Sunday, November 22, 2015

Upset In The Bayou - Democrats Take Back the Louisiana Governor's Mansion

John Bel Edwards raises the victory umbrella last night in LA
It was a pretty festive Saturday night down in the French Quarter for Louisiana Democrats after Democratic state representative John Bel Edwards defeated Republican U.S. Senator David Vitter in a runoff race for governor.

With 56% of the vote, Edwards broke a seven year loosing streak for Democrats in a solidly Red State that hadn't elected a single Democrat to state office since 2008.

There's little doubt that last nights results will reverberate around the country and have national political implications for the 2016 elections too.

You can bet your Thanksgiving Day leftovers that the current crop of Republican presidential candidates were huddling with their respective brain trusts this morning to reevaluate their own campaign messages in light of last nights election results in Louisiana.

In many ways, the governors race in Louisiana served as a political temperature gauge for 2016; one that warmed the hearts of Democrats and left Republicans feeling a little chilly.

A decisive majority of voters in a deep south state that voted Republican in the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 presidential elections have just soundly rejected the failed extremist, partisan hyper-conservative policies of two-term Republican Governor Bobby Jindal.
Fiscal policy twins? Chris Christie & Bobby Jindal
Like other Republican governors, (we see you Chris Christie) Jindal's ill-advised embrace of the disastrous conservative "Starve The Beast" economic theories has left the Louisiana budget $1.6 billion in the red for 2015.

Despite his fiscal mismanagement, he still lavished $1 billion a year in tax breaks for corporations and the state's wealthiest citizens that have left Louisiana State University, public schools and the state's health care system facing deep cuts.

To get a true sense of the litany of ways that Jindal has failed the people of Louisiana and made problems far worse during his tenure, check out Alice Ollstein's article that was posted on back in June of this year.

When you understand what an unqualified disaster Jindal's administration has been for Louisiana, it's easy to understand why a significant number of Louisiana Republicans crossed party lines and voted for Edwards in the runoff election for governor.  

From the cultural perspective, it's of interest to note that when he first started out in politics, Jindal was well liked and highly-regarded by members of the Indian-American community across the nation; including both Republicans and Democrats.

As reported in a revealing NPR segment last Thursday, after accepting their generous political donations to help propel himself to the Governor's mansion in 2008, Jindal began to surf the wave of conservative resentment over the election of President Obama and morphed into a far right reactionary figure who had a polarizing effect on politics.

His controversial official governor's portrait (pictured below) symbolizes the peculiar dichotomy between how he sees himself, and who he actually is. And yes, that image on the left is his actual official portrait.
Wait. Who 'Dat?? Bobby Jindal's official Governor's portrait
Jindal, who changed his first name from Piyush to Bobby and converted to Christianity in high school, started taking his political cues from the Tea Party and tax policy advice from from the fringe anti-government tax-dodger Grover Norquist. 

He began to embrace the rigid social ideology of the racist zealot, conservative "thinker" and author Dinesh D'Souza and disappointed many in the Indian-American community during his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination by trying to score points with primary voters by demonizing immigrants and publicly rejecting the hyphenated term Indian-American.

He displayed a quasi-delusional hypocrisy by using the derogatory term "Anchor Babies" even though his own mother was three months pregnant with him when his parents immigrated to America from India 45 years ago.

But Bobby Jindal's record as governor is just one of the factors in Democrats taking back the Louisiana governor's mansion for the first time since 2008.

By all accounts Governor-elect John Bel Edwards stuck to running an issues-oriented campaign even as Republican candidates squabbled amongst themselves; reflecting broader philosophical divisions within the Republican party taking place in Washington.

David Vitter (w/ his wife) faces the media in 2007 scandal
The unfortunate scandal surrounding Senator David Vitter's highly publicized 2007 tryst with a prostitute certainly didn't help his cause either in a state haunted by the specter of a long history of sketchy political ethics.

In contrast, Edwards military background, conservative Catholic upbringing and deep family ties to law enforcement played well to Louisiana voters across the political spectrum.

Any way you cut it, Edwards has certainly got his work cut out for him with all the fiscal wreckage and budget short falls left behind by Bobby Jindal and a Republican-dominated state legislature.

But keep your eye on this guy folks.

From a political standpoint 2020 isn't that far off.

And as both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have shown, being a popular Democratic governor from a southern state who can appeal to conservative-leaning swing voters in traditional Red States can be a pathway to the White House.

Just sayin'.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Compassion - Republican Style

Are Syrian refugees really a threat to US security?
It's been a week since the terrorist attacks took place in Paris last Friday night.

Those horrific events may have taken place in a city more than 3,600 miles from the east coast of the United States, but the impact they've had on the political landscape here in this country has been significant.

Donald Trump calling for a "database" of Muslims who live in America.

Ben Carson comparing Syrian refugees to a "rabid dog" running around a neighborhood, and Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz should be thankful that reactionary xenophobes like themselves weren't scoring cheap points with anti-immigrant fear-mongering when the both of them immigrated to the U.S. as children.

There's something unsettling about the depth of the acrimonious anti-immigrant rhetoric that's come from leading Republican politicians this week.

Elected leaders, aspiring presidential nominees and conservative media pundits have all seized the opportunity to once again deal in the currency of fear and simultaneously scapegoat and politicize Syrian refugees in order to attack the President and Democrats in the name of national security.

Newly elected House Speaker Paul Ryan abandoned his recent pledge to restore a measure of balance to the GOP majority in the House and led the overwhelming passage of a measure intended to toughen the already rigorous screening process for Syrian refugees to enter the country.

On the individual state level, Republican (and one Democratic) Governors from at least twenty six different states across the nation announced plans to stop admitting Syrian refugees to their respective states.

Which, despite a lot of bluster and posturing, they don't have the legal authority to do.

As Ian Millhiser explained in an article posted on on Monday:

"As the Supreme Court explained in Hines v. Davidowitz, “the supremacy of the national power in the general field of foreign affairs, including power over immigration, naturalization and deportation, is made clear by the Constitution.” States do not get to overrule the federal government on matters such as this one."

Sorry Governors.
NJ Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto from Paramus
Earlier this week, New Jersey Democratic State Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (pictured left), who fled Cuba and came to the U.S. when he was 10, tore into Governor Chris Christie for his "xenophobia" after Christie said on a radio interview with Hugh Hewitt on Monday that he would bar Syrian refugees from entering New Jersey; even orphans under the age of five.

In response, an outraged Prieto said:
"No matter our political beliefs, no matter our principles, it's imperative we never forget the idea that whatever we do for the least among us, we do for ourselves. Gov. Christie has forgotten this most American of ideals."

But Republicans aren't the only ones in this nation with short memories.

The attacks in Paris combined with threats from ISIS have left the country almost evenly split on whether it's safe to admit refugees fleeing the war, torture, starvation, persecution and destruction that have devastated Syria since the start of the civil war.

On Thursday morning, The Brian Lehrer Show kicked off with a conversation with The Atlantic senior associate editor Russel Berman on the likelihood that terrorists could realistically infiltrate the ranks of the Syrian refugees who enter the United States.

About fifteen or twenty minutes into the segment, a woman who was clearly on the far right side of the conservative spectrum called in to express outrage at the idea of Syrian refugees entering the country.

She seethed with anger at President Obama and seemed to blame him for the situation in Syria and the Paris attacks before suggesting that he was "more interested in protecting Muslims than Americans."

Trump bashing Syrian refugees on O'Reilly back in September
To me she sounded like she'd been binge-watching Fox News non-stop since last Friday as she ticked off points that seemed to come straight from the desk of Roger Ailes.

She was ranting incoherently about there being no vetting process for Syrian refugees in place.

When in fact, the Defense Department, F.B.I and the national counter-terrorism center all conduct extensive background checks of Syrian refugees trying to enter the country that can take two years or more. 

She seemed unaware that over 700,000 refugees have entered the United States since September 11, 2001 - and not one has turned out to be a terrorist.

The fact that the bulk of the Syrian refugees seeking to enter the United States are not "young males" (as GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson incorrectly suggested on CNN back in September) but senior citizens, women and children seemed to elude this woman as well.

But I was glad Brian put her on the air so people could listen to the kind of fear-based hysteria that led the Republican-led Congress to pass legislation intended to make it even harder for them to reach America than it already is.

But like the dozens of meaningless votes to defund the Affordable Care Act, the legislation passed yesterday is purely symbolic; it has no chance of passing the Senate and would be immediately vetoed even it were to reach the President's desk.

To me it's sad that the only time this Republican Congress gets motivated to do their job and actually draft and pass legislation is if it's purely ideological in nature and will damage President Obama politically or thwart his political initiatives.

