Archives: 09/2009

It’s Not About the Speech to Schoolchildren

The reaction to President Obama’s planned speech to schoolchildren and the lesson plans sent out by the Dept. of Ed have sparked a firestorm of criticism and accusations about indoctrination, etc.

Many, many people just can’t understand what the big deal is. After all, it’s just a pep-talk about doing well in school and working hard. Sure, there was some language promoting Obama and political leaders. But who cares? It’s just a brief speech by the President after all. Just like Bush the Elder gave in gentler times (which got him a Congressional investigation).

Many are asking the same questions about a number of issues these days. Why the outrage over the deficit? Where were the complaints when Bush the Younger ran it up? Why so exercised about the government health option? Don’t we have Medicare and Medicaid?

Of course Cato scholars, libertarians and many conservatives have criticized these things all along. For some, the new sensitivity, the emotion, is the result of the proverbial straw on a camel’s back, the accumulation of dissatisfaction with various aspects of the government over decades. And what has changed for others is the pace and scope of government expansion at the close of the Bush presidency and the dawn of Obama’s.

The furious reaction to the politicized lesson plan and Obama’s speech to schoolchildren cannot be understood without the context of the bailouts, the stimulus, the debt, GM, the attempt to take over health care.

And now, our kids. And not just the speech and lesson plan, but federal expansion into preschool and early childhood initiatives and home visitations (however voluntary and innocuous-seeming in different times).

They … the government, the meddlers, the nannies … they are coming for our money, our doctors, our guns and our kids. They won’t stop until they control everything.

That’s how it looks to millions of Americans. Fair or not, people are now very sensitive to any actions by the Obama administration.

Just as a lifetime of exposure to an allergen and modest immune reactions can reach some ill-defined tipping point and bloom into full-blown anaphylaxis, many Americans have developed an acute allergy to government intervention and Obama’s grand plans.

In isolation, the reaction to this speech seems wild. Given the context, it’s completely understandable.

Reviving the First Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments this week in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  The case features the Federal Election Commission ruling that for the group Citizens United to run its documentary on Hillary Clinton would violate McCain-Feingold.  The decision was a constitutional travesty, since this is precisely the sort of political speech that constitutes the core of the First Amendment.

Theodore B. Olson has given us a taste in the Wall Street Journal of the argument that he will be making before the Court tomorrow:

The idea that corporate and union speech is somehow inherently corrupting is nonsense. Most corporations are small businesses, and they have every right to speak out when a candidate threatens the welfare of their employees or shareholders.

Time after time the Supreme Court has recognized that corporations enjoy full First Amendment protections. One of the most revered First Amendment precedents is New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which afforded publishers important constitutional safeguards in libel cases. Any decision that determines that corporations have less protection than individuals under the First Amendment would threaten the very institutions we depend upon to keep us informed. This may be why Citizens United is supported by such diverse allies as the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the National Rifle Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Persons of modest means often band together to speak through ideological corporations. That speech may not be silenced because of speculation that a few large entities might speak too loudly, or because some corporations may earn large profits. The First Amendment does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in order somehow to equalize participation in public debate.

Tomorrow’s case is not about Citizens United. It is about the rights of all persons—individuals, associations, corporations and unions—to speak freely. And it is about our right to hear those voices and to judge for ourselves who has the soundest message.

Medium Tobacco Fights Back

The New York Times has an editorial today titled “Big Tobacco Fights Back,” criticizing tobacco companies’ lawsuit against new advertising restrictions. Repeatedly, the Times attributes the lawsuit to “the [tobacco] industry.”

But as my former Cato colleague Jacob Grier notes, the biggest tobacco company (Philip Morris) is on the Times’s side in opposing the lawsuit. So wouldn’t it make more sense to title the editorial “Medium-Size Tobacco Fights Back”?

Staid Speech Is Cold Comfort

After all of the rancor last week over his planned back-to-school address, it was predictable that in the end President Obama would offer a largely non-controversial speech about working hard and staying in school. If he sticks to the text released today, that is pretty much what he will do. Unfortunately, whether or not that was his original intent – and no one knows for sure but the President and his advisors – many Obama supporters will likely use the relatively staid final product as grounds to smear people concerned about the speech as right-wing kooks or out-of-control partisans. At the very least, such an outcome would be in keeping with a lot of the email I’ve gotten since the story first broke. But it will miss several critical points:

  • No matter how innocuous the content of the speech, this could certainly be an address with very political goals, intended to cast the president in the warm glow of a man who just cares about kids. From kissing babies, to photo-op reading sessions featuring cute tikes on classroom floors, this could be just another instance of the old practice of using children as props for political gain. And how presumptuous of the president to make himself – rather than the children, their teachers, and their schools – the center of attention on what is the first day of school for millions of kids. Finally, add the parts of the speech that sound like the President patting himself on the back for overcoming difficulties as a youth, and the speech could easily have political aims.
  • Many people feared, thanks to politically and ideologically suggestive lesson guides created by the U.S. Department of Education, that the speech would be an effort at indoctrination. Critically, it was only after very loud, initial outrage that the Department made changes to the guides and the White House announced it would release the text of the speech ahead of time. Yet administration defenders act like everyone knew from the outset that the speech would just be about working hard and staying in school. And who knows what the speech might have looked like had there not been so negative an initial reaction.
  • Despite its generally innocuous tone, the speech does contain some controversial political and ideological assertions, including that “setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools” is the job of the federal government. Also, the things the President highlights as worthy aspirations are disproportionately government and non-profit work. And then there’s this self-aggrandizing assertion: “Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn.”
  • Ultimately, no matter what happens now that the speech has been published, one thing cannot be ignored or spun: When government controls education, wrenching political and social conflict is inevitable. Americans are very diverse – ideologically, ethnically, morally, religiously – but they all have to support a single system of government schools. As a result, they are constantly forced to fight to have their values and desires respected, and the losers inevitably have their liberty infringed. In this case, reasonable people who want their children to hear the President must fight it out with  equally reasonable people who do not want their children to watch the speech in school. It’s a situation completely at odds with a free society, but as we have seen not just with the current conflict, but seemingly endless battles over history textbooks, the teaching of human origins, sex education, and on and on, it is inevitable when government runs the schools. Which is why the most important lesson to be learned from this presidential-address donnybrook is that Americans need educational freedom. We need universal school choice or crippling conflicts like this will keep on coming, liberty will continue to be compromised, and our society will be ripped farther and farther apart.

    China Moving Wrong Way on Internet Freedom

    While the growth of the market in China has helped open up personal space and limit control of individual lives, the Beijing authorities still attempt to limit freedom of expression.  The Internet continues to be a prime target.

    Reports the New York Times:

    News Web sites in China, complying with secret government orders, are requiring that new users log on under their true identities to post comments, a shift in policy that the country’s Internet users and media have fiercely opposed in the past.Until recently, users could weigh in on news items on many of the affected sites more anonymously, often without registering at all, though the sites were obligated to screen all posts, and the posts could still be traced via Internet protocol addresses.

    But in early August, without notification of a change, news portals like Sina, Netease, Sohu and scores of other sites began asking unregistered users to sign in under their real names and identification numbers, said top editors at two of the major portals affected. A Sina staff member also confirmed the change.

    The editors said the sites were putting into effect a confidential directive issued in late July by the State Council Information Office, one of the main government bodies responsible for supervising the Internet in China.

    If the government of the People’s Republic of China hopes to become an increasingly important international power, it should begin trusting its people to take on greater responsibility in deciding their own affairs.  The justifications offered for the Communist Party’s monopoly of power are only going to grow more threadbare and unsustainable over time.

    Will President Obama Tell Students that Private School Made Him Successful?

    The Washington Examiner’s satire columnist, Scott Ott, imagines an unusually honest presidential address next week:

    A draft copy of President Barack Obama’s planned September 8 address to America’s public school children, tells students that “If you want to grow up to be like me, you should beg your parents to put you in private school, right now.”

    Although Obama attended public school in Indonesia early in life, he soon switched to a private Catholic school, and from fifth grade through graduation went to a private college-prep school in Hawaii. His own daughters now attend a private school in Washington D.C..

    “Do you think you’re going to get into Harvard University with your one-size-fits-all public school diploma?” the president will reportedly say. “Come on! Don’t make me laugh. You’ll be lucky to survive through graduation. Seriously, you gotta get out of this mediocrity machine. Go ahead! Get up right now. Run for the door. What are you waiting for?”

    While the White House would not confirm the content of the leaked speech draft, a spokesman acknowledged that “You don’t get to be as smart and cool as Barack Obama by sitting in P.S. 152, listening to some union lackey droning on, and then eating government surplus in the cafeteria.”

    On Tuesday, the president will bypass parents, taking his message directly to kids in the classroom “in hopes that you’ll pester Mom until she gets a second job to pay private-school tuition so you can escape the swirling vortex of ignorance and despair that is our government-run school system.”

    “The only thing standing between you and success,” the president will allegedly say, “is the mentality that the government will take care of you. Once you shake that, there’s no limit to your achievement. Pay any price. Bear any burden. Just get your fanny out of that fiberglass chair, go buy yourself an Oxford shirt, a pair of slacks and a clip-on tie, and go to a place that faces constant economic pressure to improve.”