Horror In State College

The story told by the grand jury report on former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky is truly horrific.  It is a terrible thing to read, and an even more terrible thing to contemplate, because it says deeply disturbing things about our society.

Of course, the allegations of Sandusky’s wrongful interactions with underage boys are just that — allegations that have not been proven in a court of law.  However, what seems to be undisputed is that various Penn State officials were told of the alleged misconduct and nevertheless failed to report that information to the police so that the matter could be properly investigated.  This inexplicable inaction was the crucial and unforgivable failure.  By not alerting the appropriate authorities, the Penn State officials effectively assumed the role of investigator, prosecutor, judge, and jury and eliminated any chance that the criminal justice system could work as intended.  I have yet to read any rational, sensible explanation for this awful failure — and I frankly cannot imagine that any such explanation exists.

The story of what happened, and didn’t happen, at Penn State is not a sports story.  Instead, it is a story about an institution that lost its moral compass and its ability to distinguish right from wrong, an institution that did not comply with the most basic responsibilities and moral and ethical obligations imposed on all members of a civiilized society. How could such a thing happen?  How could an institution of higher education have lost its way so profoundly?

Edited to add:  Last night the Penn State Board of Trustees fired the University’s Preisdent, Graham Spanier, and its legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno, for their conduct in connection with the scandal.

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Hangin’ in the Treme

Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux in Treme

When I was sick with a cold last week, I spent almost three entire days watching seasons 3 and 4 of The Wire, one episode after another. It was so enjoyable that I almost regretted getting better. I’m not sure which I would prefer: to have a stuffy nose and a scratchy throat while observing McNulty, Freamon and Daniels struggling against a miasma of crime and byzantine government institutions, or to be well and step out into the dull real world.

After my personal Wire marathon, I realized that I had seen every season of the show, some of them twice. Yet, I was addicted to the writers’ point of view of America. The solution was for me to give Treme a shot, since it was created by David Simon, the creator of The Wire, and shares much of The Wire‘s writers and cast.

I’d been reluctant to check out Treme because it has a reputation for being boring. When HBO approved a second season for the show, I remember seeing comments on the internet to the effect of, “maybe something will happen this season.”

I suspect that the people who claim that nothing happens in Treme only liked The Wire for its gunfight scenes. There isn’t much of that in Treme (only one scene that I can remember featured gunshots), but the same elements that made The Wire a brilliant show are there: compelling characters and a realistic, informative portrayal of American life.

One of the many themes Treme shares with The Wire is the inefficacy of America’s government. Both shows believe that America’s true character is in its people, not in the actions of its government, which is depicted as a distant, blunt force controlled clumsily by selfish hands. See, for example, the plotline in season 3 of The Wire in which Major Colvin establishes a drug-tolerance-zone (“Hamsterdam”) that works wonders for the community but that the police commissioners shut down because it makes them look bad.

Treme concentrates on the way the federal government bungled its response to Katrina. One of the show’s main characters, Albert “Big Chief” Labreaux (played by Clarke Peters, Lester Freamon in The Wire), occupies a housing project that was shut down despite the fact that it wasn’t damaged much in the storm. It’s implied that the “fucking fucks” in the federal and local government (as they are called by John Goodman’s character, a Tulane professor), aren’t eager to see New Orleans’ poor, black population return.

Another character, LaDonna Batiste-Williams, spends most of the season trying to figure out what happened to her brother, who was mistakenly jailed hours before the storm and was then lost in the system. With the help of an attorney working pro bono, she circumvents the defense mechanisms of the local government to discover that her brother died from head wounds that he supposedly got from a fall from a bunkbed. She finds his corpse stored in the back of a refrigerated semi-truck, next to dozens of other unidentified bodies.

One of the shows most powerful subplots, I thought, involved LaDonna’s ex-husband Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce, who played Bunk in The Wire), a trombonist who’s always desperate for a gig. After Antoine accidentally bumps his trombone into the side of a police car, the police arrest him. His instrument and his livelihood disappear. He is rescued by a Japanese man who loves New Orleans’ music so much that he flew in after the storm to help struggling musicians. When the man buys him a shiny new trombone, Antoine looks sort of sad and confused, and that’s the way I felt too. Why must a foreigner step in to protect New Orleans’ culture from the local government?

The characters in Treme come from different ethnic and class backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: a passion for New Orleans’ culture. In the first scene of the first episode, John Goodman’s character, Creighton Bernette, throws a British journalist’s microphone into the Gulf after the journalist suggests that New Orleans isn’t worth saving because its music and cuisine are over the hill. In addition to occupying the housing projects, “Big Chief” Lambreaux does all he can to bring his Indian tribe back to New Orleans to perform their traditional dances in feathery costumes.

At first I didn’t like Steve Zahn’s character, Davis McAlary, a goatee’d, overenthusiastic white guy who has disavowed his old-money family in order to embrace New Orleans’ traditional music and squalor. By the end of the season, however, I felt the same way about him that many of the other characters seem to: his passion made him worth having around. In the last episode, he tries to persuade his friend not to flee to New York by spending a day showing her the cream of New Orleans’ culture. His friend, a creole chef, is forced to move after her business fails due to damages done to her restaurant by Katrina.

Treme’s big message is that New Orleans is worth saving, and that it would save itself even without the support of its country. It seems ridiculous that a show would need to argue for saving a city with hundreds of years of history and culture behind it, not to mention millions of inhabitants, but the belief that New Orleans should be abandoned because of its unfortunate geographic position is disturbingly common. I’ve heard it not only from the media but from people I’ve met in real life. The fact that the wealthiest nation in the world has to even consider whether it wants to spend the money to save one of its oldest cities shows a big flaw in America’s culture.

Apptitude Test

I’ve replaced my inert BlackBerry with an iPhone.  If you buy any Apple product, you are of course legally required to at least try to be as cool as your Apple device.  Being an iPhone owner, I therefore necessarily must act as cool as possible.  But — God help me! — I don’t know how.

The route to coolness with an iPhone is clear:  have cool apps, and then adroitly display them to your fellow iPhonistas.  For example, at Friday night’s Bob Seger concert, the Red Sox Fan wowed our guests by showing them an app that was a lighter that he flicked open and lit — for use, obviously, in calling for encores at rock shows.  Pretty cool!  Another fellow concertgoer with a taste for warm chocolate desserts gave me a run-down on her iPhone, with dozens of dazzling apps that she deftly demonstrated as they spun by.  Even more cool!  But how do you find that kind of stuff?

The app store icon on my iPhone has more than 20 different categories.  Each has dozens — if not hundreds — of options.  Do you just start with “games” and look at each option in each category?  How do you confirm that an app is as cool as it looks?  Can you get some kind of trial period before you commit to spend the $0.99 on Angry Birds?  (Hey, those $0.99 purchases could add up!)  Do you take word-of-mouth recommendations from friends?  Do you regularly check the “What’s Hot” tab to make sure that you are completely up-to-date?

I confess that I am feeling a bit overwhelmed.  I’m sure there’s an app for that — but where?