All These Moments

All These Moments

Random ramblings in writing.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Ashcroft at UT

Any discussion of sound bites includes the Mark Twain quote: "A minimum of sound to a maximum of sense." This expresses how a proper sound bite should not just be pithy, but properly capture the point the speaker is making. This, of course, is contrary to how sound bites are utilized in mainstream American politics. Instead, the perfect sound bite is one that can be used to create a caricature of the speaker's intention in order to attack his or her general point. I attended John Ashcroft's speech at the University of Texas last week, and I think the media coverage of this event typifies this sort of behavior.

"I don't have a mark on my conscience."
One quote that is repeatedly tossed around is Ashcroft declaring, "I don't have a mark on my conscience." "Well, no conscience no marks," Keith Olbermann snidely assesses. It is certainly more convenient to simply play this quote. Conservatives can pat themselves on the back, feeling reaffirmed that nothing whatsoever has been done wrong. Liberals can have a laugh to themselves at Ashcroft's expense and rant to each other about how evil the Patriot Act is. Who does this help? Nobody, it seems to me. This kind of rhetoric more closely resembles sharks feeding on chum than constructive political discourse. These kinds of sound bites do nothing to encourage discussion on important issues and serve only to keep everyone complacent in their political beliefs. I think we owe it to ourselves, and the 79th Attorney General, to pick some sound bites that reflect Twain's "maximum of sense" rather than the "maximum of convenience" that most news sources prefer.

"[Freedom] is worthless absent consequence."
It seems to me that only the most insane of anarchists would disagree with this quote, but before expounding on such an encompassing statement I should first pin down specifically what Ashcroft meant. Ashcroft is essentially repeating the timeless expression that "we are a nation of laws." Even when we disagree with laws, we are bound to respect and follow them because of our belief in democracy. This is a simple thing to say that almost everyone can agree on, but like all such statements the simplicity in which it can be expressed does not reflect its simplicity in practice.

This same principle was leveled against Ashcroft by his critics, who believe that he broke the law and should be in jail. (Never far behind are criticisms of former President George W. Bush.) Ashcroft was asked numerous times during Q&A why he was not in jail. One woman even tried to turn Ashcroft's rhetoric back at him, asking why he was not in jail if he sincerely believes what he says. "We did not break the law," Ashcroft said simply, but of course his critics disagree. This begs the question, why don't we hear critics using this sound bite? If Ashcroft man is so demonstratively guilty than this sound bite is devastating. The man is a criminal, he used his influence to avoid justice, and-to top it all off-he is a complete hypocrite. He champions the very political philosophy that he blatantly disregarded. The answer is obvious; Ashcroft is not the evil criminal that his critics make him out to be.

Critics avoid this sound bite in order to avoid a real discourse about his actions because in that scenario they have no guarantee of being vindicated. Not all blame goes to his critics, plenty of Ashcroft supporters are guilty of avoiding this same discussion because they, too, have no guarantee that they will be vindicated. What results is two antagonistic groups avoiding one of Ashcroft's more salient sound bites in favor of a dull one which each group can either praise or mock as they see fit. Instead, critics and supporters alike should focus on the kind of sound bites which Mark Twain would approve of, because they lead to an informative disccussion of Ashcroft's decisions as Attorney General, the most controversial of which is the Patriot Act.

"The Patriot Act was a conglomeration of previous law enforcement strategies."
This was actually news to me. The Patriot Act is probably the only Act you can expect the average American to be familiar with. The Patriot Act is that it is entirely the creation of John Ashcroft and the Bush Administration. "Author of the Patriot Act," and "Chief Architect of the Patriot Act," are the most popular ways of referring to Ashcroft. This fact reveals Ashcroft's role to be that of a person collecting previous legislation, rather than someone sitting down and penning new laws that infringe on the civil liberties of American citizens. This means
everything in the Patriot Act had legal precedent.

