Well, that was close. Surely, we are all relieved that at least some children were protected this week from the diabolical Barack Obama. It was touch and go there for a while after the White House announced its plan for the president to give a back-to-school address to America's kids. They might have gotten away with it, too, but for conservative pundits and politicians who spent last week raising a ruckus about this scheme to indoctrinate our youth into the president's socialist cult. They were able to persuade an untold number of schools to prohibit Tuesday's speech from being shown on campus and an untold number of parents to keep their children home.
By this decisive action, untold millions (thousands?) of our kids were saved from exposure to subversive sentiments like "pay attention," "listen to your parents," and "every single one of you has something to offer."
That mission accomplished, one wonders if conservatives will be equally energetic in rescuing kids from other things that threaten them.
Our children need all the help they can get, after all. They are coming of age in an America where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four girls between ages 14 and 19 is infected with at least one of four dangerous sexually-transmitted diseases (human papillomavirus, chlamydia, genital herpes, trichomoniasis). An era where, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, more than 13 million kids live below the poverty line. An era where, according to the Education Department, despite noteworthy progress in recent years, one in four public school eighth graders lacks basic grade level reading skills, and one in five fourth graders can't do the math.
What's arguably more frightening in the long view is that they're coming of age in an America so hyper-partisan, shrill, silly and incoherent that a pep talk to school kids - surely the most plain vanilla presidential duty this side of pardoning the turkey at Thanksgiving - gets treated like it was Osama bin Laden giving an al-Qaeda recruitment speech in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11.
It is an absurd controversy, but in a nation of birthers and truthers, death panels and tea parties, absurdity has become our default setting - as has political violence, whether rhetorical or real.
Last week, for goodness' sake, we heard about a health care reform proponent "biting off the finger" of someone who disagreed with him. Meanwhile in Arizona, an alleged Christian minister made headlines preaching and praying for the president's death.
If America were a person, you'd sedate it. You might even have it committed.
This is not politics, it's a temper tantrum, a national hissy-fit that calls into question - and not for the first time - whether a nation so vast and varied still can, or still wants to be, a nation.
A few days ago, a woman running for office in Pennsylvania e-mailed me about her encounter with a voter who objected to the idea of, as he put it, paying for his neighbor's health insurance. She reminded him that to live in a society is to be interdependent. We all pay for libraries, we all pay for national defense, we all pay to school our kids. Except, he said he doesn't want to pay to educate someone else's kids, either. We are "not" interdependent, the man insisted. We are alone, each man in it by and for himself.
You might call that view an aberration. My fear is that it is a harbinger. My fear is that we are a people stampeded by and toward political extremes, and that in our shrillness, our ignorance, our paranoia, hatefulness and fear, we dig a trench through common ground and make this nation ungovernable.
If we want to save our children from anything, maybe we ought to save them from that.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
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