Wednesday, August 24, 2016

King's Survey: Revolutionary Condescension

In which we see that feelings no less than principles can have revolutionary implications

I heard you made the basketball team. Congratulations.
 —Kylie is going to be great. She’s going to be our other guard.
I’m sure Emily’s right, Kylie. I imagine you must be proud. Last year’s team was county champs. It’s an honor to play for the Eagles.
—Yeah, it is. I’m not one of the main players or anything.
The important thing is to be part of the team, right?
—I think so.
There’s just one thing.
—Uh oh. Watch out, Kylie. Here it comes.
 Yesterday you committed an infraction against the school dress code. That sweater you were wearing: it was a little too short at the waist.
—Kylie wasn’t wearing a sweater yesterday. She wore her game jersey to school, just like me and the rest of the team. We had our first scrimmage.
Never mind the details, Em. The point is that we have a school dress code. As you all know.
—We do?
It’s in the student handbook. Page 14.
—You’re kidding, right?
 —No, Emily, he’s right. It’s there. But no one ever pays attention to it.
 Well we’re going to start paying attention to it now, Sadie. Dr. Devens told me last week that faculty really needs to start enforcing the rules. There’s a state accreditation coming up, and we can’t afford to fail. Last time we caught all kinds of grief for not having enough fire drills. Kylie, maybe you were wearing a sweater yesterday, and maybe you weren’t. A full investigation will clear you to play this season, assuming of course that you have nothing to be guilty about. You can explain to the Disciplinary Committee when it meets next week. In the meantime, kids, I recommend you pay close attention to the dress code. I know I will.
—He’s kidding, Kylie. He’s not serious.
This gives me no pleasure, Em, believe me. As far as I’m concerned, enforcing the school dress code is nothing but an invitation to trouble. But it’s not my job to question the rules. I’ve got a job to do, and I’m going to do it. You understand, Kylie, don’t you?
Is that a nod? You’re looking a little confused. Adam looks like he wants to jump in here.
 —Oh just get on with it, Mr. K. You’re trying to make the point that the school dress code is just like something from the American Revolution. Let’s hear it.
Fine, Adam. If I must. Class, the school dress code is a little like the Molasses Act of 1733.
 —And that would be because …
Well, that law went on the books and went largely unenforced for thirty years. Then the French and Indian War happened. And those huge bills to pay that I mentioned the other day. So the British were looking for ways to raise revenue. They were going to have to come up with new sources. But it also made sense to enforce the old ones. Like that tax on molasses.
—I get that. But why the whole basketball team thing? Why not just start class by telling Kylie she broke the dress code?
Well, Kylie is proud to be an Eagle. Just like the colonists were proud to be members of the British Empire. Not just for winning the French and Indian War. That was just one in a string of victories. As Kylie noted, it feels good to be part of a team. Right, Em?
—Damn straight.
Especially a winning one. But then along comes Dr. Devens, who we all know is our principal, but what that really means is that she’s in effect the chief administrator, like the Prime Minister, of our high school.
—Isn’t Dr. Devens more like the king?
No. That would be Christina Themistocles, the school superintendent. She’s the King. I mean Queen. (Let’s not get too bogged down in the gender binary, shall we?) But she’s far too important to bother about some silly old sweater
—Kylie wasn’t wearing a sweater.
 Well, aren’t you the stickler, Emily. You must be from Massachusetts or one of those prickly New England colonies. Anyway, Dr. Devens and the other members of the administration have decided on this policy, a policy dictated by outside circumstances (that upcoming review I mentioned) and since I report to her, I have my orders, even when they put me in the somewhat embarrassing position of monitoring the student dress code, one that I’ve been even happier than all of you to ignore. But the situation has changed. I’m sure Kylie understands that. Don’t you, Kylie.
Now I do, Mr. K.
Thatta girl. And this doesn’t affect your feelings about being a member of the Eagles, does it?
—No, not really.
 Not really? What’s that supposed to mean?
—I mean, I don’t like it, but it’s not like it really affects the way I think about the team.
Excellent. Exactly the kind of attitude I like to hear from a girl.
Oh calm down, Emily. We all know Kylie is a member in good standing of the Eagles athletic program. She just happens to be … a female. Like George Washington.
—George Washington is not a girl. And what does he have to do with this?
Again: we’re not getting bogged down in that gender binary. Washington fought in the French and Indian War. As a matter of fact, you might say he started it. The governor of Virginia sent him as an errand boy out to the frontier in 1754 to tell the French to get lost. Washington had some Indian guides, who as it turned out had their own agenda. Washington never got the chance to tell the French, because the Indians went ahead and murdered the French officers he was supposed to talk to. Awkward! Major international incident triggers world war. Rookie mistake, you might say. Didn’t really matter; the British and French were itching for a fight anyway. Washington actually fought quite well in that war. For an American, that is. Here’s the pathetic part: Washington actually hoped he could get a commission as a regular officer in the British Army! Poor schmuck. A wee bit clueless: that was never going to happen. He wasn’t even from a prominent Virginia family, for God’s sake!
Don’t get me wrong. Some of the Americans were really quite good. I mean, Washington, he was fine. Really. And that Benjamin Franklin! A starter on any squad!   All those experiments. Great guy, too. Let me tell you: There was a team player. Even after other colonials started grumbling, he remained loyal. Things got a little messed up at the end, and he ultimately quit the team. Feel sorta bad about that, even if he showed poor judgment (involved some letters; let’s not get into it now). But you would never quit, would you, Kylie? You’re not going to let a little misunderstanding about a sweater or an indelicate comment about your membership in the gentler sex interfere with your love of the school now, are you?
Kylie? I’m having a little trouble reading your expression.
—You’ve left her speechless, Mr. K.
Ah. It happens. Well, anyway, you all get my point. Which is?
 —Don’t try out for the basketball team.
 —No, Jonah, wait: Form your own basketball team.
 Well, yes, Adam. That of course was the ultimate lesson. But that’s still about a decade in the future. Because, as my analogy with Kylie was meant to suggest, there’s not any one thing that starts making you feel bad about the team and the school. The stuff accumulates over time. And note here that I’m talking about something a little different than a religious, or a military, or an economic issue. It’s more like a psychology, a sense of morale. This is a subtle thing that’s mixed in with a lot of others. But I wanted to spend a little time talking about it, because I think it’s important. People do what they do for a variety of reasons. Some involve ideas and interests; others involve feelings. They’re always interacting.

Next: Why they stomped on the Stamp Act