… the art of argumentation.

Arguing in favor of increased taxpayer subsidy of the University of Hawaii’s pointless, corrupt, and wasteful football program is not going to be easy. Argumentation-wise, you’re going to have to lift your game as high as you possibly can. You’re going to have to stand on your tippy toes. You’re going to have to reach for reasons as you’ve never reached for reasons before.

It’s not surprising, then, that a local columnist fails to make the case that the governor was wrong when he recently denied the school three million additional athletics dollars. But the way he fails is instructive if you’re interested in how to write polemically.

The writer’s particular challenge is that he has absolutely no empirical evidence on his side. Almost no one goes to the games. Ever. The team is wretched. Consistently. The flagrant mismanagement of the program makes it a statewide embarrassment.

If he is going to get anywhere in making his case, he’s going to have to go straight and hard in the direction of total bullshit.

People disdain bs, but when you’ve got nowhere else to go, it can be very effective. If the subject is football, it means getting weepy and huffy and patriotic and mythic and misty-eyed as you recall past heroes on the field, the character-building power of teamwork, and the way your own university experience would have been hollow without crisp fall afternoons cheering on the lads. This approach will appeal to the typical reader’s sentimentality about football even as it allows you to sidestep the, uh, reality problem.

This particular writer opts against bs, which leaves him flailing. It leaves him to make the case against his argument. Let’s take a look.

Here’s his opening move:

[A]lmost every university athletics program in the country loses money. The debt is chronic, structural.

So … give your tax money to UH till it hurts? Because we won’t be on board with the national project of bankrupting schools via their big sports programs if we don’t? You wouldn’t want Hawaii to be left out of America’s ongoing chronic structural football indebtedness, would you?

*******************

Next move: If you don’t stop refusing to attend UH football games, you’re going to force UH to shut down the program. Then where will you have not to go on Sunday afternoons? The writer describes this terrifying scenario in appropriately terrifying terms:

UH [might have] to disband all or parts of its intercollegiate sports, including of course, football. That is a university’s nuclear option. Whatever they think of football, no university administrators anywhere want to be the ones who drop this bomb.

University administrators everywhere dream nightly of shutting down their football programs, so this wasn’t a good place for the writer to go. Again, the principle here is do not try to make your argument reality-based if you don’t have any reality-based arguments.

**************

The writer’s next move reminds us that within the category bullshit, there is good bullshit and bad bullshit. By the middle of his essay the writer has commendably turned to bullshit, but he has chosen bad. Let us see if we can follow his serpentine reasoning here.

“It is a matter of setting priorities,” [the governor] told the newspaper, as if we are talking about Political Science Department office supplies. “If UH wants athletics to be a priority, then it needs to come up with the money.”

Very tough-lovish and totally misguided. [The governor] sees the problem as a budgetary issue — a cut here, a paste there, get off your okole and do your job.

Because athletics is completely different from anything else at UH, different rules should apply.

Solving the deficit should not be on UH’s priority list at all because the deficit is the community’s and by extension the Legislature’s problem, not UH’s.

Working her way through this extraordinary set of claims, SOS concludes that the writer is saying the following.

The University of Hawaii is a conduit, a vector, a vessel, through which the football-demanding citizens of the state are granted football. The citizens demand it and the state uses their tax dollar to provide it; UH just sits there fielding a team. Therefore money must come from the legislature, not from, say, UH ticket revenue ($0).

This argument combines the reality-based mistake (no one in the state demands football) with bad bullshit (football is a public good like the railroads – the writer compares university football to Amtrak).

SOS did find one good use of bs in this piece.

Is UH football one of these valuable endeavors worth subsidizing? If the politicians think so, then they should step up, allocate the money, and defend their choice.

Be accountable for your decisions and don’t make the university do the dirty work for you.

If the Legislature or the governor does not want to take the heat for bailing out athletics in this way, fine. But don’t pass the buck and blame UH for your lack of will.

This is great because it is both emotive (government pussies!) and totally madly insanely unreality-based (martyred UH is forced to take the fall for being a faithful public servant in the provision of football). Wow.

*****************

In concluding his essay, the writer brings out the big guns.

[The governor is] putting a nail in the coffin of the university.

And why? Because he is allowing UH autonomy, the bastard.

On the surface, [the governor’s] comments support the university’s flexibility. But what he is actually doing is stressing its flexibility to do things it really does not want to do.

… “I think the university should take responsibility and make a decision about what is important,” [the governor] said to the Star-Advertiser. “If they are unable to do that, I’ll take back all the authority to line item the budget. I’d do it in a second … I’d love to do that.”

… Overall, the governor’s views have a patronizing, dismissive dad-to-teen quality.

He makes it appear that UH may not have the courage to make hard choices.

Anyone who has followed the story of the University of Hawaii for the last ten or so years (put University Hawaii in this blog’s search engine) knows that on every level it is among America’s most dysfunctional public university systems, with scandalous ever-shifting leadership, endless financial and athletic misdeeds, supine trustees, and put-upon students. The evidence is overwhelming that what the governor hints at is right: UH lacks the intelligence and the will to govern itself.

It is bad bullshit for this writer to complain that a university which deserves to patronized is being patronized. It is positively Orwellian for him to say that a university which lacks the capacity and the courage to make even easy choices has the courage and capacity to make hard choices. Where is the chorus of Hawaiians outraged by the governor’s actions and comments in regard to the state’s university? If you took Amtrak away, I think you’d hear about it from a lot of Americans.

