To the Editor:
I hold a handful of documents sacred – among them The Book of Common Prayer, the Holy Bible, The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, (The actual title of this document is not The Declaration of Independence), and the document popularly known as The Constitution of the United States of America (The title was not a part of the original document. It was added when the document was printed).
As the debate over what to do with the elementary school known as the “Old Rock Building” has escalated in my home town of Malakoff, a place that the Payne, Gentry, and Miles lines of my family helped settle and build over 150 years ago, a fundamental principle of the workings of our democratic system of government must be considered carefully by those on both sides of the issue. It is a simple truth that has, most likely, decided the fate of the building. For those who have forgotten their history or never bothered to learn it or to hold it in its rightfully sacred place, this truth is eloquently stated in the The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, and it is this…
“… to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;”
Throughout our nation’s history, elected officials at all levels of government have made courageous decisions that have advanced the cause of human rights, social justice, and the general welfare of the people they represent – often at great sacrifice to themselves. Elected officials have also made selfish decisions that have started wars, denied individual rights, created economic and social chaos, and advanced their own personal causes (and bank accounts) over those of the people who elected them. The beauty and the ugliness of democracy exist side by side. “We the people” elect those who represent us, and at various times in our nation’s history until the present day, we have elected great statesmen and great scoundrels. We have elected George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman, to name a few of our great statesmen. But we have also elected incompetent, disinterested, shallow, and immoral crooks, liars, and thieves.
In the matter at hand, the duly instituted and democratically elected governing body of the Malakoff Independent School District (MISD) has voted in the majority to exercise its just powers to demolish the old elementary school. That view and that vote is each board member’s right to exercise as they go about the business of representing the people who by majority vote elected them and gave their consent to be governed by them and to abide by their decisions.
Many people are happy with their decision to remove the school. Many are not. But, it is ultimately the school board’s decision as the representatives of their constituency, and it is a decision made through the established means and processes of our democracy. It may be a good decision, and it may be a horrible decision. Democracy does not guarantee that elected officials have to make the best decision. It does not guarantee that elected officials have to make the wisest decision. It does not guarantee that elected officials have to make an unbiased decision. It does not guarantee that elected officials have to make a considered and informed decision. It does not guarantee that elected officials have to make a moral decision. It does not guarantee that elected officials have to make a decision free from outside influence. It does not even guarantee that elected officials have to make a decision, as they may abstain from voting on any issue before them.
In the end, the issue of what to do with the old elementary school can be reduced to that simple reality. The people in the MISD who were eligible to vote elected four individuals who hold the sincere conviction that the building should be removed – those four constitute a majority of the board – that is the way decisions are made in this country, whether we like it or not.
HOWEVER…the document known as The Constitution of the United States of America has this to say about a few other fundamental principles of our democratic government that must be carefully considered by those on both sides of the issue, regardless of where they live in this country, whether or not they are eligible to vote in a particular election, pay taxes to a certain taxing authority or jurisdiction, or have any other tangible qualifications besides the blessed fortune to be citizens of this nation:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
That profoundly fundamental statement from The Bill of Rights guarantees that all citizens have a right (within the laws of this country) to practice our religion as we see fit, to speak our mind as we wish, to peaceably assemble, to publish and read what we want to, and to petition the government for relief from stupidity, poor decision making, immorality, and injustice, and to seek change when we conclude that our government and its elected officials are dead wrong. It is interesting, indeed, that these rights, the first denoted in the Bill of Rights, are grouped together. And let us never forget that the ultimate power of the people of this country rests with the sacrosanct right of the vote, which allows us to change our government representatives when they do not represent us well, wisely, or unselfishly.
Throughout our history, these and other rights have been challenged, but they have withstood all tests, and they remain strong today. The misguided and ill-informed view that the exercise of these rights must be according to someone’s artificial standard of conduct and “civility” is based on a misreading of The Constitution, a selective interpretation of our history, or both. In short, it is hogwash (and I do not need to use a stronger word). A recent editorial in The Malakoff News stated that, “Our political discourse has devolved into knee-jerk slogans…” That statement is just not accurate. Democracy has been and will always be a raucous and contentious process. As early as the campaign between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson's supporters accused President Adams of having a "…hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." In 1884, supporters of James Blaine used this slogan against his opponent, Grover Cleveland, “Ma, Ma where's my Pa?” — a slogan referring to the fact that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child in 1874. Those opposed to President Lyndon Johnson used a slogan which asked, “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids you kill today?” And as recently as a couple of months ago, David Letterman “joked” that Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s daughter had been “knocked up” (Letterman’s words) by Alex Rodriguez during the 7th inning of a New York Yankees’ baseball game. Not polite speech, but, thank God, speech that is a right guaranteed to all of us and one of the reasons we do not beat each other with walking sticks, at least not very often anymore.
Let us also remember that our political discourse has always been and continues to be influenced by lobbyists, carpetbaggers, agitators, outsiders, and religious charlatans in places as common as street corners and as holy as great churches and the halls of Congress. We allow all these things in the name of democracy. We do not jail dissidents; we do not send those with opposing views to labor camps; we do not murder our political opponents who “call names” or whose speech is deemed “disagreeable” as is done in Iran, China, or North Korea — we rise above that.
In the end, like it or not, we have the right to speak our mind as we wish, to vote our conscience, to make our voices heard, to criticize or praise our elected officials, to re-elect them or to throw them out of office at the appointed time. We have that right because as Thomas Jefferson stated, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." From Yorktown to Gettysburg, from the Ardennes to Normandy and Iwo Jima, from Pork Chop Hill to Khe Sanh, from Baghdad to Kabul, we have sent the finest our nation has to offer to defend these rights. And nobody can take these rights away from us, no matter how loud or shrill the debate becomes.
Personally, I would hope that the old elementary school be preserved because of its intrinsic historic value and that it be put to further use, because as Dwight Young said, "Saving old buildings and neighborhoods is an enormously effective way to provide continuity in the places where we live." Whether you agree with me or not and whether I agree with you or not, we each have the hallowed right to express ourselves on this or any other issue upon which we feel compelled to speak — with or without “name calling,” either agreeably or disagreeably.
It was also stated in the previously cited editorial in The Malakoff News that we should “Try and keep civil while engaging in political debate,” and that we should “…rise above the name calling.” It was further stated that “MISD is here to teach children, so let’s start by teaching them a lesson in acceptable behavior.” As a former high school and college educator, I would respectfully suggest that it is just as important to teach all children in this country, as Carl Eldridge Anderson, Sr. taught me, about our history and the importance of preserving it, about our government and how it truly works, and about the fundamental freedoms we enjoy that allow us to exercise our rights, including the freedom of speech — however messy and contentious the exercise of those rights may be in a democracy such as ours. Above all else, we should teach them of the countless sacrifices made to preserve those rights.
A subsequent letter to The Malakoff News said, “We can disagree without being disagreeable. This is the foundation of our country and why so many lives have been sacrificed to maintain it.” The truth is that so many lives have been sacrificed so that we may maintain the right to exercise the freedom of speech AS IT IS WRITTEN in the Bill of Rights. “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech…” is what the document says. I find no qualifier requiring that we be “agreeable.” To suggest there is a litmus test of “agreeableness” is to disregard the genius and tolerance of those who wrote this enduring document. It is to suggest that there is someone or some group that is the arbiter of what is “agreeable” and “disagreeable.” That is real demagoguery — plain and simple.
As for me, I would rather have my children experience democracy in all its fractiousness in the grand tradition of Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Paine than to be “agreeable,” “politically correct” sheep, who are afraid that every word that they speak or write may offend someone else, who believe all they hear without skepticism and curiosity, thereby “devolving” into inane, senseless creatures whose greatest interest in life is texting on their mobile telephones or swallowing propaganda from their television sets, from YouTube, from newspapers (if they bother to read one), and sadly, oftentimes from the pulpits of their very churches. For the greatest immorality in a democracy is not "name calling" or “disagreeable” speech; it is apathy, ignorance, prejudice, fear, hypocrisy, complacency, lack of self-worth, and the insidious belief that because “…all men are created equal,” some are entitled to take what others have without making the effort to earn it themselves. These are the evils that destroy democracy. The rest is just noise…and manipulation worthy of Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm, in which we read, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
So let the debate continue; let the issue play out however disagreeably and furiously it may on the altar of democracy in the cathedral of freedom that is The United States of America. The exercise of democracy is not for the timid; it is not for the feint of heart; it is not for the “politically correct” — it is for the bold souls who care more about the common good than about themselves and who speak their mind accordingly. It is for those who would passionately declare, “I despise what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
A radical agitator for The Bill of Rights, I remain…
Malakoff High School, Class of 1972
Stephen F. Austin State University, Class of 1976
New York University - Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, Class of 1981