Principle and the Politicization of the American Classroom

March 14, 2018 is likely to usher in a new landscape in American discourse, a possible sea change in the way we engage on certain issues. But the change is not that our youth have found their voice or that they are finally the ones who may change the national conversation on gun violence or that there is some slim hope that we can crawl out from under the overbearing boot of the gun lobby. It is not that perhaps rational humans can discuss the intricacies of a Constitutional phrase the avowed “originalist” justice threw out to suit his own view of a personal right. It is not that we may be ready to address the rationale for ordinary citizens to own weapons originally and solely designed for war. No, these are not the coming change in the tide of community activism. All of these could have come about without what is planned for this day by high school students across the country. The sea change, cheered on by the left and tacitly approved by numerous institutions of higher learning that will not allow attendance records for this act to blemish would-be candidates’ admission prospects, is none other than the politicization of the American classroom. Forgive them all, for they know not what they do.

Certainly, it is heartening to watch a segment of our population, often looked down upon for their supposed self-indulgence, roundly and loudly disproving all of that. It is heartening to know that a new generation, most of whom cannot even vote, are willing to step into the breach where so many cowardly adults—the great concentration of whom are in DC and state capitols across the country—have failed in a sworn duty to uphold public safety. I am in awe of some of the students who have spoken in intelligent and coherent ways about what can and should be done to address our nearly unique problem in the developed world. Leaders are being made, as they so often are, in the midst of a crisis. Those leaders, based on what we see now, are poised to solve issues our current set of leaders have simply given up on. What should give us all hope is that their chances of success are aided immeasurably by the fact that they will outlive all of the failed generations that came before. Yet the actions planned for March 14th should strike fear in the heart of anyone committed to principle and precedent.

When thousands or millions of high school students walk out of classrooms for 17 minutes tomorrow—in remembrance of 17 innocent lives and in support of public safety policy to mitigate the threat of future school shootings—they will walk back into a classroom where there can no longer be any expectation of education separated from ideology, politics, or the “strongly held beliefs” of their peers or those placed in positions of authority over them. They will have said, in a most public way, that school classrooms are places for political activism and should no longer be sanctuaries of objective fact and critical thought. The giddiness of those on the left so cheering this action by an apparently awakened youth have not considered the consequences of this act or their support for it. That is a shame, but it is not surprising in a country more respectful of the concept of ends justifying means than of a logically consistent and deliberately considered life.

I have recently engaged with school administrators about a middle school Social Studies teacher displaying a “Make America Great Again” hat in his classroom. Soon to be discussed with the same administrators is the playing of Christian “praise music” during class. These are preposterous actions perpetrated by teachers on unsuspecting students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs who deserve far better treatment. There are ethical issues with both and perhaps Constitutional issues with either. But if it is appropriate for students, on school time and property, to protest a lack of support for the sanctity of their near-adult lives, is it not also appropriate for them to take school time and protest in support of the sanctity of what some may consider unborn lives? If it is proper for students to demand legislation on weapons limitations from the school grounds, then it is equally proper for those who feel threatened by what they consider to be a lifestyle choice to protest the position of authority an LGBTQ teacher has over them in that same environment. What constraints can there possibly be for a teacher who decides to explicitly state his support for the campaign and the man—not the office—of the eventual president? What of a student whose deeply held beliefs compel her to audibly and publicly pray during each class, unwillingly conscripting her peers into religious theater and trampling on others’ freedom of conscience? The answer, of course, is that there can be no constraint, once the precedent is set, until the Supreme Court hears the multitude of cases that will surely propagate from this seemingly justifiable and “inherently good” act.

There are spaces in our shared lives that we should reasonably expect to be apolitical. Our military is so both because of law and because of the deep professionalism and cherished sense of commitment to the principles most eloquently described by Samuel Huntington in his seminal work, The Soldier and the State. Public venues where there is limited choice in companionship, such as the pressurized tube of an airplane or cramped public transportation, are places where one should not be subjected to the loudly professed views of others. Church sanctuaries should be similar spaces, though increasingly they stray far from the noble concept the term “sanctuary” once described in more brutal yet chivalrous times. And public schools should also be places where young citizens of every different creed, color, and orientation should not have to face the politics of others except as they relate to the objective study of the complex histories of our multi-faceted nation.