Can you imagine the kinds of good they could do for people if they used their Constitutional authority to tackle real issues and not just symbolic ones?

On Wednesday, the WBUR program Here and Now did an interesting interview with Kathryn Edin and Luke Schaefer; co-authors of the book $2 a Day: Living On Almost Nothing in America.

Give it a listen, it runs about 10 minutes and it's really eye-opening in an unsettling way as it chronicles the challenges facing the scores of Americans forced to live on $2.00 a day.

It wasn't an easy segment to listen to as I ate lunch.

But it occurred to me that Republicans are spending all this time and energy whipping up hysteria over war refugees fleeing war, violence and torture - why aren't they channeling that energy to deal with the plight of the 1.5 million Americans who are trapped in this cycle of extreme poverty?

In two days they can draft and pass legislation to keep people fleeing poverty and war out of the country, but they won't bother drafting legislation to help 1.5 million Americans who are trapped in poverty and hunger who are already here in the country.

Does it make sense? No.

But perhaps that's just the state, and the nature, of Republican compassion.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Potentially Tainted? Investigators Conceal Video of Jamar Clark's Death

Jamar Clark taken off life support Monday
The news that 24-year old Jamar Clark (pictured left) has died as a result of the gunshot wound to the head he received from one of two as-yet unnamed Minneapolis police officers early Sunday morning is a real kick in the gut to the idea of America as a place of "liberty and justice for all" that's governed by the rule of law.

A couple hours ago the LA Times reported that the county medical examiner announced that they are ruling Clark's death a homicide.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges has already called for a federal investigation of the circumstances surrounding his death.

If the reports turn out to be true that he was interfering with the ability of EMT workers who were trying to assist a woman that he was suspected of assaulting, then of course he deserved to be subdued, arrested and taken to court to face the appropriate charges.

But did the guy deserve to die?

Like so many other young men of color who've lost their lives to members of law enforcement in highly-publicized incidents, Clark was unarmed at the time he got into a confrontation with the two Minneapolis police officers who arrived at the scene outside an apartment building.

But widespread reports from witnesses at the scene are suggesting that he was also handcuffed when one of the officers allegedly leaned over Clark's body, put a knee on him and shot him in the head at point blank range.

BCA Superintendent Drew Evans
According to Drew Evans (pictured left), Superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a pair of handcuffs were found at the scene, but no determination has yet been made as to whether Clark was actually cuffed when he was shot.

The BCA confirms they have multiple sources of video taken of the incident, including from an ambulance at the scene, exterior security cameras from the apartment building where the incident took place and from several people who captured video on cell phones; but no single source shows everything that led up to the actual shooting - or what happened in it's entirety.

Prosecutors, members of the Clark family and protesters have called for the video to be released, but Evans says the BCA won't release any of the video out of concerns that doing so "may potentially taint portions of the investigation."

From my experience (and it's just an opinion) when investigators express reluctance to release video surveillance of fatal cop shootings, more often than not there's something on the video that's not going to be good for the two cops in question.

Protesters block traffic across I-94 in Minneapolis
The incident has sparked a series of protests across Minneapolis and dozens were arrested after a multi-ethnic, multiracial group of people (pictured left) intentionally blocked traffic across I-94 by linking hands in front of oncoming vehicles.

My guess is the two officers, who've been placed on paid leave pending an investigation, are huddling with lawyers while they try to cobble together a version of the incident that points to them fearing for their own safety.

Even though there were two of them, the guy was unarmed, and by all accounts, was already on the ground at the time that he was shot.

Did he tussle with the two officers? By all accounts he did.

But that doesn't make an unarmed man accused of assault being shot in the head by a police officer any less of an egregious example of excessive use of force.

While some media sources are already publicizing the fact that court records show he had a 2010 conviction for aggravated robbery and a conviction for making terroristic threats earlier this year, Clark's brother Mario Reed said Clark was just a 24-year old who'd made some mistakes and was actively trying to make positive changes in his life - according to Reed:

"He was trying to get his life back together, he was going to work every day. I was dropping him off every day. He worked at the car wash in northeast Minneapolis and he was just getting his life back in order," 

That chance was taken from this young man.

And now his grieving family is left to deal with the reality that Jamar Clark has joined the ranks of The Counted nine days before Thanksgiving.

By the way, according to the latest statistics in The Counted database, over 1,000 people have been killed by members of law enforcement in the United States in 2015.