One who accepts this fact is still entitled to oppose the Patriotic Act, but the struggle becomes a process of voting (even on years without a presidential election, snore) and writing to Senators and Congressman (too long, did not write).
Opponents ignore this sound bite, and the truth it reflects, because it undermines the energy and antagonism they like to feel towards Ashcroft. After accepting this truth, it is impossible to argue that Ashcroft should be sent to jail, one can only hope to change the law to prevent another Attorney General from repeating what he has done. Acceptance means one is reduced to opposing the Patriot Act rather than resisting it. Acceptance means the romance is gone. Acceptance also means that opponents of the Patriot Act would be forced to acknowledge its legal precedents and its practice. This is inconvenient because it makes the act much less ominous.

Ashcroft's explanation of roving wiretaps is a perfect example. This practiced back in 1988 in order to track drug dealers. Warrantless, rather than roving, has become a popular word to describe such wiretaps. This practice started in 1988 in order to keep up with drug dealers. Why, in 1988, did "warrantless" wiretaps become necessary to track drug dealers? Because the way warrants were issued was becoming cumbersome. Before 1988, investigators had to get a warrant in order to monitor a single telephone. This was not a problem initially, but the development of mobile phones changed that. Drug dealers were no longer dependent on landline phones, and soon discovered they could evade observation by getting a new phone every week. It was completely unfeasible for investigators to get a new warrant every week in order to track a single person, so a "roving warrant" was developed in order to keep up with such drug dealers. Rather than issuing a warrant for a single phone, a judge would issue a "roving warrant" that allowed investigators to tap any of the named drug dealer's phones. The roving warrant is "warrantless" in the sense that no subsequent warrants are issued for new phones, but it is disingenuous to describe it that way since there is an original, more flexible warrant allowing investigators to track new phones. Rather than an illegal display of power, roving wiretaps were created as a sensible response to a critical problem.

As I said before, one can still disagree with the Patriot Act. Some may even disagree with my assertion that roving wiretaps are a sensible solution. The strategies in the Patriot Act vary; there will certainly be practices in the Patriot Act with more questionable legal precedents than the roving wiretap just as there will be other practices with even less contestable precedents. What is not disputable is that everything in the Patriot Act has legal precedent. Regrettably, this critical fact is widely overlooked.

"I would hope that if you really care about freedom you would allow people to talk."
Ashcroft interrupted the protesters chanting in the back of the auditorium with this line. Although he was successful in immediately silencing them, it proved impossible to keep them quiet for the duration of his speech. A few minutes later, one of the protesters yelled to the crowd, "
I hope you realize that by listening to this guy you're making yourselves look stupid." I rank her comment as the most foolish one expressed that night. The protesters may have chanted "Hiroshima" as if Ashcroft were somehow responsible. The protesters may have boo'd when Ashcroft gave an explanation of where Congressional and Executive powers have overlapped historically. The protesters may have repetitively asked Ashcroft why he wasn't in jail, but at least these protesters were not openly advocating that that we ignore everything the man had to say. The sentiment she expressed is exactly the same as the sheep in George Orwell's Animal Farm. She places no importance on analyzing what her opponent has to say, but simply knows she hates Ashcroft and has learned the proper slogans and chants to yell at him.

I say the other protesters did not "openly" advocate what she said because I believe their shared behavior is because they share her sentiment. It is important to mention that the protesters were not the only liberals in attendance. There were other liberals sitting near me who were generally respectful. "Why are they still bitching about this guy, do they realize we won?" one of them said, expressing disdain for the protesters. If only more people had that attitude.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Obama's Special Olympic Hubris

Most people are aware of Obama's controversial statement on Jay Leno at this point. For those unfamiliar, Obama described his embarrassingly poor bowling skills as "like Special Olympics or something." The joke was rude and inconsiderate and many people who have a close relative involved in the Special Olympics have been understandably offended, but this entry is not about the offense I took to Obama's joke. I have a pretty edgy sense of humor, and I have certainly made jokes more offensive than the one Obama made about the Special Olympics. Instead I see the controversy as an opportunity to clarify the misconception most Americans have about Special Olympics. The media generally focuses on Obama's offensive remark and his public relations strategy to recover from the gaff, but there is more that people could, and should, be learning from the controversy. Obama's remark highlights how unaware most people are about the Special Olympics, and should be used to highlight just how competitive the organization is.

