Miscarriages of Justice

by Jay Parr

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

Henry McCollum at the hearing that led to his release, after 30 years on death row.

This past Tuesday, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were exonerated of the brutal rape and murder of a preteen girl, a crime for which they had been falsely convicted, condemned, and imprisoned for thirty years. One of them spending the entire time on death row. McCollum was released on Wednesday morning, after spending over half his life facing execution. Brown, his half-brother, was released from his life sentence at a different prison later in the afternoon.

Both of these men were convictedand condemnedbased on confessions that were wrung out of them when they were teenagers (McCollum 19 and Brown 15), after many hours of high-pressure interrogation. Confessions which were written by others for them to sign, despite the fact that neither of them was functionally literate or intelligent or educated enough to read and understand what they were signing, or legally astute enough to understand the consequences of signing it (in an interview from death row, McCollum says he signed believing that if he did they would finally let him go home). These menscared teenagers at that time, who had only recently come to North Carolina and who had never had a run-in with the police beforewere convicted and condemned based on confessions which they signed with no defense counsel present, and which they have both consistently recanted from that point on.

Brown at the hearings.

Leon Brown at last week’s hearings.

Based on those coerced confessions, these two men have been imprisoned, removed from society, forced to live in the sterile and hostile environment of the penal system for decadesas men convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl and then thrust in among a population that is notoriously unfriendly to child sex offenders. Both of them have spent years on death row, and both of them have endured a long series of trials and retrials. Hearings in which their very lives were at stake. Literally.

A cell in North Carolina's death row.

A cell in North Carolina’s death row. (WRAL)

There are two distinct miscarriages of justice here.

The first happened 30 years ago, when two naive teenagers were coerced into confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. That miscarriage of justice was exacerbated when the system that was supposed to afford them a fair trialthe system that was supposed to presume their innocence until the evidence proved their guilt beyond a reasonable doubtfailed to recognize that there was not a scrap of physical evidence tying them to the scene of the crime (that in fact there was evidence implicating another man who lived near the crime scene and who had been arrested for a very similar crime), and that their confessions were wrung out of them under conditions so flawed as to render them utterly invalid.

That miscarriage of justice has been perpetuated anew every time someone in the political and legal sphereincluding a Supreme Court justicehas trotted these men out as examples, as heinous criminals who brutally raped and murdered a preteen girl, as justifications for keeping the death penalty active, or as reasons their political rivals (who may have been so ridiculous as to point out flaws in the case) were “soft on crime.”

Reverse view of death-row cell. (WRAL)

Reverse view of the cell. The ultra-wide-angle lens makes it look bigger. (WRAL)

The second miscarriage of justice happened this past week, when after thirty years, these two men were exonerated and then simply released, with not so much as a mention of compensation for the decades of which they had been robbed. Think of the opportunities that were lost along with those decades; to have that crappy first job; to have that young-and-foolish relationship doomed to fail from the start; to finally stumble into that long-term (if unglamorous) job, and to meet that certain someone who would end up becoming their companion for decades to come; to know the joys and frustrations of being fathers, and likely grandfathers by this point. To live, that is, something resembling normal lives. In something resembling a normal world.

These men don’t have the decades of experience that is going to be taken for granted by everyone, given their ages. They’ve never used an ATM or a debit card. One article I read mentioned McCollum gushing to his parents recently about getting on the internet for the first time. But I have seen nothing about the justice system assuming any responsibility for helping them acclimate to the lives they’ve been denied. As a representative of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation points out, these men don’t even have the minimal support offered to ex-cons who exit the penal system under normal conditions. “It’s not like being on probation or parole. It’s just—good luck.”

The same article points out that there are processes by which the men could seek a pardon of innocence from the governor—essentially a statement that they had been wrongly convicted and sentenced—at which point they could then go on to seek some unspecified compensation from the state.

The death row day room; McCollum's world for decades.

The death row day room; McCollum’s world for decades.