"With liberty and justice for all."

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Horror In the City of Lights & Republican Relevancy in 2016

People in Times Square watching news of the Paris attacks
As news reports of the terrorist attacks in Paris trickled in Friday afternoon, it ripped me from the normalcy of a day-off from work spent taking care of bills and running routine errands to the dry cleaners, bank, laundry, gym, grocery store, gas station and pet store.

My initial plan had been to come home and spend Friday afternoon catching up on emails and doing some writing.

But instead I ended up in front of the TV for hours like the two people seen in this photo sitting in Times Square watching snippets of information scrolling across the screen - trying to wrap my head around what had happened in the City of Lights.  

I lived in Manhattan on September 11, 2001 and I'm still trying to wrap my head around that day.

One of the obvious things lost in much of the initial nonstop news coverage over the first 24 hours is the fact that that the attacks took place on Friday the 13th. 

True to form, ISIS decided to execute yet another mass slaughter of innocent people on a date they hope will be "branded" into the minds of the billions of people around the world forced to bear witness to a depraved act of barbarity that killed at least 129 people and injured 352.

EMT personnel evacuate survivors in Paris Friday night
Not only that, they scheduled the attacks to take place on a Friday night when the streets of Paris were packed and the global media news cycle would have no choice but to spend the weekend focusing on these despicable acts.

As the media continues to examine the "how and why", and people around the world begin to try and come to grips with the scale of this unfolding human tragedy, I think it's important to look at how this terrorist event is going to impact our own presidential elections. 

We're less than 12 months out from electing a new president, and the Paris attacks suddenly put even more of an emphasis on which candidates are going to be best suited to take the reins of a highly complex foreign policy apparatus while serving as Commander in Chief of the largest military in the world.

It shifted the question and topic emphasis for Saturday night's Democratic presidential debate; and probably puts Hillary Clinton in a much more appealing light.

Frankly, if I was a Republican strategist right now I'd be concerned with over 50% of registered Republican primary voters supporting Donald Trump and Ben Carson; two ideological extremists who've never been elected to public office, lack experience operating the levers of government, and have zero foreign policy experience between them.

According to an AP report released earlier today, at the Florida Republican Party's Sunshine Summit, Republican presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina has already blamed President Obama and Hillary Clinton for the attacks in Paris "mostly because Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton didn't do enough to stop the growth of the Islamic State group."

Leave it to a GOP presidential candidate who's never held public office and has no foreign policy experience to blame a senseless attack by ISIS in Paris on the same U.S. president who approved the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the drone strike that killed ISIS butcher "Jihadi John" just last week. 

Fiorina's delusional comments reflect not just her low standing in the polls, but a much broader political issue for the Republican party. 

David Brooks
On Friday morning, syndicated New York Times columnist and author David Brooks published a really insightful op-ed piece entitled, The G.O.P at an Immigration Crossroads, that used the division within the Republican party on immigration to frame some serious questions the GOP needs to answer - and fast.

But the piece was also clearly intended as an open letter to the GOP presidential candidates and the Republican party as a whole.

The gist of his article is a question millions of Americans have been asking since the late 90's - what kind of political party does the GOP want to be in a nation that is increasingly made up of ethnic and racial minorities and people who have immigrated to this country from other nations?

Moving forward, can the party be relevant in it's current form?

As Brooks observes in his article, "Some Republican leaders simply lack the ability or willingness to acknowledge reality."

Who was he taking about? He mentioned Cruz and Jindal by name but there are other GOP candidates (including Mike Huckabee) who have some serious reality issues.

In his op-ed yesterday, it's worthy to note that Brooks didn't even bother mentioning NJ Governor Chris Christie by name.

As someone who reads Brook's column regularly and has listened to his political analysis and decidedly pro-conservative commentary on The PBS Newshour for years, my sense is that his unstated message is that "Christie is not the guy for 2016."  

Just consider two of the headlines Christie made last week alone.

On Monday he vetoed a domestic violence gun bill that had overwhelming support from both Republican and Democratic members of the New Jersey legislature that would have required judges to order any domestic abuser who is either convicted or the recipient of a restraining order, to turn in any guns they own to police within 24 hours and provide proof to a court within 48 hours. 

That sounds pretty reasonable right? Both sides of the NJ legislature backed it.

Members of law enforcement (whom Christie claims to support when he trashes the Black Lives Matter movement) backed it and the public backed it - but Christie vetoed it.

