Offenses of the Month, August–December
By now it’s an old story. The Protagonist says the bad word aloud in a crowd. He follows it up with “oh no, I can’t believe I just said that. That’s not really me.” He then resigns his job. Everyone else clucks “how horrible what he did” and concludes “stout fellow, that one, resigning for the good of the team.”
This particular version of the tale centers on 50-year-old Cale Gundy, assistant football coach at the University of Oklahoma (his domain lately was “wide receivers,” an interesting example of the multiplication of specialists when too much money is afloat). He had been a Sooners coach for nearly a quarter century. Sensing distraction among his players during a “film session,” he picked up one player’s iPad and read what he saw on the screen—apparently without absorbing its meaning. Among the words was one of the few with magical powers in the U.S., known in every venue these days as the “N-word.” Or so I surmise: none of the news stories, including The Washington Post account of the episode, quoting head coach Brent Venables, reported the actual offense, referring to it only as “a racially charged word.” Evidently it was written on the screen several times, and Gundy duly read it as written—or else he repeated it several times; the accounts are unclear.
In the moment of committing the offense—i.e., speaking the word—he “did not even realize” what he was saying. But Gundy was “horrified,” he said, when he realized the word he had just uttered. “The words I read aloud from that screen were not my words. What I said was not malicious; it wasn’t even intentional,” Gundy insisted. “Still, I am mature enough to know that the word I said was shameful and hurtful, no matter my intentions.” His apology was forthright.
What to do then? Resign.
Even after several deep breaths, a night’s sleep, and several rewrites, I’m not sure how best to tell this story in an even tone and without “snarkasm.” On the minus side of the ledger, there’s the grown-up Cale Gundy, a man with a college education and more than half a life devoted to college football players. Yet he would have us believe, in this year 2022, that he doesn’t know things a football player might say (or write) to himself, and even more astoundingly that Gundy can’t absorb what he’s reading or call a halt to his mouth before voicing a word he knows will get everyone within several miles in trouble simply for being nearby the sound. That’s on Gundy. As crazy as the world is, he’s living in it. This story has been told too many times already.
On the other minus side of the ledger, there’s the crazy world we’re living in. Here’s a man who lives for his sport, for his team, for his players, for the fellow fans in his community. He’s given his all (so I read) for twenty-four years (and before that as a player). For a few seconds he speaks a set of words that are not even his, mistakenly vocalizing what he ought not have. The penalty is not fifteen yards and an automatic first down; the penalty is to be ejected from the game—maybe permanently.
Head Coach Venables “explained” that “as painful as it has been dealing with Coach Gundy resigning from the program, it doesn’t touch the experience of pain felt by a room full of young men I am charged to protect, lead and love.” Left unremarked was Gundy’s pain. I’m not sure how long your pain lasts when hearing a nasty word thrown in your direction, but I doubt it lasts as long as the pain of seeing your life’s work vanish in a puff because of a momentary lapse of judgment and self-control.
Also left unremarked was Gundy’s real sin, which, I intuit, was the desire to humiliate, or at least dress down, one of his players for inattention during a group meeting. As for the player himself, the one who typed the word into the ever willing iPad, lusting to display the anathema for anyone who would glance at the ubiquitous screen, nothing I’ve read indicates that anyone has paid him any attention whatsoever. There’s a lesson here. Write what you want, but don’t send it, and keep your mouth shut.
I Dub Thee . . .
September’s Offense of the Month exemplifies the new American normal in our now lengthening Age of Offensiveness. Not much actually happened in the affair related here, except the offense itself. The whole episode might have passed unnoticed, except that it involved a woman with a most glorious title: Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (her title in the United Kingdom).
Elizabeth had many other titles as well. Wikipedia lists all but the one bestowed by Uju Anya, associate professor of second language acquisition at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. On September 8, about two hours after doctors at Balmoral Castle notified the royal family that they were “concerned for her majesty’s health” and an hour or so before the Queen died, Professor Anya tweeted her preferred title for Elizabeth. You might even remember the sobriquet (it was big news for a few days): “Chief Monarch of a Thieving Raping Genocidal Empire” (my capitalization). For good measure, Anya, whose father was Nigerian, added that she heard Elizabeth was dying and offered this blessing: “May her pain be excruciating.”
