AMERICAN POLITICAL discourse this week has unfolded in a frenzy of absurdity, with right-wing websites, conspiracy-theorist pasts, and finger-biting protestors all barreling to the forefront of the conversation. But by far the most incredible of the obnoxious outrages of the past news cycle is not over the fact that Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel is lying through his teeth about millions of dollars in unreported taxes and shady real estate deals, all while sitting placidly atop the committee that oversees the paying of taxes in this country. Instead, the frothing is over something entirely banal, routine, and unremarkable: the President of the United States wanting to have a few moments with the nation’s schoolchildren.
Conservative parents have reacted with dismaying predictability, accusing Obama of attempting a socialist indoctrination session and demanding that their children be allowed to escape the scandalous ritual. “It seemed like a direct channel from the president of the United States into the classroom, to my child,” Brent Curtis, a Texas engineer, told the New York Times. “I don’t want our schools turned over to some socialist movement.” Even respectable politicians like Tim Pawlenty, the Republican governor of Minnesota, added his voice to the din, saying the address could be disruptive and raises concerns “about the content and the motive.” Most ridiculous of all, school districts in North Texas, roughly covering the Dallas area, have caved to parent hysteria and opted to not show the speech at all.
Concern over the address first rose when an accompanying lesson plan included vaguely cultish language, such as having children think of ways they can “help the President” and prompting them to consider “what the President wants us to do.” While these phrases only sound disturbing to those wholly unfamiliar with the patronizing tone of many materials currently used in public education, their inclusion was probably a bad judgment on the part of the curriculum’s designers. The White House’s rush to remove them should not be seen as a sinister attempt to shroud a shadowy agenda, but rather for what it is: honest concern that the lesson plan not misconstrue the president’s intent. White House spokesman Tommy Vietor lamented that the materials had been distributed before the speech, which he says would have made the context of the questions more clear.
Aside from the fact that every president in recent memory has spoken to schoolchildren, and that President Obama has delivered more speeches broadcast online than any president in history, there is no evidence to suggest his address will be a work of political demagoguery. So brazen an act of partisanship would no doubt be condemned even more vociferously than the alleged disappearance of his mythical birth certificate, and it is difficult to imagine so cautious a president making so obtuse an error in judgment. Just because he will be dictating his terms to Congress on Wednesday does not mean he will be dictating them to other people’s children on Tuesday. In fact, if one considers it beyond the hyperpartisan average, about ten seconds, the very idea seems ludicrous.
But laughability is no match for the disgust of the President’s detractors, who unfortunately are now emboldened by statements from mainstream Republican politicians. Perhaps most dismaying about the whole affair is the sweaty insecurity of American parents in their own ability to influence their children’s political thinking. It is difficult to imagine a more perfectly prepared teachable moment. If parents disagree with what Obama has to say to their children, it is their duty to explain why, not school districts’ obligation to censor the event for everyone. Parents should relish the opportunity to engage their children on an important, adult topic, whatever their position on health care may be. And the leaders of school districts should believe more solidly in education and civic participation than to capitulate to crazed demands for a blackout of political discourse.
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