Obama's joke relies on a crude stereotype of the average Special Olympic athlete. When people think of Special Olympics they generally only think of the most severely retarded, physically handicapped, or otherwise dysfunctional athletes. This stereotype does accurately reflect a portion of Special Olympic athletes, but ignores a large portion of athletes who are very physically capable. Crude stereotypes are frequently utilized for humor, and I personally have no problem with that. (Many will differ, and it's not a philosophy I go around preaching.) The Special Olympian stereotype is more than just a humorous device, it shapes the way people perceive Special Olympics. This attitude is the entire basis of the movie The Ringer, in which the main character enters himself into the Special Olympics. He expects to easily win, and would thus be a "ringer" in the competition. Most people, including our president, have the same idea about Special Olympics: It is more of a joke than a real athletic competition. If these people ever entered a Special Olympics competition they would find the reality of the situation is very different.

Special Olympics has an extensive classification system that varies for every sport. For example, when my brother's Special Olympic team enters a basketball tournament they first have to play a "classification" game, where they are observed by Special Olympic volunteers who analyze the team. Teams with similar abilities are matched against each other in a tier system. The problem with people's perception of Special Olympics is that they assume it is entirely like the lowest tier competitions. People like the protagonist in The Ringer would not find themselves in an easy competition, but would instead realize just how competitive the higher tiers are in Special Olympics. I like to imagine it would be quite embarrassing for such arrogant people to realize just how talented many Special Olympic athletes are.

If one was particularly sinister then one may decide to intentionally perform poorly during classification in order to be classified into a less competitive tier. This is really no different, since the person is still forced to admit that he or she cannot compete with upper-level Special Olympic athletes. Justice is still served as well, since Special Olympics has rules preventing such behavior. (Regrettably, some coaches and parents have encouraged their mentally retarded athletes to do just this in order to improve their chances of getting a gold medal.) When there is an observable difference in a team or athlete's behavior between classification and the competition it will be dealt with. The penalty varies between sports.

What this attitude reveals is hubris on the part of Obama and society. I find this arrogant attitude disturbing as well as confusing. I do not understand why we, as a society, celebrate low-IQ NBA stars, while belittling and mocking the achievement of low-IQ Special Olympic athletes. To clarify, these accomplished athletes are not rare. I coach half a dozen very talented Special Olympic swimmers, three of which practiced with my high school swim team. (One of them is my brother, which I am obligated to share out of pride.) One of them was so talented that he earned himself a spot on the B 4x50 Freestyle relay. The other Special Olympic swimmers on the high school team were only fast enough to occasionally keep up with another swimmer at a meet, but they never lagged behind so much that people had to stand around waiting for them to finish.

Now that I am in college and have discontinued my rigorous swimming schedule, some of the athletes I coach are faster than me. I am not ashamed—as most would assume—to have been beaten by a Special Olympic athlete. I was a plenty good swimmer in high school. I helped set a school record in the 4x50 medley relay and I got first place in the 100 Fly at districts. I realize what Obama and many other don't, that in Special Olympics there are some damn good athletes.

The intention of Obama's joke was to make him seem more accessible and aware of his limitations, so it is ironic that the joke actually demonstrated how unaware and arrogant he is. He belittles the Special Olympics as if he could be a serious competitor among Special Olympians. This is not true at all. Had I been interviewing Obama I would have stopped him and said, "No, your performance was not 'something like Special Olympics.' You would need to practice quite a bit before you would be able to bowl with the abilities of the average Special Olympic bowler." This does not just apply to bowling, by the way. My brother loves basketball and spends about 3 hours a day shooting baskets. If Obama was playing a game of Horse with my brother, I would bet on my brother and not our president. This is not just true of Obama, but almost everyone. I swam competitively for seven years, and a year after I quit my practice schedule I was being beaten by the Special Olympic swimmers I coached. Unless you are currently very competitive and maintaining a steady practice schedule for a sport, I guarantee you there are lots of Special Olympic athletes who are better than you. Even if you are at a very competitive level in your chosen sport, there's a good chance there are a few Special Olympic athletes better than you. To believe otherwise is hubris, and to act otherwise makes you a fool.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The UT Student Government Controversy, or What Can You Do With An English Degree?