Elizabeth, you see, had been “Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of Nigeria and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth,” until October 1, 1963, when Nigeria declared itself a republic and severed ties with the monarchy. The British-Nigerian relationship was fraught: Slave traders arrived in the fifteenth century. The British Army occupied Lagos beginning in 1851; Britain annexed Nigeria fourteen years later and ruled the country as a British protectorate from 1901 to 1963.
In 1967, reeling from the slaughter of Igbo citizens in a pogrom by a corrupt military dictatorship that had seized power the year before, and after the Nigerian military reneged on a British-mediated concordat, the northeast region, home of the Igbo, declared itself Biafra and seceded. Three bitter, brutal years of warfare followed. Though the British government was not formally involved, it sided with the Nigerian government and facilitated arms shipments and advisors. So I read.
I’m not the one to relate the tangled, awful history of the civil war and its atrocities. Various accounts put the Igbo deaths at between half a million and two million or more, many through a policy of deliberate starvation. It’s not hard to argue that the war was genocidal in intent. In early January 1970 the Biafrans surrendered. Not surprisingly, the effects of the bloody war are still being felt a half century later.
Although Anya was born four years after the civil war ended, she has said that “my earliest memories were of living in a war-torn area, and reconstruction is not complete even today.” She was not about to express anything other than “disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide.”
Twitter deleted Anya’s tweet. Carnegie Mellon issued the usual statement and for its efforts was pillored by Anya’s supporters and detractors alike: “We do not condone the offensive and objectionable messages posted by Uju Anya today on her personal social media account. Free expression is core to the mission of higher education, however, the views she shared absolutely do not represent the values of the institution, nor the standards of discourse we seek to foster” (the run-on sentence is Carnegie-Mellon’s, not mine).
Tweets flew back and forth, including one by Jeff Bezos that also sparked considerable backlash: “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow.” Anya read Bezo’s words as “inciting violence” against her. And she persisted, later tweeting, among other things, that “Queen Elizabeth was the representative of the cult of white femininity.”
A long public letter quickly posted in support of Anya gathered more than 4,000 signatories, most of them academics. The letter was impassioned, fervent, heartfelt, and open to question. One signatory reportedly justified signing because of the “genocidal crime against the Igbo Biafra where an estimated 5.5 million were killed under direct supervision of Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth British Government from 1967 to 1970.” Carnegie Mellon took no action against Anya (beyond its public Twitter rebuke). She remains at the university.
Within ten days or so, the fuss evaporated, at least from public view. Missing from what I’ve found after a reasonable amount of searching is any measured dissection of the absurdities of the rhetoric—on both sides. It’s the glory of Twitter—it was the glory of Twitter—that anyone could say almost anything, driving hyperbole to extreme heights of fact and folly, and on both sides. Queen Elizabeth didn’t supervise the British government and could not have stopped “her” ministers from their often reprehensible actions, some of whom evidently lied and dissembled throughout. But Elizabeth was the Queen. Her sole reason for wasting seventy years of public hand waving and cheery smiling and ribbon-cutting and all the rest of it was to serve as the head of state. States often do terrible things. People get angry. When they lash out—verbally—the head of state is fair game. It’s called synecdoche. You could look it up. The problem is that anger and reason rarely cohabit happily. Almost invariably, the fruit of their joining in Holy Acrimony is an offense of the month.
Bigotry is No Excuse
Lots of activity in October. One of the following items (and others) might have been October’s offense of the month.
The University of Southern Maine declined to kill a graduate education course taught by a professor who told her class that there are only two biological sexes, despite vigorous protests from students who staged a walkout.
