Battle Flag Represents Heritage – Of Hate

CSA flag

I’m going to take a few minutes to put the Confederate battle flag debate into a historical context that I think has been largely overlooked by the media, mainly because they have no idea how we got here.

During the Civil War, the Confederate battle flag’s use on the battlefield was confined generally to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and in its rectangular version, the Army of the Tennessee. (It was also used as a naval jack, but honestly, there just wasn’t much of a Confederate navy out there.) In 1863, the battle flag was incorporated as the canton in a new national flag, where it remained throughout the remainder of the war, through two versions of that flag.

When the war ended, and through twelve years of Reconstruction, the federal government extended their ban of Confederate symbology throughout the conquered South. The battle flag would have been rarely seen in public during this time. It was during Reconstruction that the federal government worked hard to elevate the status of the freed slaves, and to prevent the defeated whites from returning them to something akin to their previous state. It was a relentless task, as southern whites were determined to restore the status quo, regardless of federal occupation troops.

By 1877, the North had grown weary of its expensive military occupation duties, the former states of Confederacy had all been readmitted to the Union, and both sides were eager to let the legacy of the Civil War fade. “Reconciliation” became the new watchword, and chief in accomplishing this was a gracious attitude from the victors. (Key in this “graciousness” was allowing the southern states to impose what came to be known as “Jim Crow” laws on its black population, which for the whites, came as close to restoring the status quo ante bellum as they were likely to get.)

An important part of this atmosphere of reconciliation was allowing a Confederate mythology to emerge, a mythology that essentially washed the war clean of its most distasteful elements, and allowed the southern people to be proud of the part they played in the war. It was seen as a positive development for the defeated South to have its own pantheon of heroes and cherished legends. At the very least, it was assumed to be harmless.

The major elements of the new Confederate mythology, the “Lost Cause,” were:

– The “War Between The States” was fought over states’ rights and self-determination, not slavery

– Southern military leaders were superior to Northerners, both in character and in skill

– The Southern soldiers had an élan and dash that was lacking in the soldiers of the industrial North

– The Northern armies succeeded mainly because they were blessed with an abundance of men and materiel, which allowed them to simply grind the noble, long-suffering Confederates into the ground

– The South knew it probably couldn’t win the war, but fought on anyway, because they believed their cause to be just

– Confederate victories were combined examples of military genius and southern courage, while Union victories were the result of overwhelming natural advantages

– Many slaves were loyal to their masters, and saw the rightness of the Confederate cause

– Slavery was generally a benign institution, and while some masters were cruel, most treated their “servants” as extended family

– The ante-bellum South was an agrarian Camelot, destroyed by the barbarity of war

This new mythology was aggressively promoted by former wartime leaders anxious to justify treason, and a society full of unreconstructed Confederates. Northerners of the same era, despite the fact that they knew better, allowed it because, after all, they had won the war, hadn’t they? They had taken away the power of the slave states forever, reducing them to rural backwaters. Why punish the South even more by robbing them of their dignity? (Southern pride was much discussed at this time.)

Confederate leaders such as Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis became noble icons of a beautiful past. Statues to them and to the soldiers who fought for them were erected across the country. Wreaths, bouquets, and yes, flags, were placed at their cold, stoney feet. A new religion was being born.

By 1900, much of the Confederate mythology of the “Lost Cause” had become accepted as fact, and was incorporated into textbooks and the narratives at a growing number of federal military parks that had come to occupy the sites of former Civil War battles. In the interest of sectional harmony, the South’s version of the war became the official version of the war. Coincidentally, in the deep South lynchings had become regular occurrences by 1900, with over 100 blacks victimized in 1900 alone.

During this time, Confederate symbology began to feature prominently in public places in the South, as angry whites yearned for their lost Camelot, and lost power. As the 20th century progressed, the Confederate battle flag became the banner not of specific armies in a previous century’s war, but as the symbol of resistance to change – and African-American civil rights. The Ku Klux Klan adopted the flag as its own, as did the Dixiecrats in mid-century. The Unreconstructed Confederate of the 19th century had become the segregationist of the 20th, and the battle flag was his emblem.

