Archive for Censorship

Comic-Con 2014: San Diego, July 26

Hello, and welcome to today’s tiny sliver of what Comic-Con is like. In each of my day’s reports, I’m giving you but one person’s glimpse into this vast enterprise, the attendance of which tends to be around 50,000 people. If you were here, your focus might be different than mine. Or if you did attend this year’s Comic-Con, I’m sure I saw things that you didn’t — and vice-versa.

I missed the earliest panels I’d planned to attend today because I was still writing up yesterday’s experience. Fortunately, today’s will be more brief….


Berkeley Breathed: The Last Comic-Con Panel!

Berkeley Breathed

To a packed room, Breathed offered a satirical presentation, addressing his correspondence with Bill Watterson, marketing, and his (possibly imagined) film projects. Breathed’s deadpan delivery kept the line between satire and truth deliberately vague, but subtle tonal shifts usually let you know when he was kidding. Usually. It was great, quick, and impossible to summarize.

The Breathed / Watterson Feud

Breathed began by saying (tongue in cheek), “My heart is heavy for my close personal friend Bill Watterson.” And so, he added, “I thought I’d take the opportunity to shoot down the rumors.” He then proceeded to invent the rumors he was going to shoot down, as well as spread some mock-scurrilous rumors about Mr. Watterson himself.

Dear Mr. Watterson

Of the documentary, Looking for Mr. Watterson, Breathed said “They never found him.  They had celebrities, Cathy Guisewite,…” and then he put up this slide which (in case it’s too blurry) is Mother Theresa wearing a Calvin & Hobbes t-shirt.

Mother Theresa (wearing Calvin & Hobbes t-shirt)

Dear Mr. Breathed,...But of course they never found Mr. Watterson himself. Berke Breathed himself was interviewed, and “was stupid enough to mention a few critical letters” that Watterson had written to him. This, Breathed suspects, may be a source of the friction between himself and Watterson. But, he assures us, “I take my business just as seriously as bill does.” And so, he said, he’d like to announce his new Kickstarter project, Dear Mr. Breathed You’re So Fucking Easy to Find! In that film, Breathed promised “to set the record straight,” and added, “I can compete with Bill’s film on every level.”

Bill the Cat, Opus, & Gainsborough's Blue Boy

Breathed showed us glimpses of his film projects, though it wasn’t entirely clear which of these were actual film projects and which were invented for the purpose of Breathed’s talk.  The films included

  • Flawed Dogs.
  • Something About C-Mo, in which a dog learns to read and spell — with Cheetos.

The big difference between Breathed and Watterson (says Breathed) is that Breathed agreed to do some merchandising, but Watterson refused.  Letters sent from Watterson to Breathed included satirical cartoons at the bottom, playfully mocking Breathed.  But, Breathed explains, “I was forced into merchandise with a gun to my head. I gave it all to… — no, I didn’t give it all to charity.”

Because he’s sure Bill Watterson wouldn’t mind, he wanted to share with us “a few selections from his new life.” Breathed stressed, “this isn’t payback.  I just have a few photos, and I don’t think he’d mind me sharing.” One photo is Watterson standing between sexy young women — though it’s clear that Watterson’s face has just been digitally added (it’s from that same black-and-white photo from Watterson’s days as an editorial cartoonist).

Breathed concludes by saying that he will be signing at the IDW booth.

Questions from audience…

Will there be reprints of Academia Waltz?

Berkeley Breathed, The Academia WaltzBreathed replies, “Yes, actually. The contract is on my desk right now.” He doesn’t really think they should be, but IDW really wants to do it.

Another audience member calls out “They [Academia Waltz strips] got me through law school at UT!”

Breathed asks, “Do you think they should be reprinted and sold?”

The same audience member responds, “Well, maybe I’m remembering them better than they were.”

Will there ever be an Opus movie?

The Opus movie, Breathed says, has been held up by Weinstein brothers. “The last note I got from Bob Weinstein said ‘Does the penguin have to talk?’” There was a collective groan from the audience.  So, Breathed said, “Will there ever be a movie? It’s a huge roll of the dice. And I’d need to have more control than I have now.”

Is there anybody right now who you’re reading?

Breathed responded, “I’m not reading the comic pages anymore.” He said, “I got into comics in a backdoor way. I didn’t come at like Bill did.” And in the Q+A Breathed spoke seriously of his admiration for Watterson, who was so dedicated to the craft of making cartoons. Unlike Watterson, “I wanted to make films,” Breathed said. Again underscoring the purity of Watterson’s dedication to his art, Breathed claimed, “Charles Schulz was the richest entertainer — bigger than Spielberg, bigger than George Lucas. Bill Watterson walked away from that kind of money. He’s a hero.  He’s doing it right.”

Questions about other publications, other forthcoming work…

Berkeley Breathed, Bloom County Volume 5Breathed says, “Everything I’ve ever drawn will be published by IDW.”  The Bloom County books did not include all of the Bloom County strips. IDW’s complete collection will include everything, which, Breathed says, is a good thing because those old strips have started to disintegrate. That’s due in part to the way he stored them — under his python’s cage. One thing pythons do a lot, he says, is pee. So, turning to the IDW representative there, he said, “that’s what those stains are. I did tell you that, right?”

He says he would not do Bloom County in the current media landscape. At the time he did it, “Bloom County was fun because I had no competition. You had Johnny Carson, you had Saturday Night Live.  And yes, you had Doonesbury, which was great. But his tone was so lofty, that it [comics] was just waiting for a smart-ass like me.”

So, we won’t see more comics from Breathed, but “I still love movies. Those are my passion. And so that’s where you’ll see me.”

Calvin says, "Come back"

Breathed concludes by saying, “I’d love some more drawings from Bill, with his drawings on the bottom, cutting me to death.”


CBLDF: Banned Comics!

Charles Brownstein, Carol Tilley,  Jeff Smith, Gene Luen Yang

Moderator Charles Brownstein led a discussion on banned books, featuring panelists Carol Tilley, Jeff Smith, and Gene Luen Yang. And, while I don’t know that there was “new” information (to people who follow these discussion), hearing the panelists on this subject was worthwhile, and these sorts of panels are vital for helping to create awareness. Indeed, if such panels aren’t held at every Comic-Con, they should be.

My sense is that the rising number of challenges to Bone may have motivated the timing of this session. As Jeff Smith said of this past year’s Banned Book list, “Fifty Shades of Gray was number 5, and I was number 10.” Smith explained, “Bone has been challenged for a number of years now, but this was just the first time it made the top 10.”

Jeff Smith, Bone Vol. 2 (Scholastic)Why? Smith said, “Bone has been challenged for sexual situations, political viewpoint, racism and violence.” Carol Tilley added, “And smoking.” To which Smith responded, “And smoking. And drinking and gambling. And racism.” Gene Luen Yang asked, “Racism? How do they get racism?” Smith responded, “I don’t know. I don’t get to talk to these people. These comics are almost like Rorschach Tests that say more about the people making the challenge than about reading the books.  I think they see their kid reading the books, and they don’t see what came before or what came after.”