Do not misunderstand. These are places where everyone should be able to discuss, in the Socratic way, the issues of our times in an effort to understand the country as it was and as it is. I make no case for the supposed “safe spaces” cropping up across campuses nationwide; they are no friend to our sacred rights so clearly enumerated in the 1st Amendment. A learning environment is by necessity a place where beliefs are questioned and uncomfortable topics lead to a deeper understanding of our human condition. These laudable goals are not the point of focused political activity, particularly those expressions framed as protest and activism. No student—right, left, or otherwise—should have to be exposed to the purely political rantings of whoever speaks loudest or for this singular moment has captured the national conversation. No student should have to endure a one-sided display from an authority figure of a dark and often disturbing presidential campaign. They should not be forced to listen to praise music. And they should not protest on school property and during school time what some will believe is support for curtailing other, equally enumerated Constitutional rights. This protest flings wide the school doors for all manner of protests based on all manner of ideologies. That is good for no side and for no one at all. If the first casualty of war is truth, surely the first casualty of blind activism is principle. You, your students, and the country will surely suffer the consequences.


The Long Shadow

This is the United States of America, and the year is 2018. It could just as easily be Argentina in 1947. That was the year that laid the groundwork for Juan Perón to dismiss three judges on the Argentine Supreme Court and replace them with others more sympathetic to his ideology. So far no one is planning on impeaching US Supreme Court justices, though Governor Mike Huckabee and Senator Ted Cruz—both staunch Constitutional “originalists,” supposedly—have expressed disdain for a few of their Constitutionally mandated life terms. However, other institutions critical to the rule of law and the concept of blind justice are under extraordinary attack in the country founded on those very principles.

The Deputy Director of the FBI has retired after withering attacks by the President of the United States, both in person and on his favorite policy projection instrument, Twitter. The president, again of these United States—it bears saying because it is hard to believe such behavior from the occupant of that office—reportedly called the deputy director after the president fired his boss and told him he should talk to his wife about what it feels like to be “a loser.” That was an apparent reference to her defeat in a Virginia political race the year before. Agent McCabe is said to have replied, “yes, sir” just before the president hung up on him. This is in addition to the president asking during a sit-down in the Oval who the agent had voted for and expressing anger over the campaign donations she received from a PAC affiliated with Virginia’s Democratic governor. Of course, the president did the aforementioned firing of a Democrat-appointed Republican FBI director after said director refused to swear fealty to the man instead of the office of the president. He then called into question the former director’s mental state in conversations with the Russian ambassador before unilaterally releasing classified information to the ranking official of greatest threat to US security. The description of the ambassador’s country comes from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The president also reacted with rage and mounted a Twitter campaign to oust his Attorney General who had the good sense to recuse himself from the Russia investigation after it came to light during his confirmation hearings that he was less than truthful about his Russian contacts. The president has intimated that the man who appointed the special counsel investigating his campaign’s connections to Russia and gave the “justification” for firing the FBI director, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, should be let go. And this week we learned that the president actually tried to fire that special counsel only to be talked down—though perhaps more accurately, simply ignored—by the White House Counsel, who threatened to quit instead.

These are not small issues, or “nothing burgers” in the vernacular of a former Press Secretary. Make no mistake. These are clear attacks on the independence of the nation’s leading law enforcement agency, the office of the Attorney General, and the special counsel, the latter seemingly the only entity in Washington, D.C. who appears to care that America was attacked in 2016 by a highly sophisticated (dis)information operation led by the prime threat the general named above. The fate of our system of government apparently has already relied on the good judgment of a very few lawyers. That is not a viable plan for Constitutional sustainability.

In any other administration, in any other time in our history, in any chamber of our legislature filled with any other Republicans than the ones we are shackled to at this particular instant in time, this would be viewed as the Constitutional crisis—the clear and present danger to our governance and the rule of law—that it is. It should go without saying (it cannot) that if these events played out at the end of the Obama administration in relation to the Benghazi probe, the server issue, the missing emails, Solyndra, the indiscretions of the flawed man married to Secretary Clinton’s closest advisor, or the infamous “meeting on the tarmac,” imagine the furor from the right. Or this: the fact that FBI agents in New York City opened the investigation into the Clinton Foundation based on a book backed by the man who led a vile propaganda organization he described as the “voice of the alt right,” the same man who would eventually chair the Trump campaign. It is exactly the sort of partisan beginning to an investigation the House Intelligence Committee is now accusing the Department of Justice of in relation to the Russia investigation. The House Intelligence Committee and the Republican establishment are silent on that prior issue. The clear message is that partisan attacks from law enforcement are fine as long as they are against your political opponents. That reality was repeatedly given voice on the campaign stage by the man who now holds enormous power and by the Pavlovian mob mentality giving rise to the choruses of “lock her up” perpetrated by those who could not be bothered to consider the deeper issue of governance they were fomenting.