There has been quite a bit of controversy at UT about last week's Student Government election after an article ran by the Daily Texan revealed César Martinez Espinosa, then the Election Supervisory Board co-chairman, had emailed 21 members of a secretive organization called The Eyes of Texas to express his support for Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates Liam O’Rourke and Shara Kim Ma. This upset some people who objected to César's email because he is required to remain neutral as a supervisor of the elections.

So this is what went down: Student Government President Keshav Rajagopalan first told the Daily Texan on March 5 that César's resignation was an "overreaction" because the email he sent was not actually a violation of election code. Apparently it would only be considered bias if he invoked his title of Election Supervisor as he campaigned for Liam and Shara, under the logic that César-the-chairman and César-the-student are two separate people. (It's true. They have two separate Wikipedia articles, just like Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader.)

The big twist is that Keshav was also a member of The Eyes of Texas and was one of the 21 recipients of César's email on February 28. Keshav passed on the email to be checked for election-code violations on March 3, and it was cleared prior to his "overreaction" statement to the Daily Texan on March 5. Some are not content with César's resignation and feel that Keshav should resign as well. All this builds up to a climactic Student Government open mic forum on March 10. Zak Kinnaird showed up before the meeting in black robes telling people he would punish the traitors of his secret society over Gregorian chants playing out of a boombox. The editor of the Texas Travesty showed up in robes as well. All of the presidential candidates showed up along with candidates from other positions. And of course there were some highly eccentric, highly opinionated students present as well, who I assume were regulars. Despite the fact that the forum was a bit of a circus, there were a lot of people representing the "average UT student," but apparently that guy didn't brief them well because they disagreed on some issues. (Also, what kind of asshole gets multiple people to represent him at a meeting? One should be enough.) Facing this entire crowd sat UT Student Government President, Keshav Rajagopalan.

Keshav gave an opening speech explaining that he never read the email and was unaware of it until a copy was delivered to the Student Government office anonymously on March 3. This was when he passed on the email to be checked for election-code violations. He told us he became concerned because, even though the email had been exculpated, he felt that César's actions fell into an ethical grey area, and so he asked César to resign. The reason for his significant change in opinion of the resignation as an "overreaction" to an ethical obligation varies from a legitimate ethical epiphany, to cynical political maneuvering, or a revision of Wikipedia policy, according to who you ask. (Keshav, his critics, and me, respectively.) Keshav then described what sounded like recycled talking points about making Student Government more transparent and friendly to the average student. Then he opened up the mic for questions.

The questions became pretty intense, and it seemed to me that the controversy was just another excuse for some people to point out what they dislike about Student Government. Some people demanded that he share more information about The Eyes of Texas, saying that it was hypocritical for him to keep secrets for the organization while claiming to serve the student body of UT. Others questioned whether students should be given the responsibility of supervising the election at all. Some poignant criticism was leveled at the notion of transparency in Student Government, since Keshav never made information about César's email available and told the Daily Texan that he preferred the situation be handled without "broadcasting" the email to the student body. Keshav consistently responded to the last criticism by reiterating the story from his opening statement and describing what he has done in order to make Student Government more transparent. To be honest, none of this meant very much to me. I am of the opinion that Student Government is pretty much just a figurehead and doesn't really do anything of much significance. My motivation for coming to the meeting was for amusement.

My interest in the meeting changed as the questions continued, however, and I found myself compelled to approach the mic. Keshav was handling himself well, and seeing a politician—especially from Student Government—handle questions so well is never amusing. Hearing him respond to student questions like a broken record became obnoxious because there were some glaring problems with his story that no one was pursuing and I couldn't understand why. His claim that he knew nothing about the email until it was delivered to the Student Government office seemed like obvious bullshit to me.

I stepped up to the mic feeling bold and with full intention to turn the story around on this guy and make him look like a complete idiot, but of course once I got up to the mic I lost most of my sarcasm, left out the one-liners I had imagined, but still managed to pick apart his story pretty thoroughly. This is how I remember it going:

