Monday, January 25, 2010

And the wheels in the heads of the Platte County School District trustees turn ever so slowly...

Last week, Platte County School District 1 trustees voted 4-3 against restoring Anti-Defamation League "No Place for Hate" banners in two Wheatland schools--West Elementary and, more disconcertingly I suppose, Wheatland High. District administrators, without any due process, had removed the posters solely because a few parents had complained about them (this is, at least, what the Board members claim; we're not sure who exactly complained), and the alleged complaints had come from parents who objected to the posters solely because of one of the groups listed on the poster as affiliated with the ADL's campaign: the Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado.

Before I go on, I do think we have overlooked the fact that three members of the trustees voted to allow  the posters.

The whole episode actually makes anti-bias activists giddy, because it's such a blatant example of unwarranted, process-free administrative bias. Some parents complained about the posters, and the trustees had them taken down. Other people, students, and presumably not the children of the alleged complainers, asked that the posters be restored. The trustees refused. Get it? One set of people's desires are more important than another set of people's desires, and the trustees will even tell you why: Trustee Lee Dunham defended the decision by saying Wheatland is an "ultraconservative community," where a pro-gay agenda is unwelcome.

This admission by Mr. Dunham may well serve a similar function, eventually, as the blundering admission by one member of the old Dover School Board--remember the Board who overplayed their hand in 2005, losing their attempt to teach creationism-in-drag, costing the Dover district a lot of money that could have been used to educate children in sciences and other productive disciplines. After the Dover Board as a whole repeatedly promised the court and the press that they had no intention of teaching religion, and that intelligent design was merely a scientific, or scientific-philosophical theory, Dover Board member William Buckingham was found to have publicly said that his reason for supporting I.D. was that "[t]his country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such.”

Lee Dunham is making a similar admission--that this really is about enforcing a majority's ideology on a minority, an admission that is particularly damning because it is at odds not only with the democratic process, but also with the district's purported reasons for removing the signs!

Another trustee, Joe Fabian, took the boot from Dunham's mouth and placed it into his own, first slamming school administrators (AKA pointing finger at popular scapegoats) for allowing the "No Hate" banners in the first place, then reiterating that the community of Wheatland is extremely conservative and is not "pro-gay marriage" (nobody ever brought up gay marriage, not on the posters, not in the anti-hate campaign, etc., but whatever, I am losing the will to continue pointing out these trustees' inconsistencies). Fabian went on to say he believed the Anti-Defamation League--arguably the oldest, most across-the-board anti-hate organization in the world--is pushing an "agenda that is pro-gay marriage."

Actually, Fabian may be going for the hit parade of conservative stereotypery. Amanda Fry of the Platte County Record Times reported that Fabian answered an argument from students concerning tolerance for other points of view with this piece of logic:
What if someone is of the persuasion that they are an Evangelical, who believes very strongly in witnessing? And that’s a part of their being? You’re saying that they can’t do that. That’s why I have problems with it, because you’re restricting what somebody’s beliefs may be...
Does Fabian understand that he is, with this rhetorical move, justifying the actual restriction of one form of expression by appealing to the hypothetical, and highly unlikely restriction of another form of expression? (Not to mention the fact that nobody is "restricting what somebody's beliefs may be" but rather their expression...sigh, it sucks that one of my pet peeves is conflation).

Even though anti-bias activists are encouraged by the crass stupidity of the Wheatland trustees' behavior, and even though a protracted legal battle, should it happen, will ultimately vindicate the ADL and supporters of the anti-hate movement (at least one commentator has pointed out that the Equal Access Act requires schools to permit student-led organizations to express themselves in schools), watching this episode is painful. I am disappointed as a Wyomingite for two reasons: First, as unoriginal as this sounds, some people in our state haven't, and didn't ever, learn the real lesson of the Matthew Shepard murder: that although violence is a diffusive, constant storm that may fall on anyone at anytime, the presence of hate speech, and attitudes which metaphysically subordinate some groups underneath others, and dehumanization, all channel that constant storm of violence into specific sectors and niches. Moreover, the Wheatland trustees can't even seem to fathom that a visual marker of the mere existence of an organization whose worldview is opposed to your own does not weaken, compel, coerce or cajule you in any way. 

Second, I am disappointed because as someone who for the past decade has been involved in recruiting bright, creative, critical-minded students to come to college in Wyoming, I can say with absolute certainty that episodes like this make the University's and community colleges' jobs harder. Not only do we lose potential students and faculty who may be in LGBT categories, but we also lose non-LGBT people who simply don't want to live in what they fear will be a climate of intolerance. And when you're trying to sell someone on Wyoming, the oft-repeated phrase "Well, Laramie isn't like the rest of Wyoming" can only go so far.

I used to really believe that Wyoming's brand of conservatism was actually different than the conservatism found in other states. Although I am not a libertarian, I respect libertarians. But libertarians don't rule the various fiefdoms of Wyoming, nor the state as a whole. More and more, we see the creeping influence of the kind of especially objectionable Colorado, Idaho and Utah conservatives: Not so much "do whatever you want but leave me alone" as "do what we what we want...or we will punish you." The problem is, this creeping moral fascism retains the Wyoming stubbornness that was at least comparatively harmless when it came from cowboy libertarians. Now, instead of having to negotiate with leave-us-alone conservatives, we have to fend off the attacks of cultural conservatives who can neither formulate an accessible argument, nor respect the democratic imperative to hear and extend to all sides equal argumentative consideration.


Update #1: I am hearing the stirrings of a few folks here in the state who want to attend the next Platte County School Board meeting.  That sounds like a good idea for those who can make it.  This is not just a Wheatland matter.  Already, the issue is being covered nationally and internationally in the LGBT press.  Hopefully, other progressive outlets will continue to take up the cause as well.  We have to understand that we are fighting for the image of our state, as well as the human rights of students here, and everywhere.

And something else came to my mind as I was preparing for tonight's podcast: Diversity in educational contexts is good.  The Supreme Court has recognized this, and any good teacher, from K-postgrad, knows it too.  The example being set by the majority on the Platte County board undermines all the students in their jurisdiction.  It makes it less likely that they will be accepted in positions or admissions processes favoring an understanding of diversity.  It makes it less likely that they will understand how to interact in diverse environments once they get out of Wheatland.  So in that sense, too, this decision is lame.


Meg Lanker said...

I'll attend the next meeting. i also have nearly 100 pins from the now-closed Lambda rising bookstore in Washington DC. I also got stickers that say to stop hate we must practice diversity. Much more eloquent on the sticker, but I need to get them out of my bag.

Maggie said...

Would you all consider looking at the petition that we have going, and signing it if you agree? There's a link to it at where there's also a ton of comments and commentary.
We are going for 10,000 sigs, and that's a lot for Wheatland as you might know, so any spreading of the word, tweets and whatnot would really help! As would your signatures yourselves if you would!
Great article by the way!

matt said...

Will do, Maggie, and let's get in touch. I'd love to have you speak on a future podcast.