These men, McCollum at 50 and Brown at 46, have never had the opportunity to learn the skills they would need to make it on the outside. They’ve never had to keep a job, or pay rent, or keep track of a variety of utility bills, or make their income cover their expenses, or plan a week’s meals and shop for them. They haven’t been in a grocery store in thirty years. If either of them ever learned to drive, it has been at least that long since they’ve done it. Not only will they be living in new, unfamiliar towns, the very concept of getting around in any town is going to be foreign at this point. Partly because it has been so long since they’ve done it and partly because so much has changed in the meanwhile. As adults, they’ve never been in the regular presence of women, or mingled with the variety of people who make up any normal public place. In fact, for the past three decades, their only regular company has been the other (male) inmates on death row and the uniformed corrections officers assigned as their guards. Their worlds have been the prison blocks and complexes where they have been housed, with occasional forays out into the world (most likely in shackles) for court appearances. For thirty years they haven’t had the option to decide where to go at a given moment, or to close their own doors, or to turn off their own lights. For thirty years they haven’t had a moment of true privacy. Having lived in the penal system and on death row for so long, and having been thrust there at such young ages, they literally have none of the skills and none of the experience they need to function in the everyday world. One article points out that McCollum, climbing into his parents’ car upon his release, didn’t even know how to fasten the seat belt.

McCollum faces reporters outside. What awaits in the outside world?

McCollum faces reporters upon his release. What awaits in the outside world?

It is no more in the interest of justice to release these men into the world so unprepared, and so uncompensated, than it is to keep them incarcerated in the conditions that, horrid as they may have been, are the conditions to which these men have spent the majorities of their lives being acclimated.

These men have spent three decades fighting to prove their innocence. They have spent decades fighting for their very lives. They shouldn’t have to fight anymore. It has been proven that their convictions were invalid and that their incarcerations were unjust. It is obvious at this point that the state of North Carolina owes these two men very comfortable retirements.

Something like this.

Something like this. With a staff.

If we can afford the cost of keeping these men as inmates, one of them on death row and the other for life, we can afford a roughly equivalent sum as pensions, in exchange for the lives that have been wrongly stolen from these men. If we can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, spent repeatedly condemning them to die in prison on the basis of inadmissible, coerced, and disprovable confessions, we can afford to provide them with the guidance, the training, and the support to manage their lives in a world for which we have prevented them from being prepared. If the state of North Carolina were to take the initiative, to arrange for that level of compensation to be awarded and implemented quickly, without requiring anything further from these men or their tireless advocates, then it just might be possible to claim that justice has finally been served. Maybe.

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

BLS 362: Vice, Crime, and American Law

Note: Thanks to Saundra Westervelt (who literally wrote the book on this topic) for taking the time during a busy weekend with Witness to Innocence to read and offer valuable feedback on this article.

Tim’s Vermeer: The Science of Dutch Art

by Ann Millett-Gallant

tims-vermeer-optics

Tim Jenison with his “Vermeer” and the equipment used to make it.

I love a good documentary film, especially one about art, so I was happy to receive Bob Hansen’s recommendation of Tim’s Vermeer. It is an eighty-minute film about one man’s quest for art featuring Tim Jenison, an inventor, video equipment specialist, and entrepreneur who is fascinated with the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. Known as “the painter of light,” Vermeer was a Dutch painter of the seventeenth century, best known for his portraits, interior genre scenes, and inclusion of detail. For more information on the life and work of Vermeer, see the website Essential Vermeer.

tims_vermeerThe film is narrated by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller, of the famous team of magicians Penn and Teller. Penn and Teller were also a part of the team that produced the film, and themes of documentation and magic pervade it. Other major themes include the nexus of art and technology, photography and illusion in art history, digital technology and technological imaging in art, and seeing through photographic reproduction versus human seeing. These themes relate to two of my BLS courses, BLS 345, Photography: Contexts and Illusions and BLS 346, The Art of Life. Discussions of art history and the media and techniques of artmaking in the film are also relevant to my Art 100 course. Tim’s exposé of Vermeer may be interpreted as challenging the notions of artistic talent and exposing the myth of so-called “genius” painting. Yet, in the process, Tim discovers a newfound awe of Vermeer’s resources and artistic focus.

Tim is most interested in Vermeer’s possible use of early camera technology and reflective devices. Inspired by Vermeer’s Camera (2001), a book by Philip Stedman, professor at University College of London, Jenison crosses continents and narratives of art history in pursuit of the truth behind Vermeer’s oil painting The Music Lesson (1662-1664), and eventually attempts to recreate it. Tim says in the film that he feels a kinship with Vermeer as an inventor and musician. He also explains why he decided to focus on The Music Lesson, stating that it is “so complete and self-contained,” compared with all other Vermeer paintings, and he declares it “a scientific experiment waiting to happen.” Through his research and art project, Tim aims to offer an “alternative narrative of Vermeer.”

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-1664.

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1662-1664.