Brownstein noted that “The challenges that occur in comics are along the same lines of those that occur in [non-comic] books.” So, he asked, “Why, when we have freedom of speech?” (Since I live in Kansas, where university employees do not have freedom of speech, I thought, “How nice that Mr. Brownstein lives in a place where there’s freedom of speech. I guess he must not work for a corporation that prohibits freedom of speech either.”) Tilley answered Bronstein’s question: “One of the most frequent reasons for a challenge is this vague reason called ‘inappropriate for age.’” She then paraphrased Dorothy Broderick: “It’s not just conservatives who want to censor materials. The only difference between liberals and conservatives and censorship is what they want to keep their children away from.” This is something I often tell my students when I teach about censorship — as one must do when teaching children’s literature, young adult literature, graphic novels….

Yang weighed in: “I am a parent. I have four kids. I’m really stunned that Bone is on the top 10 list. Because I’m fairly prudish. And I can’t imagine parents who are more prudish than me.” He then explained why freedom of speech is important. “First, there’s an individualism that’s at the root of America, but … reading should happen within the community, within the family.  So there should be material in there that makes people want to have a discussion.  Second, America is a collection of subcultures. And what makes that exist is freedom. So, you have to have a basic respect for freedom. So, those are the things that guide my work as a teacher, as a parent, as a creator.”

Addressing the question of audience, Smith explained, “Bone was not originally intended as a children’s book.” He just wrote it for other comics fans, really. At that time, “there were no kids reading comic books back then, pretty much.” So, “I was writing Bone as a pastiche of funny animal books and Lord of the Rings books.” For this reason, he said, “I certainly didn’t censor myself because I was writing for 30-year-olds.” The audience of Bone transformed it into a book for young people: “Readers turned Bone into a children’s book.  It was not me.” In any case, he says, he still finds it surprising that it would be a target of censors: “We used to joke that Bone could be banned some day because it’s the most squeaky-clean comic.”

Gene Luen Yang, American Born ChineseSpeaking about challenges to his work, Yang began “On the internet, I think people are just mean. When American Born Chinese came out, MySpace — remember MySpace? — chose it as the book of the month. And there was this long discussion of how American Born Chinese was racist and a manifestation of my self-hatred.”  However, these readers missed the point. “The whole point of Cousin Chin-kee was so that I could cut his head off at the end.” Yang also admitted that he abridges his own work when he reads it to his children (he has four): “When I read American Born Chinese to my kids, I only read the Monkey King parts. But my eldest, my son, snuck off and read the whole thing. But that’s OK. Because he can talk about it with me, his dad. You have to be realistic. You can’t police everything that they watch. They’re going to encounter things that are out of their comfort zone.” I found it interesting that he limits his own children’s reading (including self-editing his own work), but also seems OK when they push back against these limits and read things he’s asked them not to. Broadly speaking, it’s a metaphor for parents’ efforts to protect their children from the various danger they will surely face — well-intentioned, even necessary, but also impossible to sustain.

Charles Brownstein: I wasn’t allowed to read comic books when I was growing up, which of course is why I work in them.

Gene Luen Yang: Me too. I wasn’t either!

Underscoring the humility with which he applies rules in his own household, Yang said, “The thing with parenting is from the moment they’re born until the moment they leave your house, there’s just a constant breakdown of authority in your house.  That’s just the way it works.  That’s what they sign up for.”

Back on the subject of freedom of speech, Tilley said, “Even though it may sound a little silly, a 3-year-old and a 93-year-old have the same intellectual rights.” And that’s an excellent point, as is Dorothy Broderick’s point (quoted by Tilley) that “Libraries have something to offend everyone.” Amplifying that idea, Tilley added, “Libraries should have something to offend everyone”


Comic-Con Personified!

Chatting with Scott McCloud & Ivy Ratafia (Scott’s wife) after the “Banned Comics” panel, Ivy noticed a young woman who had made herself an entire dress out of the giant Comic-Con bags you get when you register. (Last year’s — and perhaps other years’ — also had a cape that unfurled down the back. You can see her using some of that fabric, too.) Very creative!

The front:

Comic-Con personified! (front)

 

The back:

Comic-Con personified! (back)


Spotlight on Willie Ito

In case Willie Ito’s name is unfamiliar to you, the conference program offers a useful professional biography:

With nearly 60 years as an animation artist, Comic-Con special guest Willie Ito has done it all. He worked at Disney on Lady and the Tramp‘s spaghetti scene with mentor Iwao Takamoto and on One Froggy Evening and What’s Opera Doc at Warner Bros’ famed Termite Terrace under Chuck Jones’ direction. He went on to The Beany and Cecil Show with Bob Clampett and then Hanna Barbera for the beginnings of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and many other cartoons. Ito has great stories and experiences to share. After HB he went to Disney Consumer Products and spearheaded implementation of collectibles and licensed products worldwide. He has also designed comic books, comic strips, coloring books, and more. Join animation expert Leslie Combemale of ArtInsights for a spotlight on Willie’s life, including the part of his childhood spent in a Japanese internment camp that inspired his most recent venture, a series of children’s picture books based on the experience.

Leslie Combemale and Willie Ito, a bit choked up over receiving his Inkpot Award

At the very beginning of the panel, a representative from Comic-Con presented Willie Ito with an Inkpot Award, and he was touched by the recognition.

Being at this panel was like listening to a memoir in progress. As I sat there, I kept thinking: Is someone recording this? Willie Ito needs to write his autobiography. And if he doesn’t write it, then someone else should!

Beyond the fact that he worked at pretty much every major animation studio, Ito — who is an American of Japanese — also lived in California during World War II.  I did not manage to transcribe everything he said, but it’s a heck of a story.

Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937 poster)Leslie Combemale began the conversation: “When you were really little, you wanted to work for Disney.” Willie Ito answered, “I grew up in San Francisco in an enclave called Japantown. … On the outskirs of Japantown was a neighborhood theatre.  This was 1939.  We made a habit of going to the movies once, maybe twice, a week.  This was before television.  I used to listen to the radio a lot — Buck Rogers, Lone Ranger, and all those classic shows.”

Ito then recalled seeing the Seven Dwarfs, singing, in color (in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs): “And I said that’s what I want to be!  Not one of the Seven Dwarves, but an animator.”

He also enjoyed comics: “I was a big fan of the Walt Disney Comics & Stories, Looney Tunes [comic books].  I was basically into funny animals.  And along with the comic books, I would get coloring books.  They used to have for a time these books called the Big Little Books, and they were reprints from the newspaper.” He said, “Every Sunday, I would go downstairs, and there was this big, thick, San Francisco Examiner.  I would go straight to the comics.”

Combemale asked, “What was the first thing you remember drawing?” Ito replied, “I remember there was a coloring book, and I remember tracing it, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s even better than Walt Disney!’ Of course, back then, I thought Walt Disney drew it all.”