This despite poll results published by showing that 63% of registered American voters fear guns and gun violence; so whose interests are being served by Christie using his authority as governor to veto legislation intended to make sure convicted domestic abusers don't have access to firearms?

Then on Wednesday during a town hall meeting at Mickey's Country Cafe in Bettendorf, Iowa when an audience member who claimed to be the mother of two police officers asked Christie how he would support law enforcement, he told her that he would refuse to meet with members of the protest movement Black Lives Matter. "I want the Black Lives Matter people to understand, don't call me for a meeting. You're not getting one."

He then went on to again repeat the lie that Black Lives Matter has called for the murder of police officers - which he's been doing for weeks despite being confronted by statements from BLM itself and members of the media over the fact that the group has never called for the murder of anyone.

There's nothing presidential about intentionally mischaracterizing a grass roots activist group and lying about it in order to pander to a conservative segment of society and please right-wing dark money groups back by the National Rifle Association.

You'd think "Mr. Tell It Like It Is" was threatened by them.

Or so eager to "out-conservative" other conservatives that he ends up making a fool of himself - like back during the 2012 presidential run when Mitt Romney assured Republican voters that he was "severely conservative" even though he pushed through universal health care as governor of Massachusetts.  

With the George Washington Bridge scandal back in the news and likely to surface again in ways that are going hurt his image nationally and scare off the big money donors, I don't think the issues related to his pretending to be more conservative than he is are going to matter for Christie much longer anyway - not while he's polling in the very low single digits and is relegated to the "kids table" at the GOP debates.

But Republicans struggling to operate within the framework of reality is not limited to the presidential candidates either.

Republican Michele Fiore's Twitter message last night
The outspoken Nevada Republican state Assemblywoman Michele Fiore was quick to use the Paris attacks as an opportunity to denounce gun control on social media. 

Fiore (pictured left) is a vocal advocate of concealed carry laws who made headlines back in February when she suggested in a NY Times interview that combating sexual assault on college campuses would be easier “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.”

Last night the 45-year old controversial 2nd term politician posted an inflammatory Twitter message (pictured above) promoting a Website linked to the ultra right-wing John Birch Society and suggested that the strict gun control laws in France were to blame for the attacks committed by three separate highly-coordinated ISIS attackers on Friday night.

While I can certainly recognize that she was probably shocked and upset when she posted that Tweet at 8:17pm Friday night as news of the Paris attacks were unfolding, that's still a pretty simplistic and irresponsible message to post on social media when a comprehensive investigation has only just started.

She has absolutely no evidence that concealed carry laws allowing French citizens to carry weapons would have done anything to stop the carefully-coordinated attacks by ISIS last night.

While it's obviously horrific that 129 people were killed in the Paris attacks yesterday, I'm not sure Fiore understands that more than 11,485 people have been killed in gun-related incidents in the U.S. this year alone according to statistics posted by 11,485.

Contrast that number with France where a total of 1,856 people died from gun-related incidents in 2012.

The attacks in Paris are another horrific reminder of the global danger of a radicalized extremist terror movement guided by medieval principles that doesn't recognize borders, ethics, morals or laws.

If Republicans want to make some kind of constructive or insightful commentary on these acts that helps to build consensus on how to stop them, or reveals details about their own foreign policy objectives; so be it.

But if GOP politicians or candidates just want to use another nation's tragedy as a cheap political soundbite, then they might as well just keep their mouths shut - because by politicizing a terrorist attack, some Republicans are simply revealing how disconnected to reality they are.

And as David Brooks observed, whether the issue is abortion, immigration, terrorism or the art of governance, operating in an echo chamber that's detached from the mainstream isn't the way to win the White House; let alone stay relevant to an increasingly diverse American landscape.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bloomingdale's Date Rape Ad - Don Draper Anyone?

Bloomingdale's ad endorsing date rape? Yikes.
Can you believe that Thanksgiving is just two weeks from today?

For those of you who are cooking, it wasn't my intent to stress you out or anything; consider it a helpful holiday "two-minute warning" from the Culturegeist if you have to shop, order a pre-cooked turkey or make travel plans.

For retailers, advertisers and many of us, Thanksgiving marks the official opening to the holiday shopping season.

Given all the negative impact from bad publicity that large retailers in New York City like Macy's and Barney's have faced in recent years following some really troubling incidents related to the treatment of African-American shoppers, one would think that major retailers would make not offending shoppers right before one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year a priority, right?

The ad (pictured above) taken from a Bloomingdale's holiday catalog, is getting a lot of attention (and comments) on Twitter and other social media platforms today because the text accompanying the ad sounds a lot like an endorsement of date rape - the story is blowing up on major media outlets too.

Like Danielle Paquette's Washington Post story analyzing what the ad says about rape.

If you can't read the words between the leering guy on the right and the smiling unsuspecting blond woman on the left, it reads:

"Spike Your BEST FRIEND'S eggnog when they're not looking."

Really? Bloomingdale's green-lit this ad in this day and age when date rape is recognized nationally as a widespread entrenched social crisis affecting institutions like schools and the military? 

Someone at Bloomingdale's thinks they're Don Draper
Now if this was the fictional world of Mad Men, I could see Don Draper (pictured left) pitching this ad in a smoke-filled conference room in front of a bunch of white guys in suits with tumblers of scotch in front of them in the 1960's as they prepare to head out to a three-hour Manhattan lunch and get sauced on the ad agency's dime.

But this is 2015 and the honchos over at Bloomingdale's are obviously already hard at work trying to stem the bleeding from this disastrous self-inflicted PR wound to one of the most widely-recognized retail brands in the world.

No doubt the emails are flying and phones are ringing while the brain-trust at Bloomingdale's tries to come up with a way to demonstrate to female shoppers that the company didn't really intend to suggest that intentionally spiking a woman's drink with alcohol or a date-rape drug like GHB would make for a happy holidays.

Or prompt said woman to go out and shop at Bloomingdale's after whatever transpires when the leering perv in the ad image spikes the woman's eggnog.

But given the importance of the role American women play with major purchasing decisions around the holidays, I think this ad reflects the glaring lack of diversity that still exits in the hermetically-sealed world of advertising - a problem that the experts have been talking about for years.

Now as I've mentioned before on this blog, I used to work in advertising when I lived in New York City. I  know a little about the creative challenges related to visualizing images designed to convey a sales or marketing objective and then coming up with words designed to influence someone's purchasing or behavioral decision.

It's not easy. An ad may look simple, but it's not and a lot of work goes into incorporating complex research and data intended to help advertisers target a very specific demographic.

So that's just one of the reasons a lot of people are wondering what the Hell the copywriter who came up with that ad and the director or exec who approved it was thinking.

As a former copywriter, my guess is the ad is a subtle and poorly-executed attempt to play off the throwback appeal and politically-incorrect aesthetic of Mad Men where sexual harassment in the workplace was all too common.

Unfortunately, the creators of this Bloomingdale's ad forgot that Mad Men is a fictional television show that was set in the 60's and early 70's.

Given the failure of the advertising industry to take responsibility to attract a more diverse talent pool into the creative and executive ranks, this ad can probably be attributed to the fact that it was assigned to a bunch of Ivy-league educated frat guys who've watched way to much Mad Men sitting in a room who thought it was clever and risque.

When in fact, it was just plain offensive and demeaning to women; what a way for Bloomingdale's to start off the holiday shopping season.

If I didn't know better, I'd swear that offending women and ethnic minorities has become a pre-holiday tradition for large retailers in New York City.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Aysmmetrical Leadership: Wolfe Resigns - Yale Heats Up & More SAE Racism?

Tim Wolfe resigns as president of Missouri
The resignation of University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe this morning is a testament both to the power of peaceful forms of nonviolent protest combined with social media, and the importance the university places on the revenue stream from its Division I college football program.

Grad student Jonathan Butler's announcement last Monday that he was going on a hunger strike until Wolfe resigned really helped to focus national media attention on the issue.

I suspect he's doing some serious chowing down at this point after six days with no food. It took some cojones to do what he did.

But the mere threat of a possible forfeit of the Mizzou Tigers - BYU football game this weekend, and the revenue from tickets, concessions, broadcast rights, merchandise and advertising (plus a $1 million penalty) really sealed the deal for Wolfe.

That speaks to the power of sports and money in our society; but it's nice to see them used to help drive positive social change and in doing so, take a stand against the racism, intolerance and ignorance that's all to common on college campuses around the U.S.

Given the seriousness of the racial incidents and the subsequent inaction on the part of the Mizzou administration to address them in a timely manner that sparked the protests, it's doubtful that members of Concerned Students 1950 and other University of Missouri students and staff who actively campaigned for Wolfe's resignation are under the illusion that everything is fine now.