While experimenting with various reflective devices, Tim paints his first portrait from the reflection of a photograph of his father in law. He is modest about his painted product and says emphatically that painting it was a decidedly object experience, rather than a subjective, or personal one. Tim then zooms in on studying image-making and methods of illusion specific to the seventeenth century, which includes optical machines and—most prominently—the camera obscura, an ancestor of early 19th-century photography.

18th-century camera obscura.

18th-century camera obscura.

Tim then compares the painted details of The Music Lesson to optical effects of photography, concluding that Vermeer depicted photographic seeing, rather than human sight. He states that the appearance of “absolute brightness” in the painting is proof that Vermeer painted from photograph, because such light is not visible to the naked eye.

To prove his hypothesis, Tim first visits Delft, Holland, where he learns to speak Dutch, to grind pigments, and to mix oil paint. He also studies the light, furniture, and interior architecture. Finally, he hires artists to make exact replicas of the pottery found in the composition of The Music Lesson. Tim discusses a list of craftsmen and engineers he would need to serve as “experts” in building a life-size model of the scene, saying that he can attempt to complete all the work with a computer.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1667.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665-1667.

Tim proves that he is a quintessential “Renaissance Man” (although Vermeer was post-Renaissance historically); to be photographed by a self-built camera, Tim constructs a replica of the scene of The Music Lesson in a San Antonio warehouse from wood, concrete, metal, and glass. Tim’s set is complete with furniture, woodwork, stained-glass windows, and musical instruments. Experimentation leads Tim to discover a system of lenses and mirrors (including a shaving mirror) which, joined with visual color-matching tricks, allow him to build a surprisingly accurate, three-dimensional reproduction of The Music Lesson. Tim also shows his musical skills as he plays on the violin that will serve as his model in the composition.

Earlier in the film, as Tim and Philip Stedman each tried their hands at copying portraits, the music and tempo of the shots slowed down, but they build up again as Tim builds the room and begins to paint the image from it. More dynamic camera work and background music set the stage for many scenes of Tim painting, in which he used his daughter and her friends as live models. This pace is held up for 8 minutes. Time is marked by images of the calendar dates in the lower corner of the screen, as if torn from a desktop calendar. Everything slows down significantly after forty days. At about fifty days, Tim makes a discovery; he finds curves in the painting where there should be straight lines. He explains that Vermeer’s so-called mistake in angles of perspective was a result of viewing and painting a photographic image.

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1662-1668

Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1662-1668

Following this discovery, time further drags as Tim experiences the physical pain of his actions and seated position, while the viewer watches him paint details such as violin strings, minute decorations on the piano, and the individual threads on a draping, patterned tablecloth. Somewhere in this period, a threat of carbon monoxide poisoning arises in the studio. I must admit, I do not remember why. I may have zoned out. After eighty to ninety days, Tim becomes “repulsed” while painting a royal blue chair with bronze lion heads on the back and correcting his mistakes with a cotton swab. All in all in the film, there are approximately thirteen minutes of footage of Tim painstakingly painting. It feels longer.

In the final scenes, Tim shows Stedman and David Hockney his painting. Hockney, with whom Tim has met previously in the film, is another artist interested in these reflected forms and technologies (see David Hockney’s website here).

Stedman and Hockney discuss Tim’s painting and determine that it is better than Vermeer’s. In the last shot, the humble Tim claims Vermeer was an inspiring inventor and artist.

Tim Jenison, The Music Lesson, 2012.

Tim Jenison, The Music Lesson, 2012.

The film chronicles important discoveries and historical revisions, but I wasn’t sure if the information alone carried the film. I was just so fascinated by Tim Jenison. He stole the show. He was obviously very smart and skillful, yet also witty, eccentric, and obsessive. It takes one hundred and twenty days for him to paint a replica of a famous Vermeer painting, and the whole project, captured on film, took over five years (2008-2013). For this entire time, Tim’s life seems utterly driven by art and photography.

tims-vermeer-music-lesson

Not Exactly World Cup Fever: Why Soccer Isn’t More Popular in the U.S.

by Matt McKinnon

world-cup-2010

World Cup action.

I confess: I love soccer, or fútbol, or football, or whatever you want to call it. I have three sons who play it year-round, both indoors (including the house) and out. And we watch it all the time, more so than any other professional sport. Now don’t get me wrong, I love and watch American football and watch a fair amount of baseball, basketball, and hockey. It’s just that soccer has become our main sport—both to play and to watch. So, I admit: I am not an objective observer here.