Ito recalled one morning, going off to the beach, accompanied by his uncle and the woman would become his aunt. They were very focused on each other, and quite happy to let him play on the beach on his own. Later that afternoon, the fog rolled in, and they decided to call it a day. As they approached the city limits, they saw that a checkpoint had been set up. They didn’t know why. Officers were asking for proof that people entering the city of San Francisco actually lived in San Francisco. Finally, Ito recalled, “we got into the city, and then we saw the headlines: WAR! I never knew what war meant.  So, I asked my Uncle ‘What does “war” mean?’ Pearl Harbor had been attacked.”

Executive Order 9066At that point, “rumors immediately started swirling around about what our fate would be.  Finally, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Order 9066.  We were going to be evacuated into internment camps, in 6 months. You couldn’t take everything with you — only what you need.”

Combemale, alluding to Nazi Germany said, “That sounds like somewhere else, at the same time.”

Ito replied, “Mmm-hmm.  My first thought was ‘I can’t take my comic book collection!’” He realized, too, that he would have to leave behind his Dopey bank — that is, a piggy-bank featuring the likeness of Dopey from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Another memory from that time: “I remember coming home one day and there were FBI agents there, looking for anything that might be considered contraband.  They were tall, 6-footers.” Ito explains, “One of the crazy things they did was confiscate the lawn-mowers because the Japanese gardeners are going to mow arrows” that would point Japanese pilots towards key targets. He chuckled as he said this — indeed, describing the bigotry he faced, he often chuckled. I was struck by his ability to speak of these events without any apparent malice. I expect that, had this happened to me, I would have been bitter. Perhaps he was bitter at one point, and learned to let go of bitterness?

Describing the internment camps themselves, Ito said, “They put us up in stables.  They didn’t really have time to build barracks.  For the first, early arrivals, we were literally in horse stables.  So, the internees would come, and this was where they stayed.” When they arrived, the internees asked, “Where are the mattresses?”  The guards said, “You see those white bags?” Ito explained that there were “stacks of white bags.” So, the guards said, “Fill them up with hay.” (They were, literally living in stables.)  So, Ito says, “if you had allergies….”

Combemale asked, “How long were you there?” Ito said that they were in the stables for six months before they moved into the barracks. He added, again with wryness (rather than bitterness), “We were considered a security risk to the government, because we could signal to the Japanese ships or something.”

The story was riveting, and would, as I say, make for a great memoir or film. On the experience of being in the camps themselves, Ito said, “The rumor in our communities was ‘What’s going to happen if Japan wins the war or the U.S. wins the war?  We’re just going to be lined up and executed.’” Again, he was able to speak of this calmly, without bitterness towards his captors.

Combemale asked, “Did it keep you sane to be doing drawings while you were there?” Ito didn’t have paper, but they did have Sears catalogues from which they would order what they needed. So, Ito told us, “I would take the expired catalogues, and draw on the margins.” Ever the aspiring animator, Ito made flipbooks in the margins of the Sears catalogue.

To conclude the internment narrative, Ito reports that when he got back to his house after the war, his Dopey bank was still there!

What was really wonderful about this conversation is that Combemale had the judgment to simply let Ito talk, recount his experience. She’s an excellent listener — an ideal quality for an interviewer to have.

What's Opera, Doc?Combemale: You were also in Chuck Jones’s unit on What’s Opera, Doc? You said he was an interesting person to work with.

Willie Ito: I admired him from afar. One time, we were watching a pencil test, and, at the end, I sort of blurted out, “Charles M. Jones, Super-Genius.” And Chuck sort of looked at me like “… hmmmm….”

Ito recalls another moment when he was watching a cartoon with Jones: “I would be watching a Friz Freling cartoon, laughing with tears rolling down my face.  And Chuck Jones would be looking at me, glaring.”

Ito was hired by Walt Disney Productions for the “Lady” unit (i.e., the unit working on Lady and the Tramp).  He “reported to Milt Kahl — one of the 9 Old Men! And Iwao Takamoto was there!” And I didn’t manage to capture the full history of Ito’s working career — at a certain point, I was just listening and not taking notes. (Sorry!)

Ito worked a year at Bob Clampett. He said, “I want you to design all my characters– and they were all puppets.” This was a great opportunity for Ito because “I got to work in design, layout, etc.  So, after that, going to Hanna Barbera, I felt like a veteran. I could do it all!”

A Boy of Heart MountainIto would go on to spend 14 years at Hanna Barbera. At the time he went, he told Chuck Jones that he was going to take that job. Jones advised him against it because it was television, and those studios wouldn’t last. He said that staying at Warner Brothers would provide steady work because they would always be making these cartoon shorts. Yet, Ito recalled, “while I was there [at Hanna Barbera], Warner Bros. closed down!”

The panel did not get to cover as much of Ito’s career, but the focus on his earlier life was riveting. If you’re interested in learning more about it, Ito has a book called A Boy of Heart Mountain, which “educates children about sending an entire group of people to camps, for a while.”


Spotlight on Jeff Smith

Tom Spurgeon & Jeff Smith

As the program says, “Comic-Con special guest Jeff Smith discusses his foray into the world of online comics with his new title TUKI: Save the Humans, as well as the 10th anniversary of Scholastic’s color version of Bone. Moderated by Tom Spurgeon (The Comics Reporter).”

Jeff Smith, Bone Vol. 1 (Scholastic)Tom Spurgeon did a great job of moderating this discussion with Jeff Smith, which began with the announcement of a new edition of Bone Vol. 1, commemorating the tenth anniversary of Scholastic Graphix. It’s a new special edition with, as Smith says, “eight new pages, including the rat creatures’ ode to quiche.  And other drawings from scholastic artists.  It comes out in Spring of 2015.  That’s just the first step of the rollout of things we’re doing next year.”

Tom Spurgeon: Doing the whole series over again?

Jeff Smith: No, just the first volume.

Tom Spurgeon: Do you think in terms of legacy formats at this point?

Jeff Smith: Yes. IDW now wants to do a legacy edition of all nine books. I’m like really? At 100 bucks a pop? Oh, all right. [Laughs.] No, I’m not going to do that.  At first, I thought they wanted me to add a new section to it.  And I thought maybe I could add a scene during winter?  I realized that I couldn’t get my mind back into that space.  And the book was done.  I shouldn’t do any more to it.

(A note on my reporting. I’m capturing the contours of the conversation, but not every last word. So, what you see is as close to a direct quotation as I was able to transcribe, but it’s not the same as, say, reading the transcription of a recorded event.)

Jeff Smith, RASLI liked Smith’s practical approach to what he’s known for. Rather than (as some artists might) chafe under being known primarily for Bone, he said, “Bone is going to be — I’m never going to get out from under that shadow. So, I think I need to enjoy that.  Whereever I go, I’m the Bone guy.  I’m Jeff ‘Bone’ Smith.” And you could see that he does enjoy it. After the panel, for example, he kindly consented to a photo with a fan and her Fone Bone plush doll.  The Cartoon Books booth had plush dolls of all three Bones — as well as his copies of Bone, and newer works, such as RASL, and the first issue of TUKI.

