I was--you might find this a little farfetched--already irritable on the subject of the public schools, having just yesterday managed once again to come in in the middle of something on the Sundance Channel (Motto: The Only Cable Network Which Does Not Endlessly Repeat Its Programming!), that something being Ron Mann's documentary Grass. Having gone through all this a mere month ago with A Skin Too Few, a documentary on Nick Drake, I'm already reasonably certain that 1) it will be replayed late this month; 2) that date is so far off that it will not appear on the DVR schedule until the odds that I will forget to check for it have risen considerably; and 3) that recourse to the Sundance Channel website is fine if you're a big fan of viewing two pages over and over, each of which links to the other, or if Giving Up is something you find difficult to accomplish without help. Either I'm missing something important, or they are, which means for the individual, of course, that you're left yelling at the Hold music.
What I did catch of Grass included clips from two of the three anti-marihuana films I was shown in my own high school days. The first two came as I, neophyte doper, joined dozens of other aspiring sophomores in getting the fucking State-Mandated Hygiene Class out of the way at the same summer school session where one took Driver's Ed; this was convenient for the school, too, as it could just rotate the stable of dumbass coaches whose teaching competence was stretched to the limit by the requirements of answering questions about contacting the syph from toilet seats and showing car-crash snuff films, respectively. And who needed the work as they were otherwise unemployable.
Hygiene had recently been renamed Health & Safety as part of the NASA-inspired movement to match post-war standards and practices with late pre-war technical knowledge. This mostly involved swapping Old Gold and Chocolate Brown textbook covers for something with bold orange stripes, a process which apparently left no money for upgrading the stock of classroom films. And so it was that one fine summer day I spent two hours in a windowless classroom watching a pair of Harry Anslinger classics from the early 50s, with Asphalt Jungle JDs in black leather smoking reefers they'd obtained from the Panama-hatted Pusher who hung around the schoolyard, which led, of course, directly to heroin addiction when the Kick just wasn't enough anymore. But not before, high on happy weed, the punks stole a case of Cokes and, lacking openers, smashed the bottles on a handy window sill and manically drank down the broken glass without noticing. The ensuing "discussion" was led by the Wrestling coach, a man who had received his drug abuse education direct from Art Linkletter and Joe Friday, and whose teams posted a combined dual-meet record of 3-39 the three years I was there. I was tempted to say, "Wow, I've had really bad cottonmouth before, but Coke's too goddam sweet," but had decided, I think wisely, to hold off getting known as a wiseass until I'd gained twenty-five pounds.
This followed, by two years and one school system, the "Sex" "Ed" film I--and the rest of my gender-separated class--had been shown as a 7th grader, in which a Panama-hatted pervert lured teenaged boys into his ranch-style home, located conveniently across the street from where someone was teaching himself how to hold a 16mm camera. What happened after that was entirely unclear; I blamed the editing. One of my fellows, who'd seen the thing in a different period, informed me that afterward the teacher had advised his charges that if anyone ever tried to play with them they should just piss on him. I suspected a leg pull, but those were simpler times.
By 1971 they'd noticed the Sixties, and Nixon had ponied up for a film that Told It Like It Was, starring Sonny and Cher, in which a thirty-eight year old man with a Moe Howard haircut who had turned a marginal songwriting ability, a showbiz sense borrowed from William Castle, and a half-Cherokee jailbait girlfriend into the world's most unfortunate pop career, and no, I'm not forgetting Gary Glitter, solemnly informed Today's Youth that if they took drugs they'd miss out on the best part of being a teenager, namely, preparing to become housewives, actuaries, and hopeless alcoholics. Babe.
Which is to say, I agree wholeheartedly that Presidential platitudes are probably a waste of good study hall time, and that politically motivated speeches like Reagan's (h/t Roy) are worth objecting to. And I do wish the administration, having tried to make a virtue of pretending the entire Republican party--let alone its base, which Ronald Reagan shrewdly de-institutionalized in the 1980s--could be reasoned with, would at least figure out how to de-Malkinize its press releases. But then, students are forced to waste time on all sorts of things.
It’s not just the fact that he’s doing it. That’s part of it — and I’ll get to that in a second. What’s really pissing me off is that it’s highlighting how hopelessly and insipidly partisan our national discourse is. On the one hand, the loudest voices decrying the speech are offering bizarre hyperbole about how Obama is going to indoctrinate our children in Marxist ideology, and suggesting that only sheep will let their children listen. On the other hand, you’ve got the smirking, eye-rolling folks who are suggesting that if you don’t support the speech you must be stupid or a Glenn-Beck-level frothing nutcase. I’ve tried discussing this and explaining my viewpoint several places, only to have supporters of the speech furiously attack strawmen they have erected rather than reading what I actually wrote.
Our national discourse--could we please stop pretending it's sunk to New Lows, or that such is even theoretically possible?--isn't helped by False Equivalence Syndrome, which holds that what some guy said on the internets cancels out an organized and systematic anti-Obama campaign run by a cable network. It's the old "story on A-1, correction on A-17" routine. The story is the bizarro world of Kenya Hussein Obama, Marxist Nazi indoctrinator. It's not "should Presidents take up school children's time?" They probably shouldn't, but when they do they should be accorded the same respect that every other President who's chosen to do so received. In particular, the argument over "political content" was ripped to shreds by Reagan's performance. At the same time, citizens should be accorded their full First Amendment rights, and, as Wolcott said the other day, if Obama was half the CommieNazi he's portrayed it's the muzzling of his opponents we'd be talking about. This should not rise to the level of mob-induced school cowardice, which is my main concern, by the way. Bear in mind that this is the end of the political spectrum which howled in protest at the teacher "being fired" for "posting a picture of President Bush", although none of that was actually so, and which routinely posits any show of timidity, equanimity, or cultural diversity in the public schools as a "PC Police" action.
The President has unequal access. Not news. Sometimes used in ways that suggest, at the least, unfair advantage. Also not news, and true of every President, if we're going to be honest about it. We get to complain about it when we don't like him, without losing our right to clam up when we do. Also all well and good. But when we decide that now would be a good time to raise a principled objection, we shouldn't be surprised to be splashed with a little tar.
Suffice it to say that I think our political leaders have no business using a captive audience of schoolkids to make a stump speech. The nation’s students are not the property of the government. The government is there for them, not vice-versa.
You'd like to think so, but the task would be more difficult if you'd have spent ten days arguing the suspension of 150 students at Richmond (IN) High School over violations of a Dress Code lots of people (including a lot of Richmond parents) considered draconian, if not plain bizarre (no stripes!), and which had been sprung on them two weeks before school began. Let's just say that a surprising number of our fellow citizens believe Sit Down, Shut Up, and Do As You're Told is the most important lesson we can impart to public school students, and that a depressingly large percentage of them believe it's the best preparation for Life, and the most important determinant of future employment prospects.
Look, a speech by the President is by its nature political
And, by the nature of the Office, stereotypically American, which might explain the "anti-American ideals" routine hurled at him, except it's too common to require explanation.
That’s okay for adults who are voluntarily present at the speech. But it’s not appropriate for children who are there involuntarily.
How many times did George W. Bush--or his co-President--use the military as a backdrop?
Not only is student attendance compelled 180 days a year, and frequently directed by people with all sorts of ulterior motives, but the distinction between This President and The President is being blurred here to create political prisoners. When I was in high school our band--it was renowned--was chosen to play for a Nixon appearance in town. Height of Vietnam. I knew people in the band who hated Nixon as much as I did, but they were thrilled to death at getting to play for the President of the United States. Protesting his appearance, or the things he has to say, is distinct from trying to eliminate the symbolic power of the office. Which I'd actually be happy to help achieve if it were a neutral act, but it ain't. As Stanislaw Lec said, "When smashing monuments, take care to save the pedestals. They always come in handy."
The fact that this form of using kids as props is so common as to be banal is not a reason to support it; it simply means that we should put the speech in a larger context. But social attitudes towards government are built slowly, over time, one incident at a time. We have to start somewhere in making the point that politicians are there to serve us, not vice versa. It’s reasonable to start with kids, and it’s reasonable, when politicians decide to make a big deal of something, to make an issue of it in return.
Look, I've been urging the Obama organization to purge itself of tone-deaf hagiographers since back when he trailed Hillary Clinton. But concession to "principle" in this case wouldn't establish a new paradigm of government, or re-establish an old one; it would damage this President and benefit his opponents, the ones whose disastrous Era of Misfeasance he was elected to help us shovel our way out of. And they have clearly demonstrated the principle to which they owe allegiance. It's the principle of Whose Ox Is It?