Ann Coulter

Of course, then again, neither is Ann Coulter, who recently blasted the sport in her own blog post.

Coulter lists nine reasons that “Americans” hate soccer—from the ridiculous (no.5 You can’t use your hands) to the uninformed (no.1 Individual achievement is not a big factor—tell that to the US Team whom Portugal put out with one brilliant pass from perhaps the world’s current best player; no.2 Athletic talent is not a large factor; and no.4 No threat of humiliation or major injury—again, tell that to the Brazilian Neymar who fractured his vertebrae in the match against Columbia).

But despite her overall offensiveness and ignorance about the game, Coulter does manage to raise a couple of possible reasons: it is “foreign” and often ends in a tie (her other reasons basically boiling down to the fact that soccer, or more specifically, watching soccer, just hasn’t caught on). Even here, of course, her ignorance outpaces her insight, since soccer as a sport that people actually play (both youth and adults) is just as popular in the US (if not moreso) than football or baseball, and is arguably more popular as an organized sport than basketball (though the latter is played more informally).

Neymar on field with fractured vertebra.

Neymar on the field with fractured vertebra.

Her point about soccer often ending in a tie has some merit—even though it is also more a reflection of current US interests than historical ones. After all, both American football and hockey could end in ties until rather recently: the NHL instituted a shootout system in 2005 and the NFL only instituted overtime in 1974, though if no one scores, games can still end in ties even now.

I would argue there are five main reasons why watching soccer has been slow to catch on in the US.

1: Some, like Coulter and others, do indeed see it as a “foreign” game, despite its close relation to American football (where the now popular “forward pass” was once illegal). But even this is problematic, since the US watches many “foreign” sports at venues like the Olympics (more on this below).

2: Closely related to the foreign origins of soccer is the fact that soccer is representative of the current changing demographics of the US. To be blunt, soccer tends to be popular among the growing Mexican and Latin American community, as well as various African and Asian populations as well. Now I’m not saying that someone is racist or xenophobic if they don’t like soccer, only that if you are already racist and xenophobic then you are more likely not to like soccer. After all, soccer reminds us that a majority of the world is not white, and neither is the US for much longer.

Mexico beats US, 5-0

Mexico beats US, 5-0.

3: We are just not as good at it as other countries. This one is more substantial, I think, as well as more complicated. Our women’s team, after all, is one of the best—if not the best—in the world. But then again, most countries around the globe do not support female athletics the way we do with women’s soccer. It’s also one of the hardest reasons to admit: but the fact of the matter is that we watch the Olympics, both summer and winter, even though some of the games and most of the people involved are “foreign”—because, well, the US athletes are usually better or just as good as their competition. This is just not the case with the US Men’s Team: not now, and not in the foreseeable future. Sure, the US goalie Tim Howard had an incredible game against Portugal, and he is arguably the best position player the team has. But he features on an English Premier League team (Everton) that perennially finishes in fifth place or lower. He couldn’t cut it at the powerhouse Manchester United (despite flourishes that suggested he might) and would not even feature as one of the top ten goal keepers at the 2014 World Cup, much less in the world today. This fact is disturbing to be sure, but US players are just not anywhere near as technically good as the players at the highest level of world soccer. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that player development in US soccer remains very much an upper middle-class pastime, and rules like those imposed by the NCAA actually prevent further development compared to soccer in other countries. (World-class players like Messi, Ronaldo, Rooney, and Ibrahimavich tend to sign professional contracts before they’re fifteen and are not bound by rules maintaining amateur status.) The best soccer players in the world are not US citizens, and neither do they play for teams in the US.

US vs Canada, 2012 Olympics

US women’s team vs Canada, 2012 Olympics.

4: Soccer can seem boring to the uninitiated. Closely related to the above discussion of the tie, however, this reason is complicated. After all, where boring sports are concerned, it’s hard to argue that soccer is any more boring than golf, or car racing without the wrecks, or the majority of time in football games spent in huddles or timeouts, or most baseball games. Of course, to the initiated, none of these are actually boring, though the truth is that most sports that have a sizable market-share on TV have gone through changes over the past few decades to make them more exciting to a US viewer whose attention span seems to be getting shorter and shorter. The problem with soccer is not that it is boring, or that it can and often does end in a tie. The problem is the way that the game is played.

super-bowl-commercial

Super Bowl commercials: Verisimilitude at its finest.

5: Yes, the biggest reason that soccer has not grown more in popularity in the US is the complete absence of the commercial break. Those of us who love watching American football and basketball and baseball and hockey do so with the assurance that there will be breaks in the “action” (even if most of this action is watching players in the huddle, or keeping a runner at first, or standing around the free throw line). The point is that the typical US viewer wants to know when, more or less, the action is going to come—in that rather short moment between huddles, or when the bases are loaded, or at the end of the half when there are only seconds remaining. We like to go to the kitchen for snacks, or to the bathroom to relieve ourselves, or to check out what’s on the other channels. But with soccer, you have to watch the game continuously, for 45 minutes at a time, with only the occasional injury or goal celebration to break up the ebb and flow of the game. A score can come at almost any time during the total 90 minutes of the game, making soccer, for many in the US, more akin to waiting for the cable guy than watching a sporting event.

So, in my humble opinion, unless and until the marketing masterminds come up with a way to institute commercial breaks and tv timeouts into a game that lacks timeouts altogether, soccer is doomed to be less popular than its rivals—at least in the US.

Until, of course, the sheer force of our demographic shift ultimately has its way.

After all, what interests the “Average Joe” of today may not necessarily interest the “Average José” of tomorrow.

Mexico fan

This man just might be rooting for Mexico.

Editor’s note: Matt’s post was a little more timely when he submitted it, but I got busy and sat on it for too long. Bad editor! -JP

BLS Student Featured on UNCG Home Page

by Jay Parr

Nargiza Kiger featured on the UNCG home page. Photo: Brian Kiger

Nargiza Kiger featured on the UNCG home page.

I generally like to keep this blog about things other than the BLS Program, lest we be accused of navel-gazing. This is going to be one of those exceptions.

If you open the UNCG Home Page in the next two weeks, the first thing you’re going to see is our very own BLS student Nargiza Kiger smiling at you from a field in West Africa. Though she’s technically an in-state student (she and her husband live here in the Triad), I know of no other student who brings a more international perspective to the BLS Program. A native of Uzbekistan in central Asia, where relatively few women manage to achieve higher education, Nargiza traveled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan to attend a university. It was there that she met her husband Brian, and after finishing her Associate of Arts at Forsyth Tech, she had to reconcile her desire to continue her own education with Brian’s career in international development. The BLS Program allowed her to do just that, continuing her education at an American university while stationed with him in Nigeria and then in Ghana. She’s on track to graduate in December.

Nargiza greeting an elephant in Ghana.

Nargiza greeting an elephant in Ghana.

Nargiza came to my attention last fall, shortly after she had moved to Ghana (one downside of my mostly-administrative role is that I’m not as in touch with all our students as I was when I was their academic advisor). I think it may have been infrastructure issues—unreliable power and internet connections—that brought her to my attention. Always on the lookout for BLS students who lead interesting lives, I asked her if she would be interested in writing a post for our blog. Given her history, which you can read in her cover story, I expected her to write about her own experiences. Boy, did she ever turn that on its head.

The post she gave me starts out on the frustrations of being an online student in an African city with tentative infrastructure—with the nerve-wracking image of taking an online test with a glitchy internet connection and having the power go out (yet again) in the middle of it. But then, after getting the reader sucked into her frustrating circumstances, she immediately turns around and points out that in Ghana, she is the privileged one. In a country with a per-capita income of roughly $2.00 a day, where education beyond 9th grade costs real money, and where placement into professional programs is rife with corruption, she can afford tuition at an American institution that costs more than most of her neighbors will make in a year. And yet, despite all these challenges—her own and others’—the post she gave me is ultimately the inspirational story of a security guard who is paying for his siblings to go to school, and who aspires to become a nurse so he can help others.

Ibrahim and Nargiza under the mango tree where Ibrahim likes to read.

Nargiza and Ibrahim, the security guard.

I feel like our little online program is all grown up, out there on the front page of the university’s website. And I can’t think of many people to better represent us than Nargiza, wearing her UNCG colors in Tamale, Ghana, and constantly doing the little things she can do to make the world a better place.

Why I Do My Job: A Letter From a Graduate

by Jay Parr

I was recently cleaning out a pile of old papers in my office—going through each one, because anything with FERPA-protected information must be shredded—when I stumbled across this old email sent by an alumna just after she graduated in August 2011. It reminded me of why I do this job.

Dawn Humphrey (right), serving as a marshal at the May 2011 commencement.

Dawn Humphrey (right), serving as a marshal at the May 2011 commencement.

Dear Jay,

For decades I called myself a high school graduate. Today I call myself a graduate student. What a change the BLS program has made in my life!