Acknowledging the difference between these three projects, Smith said, “I wanted to get TUKI going while RASL was underway, so that people could see that all three had the same strand of DNA running through them.”  Smith spoke of enjoying drawing TUKI after RASL.

Jeff Smith: I don’t have draw buildings and cars, as in RASL. I can draw streams and mountains, which is much more natural to me.  With Bone, I had an Encylopedia Britannica, a leather-bound set. I did all of Bone with Encyclopedia Britannica.  When I was doing Shazam, I would go to the public library and get books out on New York City. That was the last time I went to the library.

Tom Spurgeon: There’s a moral there, but it’s an uncomfortable one.

He’s also enjoying TUKI because, as he says, “I did want to do humor again.  There was not much humor in my noir [RASL].”

Jeff Smith, page from TUKI

Indulging us comics nerds in the audience, Spurgeon and Smith had a conversation about how Smith designs a page.  How does he know to put those three inset boxes, of varying sizes, at those specific places on the page?  How does he do his layouts?  Smith responded, “I experimented with it, did several versions.”  Presumably, people read the top left panel first (because we read from left to right), but, Smith explained, “I put the flower and the bird up there to keep your eye up there.” The idea is that Tuki is hunting, and he sees the one animal that has strayed from the herd (in the middle panel).

Looking at Tuki, Spurgeon said, “You’re one of our great character designers,” and noted Smith’s many distinct characters — Fone Bone, Thorn, the rat creatures, Gran’ma Ben, Rasl, and now Tuki — who, in Smith’s new graphic novel, is the first human. “What is it you look for in a character?”  Describing Tuki, Smith said, “I worked with him for a while. He’s African, so he’s going to be black. He’s also not human. He’s Homo Erectus,” which (as I understand it) is the phase in evolution just before Homo Sapiens.

Tom Spurgeon: Are you drawing sketches?

Jeff Smith: There are a few pages in my files: What does Tuki look like? They didn’t have clothes, then. So, what do you do? They didn’t wear loincloths. I realized that our ancestors did carry things with them…. So, that allowed me to create something to cover up his junk. [Laughs]

Tom Spurgeon: How precious are you with your tools?

Jeff Smith: [Joking] Excuse me?

Tom Spurgeon: ToolS.

Jeff Smith, Tuki (comic #1)Smith also talked about his research for the character, noting, “Some people think Homo Erectus couldn’t talk, but until Homo Erectus there was no voice box. So… it’s debatable.”  On his artistic style for this work, he noted that “RASL had some kind of Jack Kirby faces,” whereas TUKI “is going to be more Sergio Aragones.”

Tom Spurgeon: How is it to be an influential cartoonist?

Jeff Smith: Well, it’s very flattering. I like it.

Tom Spurgeon: As I recall, you didn’t expect it.

Jeff Smith: No, no one expects it…  I guess, in a way, I feel like it’s kind of a stage you reach.

Smith also talked about, in Bone‘s early issues, hiding the fact that Bone was a fantasy, because he figured that if he was clear that it was, then that would be the end. No one would read it. So, instead, he spent the first third of the book inviting readers to get to know the characters, and like the characters, so that when he revealed that it was fantasy, they’d stick with it. But he eventually had to admit that it was fantasy: “There was a certain point where I couldn’t hide it any more. I had to come out. I had to come out of the closet!” [Laughs]


The Highlight of My Day — and my Comic-Con

After the panel, I introduced myself to Jeff Smith, and we walked down to his booth. I explained that I was the guy who co-wrote that article on Bone and Moby-Dick (for which he kindly supplied images), and that I’m working on Barnaby for Fantagraphics with Eric. He said, “Oh! You’re Phil!” And he said that he really loved the article — that it was great, that we really got it (Bone). This made my day. He went on to say that this article was one reason he agreed to write a foreword for the third Barnaby book — and that he’d just been talking to Eric about this.  This made my day again. And my Comic-Con.

Jeff Smith, from Bone Volume 3

It’s also an example of the unpredictability of what you write. My friend Jennifer Hughes and I wrote this article because we thought it would be fun to co-write an article, and I thought it’d be fun to re-read Moby-Dick, fun to re-read Bone, and I’d always wanted to write something on Bone.  It’s not part of a larger project for either of us.  It was just fun to do.  So.  Thanks, Jennifer!  And thanks, Jeff!

Note: nearly all photos from the Berkeley Breathed event are courtesy of Karin Westman.

Comic-Con 2014:

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Was the Cat in the Hat Black?

Children's Literature 42 (2014)Like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat owes a debt to blackface minstrelsy.

In my “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Exploring Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination” (in the new issue of Children’s Literature), I explore the implications of this fact.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

In 1955, Dr. Seuss and William Spaulding—director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division—stepped into the publisher’s elevator at 2 Park Street in Boston. As Seuss’s biographers tell us, the elevator operator was an elegant, petite woman who wore white gloves and a secret smile (Morgan and Morgan 154). They don’t mention that she was Annie Williams, nor do they say that she was African American (Silvey). Seuss was on that elevator because Spaulding thought he could solve the Why Johnny Can’t Read crisis by writing a better reading primer. When Seuss sketched this book’s feline protagonist, he gave him Mrs. Williams’s white gloves, her sly smile, and her color. However, she is but one African American influence on Seuss’s most famous character. One source for that red bow tie is Krazy Kat, the black, ambiguously gendered creation of biracial cartoonist George Herriman (Cohen 325). Seuss, who admired what he called “the beautifully insane sanities” of Krazy Kat (qtd. in Nel, Dr. Seuss 70), also draws upon the traditions of minstrelsy—an influence that emerges first in a minstrel show he wrote for his high school. The Cat in the Hat is racially complicated, inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans. The Cat’s influences help us to track the evolution of the African American cultural imaginary in Seuss’s work, but also, more importantly, to exemplify how children’s literature conceals its own racialized origins. Considering the Cat’s racial complexity both serves as an act of desegregation, acknowledging the “mixed bloodlines” (to borrow Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s phrase) of canonical children’s literature, and highlights how during the 1950s—a turning point for African Americans in children’s literature—picture books were a site where race, representation, and power were actively being contested.

If you want to read the full article, you can access it via ProjectMuse — unless, of course, you can’t.  So, if you work for (or have access to) a library or university that subscribes to ProjectMuse, then please do get the article that way.  Doing so generates revenue for the Children’s Literature Association.  If you can’t get the article that way, then please contact me, and I’ll send you a pdf. (You can find my email address at right, under “A note on mp3s.”)

Thanks to generous individuals (such as Charles Cohen, who provided the photo of the Cat in the Hat toys that you see on the issue’s cover), the article also includes some illustrations. Here are two, both of which are racialized interpretations of the Cat in the Hat — one from 1996 (in which the Cat represents O.J. Simpson) and one from 2012 (in which the Cat represents President Obama).