Yesterday, the House Intelligence Committee voted to release a memo they say sheds light on partisan actions by certain members of the FBI. The memo revolves around a FISA warrant to wiretap a member of the Trump campaign. The House Intelligence Committee did not allow the FBI or other members of the Intelligence Community (IC) to review the memo before floating the idea of releasing it. An Assistant Attorney General called releasing the memo “extraordinarily reckless.”  He casts enormous doubt on the authenticity of any information in the memo saying it “purports to be based on classified source materials that neither you nor most of them [committee members] have seen.” He went on to say, “Indeed, we do not understand why the Committee would possibly seek to disclose classified and sensitive law enforcement information without first consulting with the relevant members of the Intelligence Community.” Why would the chair of the committee even consider doing such a thing? For that, you have to be able to recall something Republicans would rather have you forget.

In April of last year, Devin Nunes recused himself in his committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the election and their possible ties to the Trump campaign after the House Ethics Committee decided to investigate his handling of classified information. Recall, it was Nunes who rushed to the president’s aid when the president falsely (this word should forever be extraneous in descriptions of the president’s speech) claimed President Obama had ordered wire-tapping of Trump Tower. He held a press conference on the White House lawn, without informing his committee, saying his committee had come into information proving the president’s [extraneous] claims. It turns out, Nunes received that information from the White House itself in what could be described as the rhetorical equivalent of the vulgar act “The Mooch,” during his two-week stint as White House Communications Director, accused Steve Bannon of practicing. That information was also false. Later Nunes, while still recused, signed off on subpoenas relating to the Russia investigation. He then later claimed he never recused himself. So, there exists a very clear picture of both the basic untrustworthiness of Nunes the man and of his penchant to try to protect the president at all costs, through deceit and the callous disregard for the aptitude or memory of the public he supposedly serves.

It is not surprising then, except that it is so historically shocking, that the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee has led the assault, backed either explicitly or tacitly by his fellow congressional Republicans, on the institutions that secure those items laid down in the Bill of Rights and under the Constitution as a whole. In order to cast aspersions on the good citizens working every day to protect us from all manner of threats and in the face of the coming revelations about our president, his campaign, and the attempt by a hostile power to hack the voice of liberty, elected leaders sworn to “protect and defend” the Supreme Law of the Land are seeking to undermine it instead. And as if that is not enough, they are seeking to harm our national security structure at the same time. Their actions are indeed “extraordinarily reckless.” They are also extraordinarily hypocritical.

Those supposedly so concerned with what may have leaked from a personal server used by the former Secretary of State apparently have no qualms about releasing a memo that may reveal sources and methods used by the IC in gathering intelligence that protects American lives. Those so concerned with the debunked theory that a rescue was declined and that this action that never occurred sealed the fate of four Americans in the field are placid about the consequences of exposing other Americans still lurking in shadow and doing the clandestine work of the US government. They see no need to even have their selectively edited memo reviewed by those responsible agencies. They do not shudder when considering releasing a memo claimed to be based on information they have not read, as long as it puts those attempting to find the truth about collusion with Russia in a bad light. Those who supposedly are from the “law and order” party obviously have no problem trashing the reputation of the world’s premiere law enforcement agency and cheering on the president when he does the same, often immediately after accusing this or that congresswoman of being “weak on crime.” Those who supposedly are so concerned about the security of the United States that they want to wall us all in or fix a military “in shambles” (the president’s words for the force he now commands) have no issue calling into question the unanimous opinion of the IC that the Russians interfered with our elections. To be clear, this is not some Pentagon exercise in future thinking. It happened. Already. And it will happen again. The president’s own appointed CIA Director expressed such concern just this week. So where are the national security hawks on this issue? They are looking the other way, excusing the bad behavior of the president, ignoring the possible obstructive behavior of that same president, and pursuing conspiracy theories about the “deep state” and “secret societies” in the law enforcement and intelligence communities. You cannot make this stuff up. It may be too far-fetched for even the best fiction writers, but it is right in the wheelhouse of this crop of Republican lawmakers. It is hard to explain just how far this crew’s credibility has fallen on virtually every issue that matters.

Juan Perón’s actions in the late 1940s made a joke of the independent judiciary. It robbed Argentinians of a justice system free from political influence. Perón’s actions were forceful and explicit, and they affected Argentinian society for decades. He set a precedent that allowed every successor up through the late 1980s to fill the courts with loyalists, dedicated not to the law or to principle, but to partisanship and ideology. We are not yet to that point. Not yet.

The President of the United States, thankfully in this regard, is a horrid and ineffective leader without the intellect or desire to understand the workings of the government he now heads. Those in congress, who have hitched their future success to this want-to-be authoritarian, respecter of the world’s despots and demander of loyalty from those he believes to be his minions, are far more dangerous. They have consciously decided to smear law enforcement and our intelligence agencies, they have coldly calculated that their constituents will not remember their actions, words, and deeds relating to their alleged support for citizen security, and they have blatantly elected to disregard any sense of principle where the president’s actions are concerned. Their actions, and their utter apathy toward those of the president, are harming the republic.

In his letter to Congressman Nunes, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said this, “The rule of law depends on the confidence of the American people that our prosecutors and investigators apply the law fairly and without bias or regard for political influence.” Indeed, it does. The congressman, his ilk, and the President of the United States are damaging that confidence. That is dereliction of duty and completely counter to the fundamentals of the Founding. One hopes those around the president—there is no evidence the president himself has the capacity—will someday feel shame in it. Saving that, one hopes “the people” will do their duty and remove this cancer from the mechanisms of our secularly sacred institutions. If we do not, we may very well find ourselves living in the long shadow, cast from the darker days before the middle of the last century, of Juan Perón’s attack on the foundation of just society. Were that to occur, the “American Century” would have been for naught, and its namesake’s future would be in grave doubt.

A “Thinkable” Tragedy and The Real American Carnage

I didn’t write my thoughts about the shooting in Las Vegas, my home for more than seven years earlier in my life. I fretted about that fact for a while. Why was I avoiding it? Was I dodging an issue that has driven people I once respected to distance themselves from me? Was it even worth the time anymore? I shouldn’t have been concerned; it was a bet as sure as the sun would rise that there would be another record-breaking mass shooting in the United States in short order. It took little more than a month. I greeted the news of the shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas without shock or even much alarm. That is where we are in America now. Parishioners and law enforcement used words like “unthinkable” and “unimaginable” to describe this latest event. We all know it is neither. It takes no imagination at all to realize that this will happen again. It is not at all unthinkable. In fact, it is more likely than not. In the coming week in this country there will be another crime that qualifies as a mass shooting for those still brave enough—and still not numb—to research this kind of thing. In fact, while editing this piece, there was just another one, this time in northern California. This is the real American carnage, and it is a goddamn shame.

Mass shootings are killing more in a single event than we’re used to—yes, we are “used to” it—because the killers have access to weaponry that in previous decades was available only to law enforcement and the military. I won’t succumb to the ridiculous debate about what we ought to call them. They are weapons suited for war, and they were initially designed for one purpose, that is the ultra-efficient killing of human beings. Certainly, they can be used for other things just as the handle of a screwdriver can drive nails and a pair of plyers makes a decent wrench. My grandfather taught me better than that, and in doing so taught me not to claim a purpose for something it was never meant to do. No one can claim ignorance of the fact of these weapons’ design and be considered a credible voice in this discourse.

Forty-nine innocents died in Orlando. Fifty-nine in Las Vegas. Twenty-six in Sutherland Springs. But you know the rhetoric. Gun violence is a fringe problem. If you take out the events committed during drug or gang activity, it barely touches “real” America. If you stay out of inner-city Chicago—a gun free zone, the proponents of flooding our streets with ever more deadly weaponry will undoubtedly point out—or Baltimore, or Washington, D.C. then there is almost no effect at all. A friend of mine said during one of these discussions that “people like us” are hardly ever affected. People like us.

Las Vegas is still home to people I care about. No one I know was injured in that senseless attack, but people who some of them know were. No one I know was injured in Sutherland Springs either, but someone I know well has a brother who lost several relatives. That is also how it is in America now.