Three years ago I made a courageous decision to complete my bachelor’s degree, although I was in what some would consider my “golden years.” I sought your advice and you recommended I complete my Associates degree. I subsequently enrolled at a community college in the fall of 2009 and graduated with an AA degree in August of 2010, earning a 4.0 GPA.

contemporaryshortstory

Last August, just one short year ago, I began my studies as a BLS student at UNCG while working full time. I managed to complete all the BLS requirements within one year, graduating on August 12, 2011, and again attaining a GPA of 4.0. I completed 3 hours more than was necessary in order to qualify for Latin Honors [summa cum laude] and the potential nod of Phi Beta Kappa.

As with most adult students, I was eager to complete the degree, yet I also juggled a career and a household and struggled with finances. Fortunately, the academic community has begun recognizing the needs of the online student, with time and convenience being paramount to address a work-life balance.

While I certainly have no desire to become a poster child, future candidates are inspired when they realize their dreams are so close to becoming a reality, thus hearing my story may provide the motivation to pursue their goal. I also had the pleasure of serving as a University Marshal, indicative of the BLS students who are becoming involved in more traditional campus activities and honors.

mysterymayhemmurder

While my time in the BLS program was swift, my educational experience was excellent, graced by exemplary professors and a robust curriculum. Hard work and late nights, blended with lively discussion boards and insightful professors, proved rewarding beyond all my expectations.

Just one month shy of my 55th birthday, I have fulfilled my dream thanks to the wonderful BLS program at UNCG and the guidance of their attentive staff. It is my hope that other potential students will see that via the BLS program, the end of the rainbow may be closer than they think.

On a closing note, please accept my sincere thanks for your advice and encouragement through the years. Our early conversations were the catalyst that sparked the inspiration and courage to return to UNCG after a 30 year hiatus.

Many thanks,
Dawn L. Humphrey
Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies Candidate

Dawn Humphrey receiving her Master of Arts from the chancellor one year after this letter.

Dawn Humphrey receiving her Master of Arts from the chancellor one year later.

Ms. Humphrey finished her Master of Arts in the MALS program one year later—faster than any previous MALS student, and with yet another perfect 4.0—and she now serves as a teaching and research assistant for Dr. Stephen Ruzicka, one of the senior faculty in that program (also a committee member and occasional teacher in the BLS Program). She writes that the pay is negligible (she still has another career), but that “it is the delight of interacting with students that calls me back to the MALS table each semester.”

Thank you Dawn!

Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

by Steve O’Boyle

I'm Feeling Lucky!

I’m Feeling Lucky!

At no other time in history have people had access to more information than in the current era. Within seconds we can become pseudo-experts on most any topic, from Satanism to Zen, from the Kama Sutra to Lollapalooza and or even an upbeat biopic of Leonard Cohen (say it like co-en, then it works). This is not news to you (or at least I hope it’s not), but it is an important yet puzzling piece to recent controversies concerning freedom of speech in the classroom.

In the past year, there have been several incidents where university professors have been sanctioned for the words that they used in their classrooms while attempting to explain academic ideas. One incident that made national headlines involved a highly regarded sociologist named Patti Adler, a full Professor at the University of Colorado.

Patti Adler.

Dr. Patti Adler.

In her intro-level Deviance in U.S. Society class, Dr. Adler spiced up her lecture on prostitution with “a skit in which many of Adler’s teaching assistants dress[ed] up as various types of prostitutes. The teaching assistants portrayed prostitutes ranging from sex slaves to escorts, and described their lifestyles and what led them to become prostitutes” (DailyCamera).

Adler is described in the article as having an unorthodox and engaging teaching style. “Students recounted how Adler showed up in class in a bikini to illustrate deviance or dressed as a homeless person to make the same point.” However, the prostitution lecture got—well, some negative attention—and at the time the article went to press, it looked like Dr. Adler was at risk of being forced into early retirement over the controversy. She was in jeopardy of losing her job for trying to teach her students in a way that was engaging, entertaining, and most of all, memorable. That is to say, for trying to do her job.

Prostitution skit in Adler's class.

Prostitution skit in Adler’s Deviance class.

I do realize that some of you may not think this is a big deal, but as someone who teaches sociology at UNCG—a discipline that includes an entire area devoted to social deviance—well, as my old not-very-good mechanic used to say about my POS Jeep, “Man, this is troublematic…”

So if we offend a student in class—not directly of course, but by making them feel uncomfortable while trying to teach them important ideas—we might be severely sanctioned for this? Knowledge that is controversial, and can take a student out of their comfort zone, is off limits?