Alan Katz & Chris Wrinn, The Cat NOT in the Hat! (1996) Loren Spivack, The Cat and the Mitt (2012)

The Cat NOT in the Hat! can be found only in the Library of Congress. Dr. Seuss Enterprises successfully sued its publisher and prevented its distribution on the grounds that it was not a parody: It merely mimicked Seuss’s style to comment on the O.J. Simpson case (Dr. Seuss v. Penguin Books, 1996). Distribution of the book was suppressed. To the best of my knowledge, all copies — save for the one in the Library of Congress — were destroyed.  The Cat and the Mitt is a special election-year version of Loren Spivack’s The New Democrat, which can be purchased from Mr. Spivack’s website.

There would be more than eight pictures in my article, but Dr. Seuss Enterprises (the corporate entity which oversees the licensing and production of all things Seuss) would not grant permission to reprint any images to which it controls the rights. As I’ve always had good relations with the Seuss people in the past, I asked why. I received no response, but my guess is that the “no” has something to do with the fact that the article addresses Seuss and race. When I wrote the Seuss bio. for the Seussville.com website, my original version included commentary on Seuss’s racist wartime cartoons — I framed the issue in what I thought was a sympathetic way, noting that his earlier stereotypes ultimately yielded to greater understanding (as in the anti-racist Horton Hears a Who! and The Sneetches). Such an approach offered a redemptive reading of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s work on race. But I was asked to cut that. Since I was writing for a corporate website, I did as I was asked to do.

Published in an academic journal (instead of on a corporate website), this new article has the freedom to offer a more complicated, more nuanced reading of Seuss and race. I realize that it still needs work, and I will rewrite and revise further for the book-chapter version. But it’s the best work I’ve done on Seuss and race so far. So, I thought I’d share a snippet here — with, as I say, more available for any who wish to pursue the topic further.

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Posters for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

Remain Vigilant (small version)Under the Kansas Board of Regents‘ brave new social media policy, the faculty and staff of Kansas universities must make sure that their speech is harmonious, loyal, and conducive to discipline.  So, the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty and Discipline is here to help you monitor speech. Our staff artist, Comrade Warner, has created these four handy visual aids — all designed to be printed as 24″ x 36″ posters. These come to you under Creative Commons: so, please print, make posters, put on t-shirts, remix, distribute.

Remember: Report speech that may promote disloyalty. Report suspect faculty immediately. Surveillance is freedom!

Stamp Out Fires: Report Suspect Faculty Immediately


Report Speech That Could Promote Disharmony


Report Speech That Could Promote Disloyalty


Remain Vigilant for Speech That Could Impair Discipline by Superiors


For more information, here’s

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Freedom of Speech in Kansas: What Next?

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineIn light of the Kansas Board of Regents’ decision to double down on its repressive social media policy, people keep asking me: What next?

First, we may have lost this battle, but that doesn’t mean we’ll lose the war. In any case, opposing injustice does not mean that you’re going to win every time. The Kansas Board of Regents have established themselves as enemies of freedom of speech, and of higher education. They don’t feel compelled to listen to the faculty and staff they ostensibly govern, but governance without consent of the governed doesn’t work well in the long term. Stable governance requires credibility. The Board has abdicated its credibility and its responsibility.

Second, the policy remains so absurdly broad that we can either muzzle ourselves or keep speaking up. I’m not particularly good at muzzling myself. (Have you noticed?) And I’m not going to waste my time policing my speech for its loyalty, its harmonious content, its ability to impede discipline, or whether it furthers the “best interests of the university.”

hourglassThird, time is our most precious resource. The Regents have wasted thousands of hours of our time. It’s now clear that they convened the workgroup merely to offer themselves cover for their assault on academic freedom. They can say: See? We followed procedure. We listened to the workgroup. Look! Here’s their language in our policy!  What they don’t say, of course, is that they’re merely stapling language affirming academic freedom onto a policy that revokes academic freedom. To waste so much time simply to create a rhetorical cover story is unforgivable. It’s also very clever — they’ve played us well. We assumed they’d act in good faith, when they have never had any interest in acting in good faith. In acting in bad faith and wasting our time, they’ve revealed their true colors. And they’ve persuaded thousands of faculty and staff members that they should never trust the Regents again.

Fourth, back when the Regents announced this policy, I began de-affiliating myself from Kansas State University in all of my social media profiles. It would be too labor-intensive to remove all references to Kansas State University from my blog, but I altered this blog’s “About Philip Nel” page so that it redacts the university’s name. I removed the @KState tag from my Twitter account, deleted Kansas State University from my Facebook page, from my GooglePlus account, and from my Amazon.com author page. I will ask my publishers to remove references to Kansas State University from my future published work, and have stopped providing it for the “About the author” section of any articles I publish. I’ll never be able to fully dissociate my public self from my employer: a quick Google search will reveal where I work, and, when I give a talk, promotional materials invariably name my employer. However, I’ll do my best to minimize my public connection to Kansas State University.

Books written or edited by Philip Nel, as of 2013In the past, Kansas State University’s Division of Communications and Marketing have appreciated it when my work was cited in the media, or when I’ve appeared in the media, or when something I’d written received media attention. Indeed, because I’ve known this, I’ve always asked that my affiliation with Kansas State University be mentioned. And I’ve let them know about any such media attention. But I’ve stopped letting them know about my accomplishments. A book of mine recently won some awards; another has been nominated for a different award. I’ve added those accolades to my CV (which, yes, also identifies my university affiliation), but have otherwise kept that information to myself. And, when interviewed by the media, I will ask that I be identified as the author of whatever the most relevant of my books might be (Dr. Seuss: American Icon for a story on Seuss, say). If universities in Kansas want to benefit from social media, then they’ll need a social media policy that affirms academic freedom.

In any case, if I work for a place where everything I say in public can be used as grounds for my dismissal, then why would I want to be known as a Kansas State University Professor? People will pity me because I work at a place where freedom of speech is no longer allowed. I don’t want to be pitied. I have a reputation to protect, too.

Fifth, there is much that Kansas universities can do to protect faculty and staff against the tyranny of the Regents. We can adopt our own social media policies, modeled on the workgroup’s excellent revision — policies that affirm academic freedom rather than police the content of speech. And we can find creative ways to resist. For example, what the heck would loyal, harmonious, disciplined speech look like? The Regents have declined to offer examples of either appropriate speech or inappropriate speech. Why not have a contest, calling for creative responses (fiction, poetry, non-fiction, drama) to this puzzling question?  We could make it a statewide event, and publish the winners. It could even be an annual contest.  Another example: we could have one day each semester on which everyone sends out via social media a provocative idea. We can use Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, or whatever the current social media platform is. We could send out provocative ideas from any discipline. It would be fun and educational. Yet another example: what about a conference in which we invite people from other places where academic freedom has been under attack (South Carolina, Colorado, Saskatchewan, etc.)?  That’d be a great way to educate people about freedom of speech.

There are many possibilities!

In light of Wednesday’s decision, we — the faculty, staff, students of Kansas universities — are demoralized. We are down. But we are not out. This fight is not over. It is just beginning.

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The Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline: The Mixes

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineBecause every revolution needs a soundtrack, I assembled a couple of CDs of songs for the drive to and from Topeka, for yesterday’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting. True, the drive is not in fact that long (only an hour each way), but creating playlists is a form of thinking. It’s something I do for fun. Really.

