On the Pride of Nittany Lions

So here we are: Jerry Sandusky has been found guilty and the Freeh report will surely yield further convictions. Punishing these monsters will bring a kind of closure for Sandusky’s victims, for their families, and maybe even for a society ill-at-ease with the child-rapes and the cover-up that we now know perpetuated them.

There may be a bigger question we need to address, however: whether the church of football—or even a narrower church of Penn State—helped Sandusky commit and cover up his crimes. We know that a pair of janitors were afraid to come forward because they feared for their jobs. We must also wonder to what pressures Sandusky’s accomplices—as we should now consider Paterno, Spanier, et al.—were subjected.

Among those living in regions well-populated with Penn State alumni, it has long been a staple of conversation that Penn Staters can be over-the-top in their displays of school pride. It was a matter of course that those of us who’d gone to other schools would roll our eyes at the exuberant pride of Nittany Lions—often, but not always, on gameday. What I want to suggest here is that we were onto something.

I used to work at a marketing company just a couple hours away from Penn State. It had four owners, three of whom were Penn State alumni. Alums also made up perhaps two-thirds of the firm’s workforce, nearly thirty people in all. At that place, the ongoing ribbing about the superiority of Penn State was pervasive and aggressive. To make a tenuous comparison, this aspect of the office’s culture closely mirrored the underlying structures of workplace sexual harassment.

There are many critical differences, again. Most importantly and most obviously, applying to Penn State is a choice; those of us who didn’t apply (or didn’t go) to PSU weren’t born that way.

There are also illuminating similarities, though. More than once, behind closed conference room doors, I heard non-Staters acknowledging a feeling that Penn State alumni got better jobs, promotions, and raises. (I always felt I had been treated fairly, but I had a non-standard trajectory at the company to begin with.)

It was almost always the case that returning fire had undesirable consequences: intensifying the aggression of the conversation, marking you as a hater, and in one case even leading to a public questioning of whether a non-alum could understand the culture well enough to work on a web project for the Penn State football program. The answer, it was determined, was “no.”

To be clear, no similar question had or would ever come up for another client. When one is hired to do work in the agency world, the presumption is that one can understand any client well enough to do the job. That flexibility underwrites the very existence of the marketing and advertising industries, where although a firm might have certain areas of specialization, rich experience in one vertical (say, non-profit marketing) is thought to be a sufficient platform for expansion into another.

The dynamic at my former company never escalated far enough to be addressed even informally, but that, too, is a trademark of the kind of talk that sexual harassment laws were put in place to eliminate. The idea wasn’t just to protect women (and men, gays, etc.) from the Clarence Thomases of the world, but to protect women in particular from the subtle and insidious effects of gender bias. I quote now from the website of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission:

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general. […] Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

Once again, I don’t mean to suggest that any laws were broken at my former place of employment, nor that what happened there was in any way as grave as sexual harassment, which is tied to broader and much more deeply troubling issues than school pride.

What I do mean to suggest is that the discourse of Penn State fervor could, in the years before the Sandusky scandal, closely reflect that of sexual harassment. If you replace “a person’s sex” and “a woman” in the paragraph above with “a person’s alma mater” and “somebody who didn’t go to Penn State,” then suddenly the power dynamics in place at my former company become painfully clear.

One pressing problem, in the wake of the scandal at PSU, is that it would be irresponsible not to wonder whether a culture of such zealotry had to exist in order for the cover-up to take place, to spread as deep and to last as long as it did.

To wonder that, though, is terrifying. For me at least, it means asking whether a great many close friends, colleagues, and family members are implicated, however indirectly, in what seems like it may become the most morally dissonant scandal the United States has ever seen on its own ground. It means asking whether the way “the rest of us” bristled at Penn State pride was more than just a general discomfort with what felt like an immature emotional display. It means asking whether we found the members of the Penn State brogeoisie who walked among us irritating not just because we weren’t a part of it, but because there was something inherently dangerous about their attitude.

I don’t mean to claim that Penn State is worse than the other schools with maximally feverish fans. Ohio State comes to mind as a close second—perhaps because of a regional bias I’m subject to—and I once knew a ‘Bama fan who was beaten into a coma after shouting “Roll Tide” in Auburn gameday traffic.

If Penn State is not the only school with its own parish in the church of football, though, then our problem is bigger than the crimes of one man, as atrocious as they were. It’s bigger, even, than the reprehensible lack of action on the part of revered figures like Sandusky’s late and former boss, Joe Paterno. In short, if what happened at Penn State could have happened elsewhere, then the kind of closure we will feel, those of us not directly affected by Sandusky and his accomplices, comes to seem like little more than an excuse once again to close our eyes.