Do I have your attention yet?

Do I have your attention yet?

Students are now exposed to more controversial envelope-pushing cultural ideas and images than ever before, and at much younger ages (scholars call this phenomenon “the internet”). So I find it a bit perplexing that these kids—who could never understand a teenager’s absolute thrill of finding their parents’ porno mags in the sock drawer, but (or perhaps because) they can now google any sex act and have a “how-to” video before their eyes in seconds (and long before their first real date)—these students are so much more savvy than I ever was at their age, but now I have to watch what I say more than ever in the classroom?!

And to complicate things further, because of the limitless access they have grown up with (and the seconds-long attention span that accompanies it), it takes more effort than ever to keep the attention of these Millenials without grabbing their attention—with ideas and language that wakes them the #@%$ up, and stops them from just sitting there in class half asleep, hoping whoever they’re trying to hook up with will respond to their inane text with a “k”…

"wnt 2 hookup l8r?"

“n class. bored. wnt 2 hookup l8r?”

So what to do? I’m going to follow the advice university counsel Skip Capone gave a few years back, after some legal challenges at other institutions—some of them blatantly political (here’s a link to the slide show, which is clearly dated).

My CYA strategy? Define germane to the class, then when comes the time to talk about the touchy stuff, refer them back to that term. Then show them the link from the controversial stuff (i.e., the fun stuff), directly to how it relates—or is germane—to the academic topic. Finally, address the class with “so do you see the connection here?” When they say “yes,” you’re covered.

Why All Babies Deserve to Die: Science and Theology in the Abortion Debate

by Matt McKinnon

The debate rages on…

The debate rages on…

Just a few of the headlines on the abortion debate from the last few weeks:

I would say that the Abortion issue has once again taken center stage in the culture wars, but it never really left. Unlike homosexual marriage, which seems to be making steady progress towards resolution by a majority of Americans that the freedom to marry of consenting adults is basic civil right, the abortion debate continues to divide a populace who is torn between adjudicating the priority of the basic rights of both mother and “potential” child.

I say “potential” child because herein is where the real debate lies: exactly when does a fertilized human egg, a zygote, become a “person,” endowed with certain human if not specifically civil rights?

Is it a person yet?

Is it a person yet?

Dougherty’s main point in his article on liberal denial focuses on the “fact” of the beginnings of human life. He claims that liberals tend to make one of two types of arguments where science and human life are concerned: either they take the unresolved legal issue regarding the idea of personhood and transfer it back to the “facts” of biology, concluding that we cannot really know what human life is or when it begins, or they acknowledge the biological fact of the beginning of human life but claim that this has no bearing on how we should think about the legality of abortion.

Both sorts of arguments, he claims, are obscurantist, and fail to actually take into account the full weight of science on the issue.

But the problem, I contend, isn’t one of science: it’s one of theology—or philosophy for those less religiously inclined.

The problem is not the question of “what” human life is or “when” it begins. Dougherty points out:

After the fusion of sperm and egg, the resulting zygote has unique human DNA from which we can deduce the identity of its biological parents. It begins the process of cell division, and it has a metabolic action that will not end until it dies, whether that is in a few days because it never implants on the uterine wall, or years later in a gruesome fishing accident, or a century later in a hospital room filled with beloved grandchildren.

Two-cell zygote.

Two-cell zygote. Is this a person?

So basically, human life begins at conception because at that point science can locate a grouping of cells from which it can deduce all sorts of things from its DNA, and this grouping of cells, if everything goes nicely, will result in the birth, life, and ultimate death of a human being.

He even gets close to the heart of the problem when, in arguing against an article by Ryan Cooper, he claims that many people are not fine with the idea that an abortion represents the end of a life, nor are they comfortable with having a category of human life that is not granted the status of “humanity”—and thus not afforded basic human rights.

The problem with all of these discussions is that they dance around the real issue here—the issue not of “human life” and its definition and beginning, but rather the philosophical and often theological question of the human “person.”

If we look closely at Dougherty’s remarks above, we note two distinct examples of why the generation of human life is a “fact”: (1) we can locate DNA that tells us all sorts of things about the parents (and other ancestors) of the fetus and (2) this fetus, if everything works properly, will develop into a human being, or rather, I would argue, a human “person.”

For there’s the distinction that makes the difference.

