Off Kilter On Campus

College campuses have always been curious enclaves, removed from the hurly-burly of normal life.  The concentration of young students, fresh from the restraints of their childhood homes, exposed to new ideas and groups and exercising their personal freedoms for the first time, makes for a kind of hot-house atmosphere where superheated emotions and actions can come to seem almost normal.

That’s a big part of the reason why colleges are such a fertile ground for protests.  It’s been that way since at least the ’60s.  The reasons for the protests can change — when I was in college in the late ’70s, after the Vietnam War had ended and the economy was in the dumper, some students worried about their job prospects were actually agitating to let the CIA back on campus to recruit students — but the fact of protests is almost an assumed part of the college experience.  If you’re not going to protest in college, you probably won’t protest anything, ever.

So I’m not worried about the existence of protests at colleges.  Nor does it concern me if college presidents decide to resign in the face of protests, as happened at the University of Missouri.  I obviously don’t know the full back story of what’s been happening at Mizzou, but I doubt that a little unrest, standing alone, would be sufficient to topple a university president.  If it was, the president probably wasn’t that suited to serve as the ultimate decision-maker in such a stilted environment.

f8ede305-f224-42bc-82a1-7df2166210f7_cx0_cy5_cw0_mw1024_s_n_r1What bothers me, though, is that the recent incidents at campuses like Missouri and Dartmouth indicate that students don’t really seem to understand the full range of freedoms that we are entitled to exercise in America.  In a well-publicized incident at the University of Missouri, students congregating in a public space prevented a journalist from taking photos and exercising his indisputable First Amendment rights to do so.  (Even worse, the student actions were apparently supported by an assistant professor of mass media studies, who obviously should know better.)  More recently, at Dartmouth, a Black Lives Matter demonstration saw protesters entering private study spaces, disrupting, physically harassing, and shouting obscenities at students who were studying for exams rather than joining in the protest.

These incidents, and others, make you wonder what students are being taught on college campuses these days.  If an assistant professor of mass media studies doesn’t understand how the First Amendment works, then perhaps it’s not the students’ fault, and college administrators need to do a better job of hiring instructors.  It also makes you wonder about how media-savvy the current crop of student protestors are, too.  The old-line protestors of the ’60s craved every bit of media attention because they understood it would help their cause; they would no more have tried to block a photographer than they would have listened to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians in their dorm rooms.  Were the Mizzou students afraid that Mom and Dad might see that they were out on the quad, camping in tents?

The key point of it all is understanding of, and tolerance for, the rights of others.  We tolerate student protests for various causes because they have the right to assemble and advocate for whatever changes they wish.  But journalists have the right to cover those protests and take photographs without being blocked, pushed, or harassed, and students who exercise their rights not to join the protests of others have the right to make that decision without being pressured or verbally or physically intimidated.

Some people are calling today’s college students pampered crybabies.  That may be true, but it’s only true in the sense that it has always been true for the last 50 years, where college campuses have increasingly become a kind of zone of alternate reality.  (Visit a college campus and look at the recreational and social facilities that colleges are building to attract students, and you’ll see lots of tangible evidence that inevitably will lead students to think they’re special.)  The real problem isn’t pampering, it’s education — and the protestors ultimately will learn a very hard lesson when they leave the rarified land of ivory towers and encounter the hard realities of a world in which others aren’t going to hesitate to enforce their rights.  The first college agitator who thinks he can stage a sit-down strike to force his unpleasant boss into quitting, or bully his co-workers into supporting his approach to workplace politics, is going to find himself with a pink slip and an abrupt career change.

It would be better for the students and their future lives and careers if they learned that lesson while still on campus.

The Arc Of Playboy

Playboy has announced that, beginning next March, it will no longer feature photographs of completely naked women.  Sure, there will still be a “Playmate of the Month” — whether there will be a centerfold is still up in the air — but the pictures will be of the PG-13 variety, with women in provocative poses.  It will be part of a redesign of the magazine, which will continue to feature interviews and articles and fiction and a sex columnist but will have more content about liquor and more visual art.

Playboy is struggling to remain relevant in today’s internet world, where photographs of naked women, and beyond, can be found with a few keystrokes.  First published in 1953, Playboy has long been credited for helping to usher in an America with a less puritanical attitude about sex — but its high point passed by decades ago.  Its best-selling issue, which sold more than 7 million copies, was published in November 1972.  Its circulation is down to about 800,000 now.  Other magazines that featured similar content no longer exist.