Google+ & Content Ownership: A Non-Issue?

My Stream is filled with articles on whether Google+ takes a weird kind of ownership of your content—especially your photographs. I’m no intellectual property lawyer, but I’ve done some amateur sleuthing and think everything’s going to be OK. Here’s why.

First, the offending Term of Service. Mostly, the articles take issue with the following sentence from the main Google TOS:

11.1 You retain copyright and any other rights you already hold in Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services. By submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any Content which you submit, post or display on or through, the Services.

That does seem pretty rough, but it’s not the whole story. None of the articles I’ve seen mention the second and final sentence of the dreaded Paragraph 11.1, which reads:

This license is for the sole purpose of enabling Google to display, distribute and promote the Services and may be revoked for certain Services as defined in the Additional Terms of those Services.

So, individual services can override the clause giving Google the right to do whatever with your content.

Two other documents seem to take advantage of that override capability by giving rights back to the user. First, all photos are uploaded to Google+ via Picasa. The following, quoted in its entirety, appears in the Picasa Terms of Service:

Your Intellectual Property Rights: Google does not claim any ownership in any of the content, including any text, data, information, images, photographs, music, sound, video, or other material, that you upload, transmit or store in your Picasa account. We will not use any of your content for any purpose except to provide you with the Service.

That’s pretty good: Seems like all pictures in the Picasa account are totally yours.

But what about content besides photographs? Google’s thought of that, too. (Of course.) The Google+ section of Google’s awesome Privacy Center (which I hadn’t known about) lays out how they use your content in great detail. It’s too long to reproduce here, but it’s very encouraging in that the only uses of your content they mention are basically the minimal stuff that they’d need to do to create and run a service like Google+: e.g., sharing your public profile information publicly. Real no-brainer stuff.

That document does refer to the main Google Privacy Policy as extending Google’s usage rights. The good news: That policy, in turn, has an “Information Sharing” section that sets pretty strict limits on when they share your personal information: (1) when you give consent, (2) when—under terms of confidentiality—they turn to third parties to process their data, and (3) when they’re required to by law.

Again: I’m no expert, but this stuff all seems pretty well locked-down in favor of the user to me.

Thoughts on the Aftermath of bin Laden’s Death

By now we’ve all noticed some polarization—in the media, amongst friends and family, elsewhere—around the question of how we are to respond to the news of bin Laden’s death. I am grateful to report that my own friends have been respectful, tolerant, and generally understanding of the other side, both on Facebook and IRL.

For my part, I agree with David Sirota that there is some reasonable and positive feeling to be had here. I don’t have it myself, but I didn’t lose anybody close or have to run screaming through the dust clouds in lower Manhattan—and I am not big on the kind of closure that comes from anywhere but inside oneself anyway. (But again, easy for me to say. The only loved one I’ve buried was a hamster.)

Still, the phrase that Sirota keeps revis(it)ing—”some relief,” “somber relief,” “muted relief”—seems to matter here. And when, near the end of the piece, he attaches that relief to a sadness at the knowledge that, ultimately, the single death doesn’t make up for the thousands that came before—that’s what I think Party Nation is missing.

But I’m not 100% convinced that the majority of the partiers really care all that much about bin Laden’s death. (One college professor I follow on Twitter noted that three of her students didn’t know who bin Laden was.) I think we in the States just live in a party culture right now—especially the college set.

Those of us a bit older are downtrodden about the economy, about the partisan bickering, about health care, about our endless military entanglements, about our inability to reconcile with our friends and neighbors about basic questions like what counts as a marriage and whether it’s murder or a medical procedure when the patient is a 20-week-old fetus. So although I wish it hadn’t gone down this way, I also understand that for many, this may simply be an excuse to spend a few bucks at the bar that we couldn’t ordinarily pry from our tightened purse-strings.

How to be Evil: A Lesson from Google on Non-Transparency

For having released a policy proposal (jointly, with Verizon) that pushes transparency as a key element of Internet access, Google’s certainly acting shady on its public policy blog.

For starters, Google’s recap mentions only one tiny piece of the spooky Network Management section of the proposal at all. The section includes the monstrous sentence below, which seems to provide blanket allowance for traffic regulation by ISPs:

Reasonable network management includes any technically sound practice: to reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on its network; to ensure network security or integrity; to address traffic that is unwanted by or harmful to users, the provider’s network, or the Internet; to ensure service quality to a subscriber; to provide services or capabilities consistent with a consumer’s choices; that is consistent with the technicalrequirements, standards, or best practices adopted by an independent, widely-recognized Internet community governance initiative or standard-setting organization; to prioritize general classes ortypes of Internet traffic, based on latency; or otherwise to manage the daily operation of its network.

I tried to find a key phrase or two to italicize for emphasis—but the passage has just too many nasty bits to single any out.

The Google-Verizon proposal also pointedly declaws the FCC (while also begging for federal funds to develop broadband Internet access in “unserved” areas). The document notes that the FCC is merely to “oversee” broadband Internet access, and includes the most bizarre sentence I’ve read this year:

Regulatory authorities would not be permitted to regulate broadband Internet access service.

Nasty, right? But Google’s blog post makes all this sound much sunnier, noting that the proposal creates “enforceable consumer protection and nondiscrimination standards that go beyond the FCC’s preexisting consumer safeguards,” and claims “the proposal also provides for a new enforcement mechanism for the FCC to use.” That enforcement mechanism seems to mirror what’s in place for broadcast television; the crucial difference is that in the broadband case, the FCC would be enforcing rules set up by the companies being enforced (since regulatory bodies wouldn’t be allowed to regulate). Sounds like paradise for the companies providing access, doesn’t it?

What a distressing lack of integrity from the company that looks to be taking over our digital lives.

On the Value of Modernism: A Repost/Riposte for Jeanne-Claude

The piece below first appeared in April 2005 on One Blog Two Blog, a concept blog that featured Jay Fanelli and me each responding to a prompt in 600 words or less. The prompt for this piece was “Best 86ed Idea in 86 Years,” a response to the Red Sox first World Series win in—you guessed it—86 years.

At the end of the piece, I discuss “The Gates,” by Jeanne-Claude and Christo; I repost the piece today in honor of Jeanne-Claude, recently deceased.

You don’t see a lot of uninhabitable $8-million houses anymore. It’s also been a while since anybody went very far towards getting a 900-page stream-of-consciousness novel published (and it was no picnic the first time around).

Today, many of the artistic projects that constitute historical modernism inspire little more than discomfort, if they inspire at all. Understandably so: A perceived irrelevance of modern art, architecture, literature and music was a desirable effect for some of the great moderns, who took an elitist position in which the masses weren’t meant to grasp the deeper meaning of their works at all.

Modernism’s growing emphasis on individual freedom of expression after the Second World War led to an eventual unravelling and commercializing of the category, perhaps by way of noted celebrity stalker Andy Warhol. Such postmodern disarray certainly benefits me as I weigh the delicate balance between my pocketbook and my decorative tastes, but still I long for a time when artists challenged themselves instead of following any whimsical impulse that floated their way, as many seem to now. I’d rather live naked for a year in the Farnsworth House than walk through another masturbatory Venturi exhibit, for example, or hear another word about the “friendliness” or “exuberance” of the Las Vegas Strip. I’ve been there, and I don’t mind telling you the “friendliness” costs at least $200 and comes with a circus of crab lice.

More to the point, the assumption that pastiche itself is an art form, though not entirely objectionable, belies a deeper cultural conviction that places the consumer at the center of all art. After all, what is the promise of Vegas if not to see Paris, Egypt, and Times Square for $79 round-trip, plus the cost of getting shitfaced and whatever you lose at the slots? The consumer-as-Id model does little but infantilize the public, stuffing a neon pacifier in our mouths as soon as we open them to object.

To be sure, there are also objections to be made to modernism’s severity and exclusivity, but if we can’t have a wholesale return to the artistic rigor of modernism, let’s at least find some middle ground, some artistic space that is both challenging and inclusive, that encourages not consumption but enjoyment. Let’s take pleasure in the art itself, not in how little (or how much) we paid to see it.

As a closing note, I’d like to offer one last, late defense of The Gates, Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s recent installation in Central Park. Like modern art, The Gates took a simple concept (tall, rectangular archways draped with bright orange fabric) and followed it to an extreme (7,608 of those gates along the 23 miles of walkway in Central Park).

The duo’s project, though, unlike high modernism or postmodernism, sought to challenge their audience without mystifying us, or, from the other side, to embrace the public without coddling us. “Here are these gates,” they seemed to say. “We don’t care what you think of them but We’re glad you think it.”