Rather than struggle against his absence of all grounded argument, this writer would have done better to focus relentlessly upon the transcendent glory of football, adding here and there some abstract anti-government references.

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7 Responses to “Scathing Online Schoolmarm Talks About …”

  1. TAFKAU Says:

    UD, I’m not sure I read this quite the same way you did. True, Milner is likely a football fan and some of his prose is ridiculously alarmist (“nail in the coffin of the university”). But I think there’s some validity to his main point: if Governor Ige and the legislature want to save (or end) UH football, then they should make that clear both through their public statements and their budgetary choices. They know that no UH president can kill off football and survive (it’s far more popular on the islands than the Aloha Stadium attendance figures would suggest), so they figure they can leave the tough choices to the administration and not risk their own electoral survival.

    Having lived in Honolulu for several years, I can attest to the fact that any anti-government references directed at Hawaii’s politicians are richly deserved. Among the problems that have paralyzed state government are rampant homelessness, obscenely crowded highways, inferior public education, and (as you point out) a terribly disfunctional university system that is up to its goal posts in debt.

    Everyone knows that the UH football program is unsustainable. Nobody wants to be held accountable for getting rid of it. So it will continue on unsustainably for many years to come. Just one of the many contradictions facing this otherwise beautiful state. Aloha.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    TAFKAU: I take your point, but what can it mean to say that football is more popular than attendance at games would suggest? Maybe it’s popular in secondary schools or whatever, but almost total lack of attendance at UH games must mean that it has virtually no popularity on the university level.

    You say that everyone knows football at UH can’t go on, but no one can kill it. One of the reasons I tend to focus on UH is that this situation is just the extreme version of the situation at quite a few university football programs. I actually think that UH might close down football in a few years – maybe temporarily shut it down. So I think of UH as a kind of precursor, a place to watch, as the university football model begins to fall apart in the absence of people willing to attend games, and in the presence of bankrupting budgets. Reports from the UH stadium are so absurd, so pathetic, as no one shows up to watch the latest loss, that something there must change soon. Milner wouldn’t write his ridiculously alarmist piece unless he were aware of this.

  3. Anon Says:

    UH should take its cue from one of the few state universities that eliminated football and yet somehow continues to survive–the University of Vermont. They’ve put their savings into sports where they have a comparative advantage in attracting athletes, like hockey, skiing, and the like. UH ought to sink its efforts into beach volleyball.

  4. Derek Says:

    Boston University, though private, also got rid of a football program historically far more successful that Hawaii’s and as a university is doing just fine. And while I realize we’re comparing apples and horse apples, but Swarthmore dropped football several years ago (I was recruited to play football at Swarthmore when I was a senior in high school, a pretty good testimony to a program going nowhere) and I’m thinking its academic reputation is just a hard better than Hawaii’s.

    dcat

  5. TAFKAU Says:

    First, let me be clear that I am not defending UH football. I didn’t grow up on the islands, and the team means nothing to me. I suspect that most students would prefer not to pay for it, and most faculty and administrators (as UD assumes) would love to shut it down. It is, as I said before, unsustainable.

    But Hawaii is not Vermont, and there is a large and generally well-heeled core of locals who live and die with UH football, many of whom eschewed UH the university in favor of schools with stronger academic reputations on the mainland. But the green hats and shirts are everywhere, and on Saturday every bar–except maybe in Waikiki–is packed with fans. Low attendance at the actual games is more reflective of fair-weather fans and students who only follow the team when it’s winning. Many of the most hardcore fans never attend the games. (Football is odd like that; I have a friend who has been a diehard fan of one NFL team for 40 years without ever having bought a ticket.)

    So the legislature and UH administration will continue to play an impotent game of chicken with each other, and UH football will persist for a simple reason: whichever side blinks first, administrators or legislators, will be seeking a new career in short order. Think about what happened at UAB (an even less sustainable or excusable football program than the one at UH), and multiply the ferocity of that response by 100.

    It sometimes takes courage to do the obvious and reponsible thing, and anyone who looks to university administrators or Hawaii politicians for that kind of courage is hehena.

  6. Margaret Soltan Says:

    TAFKAU: I see what you mean. As you describe it, UH football has a strange cultural significance on the islands. It means little to the actual UH community, but much (in a symbolic way) to significant numbers of locals.

    Yet although well-heeled, the locals you describe do not seem to give money to the program (or support it by going to games, buying season tickets, whatever). Indeed if it’s true that these fans rejected UH in favor of better mainland schools, maybe their support is a kind of guilty gesture, or pitying gesture… They’ve come back home and done better than UH grads, let’s say, but they still feel a need to express a sense of connection to their roots, and wearing the school’s colors and watching the team with your friends at the bar does the trick.

    In other words, they want to keep their distance from the reality of UH, and UH football. And who can blame them? Pretty much everyone is like that – hence the empty stadium.

    So that’s all very interesting – but I’ll just say again that this absurdist drama, this expensive, virtually empty stage, can’t go on forever. Some president or other is going to have to, well, take one for the team.

  7. Sean O Says:

    Think Keynes said: “Something that can’t go on forever won’t.”

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