Monday, May 04, 2009

Clueless in Elephant Land

The car poking along in front of me as I tried to finally leave the campus after turning in my grades this afternoon bore a UCF student sticker and a bumper sticker reading “REPUBLICAN: Because Everyone Can’t Be On Welfare.” As I passed the car, shaking my head in disgust and disbelief, I thought to myself what a caricature the young blonde headed blue eyed driver and passenger who looked like frat boys provided.

Perhaps it’s just the exhaustion I feel at the end of every term, particularly spring term, that made me less than charitable as I looked at those boys and their bumper sticker. Perhaps it was the borderline racist anti-alien "joke" I got from a friend earlier in the day that made me less than patient.

But I’m sure it would have been a waste of time to explain to them that the welfare system in the US, such as it is, was designed to prevent the fall of capitalism during the last round of Republican brain dead economic destruction, not to demonstrate the nation’s largesse, much less codependency. I figured that explaining that most welfare recipients work at least one job, many of them more than one, and most of them much harder than I ever want to work, would have been a waste of breath. And I guessed that trying to explain the notion of unearned privilege to a white frat boy who probably is majoring in business (“…because I didn’t think I could pass at anything else,” one of them once explained to me) was no doubt a good example of why you shouldn’t try to teach algebra to pigs – the lessons are lost on the student and it just makes the pig irritable.

I realize that’s all rather uncharitable presupposition largely based upon appearance. That and a mindless bumper sticker. And, in all fairness, the surface description of those boys would have fit me, at least in appearance, during my undergrad days at UF. But on this day when I’ve graded my last final from boys (and they really *are* boys) who look and think just like that, it’s probably not too risky a bet that I may well have nailed them. If nothing else, their bumper sticker probably outed them as the male counterparts of the Miss Californias of the world.

What ran across my mind as I drove along was that the little mantra I inevitably get from my conservative kids each semester. Supposedly attributed to Winston Churchill, the quote goes “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains." Apparently, it’s an adaptation of a quote by former French Prime Minister Aristide Briand who, borrowing from yet another Frenchman, actually said, “"The man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at forty he has no head.” Why is it not surprising that American kids raised in a fundamentalist free market capitalist society where anything remotely critical of capitalism is seen as blasphemy would readily confuse liberal with socialist?

But what occurred to me as I thought about Biff, Buff and their bumper sticker was that the adage really is backward. In fact, we expect children to be selfish, greedy, unwilling to share their toys when they are very young. We expect middle school kids to be cliquish, clubby and superficial when they are teens. And we expect high school kids to know everything by the time they are seniors and to be largely closed to any idea or experience which would shatter their fragile – and highly brittle – grasp of the world. In short, we expect children to display the self-focused, sectarian and hidebound attitudes that mark much of today’s Republican Party.

But we also expect our children to grow up. We expect them to learn delayed gratification and how to share their toys with others. We expect them to grow out of their cliques and expand their circles of caring to include at least their locale if not their nation-state as a whole. Indeed, in a global age of connectivity and climate crisis, increasingly we really need them to expand that circle to include the world itself. And we expect them to evolve out of the perceived need for homogenous groups of the like-minded and like-situated to constantly affirm - and thus limit - them and to actually engage the increasingly diverse – and interesting – world in which they live.

Those skills and attitudes, developed through growth and maturity, may or may not make one a socialist. But it certainly ought to convict the mature adult human being that the self-focused, sectarian and largely superficial values of today’s conservatives and its Republican bumper sticker proselytizers are simply untenable. It is unreasonable to expect children to come into the world with maturity and insight. But it is equally unreasonable for those children to remain in those infantile states into adulthood.

So here’s another way of phrasing the mantra: If one doesn’t have a critically reflective head and a working, open heart as a child, they simply need time, patience and guidance to mature. If they persist in that condition into adulthood, they need to ask themselves what has delayed if not retarded their development into fully functioning human beings.

Of course, that would hardly fit on a bumper sticker, now would it?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes