Tuesday, September 8, 2009

O Say, Can You See?

When I was a kid, I harassed Presidents Bush I and Clinton with a million mostly trivial letters about things that worried me. I didn't care what political party they belonged to, and I'm not even sure I would have know that Bush was a Republican if you had asked me. I wrote to them about the things that might not be a big deal to all grownups, but that matter deeply to children because they are rooted in that black-and-white morality that rules the playground. I wasn't reacting to the person in office, you see...I was reacting to the Office of the President.

Kids like the President because for many of them, it seems like the awesomest job you could possibly get. The title rings with responsibility and power, and that's something that appeals to children. If a child is aware and the parents willing to talk with them, the first time that child connects with a President can be the dawn of a political consciousness and a great respect for the people that work to make this country go. Depending on the type of contact, this first experience with Presidential power can also be the beginning exercise of a lifetime of vetting political opinion. It can be the genesis of active political thought.

Every election brings with it concerns that uneducated voters will flood the ballot boxes and sway the vote in the interest of misguided politics. Very little concern is reserved for those who research their opinions and can argue their positions. It is the uninformed masses that bear the brunt of our concern, because we know that they are buying into baseless propaganda, often without the knowledge that they are doing so. This is the type of citizen we risk creating if we keep children hidden from the reach of the views we oppose.

John Locke explained in his Letter Concerning Toleration that no one could obtain salvation unless they believed in the path thereto. John Locke's a big name in politics, but everyone recognizes the idea - when you learn something for yourself, come to a conclusion in the course of your own study, you form an enduring and informed opinion. Experience - broad experience - breeds opinion. We have a duty to our children to expose them to opposing and even uncomfortable views. We owe them discussion and exploration, and we owe them engagement with the political process, because whether or not you "are into" politics, they drive our lives. Allowing children to begin thinking that politics and language do not matter is to sentence them to a life of ignorance and ambivalence about the very process that allows them any measure of control over their lives.

The roar of discord that preempted President Obama's speech to schoolchildren is evidence of a disturbing trend, and should stand as a warning for all people. Practice makes permanent - if we teach children to block out and shout down anyone who opposes them (or who they suspect may disagree), they will hold on to this behavior for the rest of their lives. We cannot afford to have citizens who engage with the political world on these grounds. We have reached a point in our political discourse where people can sincerely avow - on cable TV no less, with massive audiences - that the President of the United States is so foolish that he would attempt to brainwash children with socialist drivel in an incredibly public address. This to me indicates a dangerous closemindedness, and quite frankly a dangerous ignorance. If children never hear viewpoints different from theirs, they can never learn to vet these arguments on their own. Simply telling them that something is wrong is not only immoral, it cheats them of their political development.

Children today suffer enough disregard. If a sitting President is willing and able to address them, they should hear it, in the hopes that it will create in them a desire to interact and critique the political landscape in which they live. To smother the possibility inherent in an address like Obama's, or Reagan's, or Bush's, is to do a great disservice to the future of our body politic and really, really screw our kids.

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