Believe It or Not

In Washington, Tea Party types and their Republican acolytes kept threatening to shut down the government, their mantra, a paraphrase of the old Reagan canard, "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem."

In Florida, their spiritual doppelgangers, Pastor Terry Jones and his Islamophobic Christian zealots, tried, convicted and destroyed by fire a copy of the Quran, mindlessly heaping insult on Afghan injury and igniting a riotous defense of their faith against Western invaders that cost many lives.

Elsewhere in our country, Birthers, Tenthers and others, angry but not sure why, decry socialistic, fascistic, communistic, Hitlerian Obamaesque schemes and warn lawmakers to "keep your government hands off my Medicare."

What's happening here?

Consider the possibility that, primed by a barely-C-average-and-proud-of-it ex-President, a simmering anti-intellectualism has taken flight; facts no longer matter. Though rivals abound, its most perfect expression may have come from Congressman Joe Wilson, the loudmouth who, defying tradition, decorum and taste, bellowed "You lie" as our new President spoke. The implicit "boy!", universally understood, was a fillip that emboldened the fantasies of white supremacists, militias, nativists and other Neanderthals who, weapons loaded, crosses alight, "man-up," lurch into action and hatch plots to lay waste pointy-heads and science in the name of God, guns, the flag and being "number one."

And, as the troglodytes grunt, moan, holler and spit, their presence magnified by a heat-seeking media, the national IQ dips further and an already confused public panics -- never a good omen for rationality.

When pondering the current state of the American mind, an article in the New York Times last week offers a clue. It seems the assistant principal of a high school in Wichita Falls, Texas, disciplined a student with a "paddle" so successfully that the boy ended up in the hospital. While the article minimized the abuse by referring to it as "paddling," the repeated striking of the buttocks of a juvenile with a board (likely drilled through with holes to ensure hot contact) by a male adult is a custom still followed in 20 states of this Union, most of them in the South.

Despite the protestations and expert testimony of child safety advocates, this terror continues to be the subject of debate in legislatures and school boards in the states in question. One wonders if the "pro" argument features grunts and a Bible.

The superintendent of the school district involved found no wrongdoing, per the report, pointing out, craftily, that corporal punishment is "one of the tools in the toolbox we use for discipline." However, the mother of the hospitalized child charged that the schools in Texas have arrogated to themselves the right to determine the level of discipline required "as long as (they) don't kill him." She added, "If I did that to my son, I'd go to jail."

In New Mexico, the legislature recently banned such punishment, but the newly elected Republican Governor has not indicated if she'll sign it. A former teacher and school administrator, now a Republican state senator there, is in favor of continuing its use. "The threat of it keeps many of our kids in line so they can learn," he said, apparently with a straight face.

A Democratic state senator, shocked that there is even a debate, said, "We should be educating kids that they can't solve problems with violence."

Yet in Mississippi, a high school boy was hit so hard he passed out, fell and broke his jaw. That'll teach him.

A New Orleans Catholic school did away with the practice due to pressure from their archbishop who believes hitting kids promotes violence, but the institution is now under pressure from staff, alumni and students to reinstate it because they believe it builds character and results in high graduation rates. A student leader who supports reinstatement defends it as "tradition" and says he and other seniors "can tell the difference between our class and some of the newer students who didn't receive the same discipline."

Meanwhile, Rebecca D. Costa, in her book The Watchman's Rattle, examines the way even advanced societies have become extinct throughout history. She points out that "behavioral psychologists have been collecting irrefutable evidence that criticism, negative reinforcement and institutionalized rigidity all inhibit creativity, productivity and growth. Take any child who has been subjected to a critical environment and observe the results: withdrawal, low self-esteem, fearfulness and a long list of aberrant behaviors." In addition, Ms. Costa says, while it is an important characteristic of human development that people acquire beliefs, because the brain is resistant to change we tend to cling to them, and sometimes, when things get tense, "beliefs trump facts."

So perhaps, to paraphrase Reagan, beliefs are not the solution to our problem; beliefs are the problem.

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