There are only YouTube recordings below. Nearly all of these songs are commercially available — i.e., you can buy individual tracks via iTunes. (I think only the Steinski track at the very end is not on iTunes.  And the Public Enemy recording that opens the mix is not available as an individual track: you need to purchase the entire Do the Right Thing soundtrack.)


Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline Mix #1

1)     Fight the Power (Soundtrack Version)  PUBLIC ENEMY (1989)                  5:23

I used the version from the Do the Right Thing Soundtrack, which includes Take 6′s intro (of the fictional radio station’s call letters).

2)     Know Your Rights  THE CLASH (1982)                                                3:42

From the Clash’s final studio album, Combat Rock. (No one counts the later Cut the Crap — not even the Calash.) “You have the right to free speech… as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it!”

3)     1984  DAVID BOWIE (1974)                                                             3:27

From Diamond Dogs, which contains a number of songs written for an aborted stage musical of 1984.

4)     Exhuming McCarthy  R.E.M. (1987)                                                       3:22

This song appears on Document, and includes an audio clip from Joseph N. Welch’s famous “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” from the Army-McCarthy hearings.

5)     There Is No Time  LOU REED (1989)                                                 3:47

Lou Reed gets angry, on New York.

6)     Get Up, Stand Up  BOB MARLEY & THE WAILERS (1973)                      3:19

7)     You Won’t Stand Alone (ska-sized)  D.O.A. (2004)                                  2:06

8)     Stand  SLY & THE FAMILY STONE (1969)                                            3:07

9)     Power to the People  CURTIS MAYFIELD (1974)                                  3:29

This is the demo version. I used the album version (from Sweet Exorcist).

10)   People Have the Power  PATTI SMITH (1988)                                      5:10

11)   Give the People What They Want  THE O’JAYS (1975)                           4:11

12)   The Stone (Revolution!)  RETRIBUTION GOSPEL CHOIR (2012)            3:10

13)   Revolution  NINA SIMONE (1969)                                                      4:41

One of the greatest Beatles covers. Indeed, “cover” is the wrong word. Simone transforms Lennon’s cynical anti-revolutionary song into a genuine call for revolution.

14)   I Fought the Law  DEAD KENNEDYS (1984)                                        2:19

In addition to changing the lyrics to “I fought the law / And I won,” the Dead Kennedys also include such new lyrics as: “The law don’t mean shit if you’ve got the right friends. / That’s how this country’s run” and “You can get away with murder if you’ve got a badge.”

15)   All You Fascists  BILLY BRAGG & WILCO (2000)                                  2:43

Woody Gurthrie’s lyrics, with Bragg’s vocals and Wilco’s music. Here’s a version with Billy Bragg playing the song on his own.

16)   This Land Is Your Land  SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS (2004)      4:37

Magnificent soul arrangement of the Woody Gurthrie classic. Here’s an acoustic version (though I put the original album version on the mix, of course).

17)   Woody Guthrie  ALABAMA 3 (2002)                                                  4:18

18)   People Gotta Be Free  KEB’ MO’ (2004)                                               3:46

Great cover of the Rascals’ original. I couldn’t find Keb’ Mo’s version on YouTube; so, here are the Rascals:

19)   International  JIM’S BIG EGO (2008)                                                    3:37

20)   World Upside Down  JIMMY CLIFF (2012)                                           3:10

21)   Talking Union  THE ALMANAC SINGERS (1941)                                  3:06

Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell — the Almanac Singers — recorded this song for their second record, Talking Union (1941; re-released with additional songs, 1955).  Written by Seeger, Hays, and Lampell, the song uses a “talking blues” style later adopted by Bob Dylan.

22)   Redemption Song  JOE STRUMMER & THE MESCALEROS (2003)           3:28

From his final solo record, the Clash’s Joe Strummer covers Bob Marley.

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline


Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline Mix #2

1)     The Preamble  LYNN AHRENS (1976)                                                 3:00

From Schoolhouse Rock!

2)     We the People  THE STAPLE SINGERS (1972)                                      3:52

Here’s a performance from Soul Train.

And here’s an excerpt from a promotional film.

3)     Fight the Power  BARENAKED LADIES (1993)                                     4:06

Barenaked Ladies cover Public Enemy! Yes, you read that correctly. It’s actually a great cover. Despite the occasionally goofy turn (“Nutty Buddy was a hero to most”?), I think they otherwise are quite in earnest. In some ways, you might see this as an antecedent to BNL’s “Fun and Games,” one of the most trenchant musical critiques of the Bush administration.

Recorded for Gordon, the cover appears on (of all places) the Coneheads soundtrack. Here are BNL performing it live, in 2009.

4)     American Idiot  GREEN DAY (2004)                                                    2:54

5)     My Favorite Mutiny  THE COUP feat. BLACK THOUGHT and TALIB KWELI (2006)                                                                                  4:36

Here’s the full version.

And here’s an excerpt from a live performance.

6)     I Predict a Riot  KAISER CHIEFS (2005)                                               3:53

7)     Harder Than You Think  PUBLIC ENEMY (2007)                                   4:10

8)     Seven Nation Army  THE WHITE STRIPES (2003)                                 3:52

9)     I Won’t Back Down  TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS (1989)        2:57

10)   You Haven’t Done Nothin’  STEVIE WONDER (1974)                           3:29

11)   Low Light Low Life  P.O.S. feat. DESSA (2009)                                      3:15

12)   Clampdown  THE CLASH (1979)                                                         3:52

“We will teach our twisted speech / To the young believers.” Ah, so many great lyrics in this one, from London Calling, which is (to my mind) the best Clash record.  “Let fury have the hour. / Anger can be power, / If you know that you can use it.”

13)   Freedom  JURASSIC 5 (2002)                                                             3:19

14)   This Little Light  MAVIS STAPLES (2007)                                              3:23

This appears on We’ll Never Turn Back, which — along with London Calling (see track 11, above) is one of my Desert Island Discs.  Here’s a live recording.

15)   Freedom  THE ISLEY BROTHERS (1970)                                             3:39

16)   I Should Be Allowed to Think  THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (1994)            3:08

Begins by quoting Ginsburg’s “Howl.”

17)   Express Yourself  CHARLES WRIGHT & THE WATTS 103RD RHYTHM BAND (1972)     3:52

18)   Try This at Home  FRANK TURNER (2012)                                         1:53

19)   Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)  SHAD (2013)                                          3:32

Great song about education, immigration, family, and much more.

20)   Motion Movement  BLUE SCHOLARS (2004)                                       3:47

21)   You Can Get It If You Really Want It  DESMOND DEKKER (1970)         2:40

22)   You Get What You Give  NEW RADICALS (1998)                                5:02

23)   Silent Partner (Peace Out)  STEINSKI (2006)                                         0:52

Approved by the Kansas Board of Regents’ Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, & Discipline

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The object of power is power: a report from today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting

“The object of power is power.”

