Sunday, October 26, 2014

UNC and the Stench of Decay

Plenty of people are writing about the athletic scandal at the University of North Carolina. But what if this scandal is just a symptom of a deeper decay?

Think about it. More than 3,000 students took phony classes. And not all of them were student-athletes.

It's been going on since 1993. Babies born when it started are planning to graduate now.

This speaks not just of cheating the rules of athletics. It speaks of an organization that is unaccountable to anyone.

Three thousand students? And no one noticed that young people from poor backgrounds, who are pushed to spend their time lifting weights, practicing and watching game film, and student turning in A papers?

That's a culture of "who cares?" That's a culture in which no one is held to account. There is no skepticism, there are no standards, there are no ethics.

Nor should we think this is confined to one department. Grade inflation runs rampant at campuses, as this article notes.

And grade inflation has been a problem at UNC since the 1980s, as this report from 2000 revealed. Plainly the problem has grown worse.

One alibi has been that the current scandal isn't about athletics but academics -- but on a deeper level that's the truth. The university has been corrupted all right, but not just for athletes, but for many students. It's not just academics, is the university itself.

Modern liberals, since at least the 1960s, have denigrated standards. Standards are oppressive, racist, elitist, yada yada. And modern liberalism has decayed into pandering. On campus, grades became like welfare or other handouts.

Meanwhile, the university developed power structures within itself. Departments, independent centers, special projects -- all became special interest groups, with their own goals and power.

Universities became more and more powerful. Once a degree was, for most people, a luxury. Then it became a necessity. Money poured in. With money, came power and prestige. We as a people have a reverence for education -- but are little able to separate the education for the people and institutions doing the educating. Criticism of a college policy or action were portrayed as attacks on the aspirations of people.

All this over time removed academia from accountability. Students are urged to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt, with no regard to how easily they will be able to repay it. Students are admitted with little regard to whether they are prepared for college work, or whether it's in their best interest to do so.

The whole college system is as corrupt as the phony classes at UNC.

But isn't the stench of decay rising from other institutions?

Public health officials bungle response to a deadly germ. Tax officials use the IRS to persecute select groups. Big businesses game the system; small businesses are left to the mercy of the bureaucrats. Government mouths slogans about helping The People, but is in the tank for the elite and the powerful.

The headlines about UNC could be about many other organizations. UNC's athletes and their enablers just got caught.

How may other cheaters are their on the campus: professors who cheat students, bureaucrats who cheat the public, students who cheat their way through their classes.

Then multiply that by the other corrupt institutions spread all over. The stench of corruption is everywhere.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hello Bill Simmons, Goodbye the Golden Age of the Internet

It's good to see Bill Simmons back on the job. But it's a sad moment for the Internet. Because it reminds us that the Organizations are slowly moving in on what had been an enclave of individual freedom and expression.

Of course there's office politics everywhere, as this New York Times piece reminds us.

By the way, don't try this at home, kids: Dare your bosses to punish you.

Still, it's the Catch-22 that hovers over everyone in the corporate Internet world. You have to catch eyeballs. But go a notch over the line, bam!

Also, Simmons draws people because he is passionate. Think about how little passion we encounter anywhere. Everyone is blah, everyone is synthetic. But Simmons cares more about his beloved Celtics than almost anyone else cares about anything.

In a passionless world, of course he stands out. I read of some Chinese saying, which applied during the twists and turns of Maoism: The tall flowers cut cut down.

The passionate people get cut down. Those who recycle the buzzwords can prosper.

Also, Simmons and the Grantland crew don't  pose as god above us all. That's what media people used to do, with Walter Cronkite being the exemplar. The same holds true in sports. The old-time sportswriters wrote as if their spots in the press box were on Mount Olympus.

But the corporate/government world holds themselves above us, as experts we must defer to. That is indeed one of their main products. But what if they aren't? What if Goodell is a liar? And the CDC is too politically correct to fight a disease that breaks out in Africa?

Simmons, and his Grantland crew, carry themselves as if they were sports nuts you'd meet in a bar. You're not listening to experts, you're hanging out with a bunch of guys (and a few gals) that could you hang out with. OK, guys and gals with Cliff Clavenish tendencies to spout trivia and stats. But still guys and gals you could hang with.

What's next? If anything, Grantland is more interesting, in the way an auto race is: You may enjoy the spectacle, but the possibility of a crash adds a certain thrill. For how long will it be until another confrontation?

For if Simmons seemed subdued, his passion remains. Note the preview (with Jalen Rose) of the Milwaukee Bucks. (For some reason I can't link to it.) About 10 minutes into the preview about the Bucks, Simmons and Rose suggest that the NBA and its owners want Milwaukee to fail to build a new arena in time. If it doesn't get built in the next year or so, the Bucks may be free to move to Seattle.

