Wednesday, January 31, 2018
Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Wednesday, January 31, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Today we’ll look at the state of the state of the union, we’ll see new debates about homeschooling and we’ll see those debates take on a new urgency, and we’ll see the return of Murphy Brown, and then we’ll ask today would she even be interesting?
On the most important of all political stages President Trump strikes a different note, even as there are few surprises
The setting last night was one of the most important of all political stages; a joint session of Congress and the occasion of the 2018 State of the Union address delivered by the President of the United States. It was an event filled with all of the pageantry of representative democracy, and even as millions of Americans tuned in to listen to the President speak, and no doubt to listen to some of the political commentary, they were also seeing what was explicit in the picture more than explicit in words. Explicit in the picture was our constitutional separation of powers: The President was there for a joint session of Congress at the invitation of Congress, but he was the speaker as the nation's Chief Executive, and also present as invited guests in the audience was the Chief Justice of the United States and some of the associate justices of the nation's highest court. All three branches of government there represented and on display. Now, one of the interesting little historical footnotes last night was that on this kind of occasion at least one major member of the cabinet must not be present, he must be or she must be in a secure place away from any threat. This is important for the stability of the government, and, of course, even for our constitutional system of succession in the event of the removal or death of a president. Last night it was the United States Secretary of Agriculture, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, who was not there to listen to the President speak, but was in a safe location.
Now just consider what we did see last night. On the platform in the House of Representatives stood the President, behind him the Vice President of the United States and the Speaker of the House. In terms of secession it is after the President, the Vice president, and then the Speaker of the House, and then you consider all the cabinet members, members of Congress, including the President pro tempore of the Senate, and you come to understand there really was a concentration of democratic leadership, by that I mean small “d” leadership in our democracy in one room; in one room in the year 2018. It was in a similar room, I was reminded yesterday, that the first and second Presidents of the United States George Washington and John Adams had also delivered what was then called the President's Annual Address to Congress. The first modern president, as I mentioned yesterday, was President Woodrow Wilson, who in the year 1913 decided to deliver the State of the Union Address, that annual address by the president to the Congress, in person. Presidents have, in the main, continued that ever since 1913, and now with the advent of modern technology and media, it is a spectacular modern media event.
Now, there’s something else to think about as you reflect upon the event last night. Who was the main actor on that huge, important political stage, perhaps the most important political stage in all of human political history? Well, of course the central character by Constitution, by tradition, and by the nature of the event is the President of the United States Donald J. Trump. But there were other actors on the scene as well. Almost all of Congress, both the Senate and the House of Representatives, the First Lady of the United States, invited guests, most importantly of the President and the First Lady, but also of assorted members of Congress; you had the Vice President and the Speaker of the House behind the President. What made that picture last night important in this historical sense is that the President, the Speaker of the House, and the Vice President of the United States are all the same party, that’s certainly not unprecedented in American history but it is more rare, it's not customary, it's worthy of note. But as we’re thinking about the dynamic of the drama that we witnessed last night, another very important aspect is the performance not so much of the President but of the audience; specifically, the audience inside the chamber. With the advent of television and with cameras pointed not only at the President but at his congressional audience, well, this has taken on an entirely new reality because in the age of television and then amplify that with the advent of digital and social media, members of Congress understand that they are not only watching the President of the United States, they are being watched. That’s something relatively new in American political history. So what's the big dynamic there? It is the question of applause. First of all, the applause pattern breaks down into a basically partisan dynamic. Members of the President's own party are likely to cheer often and enthusiastically. Members of the opposing party are more likely to sit stoically until they simply must, by force of political circumstance and because they know the cameras are watching them, they must also join in the applause, but the level of enthusiasm, well, that too is a very political reality.
Now as you’re thinking about what you were watching last night, just compare how a similar kind of event would've played out in the same chamber for the same event say just two years ago with a different President, in that case President Barack Obama, the pattern would be not exactly reversed, but merely reversed. When senators and Congress persons know that the camera is going to be upon them, perhaps just even occasionally, they have to know at times that their responsibility politically is to play to their base, that's one of the reasons why even if individual Congress persons and senators may have agreed with the President they find a very strong partisan rationale for sticking together with members of their party and also signaling to their own political base that they will applaud only when their own positions are being affirmed. Those who have been involved in these kinds of events can also give personal testimony of the fact that there are some very awkward moments in the applause business. One of the most important and difficult of the questions is this: When you start applauding, when you applaud enthusiastically, how do you decide to stop applauding? In the United States that can be a delicate political question; elsewhere in the world, it can be a deadly question. It’s a very different question when you leave the world of representative democracy and you move into the world of totalitarian dictatorship. About what am I speaking? I'm speaking about the fact that one member, now we would say late or former member, of the North Korean power structure is believed to have been executed upon the orders of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un because he stopped applauding the dictator at a public speech event too quickly.
Last night, President Trump struck different notes than he had, for the most part, in the previous months of his administration. He used things like conciliation and unity. He spoke to the nation last night describing what he called
“a new American moment”
even as he went on to call the nation to
“the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”
Specifically speaking to his congressional audience. As we discussed on The Briefing yesterday, we knew in advance most of the policy points and the positions, the arguments, the President would deliver last night, and on that score there were few surprises. One genuine surprise last night was the length of President Trump's first State of the Union address, between an hour and 20 and an hour and 30 minutes depending upon how certain applause breaks and other incidentals are counted. That's a very long presidential address; it's long for President Trump, it’s long for any president. You would have to go back to the administration of President Bill Clinton to find a State of the Union address of that kind of length, and President Bill Clinton was famously long-winded,
A final note on the State of the Union last night, one of the traditional tests of presidential rhetoric is the length of time that the President's speech will dominate the national conversation. So that will be revealed over the next several days, sometimes the national conversation shifts for reasons that have nothing to do with the President; historical events can intervene. But it is really important to recognize that presidents often step on their own messaging shortly after even such a major event as the State of the Union address. But with the advent of President Trump and Twitter, there is the altogether new possibility that this President may tweet over his State of the Union address. We’re living in a world now when 280 characters and a tweet can change the national conversation perhaps even more than an hour and 20 minute State of the Union address.
New debates about homeschooling take on a new urgency
Next, we shift to a national conversation about homeschooling. Several days ago on The Briefing I talked about my own expectation that in the aftermath of the news of the horrifying story of what had gone on in California in the home of David and Louise Turpin, you recall that they had shackled and imprisoned their 13 children, there is every reason to suspect that some would take the opportunity to condemn and criticize homeschooling and to call for either an end to the right of homeschooling or, at least in this point in our current legal and constitutional context, more likely to call for state regulation. But that kind of call, that kind of argument, took on an entirely different tone to a different effect when Damon Linker, a major writer about political events in the United States, wrote an article for the magazine The Week. In it he basically leveled a broadside against the parental right to homeschooling. Notably, he didn't call for an end to the right and its recognition, but he did call for an unusually urgent new level of government intervention and supervision. Speaking of the horrors within the Turpin home and, by the way homeschooling in California means that legally their parents must register their home as a private school, Damon Linker begins by saying,
“Now obviously, this is an exceptional case.”
Now, that's profoundly true; it obviously is an exceptional case. But then Linker goes on to say, and I quote,
“The vast majority of parents who home-school — most of whom are conservative or fundamentalist Protestants — do not abuse their children. Most standardized forms of assessment,”
“show that, on average, home-schooled kids acquire the same cognitive skills and learn much the same basic information as those who attend school outside the home. Indeed,”
he goes on to say,
“home-schoolers tend to score at or slightly above the national average on the SAT and similar tests.”
But it’s at this point the article swerves. He writes,
“Yet it is also the case that home-schooling sometimes serves as an easy cover for stomach-churning cases of cruelty and mistreatment — some of them,”
“[even] much worse than what took place in the Turpins' torture-chamber of a home.”
But he goes on to argue that what the state of California and the other 49 states should do is create a method and a system for the supervision and the evaluation of homeschooling families and parents by the state, by some arm or agency of the government. Linker cites historian Jeremy Young who points to the parental right of homeschooling as what he calls
“a massive legal loophole”
that can often permit child abuse. He calls that lack of regulatory oversight a government responsibility in which the government is failing. Linker says,
“He's right. In many states, parents need merely file an affidavit stipulating that they are running a school for their own children in order to ensure that the kids never interact with the wider world again.”
Now, you'll note that in the article Damon Linker begins, and he begins rather fairly and extensively documenting that the United States government has found a right to homeschooling for parents, specifically it is a right of parents to control and make decisions concerning the education of their children up to and including withdrawing their children from the public schools. But you also have in his article an affirmation of the fact that when you're looking at homeschooling and linking it to an abuse story such as the Turpins, you're talking about what, in his own words, would be obviously an exception. But here's where we need to note that those who are for the government evaluation and the government testing, perhaps even the government certification of homeschooling, this is where they will seize upon what they acknowledge to be an obvious exception and use it as a rationale for government intrusion into the home. Linker again cites historian Young saying that
“There can and should be greater oversight.”
He affirms what Young argues that
“annual checks by a state government employee, empowered,”
I’m reading from the article here,
“empowered to look for signs of abuse and evidence that kids are actually being educated, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the children.”
Now that's really stacked language. Here you have, referring to his proposal, words such as common sense, minimum, empowered, but what's not really acknowledged in the article is that this means that some agent of the state would be entering into private homes and in to the sanctity of the family, an agent, we should note, of the same state government that is collecting taxes for the public schools and has every reason to find efficiencies in any other educational model. Such an agent would be entering the home and making the evaluation, and you'll note in the argument here it's not just that there is no abuse but also to affirm, I quote,
“that kids are actually being educated.”
Well, according to whom? According to whose evaluation? According to whose standards? I think we know the answer to that. To his credit, I must make clear, Damon Linker isn't calling for an end to homeschooling even in his article he writes,
“Public schools shouldn't be in the business of using a comprehensive secular ideology to stamp out all vestiges of traditionalist religious belief in their students' minds.”
he went on to say,
“As long as that's what's happening in public schools, such believers will have a compelling case in favor of home-schooling.”
But even after conceding that point, even after conceding that what took place there in the Turpin household was obviously an exception, even after conceding the parents legal authority and right, and even conceding the reasonableness of parental concerns that lead to homeschooling, he goes on to basically assault that very right by the threat of state regulation.
The response to Damon Linker's essay and his arguments is also incredibly important. Alan Jacobs of Baylor University in his response points to the fact that if the government is going to take on this kind of role then by the same logic it had better investigate and evaluate marriages as well as homeschooling. Using some of Linker's own language, Jacobs writes,
“In households of married people, annual checks by a state government employee, empowered to look for signs of abuse by one spouse of another, would seem to be a minimum required by a commonsense concern for the well-being of the adults involved.”
Rod Dreher, who identifies as a friend of Damon Linker, responses to him nonetheless by saying that
“this is not one of his better columns.”
He goes on to say,
“In all honesty, it’s the kind of column that I write from time to time, frankly, motivated by moral outrage over a particular incident. It’s easy,”
“to let one’s heart get out ahead of one’s head.”
But even as Demon Linker's article was interesting and the response perhaps even more interesting, of greater importance in all likelihood is the fact that the Associated Press ran a news story that included some of the very same arguments. The article is by Carolyn Thompson. As it ran in several newspapers across the country, the headline was something like this,
“Case of Shackled Kids Revives Home-School Regulation Debate.”
The clear implication of this article, which ran not as an opinion piece but as a news article, is that the state should become more involved in the context of homeschooling. Her article cites a Massachusetts-based organization known as the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a group that as she reports,
“lobbies for mandatory medical visits or academic assessments that would ensure home-schooled children are seen by someone trained to recognize abuse.”
One of the most important aspects of this article is that there is no acknowledgment that such persons representing the government would not in themselves be value neutral. Furthermore, as we bring an end to this story, the issue is that Orwellian quandary, a quandary well described by George Orwell. If you’re going to hire people to do watching, who are going to watch others, you’re going to have to hire those who will watch the watchers and then those who will watch those watching the watchers; of this kind of logic there is no end.
As Murphy Brown returns we have to ask, “Will she even be interesting today?”
Finally, she's back, at least she’s coming back. We’ve been told she's coming back. She being Murphy Brown, specifically the Murphy Brown television program. That program that during the 1980s and early 1990s stared Candace Bergen as an upper-middle-class, very progressive, very single career woman, but a career woman that was also mirroring the new sexuality, a career woman who got pregnant and had a baby, had a baby as a single mom, and a television character who became famous, famous because of the Vice President of the United States, in part. Vice President Dan Quayle in 1992 gave an address when he was looking at the moral change taking place in the United States, and almost enclosing, apparently almost as an afterthought, he mentioned Murphy Brown as a model of single motherhood suggesting that the show and that particular dimension of the show had demonstrated the pending breakup of the family and the subversion of the understanding of parenthood and the necessary or at least optimal involvement of both a husband and a wife, then we go on to say, married to one another. But in the aftermath of the Vice President's comments he was very much attacked, very much under siege, very much dismissed with a condescending effort by the left to suggest that the Vice President of the United States was simply out of touch with the nation. Less notice was the fact that within a decade of the Vice President’s speech, virtually every moral trend that he had indicated had already been demonstrated. Furthermore, we now know that the decline of the family and the decline of marriage were indeed accelerating during that period, and, of course, we have now reached the point where babies born outside of marriage are roughly on par with babies born inside of marriage, and in some communities there is actually a disproportionate number of babies born outside of marriage rather than to married couples. In moral terms, Dan Quayle was vindicated, but in cultural terms it's Murphy Brown who is coming back, and we have to place that into today's current moral and political environment. CBS, the network that is bringing Murphy Brown back, indicated that in his own statement issued just days ago in which they said that Murphy Brown
“returns to a world of cable news, social media, fake news and a very different political and cultural climate.”
But Dan Quayle was right in 1992, and those who are looking at the situation honestly in 2018 will have to notice the same. That tells us a very great deal that at this point in our nation’s history, now looking at almost 2 decades after the show went off the air, it's coming back, and it’s coming back but with a very important twist. These days, Murphy Brown wouldn't be unconventional at all. I guess one of the tests of this program and one of the tests of our nation at this moral moment is whether or not Murphy Brown will be interesting in 2018 because these days it’s going to be hard for even Murphy Brown to be scandalous.