After all, analyze any one of my many bodily fluids and a capable technician would be able to locate the exact same information that Mr. Dougherty points out is right there from the first moments of a zygote’s existence. But no one claims that any of these bodily fluids or the cells my body regularly casts off are likewise deserving of being labeled “human life,” though the sperm in my semen and the cells in my saliva are just as much “alive” as any zygote (believe me, I’ve looked).

No, the distinction and the difference is in the second example: The development of this zygote into a human person. My sperm, without an egg and the right environment, will never develop into a human being. The cells in my saliva have no chance at all—even with an egg and the right conditions.

Nope, not people.

Nope, not people.

So the real force of Doughtery’s argument lies in the “potential” of the zygote to develop into what he and anti-abortion folks would claim is already there in the “reality” of a human person.

The debate thus centers on the question of human personhood, what we call theological or philosophical anthropology. For one side, this personhood is the result of a development and is achieved sometime during the embryonic stage (like “viability”) or even upon birth. For others, it is there at conception. For some in both camps it would include a “soul.” For others it would not.

So the reason that the abortion debate is sui generis or “of its own kind” is because here the issue is not the rights of a minority versus the rights of a majority, as it is in the debate about homosexual marriage, or even the rights of the mother versus the rights of the child. Rather the real debate is about when “human life” is also a human “person” (note this is also informs the debate of whether or not to end the life of someone in a vegetative state).

Is this a person?

Fetus at four weeks. Is this a person?

To this end, Mr. Dougherty is correct: We can and do know what human life is and when it begins. And he is correct that many are uncomfortable with the idea that abortion means the death of a human life. But he fails to recognize that the reason this is the case is that while those on one side regard this “life” as a human person, others do not. Potentially, perhaps, but not a “person” yet. And certainly not one whose “right to life” (if there even is such a thing: nature says otherwise—but that’s another blog post) trumps the rights of the mother.

So what does all of this have to do with all babies deserving to die? It’s simple: this is what the (necessary?) intrusion of theology into public policy debates entails. Once theological ideas are inserted (and note that I am not arguing that they should or shouldn’t be), how do we adjudicate between their competing claims or limit the extent that they go?

For the two great Protestant Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin, representing the two dominant trajectories of traditional Protestant Christianity, humans are, by nature, sinful. We are conceived in sin and born into sin, and this “Original Sin” is only removed in Baptism (here the Roman Catholic Church would agree). Furthermore, we are prone to keep sinning due to the concupiscence of our sinful nature (here is where the Roman Church would disagree). The point is that, for Protestants, all people are not only sinful, but are also deserving of the one chief effect of sin: Death.

romans_6-23

“For the wages of sin is death.” — Romans 6:23

 

Calvin was most explicit in Book 2, Chapter 1 of his famous Institutes:

Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s wombs: they suffer for their own imperfections and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.

Since babies, like all of us, are sinful in their very nature, and since they will necessarily continually bear the fruits of those sins (anyone who’s ever tried to calm a screaming infant can attest to this), and since the wages of those sins is death, then it’s not a far-fetched theological conclusion that all babies deserve to die. And remember: “they suffer for their own imperfections.”

But they don’t just deserve to die—they deserve to go to hell as well (but that’s also another blog post). And this, not from the fringes of some degenerate religious thinker, but from the theology of one of Protestant Christianity’s most influential thinkers.

A sinner in the eyes of God (or at least Calvin).

A sinner in the eyes of God (according to John Calvin, anyway).

Of course, it should be noted that Calvin does not imply that we should kill babies, or even that their death at human hands would be morally justifiable: thought he does argue (and here all Christian theology would agree) that their death at the hand of God is not just morally justifiable, it is also deserved. It should also be noted that the Roman Catholic theology behind the idea that children cannot sin until they reach the age of reason is predicated on the notion that this is only the case once their Original Sin has been removed in Baptism (So Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu kids would be sinful, unlike their Christian counterparts).

Again, this is not to argue that philosophical and theological principles should not be employed in the abortion debate, or in any debate over public policy. Only that (1) this is what is occurring when pro-choice and anti-abortion folks debate abortion and (2) it is fraught with complexities and difficulties that few on either side seem to recognize.

And contrary to  Mr.Dougherty, this is beyond the realm of science, which at best tells us only about states of nature.

But the only way we have a “prayer” of real sustained dialogue—as opposed to debates that ignore our competing fundamental positions—is to take seriously the philosophical and theological issues that frame the question (even if my own example is less than serious).

But I’m not holding my breath. I would most certainly die if I did.