In short, Simmons apparently doesn't seem to be afraid to accuse the league and the owners of pulling a dirty trick on the good fans of Milwaukee.

In short, it is the classic clash of our times: the passionate individual against the calculating corporation. (You can sub in "calculating government" if you wish.) Guess who wins. I wonder what the over/under is for Simmons' tenure at Grantland.

The same goes for Grantland's existence as a passionate, freewheeling hub for ordinary people who just are crazy about sports.

It's not only Simmons, or Grantland, of course, but the whole machine against the individual and the community. The machine may not win every fight. But it will never relent. The conflict will never end. There will be no Internet nirvana; just the constant struggle for free expression to survive.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Who are the enemies of humanity in 2014?

Where are the enemies of humanity?

That question arises as I read Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts.

It's a history of the American ambassador and his family in Berlin in 1933, as the Nazis were gaining control of that nation.

It's the story of how a country can be in the thrall of an insane dictatorship, yet on the surface seem normal and even attractive. Some Americans thought that Hitler would moderate his demands, or be forced to do so, or would even be toppled from power. Some were outright anti-Semitic, or at least sympathetic. Some simply couldn't believe a nation could descend into barbarism and evil.

One thing it told me is at times the enemies of humanity must be confronted. They are enemies of humanity, more than enemies of one nation or people or system.

They hate the ordinary lives of ordinary people. They hate laughter, love, joy. They are enemies of the concerns and cares of human beings. They can't stand to see people engaging in making things and enjoying the harmless pleasures of life, of raising families and running businesses and talking to friends and wondering what the meaning of it all is.

We of course see them under the ISIS flag. That's the thing to remember when this group is discussed. They are not just about power or even a caliphate or Islam. They are a virus that hates everything human.

That is beside the important discussion of how to wipe them out without making things worse in the Mideast.

In the Garden of Beasts reminds us the dangers are not unique to one time or people. Nazism was not the product of people who were obviously different from us, but people who, suddenly, were changed into eager, even joyous, accomplices in evil.

This is one thing that allowed the Nazis to rise to power: ordinary people had in them, deep inside, a secret part of themselves that was activated by the Nazis. Hatred, jealously and bloodlust were suddenly brought to the surface, where no one would have expected it. But it was there.

It is there in our time too. That is the real danger of the evils roaming the world: that unsuspected depths in people will be in tune with the hatred they radiate, with their joy in destruction and pain and ugliness.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

What, me worry about Ebola?

Thank God we're immune to everything.

Take this story about a judge overseeing the family exposed to the Ebola virus. He walks into their apartment without any protective gear on, then without even changing his shirt he has a press conference, then says he'd going home to his family.

Now, of course, he may get away with this. One can be exposed to a disease yet fail to contract it.

But what if he doesn't win this bet?

What if Obama doesn't win his bet? He has, so far, refused to ban travel from the afflicted countries.

Again, I remember bird flu, swine flu, all the other diseases that have never become epidemics.d

What if this is different? To quote:
Those who believe in the unconditional benefits of past experience should consider this pearl of wisdom allegedly voiced by a famous ship’s captain: But in all my experience, I have never been in any accident… of any sort worth speaking about. I have seen but one vessel in distress in all my years at sea. I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. E. J. Smith, 1907, Captain, RMS Titanic Captain Smith’s ship sank in 1912 in what became the most talked-about shipwreck in history.
 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
More important, why do we think viruses don't affect us?

When I was a very young reporter I went out to interview the workers repairing a sewer in a very wealthy suburb. The project boss nodded at the big house: "He thinks his s__t don't stink."

Why does America, seemingly, think our waste products smell of roses? Why do we think we are immune to Ebola? Why do we think that murderous terrorists, some of whom are working on nuclear weapons, are no threat to us? Why do we think huge government deficits are no problem?

We don't. We have been privileged for so long we have forgotten that we are vulnerable. "What, me worry?" Not us.

Until we are.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Stone Age vs. Internet Age: Who Wins?

"We'll bomb you back into the Stone Age."


That might as well be the implied dialogue between the U.S. and a few of its allies and Islamic terrorists.

It was Curtis LeMay who is remembered for his advice to threaten to bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age. You'll note first of all that the threat didn't work, possibly because we didn't fully follow through.

But note that the current bombing campaign against the Islamic State -- more on that in  a sec -- is a great example of asymmetric warfare.

The terrorists want to go back to the Stone Age. They are headed that way full tilt. Their professed goal is to go back to the days of the caliphate, but they seem to be closer to nihilists, in that their visceral drive is to wipe out civilization, and return to a more primal era: the era of tribes massacring other tribes, or even members of their own tribe, in a primeval orgy of destruction and murder.