— O’Brien, in George Orwell’s 1984

Some of the KSU contingent: (back row) Todd Gabbard, Joe Sutliff Sanders, Abby Knoblauch, Philip Nel; (front row) Elizabeth Dodd, Sierra Hale, and Lexiyee SmithTo support the basic right to freedom of speech and to stand up for academic freedom, faculty, staff, and students from Kansas universities attended today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting in Topeka, Kansas. The room was packed: standing room only.  The Board of Regents were cheerful, chummy, and completely indifferent to the rights of those whom they allegedly represent. They rescinded our rights to freedom of speech, but they did it with a smile. Fred Logan told us that the Regents respect us, and passed a policy that does not respect academic freedom.

He is a canny politician, and I could see him going places. I mean that both as a compliment to him and as a caution to the people of Kansas. In other words, I am being both sarcastic and completely sincere. Not only does Mr. Logan have the ability to say (with apparent sincerity) words like “respect” without actually meaning them, but the very first thing he did upon entering the room was come up and introduce himself to me. (I was seated in the front row.)

Fred Logan [smiling]: Philip Nel?  Fred Logan.

I stand up. We shake hands.

Logan: It’s nice to meet you.

Me: It’s interesting to meet you.

Logan: I’ve read what you’ve written about me, and I’ve looked at your website.  Don DeLillo?

Me: Yes.

Logan: I read Falling Man, and I was thinking about reading White Noise next. Good choice?

Me: Yes. White Noise is a great choice. That’s the one to read.  [Pause.]  So, are you really going to go through with this policy? Or —

Logan: [Smiling, makes non-committal sound, walks away, waves, and takes his place at the Regents' Desk of Governance.]

Hence, my first tweet:

And then, the meeting got underway.  

Kansas Board of Regents, at start of meeting, 14 May 2014 Regents’ Chair Fred Logan said of the revised social media policy, “I want to thank the members of the workgroup who worked on this. I in particular want to recognize the co-chairs of the group. They did spectacular work.” He added, “I also want to welcome and thank all the members of the faculty for coming.”

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and DisciplineThat was just one of many examples where Mr. Logan said one thing, but the actions of the Regents conveyed a rather different message. The revised policy retains all punitive parts. You can still be fired for a broad array of vaguely defined speech, such as uttering something “contrary to the best interests of the employer.”  Presumably, a blog post (like this one) that is critical of the Kansas Board of Regents might be included in this restriction.  You can also be fired for speech that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary.”  This particular language, of course, inspired our “Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline” t-shirts. How would one go about measuring the harmonious content of speech? How might we determine whether speech is disloyal?  And as for impairing discipline, if I were to write that the Kansas Board of Regents have brought shame to the state of Kansas, and that all of them should resign effective immediately, is that a fireable offense?

Because they have done precisely that. In addition to all the negative national publicity this has already received, here’s a story from National Public Radio, this evening. National Public Radio: "In Kansas, Professors Must Now Watch What They Tweet" Kansas is already known for being anti-science (evolution? just a theory!). Now, Kansas is known for its opposition to freedom of speech. If you’re trying to attract top faculty to Kansas universities, you have your work cut out for you. When Fred Logan got to the social media policy, Emporia State University’s Sheryl Lidzy read — on behalf of the Kansas Council of Faculty Senate Presidents — a great defense of freedom of speech. It included such gems as this:

we fear that the most important point continues to be ignored. That point is this: a university system cannot properly function when external groups are allowed to influence university personnel decisions whenever they find certain speech to be objectionable. Because the punitive aspects of this policy create precisely this “heckler’s veto” scenario for controversial speech, we must once again respectfully request that the Board reconsider its determination that the disciplinary aspects of this policy are necessary and desirable.

As Prof. Lidzy read, Regents looked on, with — as my colleague Christina Hauck observed — expressions of “boredom and distaste” for the Faculty Senate Presidents. Kansas Board of Regents, bored, as they listen (or don't) to Council of Faculty Senate Presidents. Photo by Christina Hauck. Lidzy continued:

there are certain rights and responsibilities that are non-negotiable. However expedient it may seem at the time to surrender these cornerstones of the academic mission, there are certain principles that cannot be bargained away, because once they are conceded, the integrity of the entire enterprise is compromised. The freedom to speak without fear of reprisal is perhaps the ultimate example of a principle with which we are not at liberty to experiment and this is why we continue to oppose the punitive aspects of this policy.

The Kansas Board of Regents were unmoved. And yet Fred Logan said, “We have the utmost respect for faculty.”

I found these sort of responses fascinating. Throughout this process, the Board’s attitude towards faculty has been condescending, patronizing, even hostile. The policy itself establishes new ways to fire people, based on very broadly defined objectionable speech. However, Regent Logan says, “We have the utmost respect for faculty.” The vast gap between word and deed is truly breathtaking. This is why I think that Mr. Logan may have a bright future in Kansas politics. Directly after Professor Lidzy’s statement, Logan got up, and rushed over to give her an award for her service, which — he said — the Board very much appreciated.  Again, he is thanking her, even while he completely disregards what she has said.

At the meeting we also learned that the Moody’s downgrade of Kansas’s credit rating (thanks to Governor Brownback and the legislature’s fiscal recklessness) will result in higher borrowing rates for Kansas universities. As my colleague Don Hedrick pointed out after the meeting, the Kansas Board of Regents’ actions also downgrades the rating of Kansas universities.

The Regents passed their punitive social media policy. Of the policy, Fred Logan said, “This will be the strongest and most explicit statement on academic freedom that appears anywhere in our policy manual.” While it is true that the Regents did adopt the workgroup’s recommendations on language affirming academic freedom, it is also true that the Regents retained the original language eviscerating academic freedom. So, if this is their “strongest and most explicit statement on academic freedom,” that’s hardly a cause for rejoicing.

With smiles, conviviality, and bland affirmations of freedom of speech, the Kansas Board of Regents adopted a policy that tells faculty and staff: watch what you say. Of course, Kansas is merely part of a trend of cracking down on freedom of speech. South Carolina’s legislature has punished the College of Charleston for assigning a book, and installed a white supremacist as their new president. A dean at the University of Saskatchewan was just fired for speaking his mind. So, the Kansas Board of Regents are not unusual. They are normal. And they are the future. Indeed, to paraphrase George Orwell, if you want a picture of the future, imagine sensible shoes stamping on a human face—forever.1

——

1. The actual line from Orwell’s 1984 is “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” But the Kansas Board of Regents tends to wear sensible shoes, and not boots.


Update, 10:30 pm, 15 May 2014

in response to Nena Beckley’s comment below, I’ve added (in the comments) a link to the revised policy.  I’m also adding that information here:

Here’s some media coverage (updated 9:00 am, 16 May 2014):

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Kansas Faculty Senates ask Regents for “Freedom to speak without fear of reprisal”

University of Kansas, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, University of Kansas Medical CenterHere is the statement from the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents, read at today’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting, about 20 minutes ago.


As the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents, it is our responsibility to express to the Board the concerns of the faculty we represent. When the Social Media Policy was introduced in December, we recognized that connecting terminations to faculty speech was extremely problematic, and we requested an opportunity for input and collaboration prior to its passage. This request was denied.

