Friday, June 10, 2005

Standing Sentinel Over the Public Square

The state of Vermont has joined forces with those seeking to stifle and suppress any and all expressions of religion, no matter how subtle, in the public square. In what is a particularly funny example of bureaucratic dull-wittedness the keen-eyed authorities in Vermont have descried a nefarious threat to American democracy and a possible plot to establish a Christian theocracy in their fair state:

BURLINGTON - A federal judge said Tuesday he isn't sure many people will understand the religious message from the vanity license plate a West Rutland man has filed a lawsuit to get for his 1966 Ford pickup. Shawn Byrne filed his lawsuit against the state Department of Motor Vehicles in January after the state rejected his request for a vanity license plate.

The state contended, and Byrne's lawyers have since conceded that two of his requests on his vanity plate application, "JOHN316" and "JN316" did not adhere to a provision for vanity plates in Vermont that they not contain more than two numerals to avoid confusion with standard-issued license plates. However, the state also rejected Byrne's third vanity license plate choice, "JN36TN," arguing that it contains a religious viewpoint. Byrne's attorneys argued the denial of the plate is a violation of his First Amendment rights.

Federal Magistrate Judge Jerome J. Niedermeier said during a hearing in the case Tuesday that he wasn't sure people looking at such a vanity plate would immediately realize it was reference to a bible passage. "It takes a little mental gymnastics to get to the point of what it refers to," Niedermeier said of the requested vanity plate, "JN36TN."

The judge listened to arguments Tuesday for about 45 minutes in federal court in Burlington from attorneys on both sides of the matter. No rulings were made Tuesday. "Obviously, it's a very intriguing and interesting issue," Niedermeier said. "We'll take it under advisement and issue a decision as soon as we can."

Byrne is represented by attorney Jeremy Tedesco of the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative organization that states it defends religious liberty. Assistant Attorney General Harvey Golubock argued the case for the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Tedesco asked the judge to grant a preliminary injunction against the state, allowing Byrne to get his requested vanity plate.

"This is a straightforward case of viewpoint discrimination," Tedesco said in court. The attorney said Byrne wants to put the vanity plate on his restored 1966 Ford pickup. "He wants people to understand God has given him the gifts to do it," Tedesco said of Byrne's restoration effort.

"John 3:16" refers to a Bible scripture passage, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Tedesco added that while the state does own the license plates it issues, it doesn't own the message people pay to put on a vanity license plate. "The message is associated with the person behind the wheel," the attorney said.

The state has asked that the motion for a preliminary injunction be denied, and requested that the lawsuit be dismissed. "The state doesn't want to be in the business of endorsing a particular religion or deity," Golubock said. The assistant attorney general said that Byrne has other options for expressing his viewpoint, including putting a bumper sticker on his vehicle. "He could paint it on the side of the car," Guluback added. "The state wouldn't have a problem with that."

According to the lawsuit, when Byrne applied to the state DMV for a vanity license plate he was asked to list three choices on the application. Byrne listed "JOHN316," "JN316" and "JN36TN." The application also asked Byrne what his request represented and he wrote, "Bible passage."

A month after applying for the plate Byrne received notice from the state DMV stating that all three requests had been turned down. Vermont regulations state that license plates are not allowed to have a combination of letters or numbers that refer to any language to race, religion, color, deity, ethnic heritage, gender, sexual orientation, disability status or political affiliation.

About 35,000 vanity plates are issued in Vermont. Payment of an annual fee of $30, in addition to the annual fee for registration, is required for vanity plates. Byrne's attorneys listed in court filings a series of Vermont vanity plates seen on vehicles which appear to convey religious messages. Those plates include: "HIREPWR," "PSALM," and "RI-CHUS," which presumably refer to 'higher power,' the books of Psalms in the Bible, and righteous, according to Tedesco.

"The mere fact that the state makes mistakes doesn't mean the state can't regulate license plates," Golubock said in court Tuesday.