The pain felt by African-Americans at the sight of this symbol of repression was, however, still not believed to be of consequence to the majority of whites. Sectional harmony, especially critical to candidates with national aspirations, was of more immediate concern. The flag, while certainly representing a backwards-looking ugliness, was really a harmless thing, it was believed. Educated whites may have mocked it, but at the same time they underestimated the statement it made, and the influence it had.

In the 21st century, segregation is legally dead (through practically alive), but a new generation of white supremacists have adopted the flag, not as a way to honor selected regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia, but because of what they believe the flag represents. And none of those values are good.

The white population in the United States, had, until June 17, been able to delude itself that the Confederate battle flag was simply a harmless symbol of “Southern pride,” as if “Southern pride” revolved around certain types of food, or a pleasing manner of hospitality. Sadly, on that day, Dylann Roof delivered what our consciousness had always been lacking: a clear, direct connection between Confederate symbology and racist violence. We had been able to easily dismiss the wounded feelings of African-Americans, but we could not dismiss their bloodied corpses.

Now, one hundred and fifty years after the perpetrators of the Fort Pillow massacre lost the Civil War, the victorious United States of America finally seems willing to correctly play the role of the victors.

And finally, after decades in denial, we may finally appreciate the role that symbols have had in perpetuating the racial hatred and violence we have, for too long, struggled to explain, much less conquer.

CSA Flag 2

Snowmaggedon 2010 or 40 Hours Without Power

Having a history degree, it’s always been a dream of mine to experience life in a time before modern conveniences. This weekend, I got to live the dream – sort of.

We all knew that a snowstorm of historic proportions was headed our way, and this one didn’t disappoint. On Friday, as the storm loomed, the only real worry I had was getting home before driving conditions became dangerous. Thankfully, UMBC closed at 1PM, and I and my family were safely ensconced in our home by mid-afternoon. All that was left to do was watch and wait to see how big this snow would really be.

We weren’t concerned about boredom, because there were plenty of things at home to occupy each of us. My wife, the office manager at a large podiatry practice, brought home loads of billing that could be done online; my children had their video games, social networking sites and television to see them through. Me? I was prepared to help monitor the UMBC Help Desk online, and I had brought home textbooks to read for my two graduate courses. And, of course, there would be shoveling to fill the hours.

When we went to bed Friday night, the heavy snow had begun in earnest and was beginning to accumulate. But we were prepared, so there were no worries. At 3:30AM, however, our weekend changed. That was when a tree at the top of our street toppled onto a power line, plunging our neighborhood into darkness. My family and I slept through the moment, not knowing what was ahead.

At around 6:30AM, my wife stirred long enough to see what time it was, but our electronic clock was dark. Soon, I knew it, too. The power was out.

Our neighborhood almost never loses power, and when it does, it’s usually not for long. But when I looked outside from our bedroom window on Saturday morning, I quickly realized that this time might be different. Calling BGE confirmed my suspicions – they had no ETA for our power outage.

The snow was already at least a foot deep, and it continued to snow hard. When we went downstairs to let the dogs out, there was a minor problem:

The snow was already piled up higher than our dogs; I would have to dig out a path for them before I did anything else. This I proceeded to do, while my wife started a fire in our living room fireplace (the temperature in the house had already dropped noticeably). Until Saturday morning, our fireplace existed to provide ambiance or perhaps a romantic evening when the kids were away; for the next 36 hours, it would be the key to our world.

