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Ethnic Intimidation Case Brings Back Memories of 'Twinkie Defense'

by on January 20, 2014 6:25 AM

I laughed out loud last week when I saw the headline that said "Attorney: Student Accused in Ethnic Intimidation Unaware of Swastika Meaning."

Last November, Penn State again made news when a fraternity, whose members are predominantly Jewish, was vandalized. Cars outside of the fraternity house, the house and the dumpsters near the house were spray painted with graffiti that included anti-Semitic language, references to the KKK and swastikas as well as sexual pictures and words.

Local police, with help from the public, were eventually able to identify and charge two men from another fraternity for criminal mischief, disorderly conduct and ethnic intimidation.

"His actions were born out of complete ignorance of what he was doing," said the young man's attorney in a statement last week. "A lot of American kids, quite frankly, are clueless about history and he's in that category."

Is this just another case of what is often referred to as a "Twinkie Defense" or are today's young people that uninformed?

Perhaps, it's a little of both.

The term Twinkie Defense came out of the 1978 shooting of San Francisco supervisor and activist Harvey Milk. Lawyers for defendant Dan White attempted to argue diminished capacity and depression as evidenced by his unhealthy diet including sugary sodas and Twinkies. The media in San Francisco immediately coined the term Twinkie Defense for outrageous and ridiculous legal strategies employed by attorneys to get their clients acquitted.

The assertion that a 19 or 20 year old college student doesn't know the meaning of a Swastika sounds a lot like the claim that "the Twinkie made me do it."

On the other hand, is it possible that a young adult in today's society could actually be that unaware of world history?

Every semester in the leadership class that I teach at Penn State, we do a "70s Day." The purpose of the day is to open up discussions about the personal risk that leaders experience when putting themselves out in front of a group, as well as provide the students with an introduction to event management.

In the class, I do a trivia Match Game from the 1970s game show. I have come to expect outrageous responses that are both hysterically funny but also unbelievable when it comes to today's young adults and their knowledge of American history and culture.

Name a political figure from the 1970s. More times than I can count, I hear "John F. Kennedy."

Name a woman who came to fame in the 1970s. I hear "Marilyn Monroe."

Name a teen idol from the 1970s. I hear "Elvis." (Elvis died in 1977 at age 42 which hardly makes him a peer of Donny Osmond).

In a famous study that was conducted in 2007 by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, over 14,000 college freshmen and college seniors were tested at over 50 universities using a basic high school civics and history test. The results were astonishing. Harvard seniors on average scored the highest at 69.56% (a D on most grading scales) and the average scores for all freshmen (50.4%) and seniors (54.2%) suggest that our nation's college students earn an F in history.

Emory University Professor Mark Bauerlein takes it even further. Dr. Bauerlein has researched and written extensively on what he calls "The Dumbest Generation." By examining factors such as types of reading materials and time spent reading, Bauerlein suggests that the general knowledge of today's young people is greatly compromised. He suggests that technology and the internet, time spent watching TV, as well as our education and social systems of today (i.e. grade inflation that reflects concern for student's self- esteem rather than an understanding of the subject) means that the current generation is not as informed as those who have come before.

Fortunately, "I didn't know" is rarely an acceptable excuse for breaking the law. If I were the prosecutor, I would ask the obvious question. Of all of the possible symbols that they could have selected to spray paint, do they really want us to believe it was just a coincidence that it was a swastika?

My guess is that the young men in question clearly understood the meaning of the words and symbols that they sprayed on the fraternity house. If I were the prosecutor in this case, I would get access to their high school and even elementary school curricula which will likely show that they learned about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust at some point along the way. I would ask to see their Penn State transcripts to see which general education courses they have taken in the humanities or in social and behavioral science.

This story has holes in it the size of a Twinkie.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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