Then there were the Duquesne University students upset that a teaching assistant spoke the N-word, quoting from an article by Sojourner Truth in a class on Black feminism. Well, she was only a third-year Ph.D. candidate, not a real professor; what does she know? The Bias Education Response Team responded in two hours. All’s well, though; she apologized and is undergoing a “learning experience.”
A hapless University of San Diego organic chemistry instructor was suspended for a semester when he made a feeble joke in class about noise in the hallway, which turned out to come from campus workers. Leaving the room, the instructor was heard to say: “Si, si, senor. Andale, andale. Arriba, arriba.” (That translates roughly to “hurry up.”) Back in the classroom he asked his students if he had insulted the workers. “How do you say ‘quiet’ in Mexican?” he asked, adding: “Someone tell me if they start running in here with their weapons.”
But despite their inherent absurdities, these were all merely university brouhahas. They pale against news from the real world. (Dis)honors go to Nury Martinez, a rising political star in Los Angeles. In December 2019, Martinez made news when she became the first Latina president of the Los Angeles City Council (having served as a member since 2013, and before that mayor of San Fernando and a member of LA’s board of education). She made even bigger news in early October when she ignominiously stepped down and, two days later, resigned her seat outright.
Martinez played an active role on the city council. In 2015, she helped push through legislation increasing the minimum wage for workers in the city from $9 to $15. She took a strong stand against human trafficking and headed an effort to establish a human trafficking task force that among other things provided tools to target criminal enterprises beyond garden-variety pimps. She was active in various issues involving homelessness, immigration, and environmental issues. As president, she took responsibility for allocating hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to various needy groups, families and business alike, during the pandemic.
What she couldn’t do was control her mouth.
On October 9, she got caught on a surreptitious audio recording that had surfaced of a racist conversation in which, a year earlier, Martinez along with two of her fellow council members and the president of the LA County Federation of Labor, all politically prominent Latinos, were discussing how to redistrict the city to benefit Latino voters. (Although Latinos constitute about half of LA’s residents, only four of the fifteen members of the city council were then Latino.) The leaked recording was devastating. Referring to George Gascon, the LA district attorney, Martinez said: “Fuck that guy, . . . he’s with the blacks.” She then insulted the black adopted child of a white fellow council member, among other things calling him a “changuito,” Spanish for “little monkey” and a well-rehearsed racial slur used against Blacks. While she was at it, she derided residents of LA’s Koreatown. And for good measure, she went on to disparage Jews, Armenians, and gays. Soon after the leak went viral, Martinez apologized: “In a moment of intense frustration and anger, I let the situation get the best of me. I hold myself accountable for these comments. For that I am sorry.”
Within hours Los Angeles leaders and residents alike were calling for her head and within a day voices across the country, up to and including President Biden, demanded she step down. Two days later, she was gone, recoiling from the political heat that engulfed her. Her resignation came only hours after an announcement from the California attorney general that his office would be looking into violations of federal and state laws governing voting and redistricting.
I’m not suggesting that if Martinez had been reading this blog for political advice, she’d have known that it’s long past the day when you can talk dirty in private and get away with it. Nothing’s confidential anymore, not when offensive remarks are on the table. Of course, it would have helped had she not been a racist so that she wouldn’t have had to remember not to be one around other people.
Is it me or is it only my spellchecker?
Lawyers! Feeling grumpy about the Supreme Court? Thinking of taking a swipe at Chief Justice Roberts or one of his colleagues? Would you hesitate to curse your least favorite jurist with an insulting moniker? Or, if you’re a person of more refined tastes, would you dare to take a justice to task for wayward conduct, like a spelling error? Perhaps a tiny teasing remark about spell checker malfunction. Just a note to your friends? Maybe a little bon mot on Facebook? Who could take offense?
Regardless of your sense of propriety, it probably wouldn’t dawn on you to be afraid you’d be hauled before a magistrate, charged with contempt of court, and face a prison sentence. Not here; not ever.
You might, however, want to mind your tongue the next time you vacation in Fiji, the South Pacific island republic about 1,300 miles north-northeast of New Zealand. In November, Richard Naidu, one of the country’s most prominent lawyers, was held in contempt of court for mildly mocking a line in a judge’s opinion in a civil case in which the plaintiffs sought an injunction.
The judge wrote (I have boldfaced for emphasis):
This application for injection was heard on 22.11.2021.
By the time injection application was heard a winding up order was made by the Court against the first Defendant.
Mr. Naidu commented on Facebook, that seedbed of revolutionary fervor: “Maybe our judges need to be shielded from all this vaccination campaigning. I’m pretty sure all the Applicant wanted was an injunction.”
Several months later, Fiji’s attorney general, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, brought contempt proceedings against Mr. Naidu, accusing him of “scandalizing the court.” Naidu’s Facebook post, he charged, was meant to “ridicule the presiding judicial officer and the Fijian judiciary as a whole.” Despite a number of apparent judicial irregularities in the proceeding, including denial of the right to cross-examination, Naidu was found guilty on November 23. The judge overseeing the case proclaimed that there was a substantial risk that Naidu’s comments would “diminish confidence in the administration of justice.” Wow, another failure of Facebook censors. Lucky for Fijians that their attorney general has not been diminished by Covid. His sense of smell is obviously intact and wondrously acute to detect the scent of sedition in pointing out a single judge’s word confusion. Perhaps someone might send the trial judge a vial of backbone medicine.
Though nominally a democracy, Fiji has experienced several coups over the last two decades, has been in the midst of a contentious national election this year, and free speech protections have recently been curbed to allow prosecutions for online posts.
Sentencing in the case is scheduled for mid-January. Naidu faces up to six months in prison. Couldn’t happen here, could it? Overworked judge, sloppy mistake, mild mockery = the horror! the horror! someone might choke, the walls of justice might collapse, off with his head, one more bad guy removed from the rough and tumble, the law restored to its cool, rational majesty. Fiji, the Land Where The Government Takes Offense (and the Offensive) Seriously. A forewarning of what could happen if in our zeal to curb offensive speech we provide an opening to purists at either end of the political spectrum.
Busted: The End of a Continuing Offense
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney is leaving the U.S. Capitol. This is not bad news. It’s not even offensive. The offense is that his bust has been on view, peering out at visitors for the last century and a half.
Well, he did, after all, pen the worst and most devastating Supreme Court decision in our history.
In 1857, two days after the inauguration of President James Buchanan, Taney (pronounced “tawney”) declared in Dred Scott v. Sandford that Blacks, by their very “nature,” could never become citizens of the United States. Taney’s rationale, unnecessary in the context of the case actually presented, overturned the Missouri Compromise, which meant Congress could no longer prohibit slavery in U.S. territories. This was the Court’s famous “self-inflicted wound,” the reverberations of which we’re still feeling, and it set the country on the path to the Civil War four years later.
Dred Scott itself was overturned by the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution in 1865 and 1868. But reckoning with its author has taken a bit longer. Taney, a Marylander, had been Andrew Jackson’s attorney general. Named to the Court by Jackson in 1835 after the death of John Marshall, he served as chief justice of the United States from 1836 to 1864. Sometime in the 1870s Congress, following precedent, installed his bust in the U.S. Capitol, where it has sat to this day. And where it continues to show his face. For a few more weeks.
On December 8, the Senate passed by voice vote a bill to remove the bust. The House, which had passed similar legislation in June 2021, approved the bill, also by voice vote, on December 14, and sent it to President Biden, whose signature is assured. It was finally time, said Republican Congressman Rodney Davis of Illinois, “to make Taney a-goney.”
The bill requires the bust to be removed within 45 days of the bill’s enactment. (A similar bust was removed from the Maryland State House in Annapolis in 2017.) Taking its place will be a bust of another son of Maryland, Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice, who served on the Court from 1967 to 1991.
So it went in 2022, and so it will continue to go, I feel confident to predict, in the new year, when a new crop of slow learners will discover that one person’s momentary lapse is another’s excuse to grind him under heel (always exempting from such criticism those who deserve it, of course). See you in this space then.