I haven’t seen a Playboy in years, but I remember the ’60s and ’70s, where Playboy was sold in drugstores from a little rack, separate from the rest of the magazines.  Sometimes the rack was behind the counter, but sometimes it was tantalizingly placed out in the store itself, potentially available to inspection by curious teenage boys who’d heard about it from other kids at school.  Would they have the nerve to pick up a copy and quickly riffle its pages, hoping to catch a peek at a bare breast and not be yelled at by the shopkeeper or humiliatingly seen by a Mom in the neighborhood?  Those days are long gone.

I’m not wistful about the arc of Playboy‘s rise and decline; I’ve often thought that Hugh Hefner is one of those people who has skillfully managed the media to obtain better press and more attention than his actual cultural significance merits.  But Playboy‘s decision to yield the field to the porn sites is an interesting development.  Playboy‘s website stopped displaying nude photos some time ago, and it reports that the average age of its website visitors declined — the teenage boy effect, perhaps? — and its web traffic increased.

Now they will try that experiment with the magazine, and we will finally learn the answer to an age-old question:  do people actually read Playboy for the articles?

Final Thoughts On Same-Sex Marriage, And America

The Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling has America talking.  It’s one of those events that can’t help but cause people of all persuasions and perspectives to stop and reflect — not so much on the relative merit of the Supreme Court’s opinion as a matter of constitutional jurisprudence, but rather on the fascinating, shifting, never-set-in-stone course of public opinion in our country.

In many recent conversations with friends, people have shaken their heads in wonderment at the speed with which people in the country have accepted the concept of same-sex relationships and, ultimately, same-sex marriage.  It’s hard to think of any other issue, during my lifetime, where prevailing public opinion seems to have shifted more rapidly.  Millennials have had a lot to do with this change.  At a recent dinner party, one of our friends was relating a conversation she had with her Millennial son about sexual orientation, and he said:  “Mom, to us it’s like being left-handed.”  I thought that was a really interesting — and encouraging — perspective.

On another level, the issue of same-sex marriage shows that, in America, if you wait long enough and pay attention, you’ll notice that things often come full circle.

Those of us who lived through the ’60s and ’70s remember that the avant garde, liberal position in those days was that marriage was passe.  Some people advocated free love and “open relationships” and argued that true commitment couldn’t really be based on a mere piece of paper, others derided marriage as a quaint throwback to the outdated notions of prior generations that could only stifle personal expression, still others pointed to the increasing divorce statistics and argued that the realities of the modern world meant that old-fashioned marriage simply could not work in the fast-paced modern world.  Of course, those arguments didn’t stop most of us from getting married, anyway.

During the ’60s and ’70s who would have predicted that, decades later, the issue of the right to engage in a legal marriage, in all of its get a license from a public agency, say your vows in front of the world, traditional glory, would be at the very forefront of the social change agenda?

The Long, Hot Summer

There was rioting in Baltimore Saturday night.  Demonstrators protesting the death of Freddie Gray broke windows, smashed storefronts, threw rocks, and vandalized cars.  Gray died from spinal injuries a week after being arrested by police, and his funeral is today.  The Baltimore protests follow protests last year in Ferguson, Missouri.

Gray’s death, the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, and other recent incidents involving African-Americans and police have raised tensions in our urban communities.  One incident follows on the heels of another, and the barrage seems to be having a cascading effect.  Many African-Americans feel that they are being racially targeted and, at times, brutally mistreated by the police, and the police in turn feel that they are under siege and unfairly maligned for a handful of incidents out of thousands of uneventful apprehensions and arrests.

Those of us who lived during the ’60s remember summers where rioting and violent clashes with police seemed to be routine and block after block of inner cities in America were looted, vandalized, and left gutted and smoking by arson.  Many neighborhoods that were destroyed never recovered and are still haunted ruins even now, decades later.  The ’60s were an especially turbulent time for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean what happened then could never happen now.  Simple protests can turn into riots when people feel sufficiently desperate and hopeless.

At this point, many of us are holding our breath and hoping that we can avoid another high-profile incident that might prove to be the tipping point.  Having lived through the ’60s, I have no desire to see another long, hot summer.

The Inner Sergeant Schultz

The other day I made a reference to people channeling their inner Sergeant Schultz.  The comment met with baffled silence, because the people to whom I made the comment had no idea who Sergeant Schultz was.  It was a sad but instructive moment.

