Battle flags

When I was in high school, I took a political science class. The teacher was a proud Democrat who made no secret of his leanings and allegiances. When his lecturing strayed from the neutrality of the curriculum — a common occurrence — he would vigorously deride anything with the red stain of the G.O.P.

This teacher repeatedly and publicly shamed me for my own party affiliation. I was only 16 but already a Republican. My instructor’s blunders, thankfully, were nothing I couldn’t handle.

This educator’s haughty disdain for the Republican Party and his attempts to publicly humiliate a juvenile student for not seeing things through blue-tinted spectacles was absolutely out of line.

As a teacher, it was his job to provide his students with academic information, help them understand it and guide them through the critical thinking processes they’ll need to function as healthy adults.

It was not his job to indoctrinate and humiliate. It was not his job to crank out lockstep Democrats.

This is precisely why we have an interest in keeping partisanship out of secondary school classrooms.

I’m pretty sure a fear of similar misdeeds sparked the greatest public conflagration in my 25 years in Yamhill County.

The most vitriolic, nasty public bickering I have ever seen here was galvanized by two innocuous banners, a Black Lives Matter flag and a rainbow flag. Of course, the impetus was broader than a couple of flags hanging in a classroom — it was the threat of political indoctrination that loomed over the fight. And those banners became useful symbols for events their designers never imagined when a group of conservatives took control of the Newberg, Oregon school board in an election to which hardly anyone was paying attention.

But soon enough, the small-town school board attracted national scrutiny. The board’s ambiguous ban on district employees displaying any sort of political or controversial symbols or images was met with outrage. The ban was followed by the summary dismissal of the district superintendent — well, summary doesn’t note the contractual $175,000 salary and health care benefits the district must pay the ousted superintendent. The board has been accused of acting in secret, acting illegally, acting grossly irresponsibly.

The aggressive recall campaign conducted to oust the board’s two most controversial members not only gathered signatures but was accused of taking steps to affect the employment of the volunteer members, and other ugly actions extending beyond the scope of the members’ official board functions. People participating in the campaign were accused of working not only to defeat the members, but also to destroy them.

No matter what side you took, this was a nasty fight.

While voter turnout was under 19 percent for the targeted members’ election, it was over 50 percent for their recall.

I intentionally stayed out of the Newberg situation and I am not weighing in now, other than this brief synopsis before proceeding to the point of this piece. Even if I wanted to, a 1,200-word essay couldn’t begin to parse this absolute mess of a public gutter-brawl.

From my perspective, it’s fitting that a self-appointed, amateur, one-man press took the lead on this one. Labeling anyone in a sleepy town like Newberg a Super Mafia Mutant Loser Teenage Satan Ninja Sex Cabal (or whatever it was) does tend to attract a certain wild-eyed demographic, if you don’t care who re-Tweets you. Throwing gas on the fires of public outrage is always good for a few laughs. Or clicks.

Back to the story at hand, conservatives were worried by the encroachment of political perspectives into the classrooms of their children. Forty years ago, I would’ve minimized, in spite of my left-lurching high school instructor. But in this new world of sharp relief — where black is black, white is white and shadows of grey nowhere to be seen — political persuasion can take on a hulking malevolence.

Currently, both political parties believe they alone hold the moral high ground, that the other side has morphed from simple opposition to extremist enemy, that an extremist enemy broaches no compromise, that the only option is to destroy the other side before it destroys us.

Hyperbole? Maybe that last bit could use “render irrelevant” or “emasculate” instead of destroy but, other than that, I see little exaggeration. Whatever the case, ideology has never been so narrow, and patience never so thin.

Fans of radical and rapid change fail to understand or accept that the bulk of the population — the bazillions of quiet people who almost never say anything — are not adaptable in radical or rapid terms. Bluntly put, alternative pronouns will enjoy universal and enthusiastic use only after a huge number of the unadaptable drop dead. It’s called attrition, it’s ponderously slow and, whether anyone likes it or not, most radical change has always relied on it.

Any school board would be well-advised not to quash its students’ and educators’ attempts to encourage racial harmony. It’s a fine line between banning ambiguously worded “controversial” political symbols and banning symbols of human unity. Frankly, I believe the phrase “Black lives matter” is one of the purest, most necessary and important phrases to catch the public consciousness in many decades. It’s a reminder to those who need to hear it that, yes, Black lives matter — and, sadly, there are plenty who need reminding.

But could a Black Lives Matter banner representing the BLM political organization be questioned, when placed by an educator?

What about the no-organization affiliation of the rainbow flag? School boards should remember that any group or class of people who courts of law or statutes are holding historically marginalized deserve careful and respectful treatment, regardless of the board’s personal feelings.

But it never really was about flags anyway.

So, the immediate fight is over. What are we going to do now?

Yes, another local recall is underway and several lawsuits still loom. But I find it difficult to believe either side wishes to continue in the vein we’ve seen, especially if the other side is willing to meet them halfway.

Surely the prudent course of action would be to make a real effort — both sides — to sit down and find common ground. Believe me, it’s there. Conservatives know we live in a pluralistic society. Most are comfortable with some compromise, acknowledging our plurality. Indeed, I know many conservatives who rather enjoy — gasp! — diversity, even if they don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue with their progressive counterparts.

Level-headed liberals know all conservatives aren’t nutcase Qanon acolytes who remain fixated on a stolen election. The image of angry white racists hell-bent on protecting Whitelandia from encroaching brownness or transness or whateverness is an inaccurate cartoon, unfair to many conservatives.

I’m hoping the two Newberg recallees recognize enough of their constituents are unhappy with them that they make an honest and vigorous effort to conduct a candid dialogue with those who opposed them.

It’s going to take both sides being honest, earnest, polite and willing to meet the opposition halfway.

Back to my high school teacher, imagine if the situation was reversed: a Republican educator shaming a Democrat student. Aside from the term “Republican educator” seeming to meet the threshold of oxymoron these days, the situation is equally unacceptable.

Right now, both sides should stand down, find common ground through honest conversation and remember we’re all human — and maybe start acting human again.

Photograph © Robin Jonathan Deutsch via Unsplash

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