Sunday, January 09, 2011

OK, you win

I don't remember exactly when and where this incident happened.  I think it was in the York, PA school district, and I think it was possibly between 1995 and 2000.

One of the most treasured and despised bits of the U.S. Constitution is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."  This has been interpreted to mean (to borrow the language favored by Thomas Jefferson) a separation of Church and State.  One of the upshots of this - not actually put into action until the efforts of one woman - is the elimination of overt religious activity in public schools.  Prior to her efforts, Christian prayer in schools was the norm and was required of all students, Christian or otherwise.  Afterwards, even religious trappings commonly associated with holidays were prohibited, though the secular items associated with these holidays were still acceptable.*

Depending on who happens to be in charge of a school board at any given time, numerous school districts try to skirt this issue, coming up with convoluted plans to obey the letter of the law while thumbing their noses at its intent.  Sometimes they don't even try to give the appearance of following the law, but just charge through in an assumption that no one will complain.

In a school district that may or may not have been in York, PA, in a time that might have been sometime between 1995 and 2000, one school decided it would just plow through and put on some display that simply ignored the general interpretation of the Establishment Clause.  I don't recall if this was some Nativity display for Christmas, or crosses for Easter, or just a display of the Ten Commandments**, an old favorite of folks wishing to stick their finger in the eye of those who hold the Establishment Clause dear.  They probably figured they were in a district which was religiously and culturally homogeneous, so the likelihood that someone would complain was low.

Someone complained.  I don't remember the details.  I believe it was a student, or a pair of students, maybe even a group of students, who fancied themselves as Pagans or Wiccans or something else that was popular among kids at the time.  (And for all I know, they might have been serious and honest about it.)  But they made an issue of the overt religiosity of the display in question, and complained that other religions were not getting similar representation, and thus, as public tax dollars were being used to fund the display, there was a clear violation of the Establishment Clause.

I don't think it went to court, which is important to the story.  I don't think there was ever an official order settling this case.  Instead the school conceded the point:  yes, it was wrong to put on a display for one religion without granting others equal time.  So this display would just be the first in a series.  After it came down, the students who raised the objection would be allowed to put up a display, in the interest of equal exposure of other cultures and religious beliefs.  It's all about education, you see.

So the Christian display came, and the Christian display went.  And then the school realized it had made a terrible mistake.  It had been wrong to even contemplate this display in the first place, let alone put it up.  They completely conceded the point that the students had originally raised:  any such display with such an overt presentation of religion clearly violated the Establishment Clause.  They had made a mistake, and had seen the error of their ways, and they would never let it happen again.

Starting with the display the students were going to put up.

See, the students were right, and the school was wrong, and had been from the start.  They should never have put that display up in the first place.  And the students' display would be just as wrong.  It would be compounding the original wrong the school had committed.  Best to just recognize the school's error and move on from there.

But the students weren't going to get to put on their heathen display.  No way no how.

I don't know how this situation ended.  I may have some of the critical details wrong, though I'm pretty sure I got the gist of the story.  The moral is, if you concede a point after conceding the point is completely moot, after you've had your way and had your say, and if the act of conceding will prevent the other guy from having his way and having his say, you have effectively gotten to have your cake and eaten it, too.  You've won by conceding.

There was a comedian who did a routine about this, about dealing with a rambunctious son.  (Maybe it was supposed to be how his father dealt with him as a child.  The comedian may or may not have been Rondell Sheridan.)  He would play a game:  let's see who can punch the other on the arm the softest.  First the kid would go, giving a light tap.  Then the father (I think) would take his turn, inflicting a punishing smack, followed by the concession "OK, you win!"  (The joke also works if the father goes first and concedes while his son is writhing in pain, and that may have been the way the joke went.  The same idea was used in the South Park episode "Mecha-Streisand.")