It took me about an hour to finish the dog path, and then I came inside to get warm (in a relative sense). Here’s a picture of my backyard; if you look closely in the middle, you can just about make out the dog path, turning at the left side and crossing toward the bottom right:

Here are some other shots from Saturday:

As we gathered around the only heat source in the house, my wife grumbled about not having a cup of coffee. At that moment, I had a history-inspired moment of inspiration. Not to worry, I told her; we’ll boil water in the fireplace and then use the Folger’s Singles (this is basically coffee in a tea bag). In order to build the rig that would turn our fireplace into a ready-made hearth, I had to retrieve a number of discarded bricks and pieces of bricks from just outside our front door, now covered in over a foot of snow. This took about twenty minutes of stretching over a pile of firewood and digging through snow, but soon we were proudly cooking, just like living historians at Williamsburg.

As you’ll notice in this picture of the first attempt, the pot is uncovered. Tip – uncovered pots in a fireplace attract ashes. Future attempts featured covered pots. Still, it worked. I enjoyed a lunch of Campbell’s Chunky Soup (New England Clam Chowder, seasoned with Old Bay); my son and daughter also had soup, which seemed like the easiest thing to make in the limited space of the Harrison Hearth. My wife focused on lots of hot coffee.

Once we realized that we were going to be without power for a while, we knew that the food in our two refrigerators was in jeopardy of spoilage. Since it was “like an icebox out there,” the snow covered deck became our refrigerator:

As the snow began to wind down toward late afternoon, we decided to start the digging out process. I dug a path from the front door to the street, and my son Zack got to work on the sidewalk.

After that, we focused on clearing off my car and opening the driveway to the street.

We continued shoveling until it was too dark to see (no street lights) and then came into our cold, cold house, now illuminated with a couple of oil lamps. Our lives now revolved completely around the fireplace, and we only left its warmth to recover some needed item and then quickly return to its side. We started to worry about my wife’s 120-gallon saltwater fish tank, which was happily located in the living room, directly across from the fireplace. If the oxygen became depleted in the tank, or if the water temperature dropped too low, her beloved tropical fish, some a number of years old, would die as we watched helplessly. I decided to keep the fire hot and hope for the best.

Outside, our street had been repeatedly plowed, and was clean to the pavement. Beyond my neighborhood, we had only anecdotal reports about road conditions.

As the cold, dark evening wore on, boredom set in, and my preteen daughter, Sarah, began to crack. Before long, she was alternately complaining, arguing with her older brother or begging us to play board games; all we wanted to do was to sit by the fire. Around 9PM, my mother-in-law offered a oasis, however distant. She told us that if we could get her there, she could spend the night with her grandparents. We knew that it probably wasn’t safe to drive yet, but the other option, spending the night with our increasingly frantic twelve-year old, seemed more likely to result in lasting injury. I told Sarah to pack an overnight bag.

Driving slowly, in a circuitous route that took advantage of major roads, we made the two-mile trip to Mom Mom’s in about twenty minutes. On the way home, I stopped at the Giant at Cromwell Field Shopping Center, incredibly open for business, for supplies. There were only a few other cars in the freshly plowed lot.

There was one cashier on duty, and one front-end manager. In the aisles, I saw two other customers and plenty of junk food, which I greedily snapped up. As I made my way back home, I noticed a car on a trailer abandoned on the ramp to northbound Route 97. Keeping to main roads as long as possible, I made good progress and arrived without incident. The car’s digital thermometer read 21º.

Our living room had been converted into a bedroom. My wife had used couch cushions and blankets to make a bed for us on the floor in front of the fireplace; our son had opted for a large circular chair that was pulled up just beside. I noticed that it was only slightly warmer in the house than it had been outside, and that our three dogs and two cats had migrated to the living room. The room was dark, but we were cheerful, perhaps because we recognized the historic nature of what we were experiencing. We knew that we’d be sharing stories about this weekend for the rest of our lives, and the novelty of our circumstances provided us with mild amusement. On the other hand, looking uneasily across the room, I knew that time was running out for the tropical fish. (One of the student-staffers I work with at the Help Desk, Andrea Mocko, had once told me about her fish dying under similar circumstances. Every time I recalled her story, a feeling of dread came over me, so I tried not to think about it, but this was impossible.)

One of the things I bought at Giant was Jiffy Pop, which we made in the fire, and that was fun for about fifteen minutes. By ten o’clock, there was nothing to do but settle down in our beds for the night. This was when I realized that the fire, our sole source of heat, would soon die out if left untended. Not only would sleeping become a frosty nightmare, but the fish would certainly freeze to death. Someone had to keep the fire going, and I decided that it would be me. I spent the night dozing, feeling my face grow cold, waking up and then fixing the fire. This cycle was repeated in about 45 minute blocks throughout the night. Sometimes getting the fire going was easy, sometimes hard, but I never let it die. When morning finally came, I was relieved.

It’s hard to sleep late when you’re miserable, so everyone was up and about by 7AM, except the fish, which, while alive, stayed out of sight at the bottom of the tank amidst the rocks. I touched the glass of the tank and wondered how much longer they had left. It was around this time that I looked over at Samson, our collie-shepherd mix, and noticed that I could see his breath.

Once the hearth was reconstructed (it had to be taken apart for the overnight, as the rack restricted how many logs could be put into the fire), coffee was made for my wife, while I had a cup of tea. We called BGE for an update and were told that our power would be restored at 3:30PM. After that, I went outside to resume shoveling. Here’s what I saw:

Our neighbor's house

I started working on my wife’s car, which was in the driveway in front of mine. When that was done, my wife and dug out a space for another car on the curb in the street, so that when my oldest son, Ryan, returned later that night, there would be adequate parking. As we worked, the sun shone brightly and it actually felt a bit balmy (I guess after what we had tried to sleep through, 35º and sunny is a heat wave.) My wife and I shoveled in sweatshirts alone, and I found myself sweating; soon the spot was cleared and we were exhausted. Calling for another update, BGE was now estimating that we would have power at 7PM – not good for the suffering fish.

For dinner, we decided to see if there were any fast food places open. As it turned out, the nearby Wendy’s was, and that became dinner. By the time we were done eating, it was getting dark again, and the oil lamps were relit. Once again we huddled miserably around the fire; by now the charm of living in the nineteenth century had vanished. We just wanted our power back. (I also knew that there was a good chance that I would not only miss the Super Bowl, but more importantly, miss The Who. I sadly began preparing myself mentally for this eventuality.)

At around this time, my wife started to feel nauseous, and I spent about twenty minutes groping around the medicine cabinet by oil lamp, until I found some Tums. Freezing to death, it occurred to me, is probably not a healthy living choice.

Once the Super Bowl was underway, I followed the game on my Droid, via ESPN. The Colts jumped out to a 10-0 lead, and I was not surprised. I called BGE again, but they had no further updates for us; looking over at the black saltwater tank, I didn’t think the fish would last the night. I went back to my 3.7″ digital rendering of the Super Bowl. It was almost halftime, and the Saints were making a game of it.

And then, without warning or fanfare, the 21st century returned. The lights in a few rooms were suddenly on, and most importantly, the fish tank roared to life. I quickly scanned the now illuminated water for floaters, and relieved to find none, turned my attention to the next order of business: getting the Super Bowl on TV before I missed The Who.

So, in the end, we survived, albeit wearily. Monday was spent recovering physically, restoring order in the house (like finding our buried food on the deck) and catching up on missed chores, such as laundry. I also spent a good deal of time cleaning out the fireplace (our new center of the universe) and digging fresh firewood out of the snow, in preparation for tomorrow’s “snow event.”

All that’s left now is to go to the strip mall and find myself a “I Survived The Snowpocalypse” tee shirt to commemorate our weekend adventure. Awesome.