When the newly enacted policy predictably generated national attention and widespread controversy, we were pleased with the Board’s willingness to form a Work Group and revisit the policy. In light of the considerable distraction and backlash created by the policy, we requested a suspension of the policy pending the Work Group’s recommendations. This request was also denied.

When the Work Group’s extensive research failed to identify any university in the nation with a similarly punitive policy, we were hopeful that the widespread and enthusiastic support for the Work Group recommendations would persuade the Board to adopt an advisory policy that would align Kansas with best practices within higher education. Up to this point in the process, this request – like the others before it – has been denied.

Today, we stand before the Board, once again reiterating our unanimous opposition to the chilling effect created by the punitive aspects of this policy. Although we appreciate the creation of the Work Group, and the Governance Committee’s adoption of considerable portions of the Work Group proposal, we fear that the most important point continues to be ignored. That point is this: a university system cannot properly function when external groups are allowed to influence university personnel decisions whenever they find certain speech to be objectionable. Because the punitive aspects of this policy create precisely this “heckler’s veto” scenario for controversial speech, we must once again respectfully request that the Board reconsider its determination that the displinary aspects of this policy are necessary and desirable.

In conclusion, we accept the premise that the Board has acted in good faith and has endeavored to act in the best interests of the Regent’s universities. While we accept this premise, we disagree with the Board’s analysis of the universities’ best interests. In recent years, we have been asked to become more efficient, we have been asked to do more with less, we have been asked to undergo post-tenure review, and we have been asked to improve our standing among our peers across the nation. Believing that our advocates have our best interests at heart, we have willingly embraced all of these challenges, and have already begun to succeed on many fronts. Yet, there are certain rights and responsibilities that are non-negotiable. However expedient it may seem at the time to surrender these cornerstones of the academic mission, there are certain principles that cannot be bargained away, because once they are conceded, the integrity of the entire enterprise is compromised. The freedom to speak without fear of reprisal is perhaps the ultimate example of a principle with which we are not at liberty to experiment and this is why we continue to oppose the punitive aspects of this policy. This policy will continue to be plagued with controversy and opposition as long as it exists.

Because of these imperative principles, and because of practical concerns that this issue will continue to pose a distraction and a drain upon precious time and resources, we once again respectfully ask the Board to adopt the Work Group recommendations in their entirety.

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The Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

The Kansas Board of Regents’ new social media policy will require vigilant enforcement.  How will we determine when speech is “contrary to the best interests of the employer”?  How will we recognize speech that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers”?  How can we prevent speech that has a “detrimental impact on close working relationships”?  Given that academics work at all hours of the day and night, what constitutes “during the employee’s working hours”?

Fear not!

We are pleased to announce the formation of the Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline.

Fellow patriots are invited to join our Committee, assisting employees of Kansas universities in promoting harmony, loyalty, and discipline, as per the policy’s prohibition against speech that

3.ii. when made pursuant to (i.e. in furtherance of) the employee’s official duties, is contrary to the best interests of the university;

3.iv. … impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impedes the performance of the speaker’s official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services.

How can you join?

  1. Adopt our uniform!  If you’d like to get one of these shirts, you could go down to Thread in Aggieville (here in Manhttan, KS): they have the design on file. Just walk in and ask for this: “committee for harmony” design, in the May 8 folder. They’ll be able to access it and print you off one more or less immediately.  If you are not in Manhattan, KS, Comrade Todd Gabbard would be happy to send you the file for the shirt so you can have it printed wherever you are. Alternatively, we might be able to make arrangements to get a shirt printed for you here and bring it to Wednesday’s Kansas Board of Regents meeting. Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline: t-shirt
  2. Come to the Kansas Board of Regents meetingWednesday May 14th at 1:30 pm, Board Office, Suite 520, Curtis State Office Building, 100 SW Jackson, Topeka, KS.  If you have one of these t-shirts, wear it to the meeting. We’d like to get as many faculty, students, and staff out to Topeka as we can. The Board of Regents’s new policy will govern the network of public institutions here in Kansas, and will affect us all for years to come.
  3. George Orwell, 1984Recommended reading: George Orwell’s 1984Animal Farm, and “Politics and the English Language.”

Should you have any questions or suggestions, please contact Comrade Todd Gabbard. Remember: Ignorance is strength! Freedom is slavery!

Yours for harmony, loyalty, and discipline,

Comrades Todd Gabbard and Philip Nel

Kansas State University Subcommittee of the

Committee for Harmony, Loyalty, and Discipline

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Impairing Discipline and Harmony; or, This Morning’s Twitter-chat with the Kansas Board of Regents

Ignorance is strength.

The Kansas Board of Regents’ Twitter account and I had a somewhat predictable conversation this morning. For any who find might it interesting, I include it below. The short version: The Kansas Board of Regents insists that academic freedom is now protected; however, sections 3.ii and 3.iv (see p. 32 of agenda) continue to contradict that claim.

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New Words, Same Tune: Kansas Board of Regents’ Revisions Fall Short

Uncensor KansasThe Kansas Board of Regents’ revised social media policy (announced this afternoon) grants academic freedom with one hand, and takes it away with the other. It adds the language of the work group’s model policy, but refuses the work group’s intent. It retains nearly all of the Board’s original language that drew such criticism — grounds for dismissal still include making statements “contrary to the best interests of the university,” or that “impair discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers,” and so on. But now, the policy begins by affirming principles of academic freedom.

The Board has done what it said it would do: it has taken its original failed policy, and then added language from the work group’s exemplary policy. The problem, of course, is that the language of the original policy remains operative. The Board’s proclamation “Kansas Board of Regents to Consider Substantial Changes to Social Media Policy” is accurate only if the word “substantial” refers to the number of different words in the revised policy: the latest version does adopt most of the work group’s suggested language. However, the proclamation is inaccurate if the word “substantial” refers to the punitive intent of the original policy: making statements as a private citizen can still be cause for dismissal. That has not changed.

This new policy is at odds with itself. It begins by walking towards the light of open, unfettered inquiry, but then turns its back, barricading itself behind its insistence upon censure.

In contradicting itself, the policy also negates itself.

It is a deft piece of sophistry. In seeming to grant the academic freedoms its critics have sought, it initially lulls readers into thinking that the Regents have at last heard and understood. But then, as it approaches the home stretch, it gives us 6.b.3 — which is nearly the same as 6.b. in the original. At that point, previous assurances of “the Kansas Board of Regents’ commitment to the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom” wither before those vague “best interests of the university,” impairing discipline, and all the rest.  The promised oasis of academic freedom turns out to have been a mirage, after all — a lovely, enticing mirage. But a mirage, just the same.

The Kansas Board of Regents is inviting comments on this new policy (once you click on the link, scroll down to the bottom of the page) until this Friday, May 2nd, at 5pm.  So.  Please comment!  It does not seem to be restricted to faculty, staff, or students of Regents universities.  So,… if you’d like to voice your opinion, please do.

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