Those old enough to have watched Hogan’s Heroes, of course, would remember the portly, bumbling prison guard who craved sweets and schapps, feared being sent to the Eastern front, and supposedly kept an eye on Colonel Hogan and his fellow prisoners of war who were actively working for the Allied cause even while incarcerated in Stalag 13.  Schultz’s catch phrase, always said with a cheesy German accent after Hogan’s band had blown up a munitions dump or snuck a valued escapee through enemy lines, was:  “I know nothing.  Nothing!”  And his comment usually prompted the equally inept Stalag 13 commandant, Colonel Klink, to squint through his monocle, frown like he had just smelled a fart, and say:  “Schuuultzzzz!”

Hogan’s Heroes has been off the air for decades; it probably isn’t shown in reruns even on the most cut-rate cable channels.  It was a ridiculous show with a ludicrous premise, of course, but Sergeant Schultz was a giant in the pantheon of ’60s sitcom characters.  Now he has vanished into the vast forgotten pool that includes the likes of Corporal Agarn on F Troop and Mr. Haney from Green Acres — and I’ll have to come up with another shorthand way of referring to know-nothingism.

Keeping Track Of Uncle Mack

10502429_944538671533_2387090454819837848_nFacebook obviously has its faults, but it’s got one huge virtue — it makes it so much easier to keep track of what your friends and family members are doing.  Take Uncle Mack, for example.  What’s the lawyer/saxophonist/actor/occasional Webner House contributor in the family up to?  It turns out he’s been working on a film called The Orangeburg Massacre.  Calhoun ‘da Creator’ Cornwell is the motivating force behind the movie, and his Facebook page has lots of information about it, including the photo above in which Uncle Mack is prominently featured.  A trailer for the film is due in the near future, and I’ll post it when I see it.

The Orangeburg Massacre is the name given to the incident in which South Carolina Highway Patrolmen opened fire on students at South Carolina State College, who had been protesting in an effort to achieve desegregation of a bowling alley.  Three African-American students were killed and and 27 people were wounded in the shooting, which occurred on February 8, 1968 — more than three years before the much more well known Kent State shootings.  Does anyone doubt that the relative notoriety of the two incidents has at least some relationship to the race of the students who were victims?  It is wonderful that a film is being made about the Orangeburg Massacre, 45 years later.

Some people retire and do nothing except work on their tans and frequent Early Bird specials at local restaurants; others use their newfound free time to explore new interests and expand their horizons.  Uncle Mack is squarely in the latter camp, and I think what he is doing is pretty cool. I don’t know anything about the movie or his role, but I am proud of his willingness to tackle it and, we can hope, contribute to greater awareness of a shameful, racist chapter in American history.

The Sounds Of A ’60s Summer

There was the ever-present throb of fans, because no one had air conditioning.  Square fan units that fit into the bottom of a window that you could yell into and have your voice emerge, chopped and distorted, on the other side.  Rotating fans that whirred from side to side, with streamers tied to their wire covers blowing in the breeze.  Standing fans in the corner that sent air circling around the room.  They didn’t make the air any cooler, but they helped the “circulation.”

Screen doors creaking open and slamming shut with a bang as kids came and went and exasperated Moms said:  “In or out?”  Baseball cards attached to bicycle frames with a clothes pin that were strummed by the spokes of the rear wheel and made a bike sound like a motorcycle.  The hum of riding lawnmowers, as the neighborhood Dads cut the grass on their acre-sized lots.  The fat from cheeseburgers sizzling on hot charcoal.

And, as the evening arrived and shadows grew long, boxy Zenith and RCA radio units were turned on.  The sounds of ’60s music floated out the open windows through the screens into the humid summer nights as the adults gathered on patios and kids ran around, waving sparklers or catching lightning bugs or playing flashlight tag.  Martha Reeve and the Vandellas and Dancing in the Street.  Frank Sinatra and Strangers in the Night.  The early Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Four Seasons.  Dionne Warwick and Petula Clark.  And, most of all, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, whose music perfectly captured the ’60s summer mood.  Happy, bopping music, light and upbeat, infused with optimism, as the adults talked quietly and laughed about last night’s Tonight Show or reenacted one of the bits from the latest great Bill Cosby or Bob Newhart comedy album.

When bedtime came, the beat of fans was still there, accompanied by the chirping of crickets and the buzz insects in the sultry air.