In 2009, the Health Care Reform legislation debate had been intentionally dragged out by Republicans so that there was no vote and no resolution prior to the summer Congressional recess, when members of Congress traditionally return home and have meetings with their constituents.  For many constituents the reaction to Health Care Reform was "meh," "whatever," or "Didn't Bill Clinton try to get this passed in 1995?  Good Lord, this is way overdue!"  But not for constituents who were taking their marching orders from right-wing radio and TV.  Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Back were busy firing up the troops.  Sarah Palin was warning about "Death Panels" that would be a natural consequence of health care reform.  This was treason, they told their loyal listeners; that guy in the White House was running roughshod over the true interests of the people of America, and was arrogantly planning to impose his own vision of America on them all.  So the voices on the radio came up with a plan for the summer:  Hijack these town hall meetings.  Shout down any opposition.  Travel en masse to wherever a member of Congress was holding a meeting - even if they weren't constituents of that member of Congress - and get their message across, loud and clear.  Particularly loud.

And that's what happened.  These people went to these meetings and vented their fury.  What they were furious about, they weren't entirely clear.  But they were mad as hell, and they weren't gonna take it anymore.  Not from Democrats, or Liberals, or Progressives.  And especially not from that Negro Mulsim Kenyan in the White House.

And it worked.  Democrats brought sheets of paper to a rock fight and were trounced.  Anyone with a genuine question or concern about Health Care Reform got drowned out by all the people screaming with rage because they had been instructed to scream with rage.  Participatory Democracy was derailed in favor of mobocracy.  Somewhere, Rush Limbaugh leaned back and lit another cigar that had been paid for by the Insurance lobby, satisfied with a job well done.

The Democrats never recovered.  The unfocused rage spiraled and coalesced.  The 2010 elections saw many Congressional Democrats swept from office by the activism of the people who had worked so hard to derail Health Care Reform.

And now it's our turn.  Republicans are everywhere.  They just got sworn into office this week.  They're not going to be able to turn this thing around, not in six months.  Not before the summer recess, and the summer town hall meetings.  Time for them to face some rage - or at least some heat - from the other side.

Today a mentally deranged and well-armed man opened fire on an open-air "town hall" sort of meeting in Arizona.  Representative Garielle Giffords, D-AZ, who was one of the Democrats targeted with crosshairs of a gunsight by Sarah Palin in an ad during the 2010 election, was shot in the head at close range.  She was seriously injured, and several other people (including a young child) were killed.  Giffords had been targeted by violence in the past, including someone who brought a weapon to a town hall meeting, and she had spoken out about the rise of violence in what passes as political rhetoric.

Maybe this is just a case of a lone psychopath operating for his own purposes.  Maybe it was someone who was influenced by the violent rhetoric expressed by Republicans and Tea Partiers.  In any event, it is likely that, starting now, constituents will have far less access to their Congressional representatives than they did before today.  

Huffington Post: The End Of Access

Anyone who tries to express Summer of Rage-level political opinion is now more likely to be arrested than to be featured on CNN and Fox News.  At last the nation is willing to recognize that there is a point when the rhetoric is so out of control that it has come to represent a serious threat to individuals and to the political process itself.  Finally the nation may be willing to see that the Summer of Rage was taking things too far.  The other side is willing to say, "OK, you were right all along" - after they've had their say and gotten their way.

*Except, for some reason, Halloween.  Thought this is a relatively recent development and may be part of a religious backlash.
**In which case they would probably have been the version used by the apostate hellbound Protestants, rather than the correct version used by Catholics.


Todd HellsKitchen said...

Keith Olbermann did a brilliant commentaty on this... "We have to put the guns down", including metaphors:

Anonymous said...

Just a reminder.

D.B. Echo said...

Yeah. In light of these events, I would have toned down my rhetoric over Rove's treasonous actions. If anyone ever extrajudicially decapitates him, I will feel very guilty.

By the way, how's Bradley Manning doing? You know, that kid who leaked information to Julian Assange?