There are more than 300 million people in the United States. Our chances of being part of a mass shooting are almost infinitesimally small. That is one statistic the NRA gets right. That they still insist you arm yourself to guard against such unlikely events defies logic. Your chances of using a weapon in self-defense are nearly equally infinitesimally small. You are very unlikely to be killed in say, a church or a theater or a school or your office holiday party or a concert or your place of business or a football watching party or in the parking lot after a sporting event, but your chances of knowing someone who is affected by this kind of violence will continue to grow every day.

Consider this. If every person killed in a mass shooting knows just twenty other people and each of those knows just twenty more, then more than 10,000 people know someone who died in the shooting in Texas this week or know someone who does. That number is 23,000 for those killed in Las Vegas. If you include the injured from Las Vegas, the number is almost 220,000. The CDC says, on average, 93 people die every day to gun violence, nearly 34,000 every year. By the same conservative logic above—every victim knows 20 who know 20 more—13.6 million Americans this year will personally know a victim of gun violence or know someone who does. Odds are there are a least a few million in that group who are “people like us.”

In Las Vegas, a rich white man who owned 40 guns and modifications that made them behave like fully automatic rifles shot at a crowd of concert-goers. They were patrons of artists who wrap themselves in the culture of Mom, apple pie, and plastic-stock Austrian-made handguns. Statistics would say quite a few of those are not very much different than we are. Twenty-six people died in a Southern Baptist Church in rural Texas. That’s part of the largest Protestant denomination in the country. No matter who you are, these were all “people like us.” Gun violence is not something that only happens to someone else. This is an American problem; one for us all.

So, we find ourselves once again in the aftermath of a completely foreseeable, wholly predictable, in no way shocking mass shooting in the United States of America. These are utterly “thinkable” tragedies. Already you have heard the imbecilic refrain that new laws will not protect us from criminals. Already you have heard that now is not the time to “politicize” a tragedy by starting to talk about gun legislation. You have heard the president call the Texas shooter deranged, though you might not have known that he struck down an Obama-era order designed to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable. Governor Abbott said he was asking for God’s “guidance” during this time of grief. One wonders if the governor will be perceptive enough to understand whatever guidance The Almighty provides. It seems He’s been working pretty damn hard to try to tell us something with all these acts of Old Testament-like violent fervor. Unfortunately, I do not have much hope that things will improve, or even that we will begin to acknowledge that we have a real problem to which there are real solutions. I am not however without any hope.

This year alone almost three times as many people than are on the rolls of the NRA will know someone who knows someone who experiences gun violence first hand. Next year will be the same, as will the year after that. It is an unfortunate—or ultimately fortunate—fact that more and more of us will be affected by gun violence each year than will buy into the radical agenda of the gun lobby. Every time the country music artists who were in Las Vegas take the stage they will wonder whether one person—just one—out of 30,000 has them or their fans in his sights somewhere out beyond those glaring lights. Maybe some will begin to think differently about ways to reshape our society and their responsibility in such an endeavor. Someone, just like us, will have to face the consequences of political expedience and decisions not made, of leadership deferred. Someone will slip through the cracks or exploit a loophole and acquire a weapon a Ukrainian defending his homeland or a Syrian fighting tyranny would envy. Someone’s brother or son or father will be killed in gang or drug violence. Someone’s daughter or sister or mother will decide to take her own life, and because of our near unfettered access to firearms, the chances she will complete that act is significantly higher. Someone in a conservative, mostly white town, will be forced to confront first hand this stain on our national character over the coffin of a loved one. It happened last week in a small town in Texas. And in each of these inevitable events will be an expanding web of those whose lives will be forever altered. When the abstract becomes real in a way we never thought it would, when “people like us” decide we’ve had enough of the killing, maybe we’ll find the courage to do the right thing. Maybe we’ll find the fortitude to confront this scourge on our republic as we have done with other public safety issues like drunk driving, sexual harassment, defective airbags, and the flu. Maybe.

Until then I hope you don’t learn of someone you know being affected by gun violence. I’m not betting on it though. I know you’ll take comfort in the thoughts and prayers of our politicians and in the knowledge they are working so hard to understand what God might want us to do in such ambiguous and trying times. If only He would give us a sign…maybe tomorrow. Actually, probably tomorrow.