Informed Dissent: Unto the breach

Columnist Jeffrey C. Billman has seen that look before.

click to enlarge Informed Dissent: Unto the breach
Michael Doan/Public Domain

Once more unto the breach, dear friend, once more. 

Where to even begin? Buzzfeed’s would-have-been-a-bombshell that President Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, or the Special Counsel’s Office’s statement knocking it down? Maybe the New York Times’ story that FBI agents had investigated whether the president was a Russian agent? Or Rudy Giuliani admitting that Trump was negotiating a deal for Trump Tower Moscow through November 2016? How about Trump’s bungled attempt at a “compromise” to end the government shutdown, a promise to not deport Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status recipients for three years in exchange for his wall? Or Nancy Pelosi delaying Trump’s State of the Union address, and Trump barring Pelosi from using military planes to visit Afghanistan in retaliation? 

Like many of its 103 immediate predecessors, this past week contained enough scandals and outrages and momentous news events to fill months, maybe years of any other administration. Any of those — and several more — could warrant an 800-word exploration in its own right. 

But this perpetual deluge of crazy-making so often obscures smaller stories that warrant our attention, and I’d like to focus on one of them this week. 

You’ve likely seen that image from Friday’s March for Life in Washington, showing a smug MAGA Youth smirking at a Native American while his compatriots reportedly chanted “Build the wall!” The narrative has become more complicated since, as additional footage showed that the boys — from the all-male, mostly white Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who’d traveled to the Capitol to tell women what they can do with their bodies — had been taunted by a group of black Hebrew Israelites, and Nathan Phillips, the Native American, was trying to defuse the situation. The boy in that viral image, Nick Sandmann, has denied antagonizing Phillips and says his friends were doing school chants in solidarity with Phillips — which, well, sure, kid. 

I don’t want to get into the weeds of what transpired. I just want to say this: I’ve seen that look on Sandmann’s face before. That shit-eating grin. That smug condescension. That entitlement that comes from a lifetime of consequence-free privilege. 

I recognized it immediately. I grew up surrounded by it.

Throughout my childhood, I attended a parochial school in the South — not all-male, but mostly white, often privileged and very theologically and politically conservative — where I learned, among other things, that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, the Salem witches maybe had it coming, gays are trying to recruit children, and God is going to burn most of humanity in eternal hellfire because he loves them. (This being a private school in the South, I also learned some less-than-accurate stuff about the Civil War and the civil rights movement.)

But all that — and the generally repressive atmosphere — aside, it was an academically elite institution, which was why some non-Christian parents sent their kids there. And most of the students were decent kids who turned out to be decent adults. 

Most. I’ve seen that look before.

At the beginning of every school year, we were forced to sign an agreement that we would not engage in a variety of sins: drinking, drugs, fornication, listening to secular music, etc. Also forbidden, of course, was any indication of homosexuality, which, we were taught, was fundamentally a rebellion against God. 

My school had its share of then-closeted gay kids — they’d have been expelled if they came out — who spent their adolescence being told that their very existence was a perversion. It had its share of kids like me, who spent years trying to square this dogma (both on LGBTQ and other issues) with life experience that showed how intellectually bereft that dogma was. But it also had its share of kids for whom the message stuck. 

I was thinking about that this week, when Karen Pence made news by going to teach at a Virginia Christian school that bans gay and transgender students and parents. Predictably, perhaps, Mike Pence reacted to criticism by playing the victim, telling something called the Eternal Word Television Network that he and his wife found the criticism “deeply offensive.”

“We have a rich tradition in America of Christian education and, frankly, religious education broadly defined,” Pence said. “We celebrate it. … So we’ll let the other critics roll off our back, but this criticism of Christian education in America should stop.”

Here, of course, Pence is conflating dogmatic indoctrination with religious education. He ignores what it says about his values that he’s using his platform to promote an institution that has homophobia as a core tenet, but then again, I wouldn’t expect him to be that self-aware. Despite his martyrdom, no one’s trying to close the school. But we should acknowledge what places like this drill into impressionable minds, and that this is no small part of their raison d’être

Fundamentalism teaches certitude, a black-and-white, good-and-bad, us-versus-them sense of the world. For queer kids trying to figure out their identities, being enveloped in this world doesn’t make them less queer, it just teaches them that they’re abnormal deviants who could change if only they were strong enough. For other kids, though, it teaches them that they’re better than their struggling peers, better than the marginalized communities with which they have little contact, because they deserve what they have, because God has blessed them. 

I’ve seen that look before. 



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