Seung-Hui. I can't find a 2007-equivalent of Jon Katz, struggling to put his actions in context.

Maybe our culture has changed, or maybe this killer communicated too well. I think Cho sabotaged himself. When a killer is silent or mysterious, we can project things onto him. We can imagine his personality in broad strokes. But this time, we have a video, immediately following the crime.

NBC has taken a lot of heat for showing this footage, but I think they've done a real service here; not by humanizing the killer, but by stripping away the mystery and romance that could have made him a martyr.

Without the manifesto it might have worked. Our society has always been fascinated by killers. They're romanticized in movies and on television, glamorized in novels and tabloids. Without a clear statement from Cho Seung-Hui, misguided people could have projected their values onto him.

But when you see the real video his insanity becomes obvious and his rants sound hollow. Cho may have seen himself as a romantic figure, but the camera strips away his pretensions and shows us the banality underneath.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 20, 2007 at 12:12

Posted in Best Of, Politics

Kurt Vonnegut's last interview

This interview is remarkable, not only for its content, but for its location. This interview was conducted inside the virtual reality environment called Second Life

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 12, 2007 at 10:36

Posted in Books, Culture

Imus on the rocks

Don Imus has never been on the radio in Lubbock, but I've been watching him on cable since his first broadcast on C-Span. Don has always played close to the line, but now he has apparently stepped over it. After watching Imus denigrate Jews, blacks, Catholics, and women for years, I didn't think last week's comments were that unusual — I think the line moved.

Imus has been spewing stuff like this since the 70s, but it wasn't worth a suspension until Al Sharpton noticed.

My first memory of Imus is from an awkward pre-show broadcast on C-Span — Imus with his infamous jean jacket and bushy hair, arranging bottles of salsa for the camera. That's the truth of him, I think. Imus is the ultimate pitchman, the ultimate promoter. Imus may not have the ratings that Howard Stern has, but he speaks to an audience of alpha consumers.

Anonymous sources say he brings in $50 million for CBS and MSNBC. For years, he's been safe as long as he brings the money in, but now he's bleeding advertisers, and his critics are starting to pile on.

Imus has weathered publicity storms before, but when the nicest guy in network weather starts taking shots at you, you've probably gone too far.

Imus has gone to extraordinary lengths to apologize and save his brand — taking his medicine, first on Sharpton's radio show, and later in a private meeting with Rutgers players. These apologies sound desperate and out of character to me. Howard Stern put his finger on it. “He's apologizing like a guy who got his first broadcasting job,” Stern said. “He should have said, (expletive) you, it's a joke.' “

That's the crux of the matter to me. These comments are blowing up in his face because Imus can't decide what he is. Is he a foul-mouthed shock jock, enjoying the same leeway that we give to Howard Stern? Or is he a serious commentator, playing host to news anchors and presidential candidates?

I watched Imus because I loved his guests. I love Tom Brokaw. I love David Gregory. I love Tim Russert and Jeff Greenfield. I loved watching him put the screws to George Bush and John Kerry. I loved watching him interview academics and clergy and a hundred other people who were too smart for TV. And let's face it, the Imus program is about the last place on Earth where you can sell a book. Oprah is there to pitch self-help and melodrama to housewives, but where will the rest of us go?

The shock jock bits were filler — light-hearted time-wasters, designed to fill the gaps until he could introduce the next superstar guest. Now the filler has taken center stage, and the show's contradictions have finally caught up with it. Even if he survives this controversy, the Imus program will never be the same.

Maybe it'll be better. Maybe he'll diversify the guest list and make Bernard keep his mouth shut. Maybe he'll finally give up the shock jock routine and focus on news. Or maybe the whole thing will be too much for him, and MSNBC will replace him with a generic talking head.

The show needs to change, but I hope Imus keeps his job. He may be a foul-mouthed jerk, but the alternative is Glenn Beck.

UPDATE 7:40 p.m.: Well, that was quick. MSNBC will no longer simulcast Imus. He still has his radio show (for now) but MSNBC lost some major advertising dollars over this, and money talks.

Imus waited too long to redefine his show, so now his corporate masters have done it for him. If you'd asked me this morning I would have bet on the I-Man surviving this. But now, the pendulum has swung. If CBS suffers the same kind of financial loss that MSNBC just endured, the radio show is toast.

A victory for the forces of decency and tact, and sadly, another victory for bland, sanitized news programming. But hey, look on the bright side. MSNBC now has three extra hours to talk about Anna Nicole Smith.

UPDATE 4-12: CBS just fired Imus.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 11, 2007 at 11:08

Posted in Politics