Sunday, November 19, 2006

Civic Education: A Dialogue

(Crossposted at The American Street)
We owe ourselves, and the United States that we will pass off to our children, to relearn the tools of reason, logic, clarity, dissent, civility, and debate. And those things are the nonpartisan basis of democracy, and without them, you can kiss this thing goodbye. [Applause]...

What happens now, in this partisan-addicted country of ours is, that Democrats are afraid that if they send their kids to civics classes they might not come back Democrats, and Republicans are afraid they might not come back Republicans, but civics -- the expertise needed to understand Western Enlightenment and civil liberties -- is not something you're born with, you have to learn it. And we teach our kids what we want them to know, and we don't teach them what we don't want them to know, and that's not a conspiracy, that's human nature. And you have to -- we have to -- remember that unless we teach the ideas that make America a miracle in government -- a miracle that everyone knows is a miracle -- unless we teach what that means, then it will go away in your kids' lifetime, then we will be a fable. We will be a tale told about this place that used to stand up for blah-blah-blah. You have to teach it, you have to find the time and creativity to teach it in school. If you don't, you will lose it to fundamentalists of any stripe, you will lose it to stupidity, you will lose it to the darkness.

And what this country represents is a tiny twinkle of light in a history of oppression and darkness and cruelty, and if it lasts for more than our lifetime or our kids' lifetime, it is only due to the fact that we put some effort into teaching what it is is, the ideas of America, the idea of opportunity, mobility, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly -- and if you don't teach it. it'll go away. And in the middle of the night, when the towers fall, we will not say, "What am I responsible for?"; we will say, "Tell us what to do!"

And remember, democracy in any form is only two or three hundred years old.... The idea of being personally responsible for your government is a twinkle...and we have to support it or we will else instinctively react as we have for ten thousand years -- "Tell us what to do!" -- and we will chuck these liberties the moment the next terrorist horror happens.

-- Actor Richard Dreyfus, now a senior research advisor at Oxford, on Real Time with Bill Maher, Nov. 17, 2006 (YouTube link.)

At a rally to expose the "myth" of church-state separation I attended this spring, Orwell was quoted at me four times, most emphatically by William J. Federer, an encyclopedic compiler of quotations whose America's God and Country -- a collection of apparently theocratic bons mots distilled from the Founders and other great men "for use in speeches, papers [and] debates" -- has sold half a million copies. "Those who control the past," Federer said, quoting Orwell's 1984, "control the future." History, the practical theology of the movement, reveals destiny....

Federer and I were riding together in a white school bus full of Christians from around the country to pray at the site on which the Danbury, Connecticut, First Baptist Church once stood. It was in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists that Thomas Jefferson first used the phrase "wall of separation," three words upon which the battle over whether the United States is to be a Christian nation or a cosmopolitan one turns. Federer...wanted me to understand that what Jefferson -- notorious deist and author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom -- had really meant to promote was a "one-way wall," designed to protect the church from the state, not the other way around. Jefferson, Federer told me, was a believer; like all the Founders, he knew that there could be no government without God. Why hadn't I been taught this? Because I was a victim of the godless public schools.

"Those who control the present," Federer continued his quote from 1984, "control the past." He paused and stared at me to make sure I understood the equation. "Orson Welles wrote that," he said.

-- Jeff Sharlet, in "Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian Right is reimagining U.S. history," in Harper's, December 2006.


Kevin Wolf said...

I have the Harper's issue at home but haven't got to that article yet.

One hopes it is not too late to do so.

BTW, I always thought it was Orson Bean who wrote 1984?

Anonymous said...

No, no, it was Mr. Bean

Neddie said...

Nuh-nuh-nuh, you're all confused.

Orson Bean wrote 1984 B.C., a thinly disguised condemnation of the dystopian rule of Pharaoh Ankhenhotep III. Mr. Bean wrote 1985: This Time It's Personal, a thinly disguised condemnation of the dystopian rule of John Major.

Orson World, of course, penned The War of the Welles, a seminal exposé on Peak Oil, and Up and In in Paris and London, an erotic romp through the demimonde of LA, starring Paris Hilton and the perfectly preserved corpse of Julie London (grrrowl!).

George Orwell was just some asshole.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of church and state, am just watching an "American Experience" on Woodrow Wilson. I knew he was a devout Presbyterian, but I had no idea that he (like Dubya) considered himself the instrument of God in office. Apparently it's not a new idea in the Republic....

Anonymous said...

George Orwell also said, "Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

It sounds like Mr. Federer is a great generator of wind.

Anonymous said...

I have that issue (Harper's) on my desk as well, but haven't read it yet ('cept the Index; I always read that as soon as I get it). The cover art's classic, though.

Anonymous said...

Just tell me what *drugs* to do.

Too bad for us that the Soviets were atheists, otherwise our grandparents might have embraced reason along with capitalism and we wouldn't have quite so ground to recover today, culturally.

Americans have never been worthy of America. Can it be that all it took was cable news and the Decider for that to finally catch up with us?

XTCfan said...

qred reminds me of something I said to my wife the other day, paraphrasing Charlie Brown:

"I love America. It's Americans I can't stand."

It's not completely true, of course. There are plenty of Americans I like. Generally the secular-humanist ones. In any case, I'd put my new slogan on a t-shirt, but I'm afraid of getting hurt by the Americans I can't stand.

So much for free speech.