Even the losers get lucky sometimes

So many gripes, so little time. This is my last column of the year, folks, so I’ve got to get it all off my chest now or forever hold my peace. I obviously can’t do justice here to every topic I didn’t get a chance to cover, but I’ll just throw some out there as food for thought. I also have a few accolades to deliver and some new orifices to rip.
Let’s start with tenure. Personally, I could give a rat’s ass about making sure professors have jobs for life. It’s never made sense to me that even when an entire campus closes we must find jobs for displaced profs — it would be nice if we did, but we don’t live in a perfect world.
However, there is a much more vital issue I wish would get more attention — academic freedom.
I’m not just talking about the right of a professor to say communism is a preferable form of government, though that’s important. I’m talking about saving one of the last places where a free flow of information and ideas is not only allowed but encouraged. Television and radio stations, book and magazine publishers and newspapers are largely run by a few huge conglomerates. If the people running those institutions don’t want certain facts disseminated, they likely won’t be.
I know professors are sometimes seen as lofty people with cushy jobs who can get away with minimal work because no one can fire them. While that may be true in a small number of cases, the profs I’ve seen are overloaded with teaching, research and writing books. They don’t strike me as lazy, and academic freedom is too valuable to risk in order to address the few who might abuse its protections.
Tenure protects professors’ right to tell it like it is. Defense contractors General Electric (NBC) and Westinghouse (CBS) probably aren’t going to tell you about excessive and/or illegal practices of the military. Who’s going to do justice to the story about how Archer Daniels Midland (“supermarket to the world”) paid millions of dollars in fines for a price-fixing scam — the stations that rely so heavily on its advertising?
Newspapers can’t even run stories explaining how not to get ripped off when buying a car because all the auto dealers will pull their ads. A few years ago when the Duluth News-Tribune ran an accurate story about how to sell your own home, realty companies went berserk, so the paper ran a retraction and apologized for the story.
The huge corporations are not about to spread negative information about “the man” or question the system. (For great information about media conglomerates, check out these two articles by The Nation at www.thenation.com/extra/publish/map1.htm and www.thenation.com/issue/960603/0603mill.htm.)
It’s becoming almost impossible for independent stations and publications to stay that way (Hello, REV 105, City Pages and The Reader), and if professors lose the right to say nearly whatever they want without fear of retribution, we’ll have just about nowhere to turn for uncensored information.
Speaking of which, I hope everyone has a chance to read the book “Censored 1997: The News that Didn’t Make the News — The Year’s Top 25 Censored News Stories,” put out by Seven Stories Press.
The first story alone is enough to make it worth your $16.95: It seems NASA plans to launch a space probe in October, called the Cassini, containing 72 pounds of plutonium. The fun part: Not only is it being sent up in a rocket that has a history of problems, but the probe is also scheduled to come whizzing by our own beloved planet during its trip.
According to the article, “The problem occurs if the probe enters the Earth’s atmosphere during the flyby. If Cassini comes in too close, it could burn up in the atmosphere and disperse deadly plutonium across the planet. According to NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Mission, if in the flyby, an inadvertent reentry occurred, approximately 5 billion of the estimated world population at the time … could receive 99 percent or more of the radiation exposure.'”
I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking this isn’t such a great idea. NASA would have to come up with some pretty compelling reason to risk nuking 5 billion people in the name of space exploration, and I suspect it doesn’t have one.
The other 24 stories in the book deal with topics such as corporate welfare, white-collar crime, derivative investments and toxic waste. Please pick up a copy — I got mine at Barnes & Noble, which I found a bit surprising. This is the same store that stocks Rush Limbaugh’s books in the social science section while it stashes the book “The Way Things Aren’t,” which debunks Limbaugh’s lies, in the humor rack. Go figure.
Another issue I would have liked to address at greater length is China. It sickens me that a country where the government shoots, imprisons and tortures political dissidents is our “most favored nation” trading partner. I don’t buy the line that if we sell them our products they will treat their citizens more fairly. We clearly aren’t making a difference in China’s policies, yet we continue to do business with them. At least this year when Clinton recommended China get MFN status he acknowledged we didn’t really have any control over its political misdeeds. But, he said, trade with the huge nation would benefit U.S. companies.
OK, so if we don’t care that China is a communist country with a horrible human rights record (this is also a nation that has little kids living in sweat shops making toys for American children), why are we so anti-Cuba? U.S. officials have tried to assassinate Fidel Castro on several occasions, and the Clinton administration recently floated a plan to offer billions of dollars in foreign aid to Cuba if someone would oust Castro by whatever means needed. (They denied this was tantamount to putting a price on his head.) So, let me see if I understand this correctly: communist China good, communist Cuba bad. Well, as long as we’re making money I guess I shouldn’t fuss, right?