The Vote Heard ‘Round The Beltway

Last night, in what was paradoxically an upset that felt increasingly inevitable, Republican state senator Scott Brown defeated Democratic Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in the special election to fill the seat vacated by the late Edward Kennedy. This vote is being described as a “game-changer” because it deprives the Democrats of their filibuster-proof 60 seat majority in the Senate, which leaves the future of much of President Obama’s legislative agenda, including healthcare, in doubt.

In the wake of this stunning turn of events, I have granted myself the following exclusive interview, which represents nothing more than an interested outsider’s point of view:

Q: Wow! How did the Democrats manage to lose Ted Kennedy’s seat?

A: Well, it wasn’t easy. Martha Coakley, as it turned out, was a rather poor candidate, and thoroughly unprepared for a fight. As the only woman in the Democratic primary, she was treated with kid gloves by her male opponents. According to the Boston Globe, “Throughout the primary, Coakley’s three male opponents were wary of appearing too aggressive. Early in the campaign, when US Representative Michael E. Capuano called her “cautious,’’ his remarks were called sexist by (state Senate President Therese) Murray…From that point on, none of Coakley’s challengers attacked her with any vigor.” Democrats just assumed (not without reason) that whoever won the primary would win the seat in a cakewalk, and so Coakley was anointed. Scott Brown didn’t hesitate to attack her, and her response was to go on vacation. Soon, Brown had cast himself as the everyman candidate, and Coakley as the tool of the system. Before the Democrats recognized what was happening, the race had gotten away from them.

Q: OK, but the Democrats still have 59 out of 100 U.S. Senators, why is this a big deal?

A: The Senate has a wonderful, time-worn tradition called the filibuster. A filibuster is basically just a rule that says the Senate needs 60 votes to forcibly stop debate and move on to a vote. If a bill is coming up for a vote, and the losing side has at least 40 votes, they can essentially hold Senate business hostage by refusing to end the debate. At that point, the bill must be either put aside or tabled (killed). It’s a great procedural maneuver that gives the minority some leverage, and it’s been used effectively by both sides over the years. James Stewart’s classic 1939 movie, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, is most vividly remembered for its filibuster scene. The Republicans now have enough votes to filibuster again, jeopardizing the Obama agenda.

Q: So what happens to the healthcare bill?

A: That’s anybody’s guess right now. The Senate passed a version that is very different from the version passed by the House. The only way that the Democrats can avoid having to deal with a potential filibuster in the Senate is to get the House to accept the Senate version without changes, and that seems very unlikely. There’s been talk of trying to rush something through before Scott Brown is sworn in, but I doubt that any Democrat up for reelection this year would have the stomach for that. What may end up happening is that the bill gets separated into small, bite-sized chunks, and the pieces that can be agreed upon would then survive. This would allow the President and the Democrats to claim that they kept their promise of healthcare reform, even if it is only limited reform.

Q: So, is this the beginning of a Republican comeback?

A: Not necessarily. There were a lot of factors in play in Massachusetts, not the least of which was the electorate’s desire to “send Washington a message.” If the Democrats are smart, and return to a populist, centrist position on national issues, and if they can change their focus from healthcare to job creation, there’s still time to recapture the agenda. What they can’t afford to do anymore is to appear arrogant, like they did in Massachusetts. One thing that Americans hate is when one party lords over them.

Q: What does this mean for President Obama?

A: It means he must proceed with extreme caution. If he overreacts and begins to cave in on every issue, he’ll be seen as a lame duck by his own party, and he’ll alienate his base. If he goes the other way and becomes more aggressive in pushing his agenda, he risks appearing arrogant in the face of voter anger. In both cases, the Democrats would pay heavily in the Congressional midterms this November. In 1994, Bill Clinton faced a similar crisis and successfully reinvented himself as a centrist; Obama doesn’t have to reinvent himself just yet, but he must heed the danger signs ahead.

Whatever happens, those of us who follow politics as sport are in for a fun ride.

