Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On President Obama’s Speaking to Our Kids

To be sure, the obnoxious Right’s relentless hissy-fit about President Obama’s school chit-chat is mean-spirited and cynical. Still, there is a point in reasoning that all political and religious leadership ought to be kept out of the public school classroom. In this case, the imperial presidency rears its ugly head and I want to decapitate it.

I grew up in England, where public school is actually private school. Public school there meant corporal punishment, starched uniforms, polished shoes and the absolute intimidation of the student body by teachers. Please don’t ask me to explain why. I am still recovering from the beatings I took like a champ and the kind of learning by rote that still allows me to remember Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ now and forever. I do know, however, that the President “has that lean and hungry look.” Anyway, I digress, once, when I was in the common folks’ primary school, our local M.P. came to visit us in the classroom. All I remember about him was that he wore a bow-tie and had a waxed handlebar moustache. In a prissy upper-class voice, he told us all to study hard and stay in school in the most blah, anodyne way. Yawn! Later, four years later, in an attempt to reach into our addled adolescent brains and communicate concepts beyond rote and fear, the Manchester board of education brought in Willie.

Willie’s visit came courtesy of Her Majesty’s Pleasure at Strangeways Prison. About 5’3” with a thick Glasgow Gorbals accent and brilliant blue eyes, he rolled up his sleeves and showed off his tattoos and track marks. Then he rolled his trousers up to the knee and showed off the collapsed veins and tracks all down his calves and feet, even between his toes. This interested us very much. He told us about his service years during World War Two and how he got addicted to painkillers when he was a medic serving with Montgomery in the Western Desert. Finally, he did a Q and A. We asked him what seemed like logical questions to ask a junkie. What was better? White or brown eych? Did he like Methodone? Then he told us about using Preparation H to shrink the kind of scabbed-over wounds and collapsed veins you get from shooting up. Naturally, we knew plenty already about his 'shock' subject matter. So, when talk turned to hints about the do's and don'ts of shooting up between the toes, and, when all other veins fail, in the eye socket, the teacher suddenly got a case of cold feet and prevailed upon Willie's minder to interrupt. At that point Willie's rhetoric turned into the usual usual: Stay in school, work hard, respect and obey your parents and teachers, never challenge authority, and, always, always always remember that dope is for dopes.

“Dinna grow up tae be like me, lads,” Willie said. “He-ruin is thay road tae hell!”

I doubt that I would have ever become a true dope fiend anyway, but, as I remember Willie so vividly, I think the school board was wise.

I’ve been living in the United States for 32 years. England, however, never leaves me. The aftermath of the Philby/Blunt affair and the endless sectarian strife in Northern Ireland lead me to mistrust all authority figures. As with popes, pastors, rabbis, litigators, physicians and politicians in general, I deeply object to the automatic elevation of senators, five-star generals, rich folks and presidents in general to the role of “trusted moral leader.” Consequently, I deeply, humbly wish President Obama and all his advisors and successors will reject and eschew that role, instead of attempting to further the narcissistic, narcotic vanity that is the awful notion of the Imperial Presidency. This was one of the reasons I enjoyed the eight years of the Clinton presidency. You knew he was a hustler. A clever good-ol'-bwoy on the make! Liking Bill Clinton always seemed to be beside the point. He was a first-rate C.E.O., although I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.

Let’s face it, after Nancy Reagan’s 'Just Say No!' rants and Dubya’s bizarre predilection for abstinence-only ‘education,’ American parents ought to be mistrustful and skeptical about any notion which posits that our children’s behavior can and ought to be influenced by a presidential speech. Unfortunately, there's a small group of folks out there which thinks the notion of the bully pulpit is a reasonable one. Me: I just think that the time the President of the United States' speech takes up would be far better occupied in learning mathematics. Whether the dose of ra-ra is overtly political and self-serving or not, the truth is that President Obama’s speech will be focused around the idea that he’s a role model and life adviser. This is problematic. Is the presidency, in and of itself, presumed to confer his or her superior status as a moral role model, including chats with kids meant to influence their life choices? The Big Macher, Father-in-Chief role is mine in my house. My son doesn’t need another one: I’m it!!!

To me it’s creepy if the president uses kids as shills or props, while he tries ever so hard to convince their parents of the sincerity of his educational policies. Consequently, if Obama starts to do this annually, one suspects his successors will carry on his neo-first-day-of-school policy into perpetuity. Couldn’t we all prevent ourselves from embracing trouble if we kept our ideological obsessions away from our children until they’ve had years more of educational opportunity to figure out their political priorities for themselves? If you can't bring in Willie, why bother?

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