This is not a "kumbaya moment".

It's a defining moment for a major educational institution in a state still reeling from the aftermath of the Ferguson protests that erupted in the wake of the killing of teenager Michael Brown and the revelation of shocking institutionalized racism and bias entrenched within the local court system and the police department.

For Missouri this is a moment that can't be wasted  given what's at stake for the school's reputation and it's future. 

Yale students marching across campus on Monday 11/9/15
1,157 miles to the northeast of the Missouri campus in New Haven, Connecticut, a defining moment is also taking shape.

Earlier today hundreds of Yale University students and supporters engaged in a "March of Resilience" to protest against what many are calling the Ivy League institutions lack of racial sensitivity.

The protests were sparked back in late October after an administrator named Erika Christakis wrote a controversial email disagreeing with a request by the school's Intercultural Affairs Committee calling for students to avoid wearing Halloween costumes that might be considered racially or culturally insensitive.

Her email was sent out to the entire university and read in part:
"Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition."

In response to Christakis' remarkably tone deaf email longing for the days in America when dressing in an offensive Halloween costume was considered a 'hoot', more than 740 students, faculty members and Yale staff signed an open letter to Christakis, calling her email "offensive".

A heated public exchange between a female student and Christakis' husband Nicholas, who serves as the Master for Silliman (one of Yale's student residence houses) in which the student emotionally berates Christakis for putting the intellectual concept of free speech expressed by his wife above the importance of racial sensitivity has gone viral.

If you haven't seen or heard it give it watch, it's not long and it offers a glimpse of the depth of cultural tension that is simmering on the campus of one of the most esteemed universities in the world.

Yale students gathered on campus
To me what's most important is illustrated in the photo of the march at Yale seen on the left.

The hundreds of Yale students who came out to protest cultural insensitivity today were Asian, white, Hispanic and African-American.

The march went from the Afro-American Cultural Center across campus past the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity where a female Yale sophomore named Neema Githere alleged that she and her friends of color were turned away from a party last Friday by an unidentified frat brother who supposedly told them they couldn't be admitted because the event was for "white girls only".

Seriously, what is it with these SAE frat brothers anyway?

Remember back in March of this year when the SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma was closed after video of frat members in tuxedos on a bus headed to a formal while gleefully singing along to a chant called "There will never be a nigger at SAE..." was making national headlines?

I guess some students will never learn.

Regardless, I'm interested to see what will come of the protests in Columbia and New Haven in terms of policy changes or enforcement of codes of conduct for students and staff.

But I do get the sense we're seeing a rising backlash against the angry, divisive tone in this country that has come from the extreme political right that now dominates the Republican party.  

Leadership has traditionally been a top-down thing in this nation and I think some of these incidents happening on college campuses in this country are a byproduct of the years of normalization of intolerance and acceptance of bigotry by conservative politicians who seem to exist in the echo chamber of the right-wing media they pander to.

But as the protests and subsequent resignation of Tim Wolfe in Missouri demonstrates, what appears to be a new kind of  "asymmetrical leadership" is emerging; a 21st century version of the great American protest movements of the 20th century for women's rights, civil rights, the anti-war movement in the 60's, environmental rights.

It's what I see as a style of leadership characterized by people coalescing around an issue and using social media to communicate and create momentum that doesn't require the support or endorsement of mainstream media, corporate entities, political parties, or any other "institution".

This leadership style is a reflection of the evolution of the merger of Web-based platforms and technology into our lives;  we carry it in our phones wherever we go.

Like the Internet it's amorphous, powerful and doesn't require any one leader to tell it  how to think or what it should do - as Tim Wolfe learned the hard way.

Keep your eyes peeled, it will be interesting to watch how this rejection of intolerance influences the tone of the 2016 elections and who we want to be as a nation.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Missouri Football Players Tackle Racism On Campus

Under Fire: Univ of Missouri President Tim Wolfe
As a follow-up to yesterday's blog about budget cuts at Rider University, I wanted to share some thoughts on a different college that reflects another aspect of the state of higher education in America. 

Back on September 24th I wrote a blog about two separate incidents at the University of Southern California and the University of Missouri where two students of color (both presidents of their respective student bodies) were overtly targeted by vile racial slurs while walking on or near campus.

I wrote about Missouri Student Association president Payton Head posting a blistering commentary about the hostile racial environment on the campus of the University of Missouri on his Facebook page after a group of young white men in the back of a pickup truck drove past him yelling the word "Nigger!" as he was walking along the downtown Columbia, MO area minding his own business.   

Earlier this afternoon I was enjoying some chili while reading Rolling Stone and listening to NPR when I heard an interesting news report about a group of approximately 30 members of the University of Missouri football team announcing that they are going on strike from participating in any football-related activities or games until Mizzou president Tim Wolfe resigns.

The actions of the players are in support of a campus protest movement called Concerned Students 1950 - which refers to the first year that a black grad student, Gus T. Ridgel was admitted to the university.

Concerned Students 1950 has been calling for Wolfe's resignation for weeks in response to what they allege is his failure to take leadership to address a series of disturbing on-campus racial incidents targeting African-American students; including an incident when an unknown student used feces to draw a swastika in a dorm bathroom.

Students march across the Mizzou campus Thursday Nov 5th
The call for the president's resignation gained momentum last Monday after grad student Jonathan Butler sent a letter to the University of Missouri System Board of Curators announcing that he was going on a hunger strike until Wolfe steps down from his position.

Members of Concerned Students 1950 led a protest march through the campus last Thursday. (pictured left)

While Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bown Loftin did briefly meet publicly with members of Concerned Students 1950 last Tuesday after Butler announced he was going on a hunger strike, Wolfe's remarks did little to change the group's demand that he resign.

Earlier today Wolfe did issue a statement outlining the steps he plans to take to address the racial incidents, but it only seems to have ramped up calls for his resignation by various groups including UM's Forum on Graduate Rights and the Coalition of Graduate Workers who have called for grad students to join a two-day walk out next week to show support for the demands for Wolfe's resignation.

Is it too little too late?

Time will tell, but Wolfe's reputation is taking a bruising as he becomes the focal point of blame for the failure of the UM administration to take decisive steps to deal with the tense racial climate at Missouri and a series of recent high-profile incidents protesters claim have been poorly handled by the University.

I think it's culturally significant to see the degree to which university students are using peaceful forms of protest and social media to demand that the University of Missouri begin to take the racial climate of a place of higher education seriously.

Missouri football players show their support
College football is big down south and the Missouri athletic departments operating revenue was $83.7  million in 2014.

So the decision by the 30 or so members of the Mizzou football team (pictured left) to go on strike takes this protest movement to the next level and draws national media attention to the situation in Columbia.

Head coach Gary Pinkel has given his public support to the striking team members, which is pretty significant given that they are calling for the university's president to resign.

The Missouri Tigers play in the highly-competitive SEC Conference, they're 4-5 this season heading into a game against BYU next Saturday and the strike is sure to be an important topic of conversation in sports media.

It'd be nice if the administration of the University of Missouri were motivated to address the racial climate on campus by ethics and a sense of responsibility.

But as we know, money talks in this nation.

And if it takes a possible negative impact on the flow of revenue from the Mizzou football program tc confront and deal with racism on campus, so be it.

As a former Division I college football player, I can tell you that each day the protest continues, the ability of Mizzou to recruit high school student-athletes to commit is going to be impacted.

As someone who was recruited by some of the top Division I college football programs in the nation when I was a senior in high school, believe me when I tell you that recruiting can be ruthless.

In fact, I guarantee you that right now as I write these words, some recruiter somewhere is using (or is preparing to use) these protests to try and dissuade some high school student-athlete from committing to Missouri.

Parents of athletes or non-athletes don't want to send their kids to a college where the safety of all students is not treated as a priority.

As I blogged about yesterday, declining enrollment and rising educational costs aren't limited to Rider University in New Jersey, it's a nationwide problem that could potentially become more of an issue for Missouri if they can't get their act together and start taking definitive concrete steps to address the racism that's festering on their campus.

It's more than a little ironic that a University with one of the finest journalism schools in the world is getting hammered in the media and is seeing its reputation scarred for the inability to proactively deal with issues of racial insensitivity that have been making national headlines for months. 

I'm not a member of the University of Missouri or an alum, so I really can't say if removing Tim Wolfe from his position as president is going to magically solve the issue - racism and intolerance are certainly not limited to the campus in Columbia.

But from what I've read about the incidents over the past few months, the lack of leadership to address this issue is pretty glaring.

Maybe it's going to take some Missouri football players to tackle it.