MHEC Ruling On UMUC Program Must Be Reversed

Last October, the Maryland Higher Education Commission ruled that University of Maryland University College‘s online doctoral program in community college administration was a duplication of Morgan State‘s face-to-face program and thus a violation of civil rights protections in place for historically black colleges. As a result, UMUC is now prohibited from offering the course in Maryland, although curiously, it can offer the course in the other 49 states.

The MHEC‘s misguided ruling reflects not a bias toward Morgan State as much as it reflects the age of the members of the Commission, with the only member of the Commission younger than 45 being the student representative. The delivery system for higher education in America is being rapidly altered by existing and emerging technologies, and these changes require a modern, more nuanced way of thinking about universities, what they offer and how they serve the needs of the community. I have firsthand knowledge of this, being enrolled in UMBC’s online Instructional Systems Development program.

To anyone paying attention, it is clear that various forms of distance learning will play an increasing role in the delivery system of the nation’s colleges. As this occurs, there will necessarily be overlap with some traditional programs. However, it is a mistake to treat online courses as if they were classroom courses for the purpose of excluding them. We should be encouraging the development of parallel online courses, not shutting them down. And giving Morgan State, a university with limited online experience, two years to create something from nothing, is at best a weak nod in the direction of distance learning.

What the commissioners may not understand is that UMUC’s program isn’t competing with Morgan State’s – it’s competing with other online programs across the country. The MHEC’s decision presupposes that the market served by Morgan State, traditional students available for attendance in a classroom, is the same group of people targeted by UMUC’s online program. Clearly, this is not the case. Online learners are almost always working adults seeking to fulfill their educational requirements while maintaining job, family and other commitments (like me).

The good news is that the university system’s Board of Regents is unwilling to surrender so easily, and will ask the Commission to reconsider. From the Sun article:

“The decision completely ignores a stated priority in the 2009 Maryland State Plan for Higher Education,” wrote Board of Regents Chairman Clifford Kendall in a letter to the commission. “The State Plan supports access to degrees through online programs in order to meet ‘the needs of a largely working, adult population who require a flexible schedule.’ This decision sets a potentially debilitating precedent that will discourage universities from doing the very thing that MHEC’s state plan charges them to do.”

Demonstrating his antiquated view of the situation, MHEC Chairman Kevin O’Keefe said, “I remain convinced that this was an isolated issue.” Even more depressing is O’Keefe’s belief that there will not be a “…strong sentiment among the majority of our members that we should reconsider the issue.”

Perhaps it is asking too much of this particular group of individuals to free themselves of a lifetime of assumptions about higher education and the way this product is delivered to its market. Too often, membership on the MHEC is a reward for a career of service to the community and while this may seem noble, it deprives the commission of the benefit of fresh thinking and new ideas. It may be that the only way for Maryland to become a leader in e-Learning, m-Learning and other non-traditional delivery systems is to replace (or supplement) the existing members of the MHEC with individuals who are not so tied to the past. I just hope that by the time this happens, national leadership in higher education hasn’t fallen too far from our grasp.

The Jury System Should Be Discarded

The right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers has been a foundational right in Western legal tradition for many centuries, and is present both in English Common Law and the United States Constitution. Americans are raised to believe in the iconic (and stereotypical) image of twelve ordinary, reasonably intelligent citizens taking their duty seriously and returning a fair and impartial verdict. We persist in the delusion that twelve individuals of no particular training or experience will interpret and apply the law better than an individual who has spent his life being educated and trained to do just that. This is, I suppose, a byproduct of our narcissistic belief in the “wisdom of the common man.”

12 Angry Men - The 1957 classic that helped create the fantasy jury stereotype.

The reality is that what we end up with, more often than not, are twelve people selected not on the basis of their qualification to stand in judgement of a particular case, but precisely for their lack of qualification and knowledge about the central issues of the case at hand. For example, as potential jurors are being screened by the attorneys, if a citizen admits to being an expert in case-law regarding the key elements of the trial, he or she will be quickly dismissed. On the other hand, should a potential juror admit to being so indifferent to legal issues as to be unaware of even the illegality of the charges against the defendant, this person is considered an excellent candidate for the jury. The more serious the case, the more vigorous will be the search for the perfect juror.

