Saturday, May 28, 2022

THE ANTI-ABORTION CRUSADE: more smug moralizing?

We'll get to the anti-abortion crusade in just a bit. But first, let's set the stage. Remember Janice Jackson’s 
Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction?" National television viewers got a very brief glimpse of one of Janice's boobs and the usually inert U. S. Congress sprang into action. They hurriedly convened a high-level hearing to investigate this moral outrage that some wags were calling “nipplegate.” During this congressional circus a host of lawmakers, each pretending grave moral outrage, took turns climbing out of the congressional clown car to confront network executives and pressure the FCC to crack down on anything that might provoke sexual arousal among the pubescent.

Puritanical posing is a standard feature of American politics. Our politicos have hitched a ride on America’s sexual hangups at least as far back as the 1870's. That's when congress joined forces with Anthony Comstock, then the nation’s self-appointed moral policeman, and suppressed access to anything that might free women from unwanted pregnancy; or, heaven forbid, increase their sexual knowledge and/or pleasure. 

Comstock was the founder of the powerful New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. (You may be reminded of Saudi Arabia's present-day "Commission for the Protection of Virtue and Suppression of Vice.") Blocking access to information about birth control was Comstock’s chief objective. He also wanted to stifle access to information about abortion. And while he was at it, he set out to eliminate “obscene” books (including serious novels) “dirty” pictures, sex toys and anything else he thought contrary to God’s word — as he interpreted it.

Comstock launched his society's activities by commencing highly publicized vigilante raids on luckless retailers. He "confiscated" and handed over to the police hundreds of purloined “bad books” and “articles made of rubber for immoral purposes and used by both sexes.” (One wonders what the police did with them.) Then, emboldened by the success of this larcenous campaign, Comstock began a national crusade to criminalize sex education, birth control, abortion (except to save the life of the mother, but more on that later) sex toys, racy illustrations and “bad books.”

His crusade was hugely successful. In fact in 1873 Congress joined in by passing, without debate, the Comstock inspired, "Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use." This draconian federal law defined sex education, particularly as it pertained to preventing conception, as "obscene." Here is an excerpt: “Whoever … shall sell, or lend, or give away, or in any manner exhibit … or shall otherwise publish … or shall have in his possession, any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, writing, advertisement, circular, print, picture, drawing or other representation, … or instrument … of an immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful (emphasis added) abortion, or shall advertise the same for sale, … shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof, he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary for not less than six months nor more than five years for each offense, or fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two thousand dollars, with costs of court.” 

This U. S.  law also specified that it was a crime to send any "obscene" materials through the mail. That provision led to a government sinecure for Comstock. He was anointed a special agent of the US Post Office with exclusive enforcement powers over the "morality" of the nation's mail. He held this position, — in essence, America’s sexual morality czar — for the next 42 years. 

In this role Comstock was able to prosecute anyone sending information about birth control, or committing any other "sexual offenses,” via the mail. And he was zealous in so doing. Upon retirement Comstock boasted that he had victoriously successfully brought charges against more than 3,600 defendants and destroyed 160 tons of "sexual materials." And remember, that included information about birth control, since that was officially "obscene."     

Of course this law only covered items sent via the mail. But Comstock, a zealous fellow, wasn't content with that. He moved on to push for state laws far transcending postal matters. In the following years Comstock successfully campaigned for the passage of draconian morality laws that were eventually enacted in every state in the union. 

A crusading Comstock even provoked a famous suicide. That's when feminist Ida Craddock killed herself rather than be imprisoned for sending sex education information by mail. Her suicide note reads, in part, “I am taking my life because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has declared me guilty of a crime I did not commit -- the circulation of obscene literature. Perhaps it may be that in my death, more than in my life, the American people may be shocked into investigating the dreadful state of affairs which permits that unctuous sexual hypocrite Anthony Comstock to wax fat and arrogant and to trample upon the liberties of the people, invading, in my own case, both my right to freedom of religion and to freedom of the press." Thus ended the life of a feminist sex education pioneer. Hundreds of others ended up in federal prison. 

Were there any limits to Comstock's zeal? Apparently, a very limited one. He once was asked by an interviewer, "Do the laws ever thwart the doctors work; in cases, for instance, where pregnancy would endanger a woman's life?"  Comstock replied: "A doctor is allowed to bring on abortion in cases where a woman's life is endanger (sic)." But then he added "... is there anything in these laws that forbids a doctor telling a woman that pregnancy must not occur for a certain length of time or at all? Can they not use self-control? Or must they sink to the level of the beasts?"" (Harpers Weekly, Birth Control and Public Morals; Mary Alden Hopkins. May 22, 1915)

So how far has America come since Comstock? Is the current torrent of anti-abortion legislation a piece of the same Comstockian pie? Is there a dime's worth of difference between the present-day politicians pushing this cause and Comstock's law-making confederates some 150 years ago? You decide. 

 To further examine similar issues involving education, see dozens of articles at 

Sunday, May 15, 2022


Once upon a time I was an assistant professor aspiring to become an associate. As such I had to prove that my teaching, publications and service were exemplary.

My "course evaluations" were good. (Actually they were my customer satisfaction ratings. But it's far too honest to call them that.) My publications also met muster. My problem was "service." Why was that? Well, in this institution service was largely defined as serving on college committees. And despite my annually, even eagerly, volunteering for whatever committee slots were available, I never achieved appointment to a single one. I knew that some faculty got committee assignments even when they didn't fill out the requisite form specifying their areas of interest. I filled it out carefully, but still got no assignments.

Realizing this would sink my prospects for promotion, I decided to find out what was going on. Committee assignments were made by (get ready for this) the faculty "Committee on Committees." This august body consisted mostly of old boy faculty, many of them alums, and a committee chair who distinguished herself by her knee crooking servility to the Roman Catholic order that owned and ran the place. 

I requested an appointment with this chair of the Committee on Committee to find out what was going on. I was no mood to genuflect. So I simply pointed out to her that I had repeatedly volunteered for any available committee assignment and got nowhere. Others. even those who were seemingly indifferent, got one committee assignment after another. What, I asked, was going on? 

Her reply?. I had been adjudged "insufficiently sensitive to administrative intent." 

How to respond to that? I'm not recommending it, but here's what I did. I reminded this academic weather vain that my promotion was at stake. I told her that I had kept a careful record of all my futile efforts to volunteer. Then I indicated that if I failed to get promoted because of any alleged "lack of service," she and the other committee members would hear from my attorney.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

I never again had any trouble getting committee assignments, even though I continued to do my best to remain insensitive to administrative intent. As a matter of fact I was appointed to key ones. Promotion followed in due course.

Care to guess what became of this chair of the Committee on Committees? Want to wager on her future? Well it wasn't long before she was appointed, perhaps I should say "anointed," Dean of Arts and Sciences. Once in this exalted office, she continued to utilize her finely-tuned sensitivity to appraise the intent of more senior staff. Often the consequences of her appearsal disadvantaged the very faculty she supposedly represented. Before her rise to power this gal was a professor of English, not meteorology. Nevertheless, she always knew which way the wind blew.

What can be learned from this story? That course evaluations actually measure customer satisfaction? That there is a irreconcilable, though unmentionable, tension between the interests of the administration and the faculty? That too many faculty are natural-born lick-spittles? That some of them care not a wit about their colleagues? Sure, all of the above. But every one of these truths is evident to anyone who actually deserves being called “professor.“

Then what else can we learn from this tale? That there are covert academic realities that are just like the missing genitalia on censored human anatomical illustrations. Genitalia are obviously critical components of the human anatomy. But they still get “disappeared.” And even mentioning their absence is risky. 

However, joining in the pretense that academia is what it claims to be, can sometimes be exactly the wrong thing to do. There are times when it's far better to walk up to the academic equivalent of one of those censored anatomical illustration, point to the blank crotch area and boldly ask, “What the hell is happening here?” 

But when should one do that? Whenever you have more to lose if you keep pretending you don't notice. Pulling the sheet from these covert realities produces a sobering effect on academic power holders. At the very least, it causes them to stop and reflect before messing with you further. But remember, breaking the silence will forever change your status both with the power holders and your colleagues. Neither will ever view you, or treat you, in the same way again.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

"WOKE": doing the wrong things for the right reason

Become convinced you are a powerless victim, and you will become one. That's because too much emphasis on injustice backfires. For instance, for centuries African-Americans have dealt with profound injustice in immoderate amounts. But the extreme emphasis on this injustice currently promoted by the most "woke" among us, can all too easily boomerang and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Thomas theorem — well known among sociologists — points to how this happens. In substance the theorem states that when a situation is defined as true, it is true in its consequences. That's why outcomes depend as much on the individual’s perception of the situation as they do on the situation itself.  

When any of the oppressed — be they African-American or otherwise —  become mired in the sticky goo of "poor me-ism," they discount their own agency; their own power to overcome. They even discount their own degree of responsibility for what happens in their lives. And when this occurs, no oppressor is needed. The oppressed have taken on that job themselves.

I spent 50 years of my life as an educator. And one of the saddest and most frustrating aspects of that half century was watching too many disadvantaged youngsters turn their backs on the opportunities schooling offers. In fact, some not only refused to learn, but did their very best to keep others from learning. 

Now it's certainly true that school curricula, policies and procedures are often badly out of step with the world these kid's live in. Nevertheless, the fact remains that slave owners brutally punished ANY attempt to school slaves, as well as any slave attempts to learn on their own. And they did so for a sound reason. Schooling endangers oppressors even when that isn't its intent. But oppressed kids who reject schooling not only suffocate that threat, they ease the way for further oppression.  

Whatever our school's shortcomings, and they are many, especially for kids who are poor, they still offer opportunities. Often the very best of the limited opportunities these kids will ever have. But these opportunities are only available for those youngsters who eschew self-pity, focus on their own agency, take responsibility, and seize the day. But, ironically, the self-righteous, self-serving hand wringing of the excessively "woke" makes that less likely.