The rest of the topics I wanted to address will just have to slide. There will be no rantings about the steam plant (the University should move it and stop burning so much coal); the Route 52 buses (we should keep them beyond next year); school vouchers (Arne Carlson shouldn’t use taxpayer money to support private institutions while leaving public schools in worse straits); affirmative action (it’s not perfect but we can’t seem to come up with anything better); TV news (previews of what Oprah will discuss the next day and features about cute puppies are not news); the regents (most, but not all, are a bunch of buffoons who would rather blow hot air than really study and address University issues — attend one of their meetings if you doubt me); welfare reform (we’re being penny-wise and pound-foolish by cutting people off); Paula Jones (the Supreme Court shouldn’t have let her case move forward while Clinton is in office regardless of whether or not Jones is telling the truth); disclaimers on car ads (are we really supposed to be able to read that huge mess of tiny text that flashes on the screen for three seconds?); towing companies (are evil and corrupt); the University’s second-language requirement (je ne l’aime pas).
On a more personal level, I have to take a minute to say how gratifying it’s been to read all the e-mail, snail mail and faxes sent in by readers. It’s an honor that people look at the column in the first place, but that they (you) take the time to write in just blows my mind. I’ve savored every word you’ve written.
Running into strangers who recognize me has been weird but interesting, especially the first time: I was at Boynton and had just found out I had pre-cancerous growth on my cervix. After getting that lovely bit of news, I went to the pharmacy to pick up more birth-control pills, and as I stood there freaking out and feeling like I was going to faint, the pharmacist exclaimed, “Hey, I know you!” and said a kind word about the columns. His comment was the only bright spot in the day and I think it saved me from having a mini-breakdown. (For those of you interested in my cervix — whomever you may be — everything was taken care of and I’m in the clear.)
Writing a column every week can be unnerving. It’s not like reporting where the author stays in the background and just shares what other people said. Columnists have their pictures in the paper and put out their thoughts and ideas for all to see. And to criticize.
A majority of the people who didn’t agree with my columns made well-crafted arguments that had merit, even though I didn’t agree with them. But some didn’t. Can I have a moment to live out every columnist’s fantasy and respond to a couple of the idiotic letters to the editor that we’ve published? Like the woman who wrote in after reading a piece I did on the troubled men’s athletics department:
“I’m not saying there aren’t problems with the athletics programs here at the University,” she wrote. “However, why is it necessary to always attack the football team?” (Because its players keep getting arrested? I also don’t think one column qualifies as always attacking it.) “They had a losing season, just lost their coach and now you want to cut down their character as well?”
She went on to say I shouldn’t have identified the arrested players, even though their names had already been published in news accounts, and that she’s “sure the gentleman’s name (Ansel Carter) Kris put in her article for fifth-degree assault, actually getting a misdemeanor, would like his story cleared. Especially since fifth-degree assault is about equal to a parking ticket, hummmm maybe that’s why he plead guilty.”
Excuse me? A parking ticket? First of all, he beat a man in the face with a pool cue, leaving him with two broken bones, a cut that needed five stitches and an eye that was swollen shut. Try having someone you’ve never met do that to you and tell me it’s the same as a parking violation.
Second, these guys are in the spotlight because they are supposed to represent our school and because they get scholarships to do so.
Third, it’s too bad I didn’t wait to write the column; I could have included Gopher basketball star Courtney James, who was arrested in April for assault — more specifically, for allegedly hurling a phone book at his girlfriend’s face, throwing her to the ground and covering her nose and mouth with his hand. Two other women have also accused him of abuse. Yeah, my column was way off base.
Then there’s the letter we published from a guy who took exception to my statement that the Defense of Marriage Act is unfair to gays and lesbians. “Gays are not denied any rights,” he wrote. “They have the exact same rights as everyone else. For example, I can marry anyone of the opposite sex who is of legal age, not related to me (this differs in every state), not already married and agrees to marry me in sound mind, provided I am in sound mind and not married. A homosexual has these exact same rights. No rights denied at all.”
OK, so a gay man can marry a woman and therefore he has the same rights as heterosexuals? Come on! Pull your head out of your virgin ass and get real. If you think being gay is evil or something, just say it. Don’t waste our time with inane arguments.
Ah, much better. I think I just felt my blood pressure drop.
That about wraps things up. This summer it’s off to the deep South for a reporting internship, then back to Minneapolis for a crash course in Spanish. Curse that second-language requirement! Afterward, I’ll take my degree and look for the best job I can get. Hopefully I’ll never have to ask anyone if they want fries with that, but you never know. Boyfriend will become Husband in summer 1998 and we’ll live happily ever after. The end.

Kris Henry welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]
Letters to the editor may be sent to [email protected]