Who is the perfect juror? Lawyers search for jurors who are so dimly aware of, and participate so infrequently in, their society that they have never come into contact with anything that might have provided them with information that they might use to form an intelligent and informed decision. This is because the attorneys want the jurors to only be conscious of information provided to them in court. A perfect juror, in their eyes, is a blank slate who can be effectively swayed by the words of lawyers. It makes no difference that adults who are “blank slates” are in this condition for a reason. So, by the process of negative selection, we arrive at a jury that is populated with individuals who are the least likely to employ complicated, nuanced reasoning when presented with evidence in court.

Having a jury of simple folk may have been workable in an age where the Cotton Gin represented the height of ingenuity, but is simply inadequate in modern times. Much of the physical evidence that jurors are expected to interpret today is highly technical, and many of the terms that will eventually decide guilt or innocence have definitions with multiple layers that require a depth of understanding to apply in real life. If the jury, during deliberations, recognizes this dilemma and asks for clarification or explanation of terms, they are usually told that this assistance would be inappropriate. This leaves them to grope about for a verdict with the same utter ignorance with which they first came to the courtroom. Confused jurors tend to ignore evidence, which favors the defendant (i.e., the O.J. Simpson jury).

The Simpson Jury (sketch by Bill Robles) - The forgettable 1995 reality show that demonstrated one of the major failings of the modern jury system.

Sometimes, jurors attempt to overcome their ignorance by educating themselves on the issues, but even this genuine search for truth is not allowed. In an article in the Baltimore Sun, this new concern about jurors using the internet to gain access to information not presented during the trial is examined. Judges, lawyers and legal experts wring their hands over cases of jurors doing “research” on the case as they attempt to reach a fair verdict. Remember, the perfect juror is clueless and remains completely dependent on their case’s lawyers for information. Curiosity, even in a quest for justice, is not permitted.

Another problem presented by the existence of advanced technology is what legal experts call “The CSI Effect.” This refers to the often unattainable expectations that many jurors have about the quality and breadth of forensic evidence in criminal cases. Many times, these “blank slates” sole knowledge of the judicial system comes from watching television programs where every crime leaves plenty of damning physical evidence, evidence that is scientifically conclusive, indisputable and easily understood by laymen. When prosecutors fail to present evidence that meets these unrealistic expectations, jurors assume that their case is weak and acquit the defendant.

Television and the media in general are responsible for another problem with juries: the celebrity juror syndrome. In high-profile trials, jurors may be oblivious to practical information that they could use to render an intelligent verdict, but they are very aware of the presence of cameras and reporters. Realizing that their willingness to participate in the media frenzy could give them their “fifteen minutes” of fame,  some jurors might begin to weigh the relative value of a particular outcome to their quest for celebrity.

Up to this point, I have been addressing criminal cases only, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention civil juries. We have all read about outrageous monetary penalties levied by juries as the result of lawsuits, and perhaps wondered how such a figure might have been arrived at. This exposes another failure of the jury system: human emotion. In our stereotypical jury, emotion plays no role whatsoever in the verdict; only the evidence and the law are considered. In the real world, when witnesses are hurting, and when testimony is riveting and heartbreaking, juries respond favorably. Once you’ve seen the tears and heard the story, it becomes comparatively easy to punish the cold, impersonal corporation by giving away their money. It also makes you feel good, sort of like Robin Hood. Who wouldn’t want to be Robin Hood?

Having weighed the evidence myself, I am prepared to overturn the dysfunctional jury system and relegate it to the annals of history. I realize, though, that to do this, laws, and sometimes constitutions, would have to be rewritten. Since legislatures are dominated by elected lawyers and lobbyist lawyers, I’m also smart enough to realize that it will never happen. So it goes.