Jared: "I'm a bit curious about the timeline of when you received the email and when you turned it in."
Keshav: "Ok."
J: "Well, the Daily Texan reports—and the timestamp is shown in the article—that you received this email on February 28."
K: "Well, yes, but I never saw the email."
J: "Right. So how often do you think you miss an email?"
K: "Well I don't know, I get over 500 a day. I try to read what I can and respond, but I can't always."
J: "Sure, sure, I understand. I think we can all relate, right? People were complaining earlier about spam from some of the candidates, and I know everyone hates spam from random classmates looking for notes and homework. [There was mild laughter, I paused to look around and saw people nodding at this. UT students seriously hate those emails.] But this seems to be different to me, because I usually take the time to read what my friends send me. I don't know too much about you and César, but you appointed him so I assume you two are pretty good friends right?"
K: "Yes."
J: "So it just seems a bit more unusual to me that you would overlook an email from a friend, especially one that you also work with in Student Government."
K: "Yeah, well, like I said, I get a lot of email and sometimes I'm too busy. Like... I can't recall what I was doing this weekend when he sent that email, but I wasn't able to check it."
J: "Ok, but another thing that strikes me about this email is the subject line. I mean, even when I don't open an email I still see all the subjects in my inbox right? And the subject of César's email was, in all caps, 'IMPORTANT!' and then, 'Please help.' I know you don't read the contents of every email you receive, but I don't understand why you wouldn't open an email from a friend with such an urgent subject." [After this statement I hear some laughter from the crowd.]
K: "Yeah, I just never happened to see the email."
J: "So you never saw the email until the physical copy was delivered anonymously a few days later?"
K: "Right."
J: "That just seems strange to me. Personally I am the opposite. I would get email a lot sooner than actual mail."

This was when I planned on saying that his reliance on physical mail and befuddled handling of email reminded me more of my grandmother than a student at UT, but I didn't and instead finished with my questions and sat down. When I returned to my seat a few people told me that they thought I asked good questions, and a few more people told me the same thing after the forum was over. The forum continued for another hour with steadily increasing intensity, but that is of no concern to this article. Oh no, dear reader, this story is only for the sake of addressing a question every English major must answer every time an acquaintance discovers his or her major:

"What are you going to do with an English degree?"

Don't laugh, cover bands are awesome.
This question haunts the English major community so thoroughly that it is sometimes the topic of classroom discussion. "What exactly are we going to do with our degrees? Discuss." Even English professors joke that there is no such thing as a professional organization of English majors because we are a diasporadic group. This dispersal is not a sign of what little can be done with an English degree, but rather a sign of how many different things can be done with one.

How exactly does this relate to the Student Government controversy at UT? Because the skills of an English major are in use even when most people do not realize it. Although I went to the forum only for amusement, my mind—which UT has tuned to scrutinize language and rhetoric—would only focus on the glaring holes in the story that Keshav kept repeating. I did not approach the mic with any antagonism towards Keshav or contempt for how he was doing his job as Student Government President. I did not approach the mic because I felt belittled as an average student or duped as a voter. I did not approach the mic to opine about an emotional issue or present a logical point. I was driven to the mic because of the shadowy timeline and unconvincing behavior in the story Keshav was sharing. I approached the mic as an English major approaching a rhetoric assignment. I spotted and scrutinized the weakness of the narrative, I emphasized and put them on display to the forum, I successfully supported my observations, and for a few moment I made the Student Government President uneasy. This is what English majors can do with their degrees, and we can do it anywhere, and no one is safe. Not even fellow English majors. We like engaging one another, English majors are the most dangerous game.

We are in your movie, mentioning the book was better. We are in your music, critiquing the lyrics. We are in your politics, pointing out your rubbish. We are in your conversation, making you feel stupid. We are in your law, pwning your rules. What can we do with an English degree? Whatever the fuck we want!

Credit where credit is due. The featured comic is from Circumlocution, a comic in the Daily Texan "devoted to life at the University of Texas at Austin, among other things." The description of the forum is my own personal account. Any other information about the Student Government controversy is from the Daily Texan. Also, please don't analyze all the mistakes in this entry so you can brutally outline them and cause me give up on being an English major in despair, even though I am pretty much asking for it.

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My name is Jared and I'm an English major at UT. Politically I'm a mix of libertarian and neocon with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Otherwise I'm just a typical nerd.

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The Great Firewall of China Blocks Plurk
Oh What a Circus Posted at College Republicans (Wi...
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Ashcroft at UT
Obama's Special Olympic Hubris
The UT Student Government Controversy, or What Can...
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