Moreover, they can survive in a more primitive world. Indeed, they thrive in it. As is plain to many commentators, ISIS spread like a virus when Syria collapsed as a nation. The more we destroy, the more the terrorists can grow.

And is Arab civilization on the verge of wider collapse? At least one writer suggests that Arab civilization itself is falling to pieces. As malnutrition, stress and poor sanitation lead to real viral outbreaks, so do social decay, moral corruption, war and conflict lead to the spread of ideological viruses. A collapsing Arab civilization -- if that is the case -- will be an incubator of further terrorism.

It is also the case that we are extraordinarily vulnerable. We have faced so few real attacks that we have no immunity.

Consider this: A single mentally unstable employee started a fire at the air-traffic-control center for Chicago's airports. Thousands of flights have been cancelled, and apparently the damage won't be fully repaired until Oct. 13. Repeat: one person has snarled air traffic through Chicago, thus most of the U.S.

Meanwhile, Islamic terrorists are calling for sympathizers to attack American soldiers here. How long will it take before the terrorists realize it would be much more effective to urge sympathizers, or the mentally unstable, to attack other air traffic control facilities, utilities, server farms, or for that matter shopping centers and subways?

Bomb some primitive village, and once the bodies are buried, life goes on. There is little to destroy; and the people are inured to hardship. We, on the other hand, are vulnerable, nor is our society easily repaired once damaged.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Have We Become a Nation of Cowards?

Have we as a people, a nation, become cowardly?

I say this because of something that happened to my wife last month. She was traveling, staying at a motel near Flint, Mich. As we both like to do, she went outside to practice tai chi.

Now, tai chi is a martial art, but it is also a form of exercise and physical and spiritual rejuvenation. She practices it as a way of relaxing and stretching and simply enjoying being active. The slow movements are hardly aggressive when she does tai chi. Also, she is a five-foot-two woman who, like me, as reached an age when Social Security looms. She is hardly an ominous figure when she performs the slow, graceful tai chi moves.

But the hotel staff came out and asked her to stop. Some people felt her presence was threatening. She was irked, but consented.

OK, just an incident. How often, however, does irrational fear underlie so much of what we do today? More and more all things are forbidden. Playgrounds ban monkey bars because a kid might fall, But, as others have said, then kids don´t learn how to surmount risk. Nor do they learn they can survive the occasional broken arm.

 How often do groups and the public react with panic at any slight risk? Have we, as a nation, become so fearful that we can´t face real danger?

Do we on the right just sit back and whine when government grabs too much power? Do we fail to challenge gross attacks on liberty?

Dare we cut back excessive governmental spending and activity? Any such suggestion is met with horror. Cutting back even the slightest on governmental spending will trigger economic doom -- or so it seems when such suggestions are made. Confront our real enemies in the world? That thought is met with panicked claims that we are inviting conflagration. Stand up for beliefs and practices that have supported safe, stable life throughout human history? That incites the fear that the Inquisition is about to be reborn.

Faced with real evil, do we dither and fret instead of acting?

Think of how much we want to be protected. We want to be healthy and safe from all injury, yet we wish to be active and involved. We want to be able to eat what we choose but not get fat. We want to be able to reap windfalls in the stock market for our own 401k plans, but we are afraid of sudden drops in stock prices. We want the value of our homes to go up, but we are afraid the price of the next house we want to buy will be be too high. We want to be free but we want to be protected from accidents and harm. We want the benefits that come only from taking risks, but we can´t face risk.

Commentators have noted the drop in entrepreneurial activity in the U.S. One reason may be that we have grown too fearful of risks. That´s just one example of how fearfulness is crippling our society.

As many have noted, we are never challenged. We face little danger. But, like muscles that are never exercised, our ability to cope with danger has grown flabby. We so seldom face real danger that we are not able to cope with it. That distorts our ability to cope with any danger.

Of course, rational fear is essential. My previous post was about the lack of rational fear. But excessive fearfulness is the flip side of this. Unable to cope with minor risks, we can´t even comprehend bigger ones. We are so worried about the supposed oppression by some white American guy cracking a bad joke that we are befuddled and paralyzed by the rise of ISIS. We are so worried that the government will trim the ¨stimulus¨ by a fraction of a percentage point that we are oblivious to the dangers posed by excessive debt and governmental control.

FDR famously said, ¨We have nothing to fear but fear itself.¨ We see again what he meant -- only when we gain courage will we be able to face the truly fearful things confronting us. Today, we can only hope, we are still strong and resourceful enough to beat them.. Only by being less fearful, less cowardly, we will be able to accurately see and thus fight the real dangers facing us.