Woman Goes to Jail For Movie Piracy After Taping “Twilight: New Moon” at Sister’s Birthday Party

Samantha Tumpach, pirate

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, a 22-year-old Chicago woman spent two nights in jail after taping three minutes of “Twilight: New Moon” while at her sister’s birthday party. Samantha Tumpach brought her new digital camera to the Muvico Theater in Rosemont, Illinois in suburban Chicago, where the party was being hosted. According to Tumpach, ushers said nothing as she snapped photos and recorded partygoers singing “Happy Birthday,” but rushed to report her to management when they noticed her camera pointed at the movie screen.

Police were called, and theater management demanded that Samantha be arrested. Because it was a Saturday, she could not be arraigned until Monday – after having spent two nights in a Rosemont jail. The police who handcuffed the young woman and led her away seemed very sympathetic, according to Tumpach, but since the theater manager insisted on pressing charges, they had no choice but to haul her off to a cell. Charged with felony criminal use of a motion picture exhibition, she was released Monday morning on her personal recognizance. If convicted, Samantha faces up to three years in prison.

As far as I know, however, her legal troubles are unrelated to her decision to host a birthday party at a showing of “Twilight: New Moon.”

Proposed Math Requirement Should Be Reconsidered

In today’s Baltimore Sun, University of Maryland System Chancellor William E. Kirwan, a former math professor, says that he wants to see university-bound high school seniors forced to take challenging math courses. His object is to better prepare students for college and for STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) careers. It is his hope that forcing students into math classes will produce more STEM majors at the university level.

If the object is to channel more students toward math and technology careers, then we should be spending more time identifying likely prospects far earlier in their lives, not using a “one-size fits all” approach after having ignored differences in aptitude for a child’s first three years of secondary school.  As a former high school teacher, I can tell you that it is usually clear by a student’s sophomore year whether or not he or she will be a math scholar. The 300 lb. gorilla in the corner of the room is the fact that many of our children are just not equipped for advanced math courses, and for them, surviving basic math classes is challenge enough. Compelling kids to take advanced math courses will not change this, and is patently unfair to a student who will derive no real benefit from it.

This brings me to a second ugly truth that mathematicians hate to admit: very few adults retain and use advanced math skills in their daily lives. In the Sun article, Skip Fennell, a professor at McDaniel College and former president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in defending the proposed requirement, says as much. “If you don’t use it, you lose it…” Mr. Fennell, this applies to nearly everyone who isn’t in on a STEM career path. More to the point, many kids never had it to begin with, and won’t miss it as adults.

The narrow utility of advanced math skills sits in stark contrast to the broad and sweeping utility of English language skills. Whereas mastering calculus is of dubious value to the majority of graduates, being able to use language at a high level is absolutely essential for anyone hoping to do more with their lives than settle for low-paying, menial work. Additionally, I can personally attest to the weakness of our high school graduates in the areas of reading and composition, and these students (and their instructors who are forced to slog through their papers) suffer as a result. It may even be true that a STEM major at the university level will spend as much time crafting sentences as equations, and yet we hear nothing of increasing requirements for this critical, and universally necessary skill.

If this suggestion becomes reality, there is little doubt that those students with an aptitude for mathematics will enter college more prepared for STEM classes. But not every college-bound senior has this aptitude. If we truly want to be about the business of creating STEM scholars, then we had better get on it while our children are still in elementary school, rather than penalizing them as high school seniors.

For my part, I would rather see our educational system geared to identifying each student’s strengths at an early age and then directing their coursework to produce citizens highly equipped to succeed in life. Not every child has the intellectual makeup for success in math and science; to act as if they do does both the student and the national economy a disservice. Rather than requiring every peg to fit into a round hole, why not invest time and treasure in identifying the peg’s shape, and then creating holes that fit?