The taxpayers of Vermont should be pleased with the vigilance of Assistant Attorney General Golubock who, at some expense to the public treasury, no doubt, tirelessly labors to ensure that the state of Vermont will not on his watch be infected by anything Christian. Evidently, real crime is so low in Vermont that Mr. Golubock has plenty of time to spend on these more insidious matters. He's certainly earning his six figure salary.

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the tip.

Public Confidence Falling

A recent Gallup poll shows public confidence in both the news media and in public officials plummeting:

Public trust in newspapers and television news continued to decline in Gallup's annual survey of "public confidence in major institutions" in the United States, reaching an all-time low this year. Those having a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in newspapers dipped from 30% to 28% in one year, the same total for television. The previous low for newspapers was 29% in 1994. Since 2000, confidence in newspapers has declined from 37% to 28%, and TV from 36% to 28%, according to the poll.

However, some other institutions fared far worse this year, suggesting a broad level of cynicism or malaise. Confidence in the presidency plunged from 52% to 44%, with Congress and the criminal-justice system also suffering 8% drops. Confidence in the U.S. Supreme Court fell from 46% to 41%. The 22% confidence rating for Congress is its lowest in eight years, and self-identified Republicans have only a slightly more positive view of the institution than do Democrats.

The military topped the poll with a 74% confidence rating, with the police at 63% and organized religion at 53%. Big business and Congress (both at 22%) and HMOs (17%) brought up the rear.

Part of the reason for the drop, we suspect, is that since cynicism and skepticism convey an air of sophistication, many people who haven't read anything in a newspaper but the comics and sports pages in the last ten years will nevertheless answer a poll question about their confidence in the media with supercilious disdain. It makes them feel vaguely superior.

The same goes for political figures. It would be interesting to know how many of those who answered that they have little confidence in Congress, say, can even name their own senators.

Another part of the reason for the low esteem in which the fourth estate is held, of course, is that they deserve it. People who pay attention to the news are often dismayed at the tendentious reporting and blatant dishonesty of much of what they see and hear.

People want their news to be objective and they want editorial writers to be fair. With the rise of alternative media news consumers today are much more likely than their parents were to learn that they're being hoodwinked by the MSM, and consequently the media no longer enjoys the popularity or credibility that it once did.

Athenians and Visigoths

Neil Postman has been gone for some time now but he once wrote a commencement speech which Joe Carter has posted at Evangelical Outpost. Joe says this:

While it could be argued that youth is wasted on the young, it is indisputable that commencement addresses are wasted on young graduates. Sitting in a stuffy auditorium waiting to receive a parchment that marks the beginning of one's student loan repayments is not the most conducive atmosphere for soaking up wisdom. Insight, which can otherwise seep through the thickest of skulls, cannot pierce mortarboard.

Most colleges and universities recognize this fact and schedule the graduation speeches accordingly. Schools regularly choose speakers who are unlikely to motivate, inspire, or provide advice that will be remembered after the post-graduation hangover. That is why graduates are subjected to such deep thinkers as film director Spike Lee (University of Miami), actor Warren Beatty (U.C. -Berkeley), and novelist Erica Jong (The College of Staten Island). Calvin College made the mistake of inviting philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff to the latest ceremony before recognizing their error and bumping him for a less intellectually rigorous orator.

Although he had been forced to sit through dozens of such speeches, the late communications theorist Neil Postman was never invited to provide a commencement address. He did prepare some remarks, though, that he planned to use if ever given the opportunity. In typical Postman fashion he even provides it as a true "open source" document: "If you think my graduation speech is good, I hereby grant you permission to use it, without further approval from or credit to me, should you be in an appropriate situation."

Postman's graduation speech is good. Too good, in fact, to be wasted on the young.

Carter is right about the speech. Here it is:

Members of the faculty, parents, guests, and graduates, have no fear. I am well aware that on a day of such high excitement, what you require, first and foremost, of any speaker is brevity. I shall not fail you in this respect. There are exactly eighty-five sentences in my speech, four of which you have just heard. It will take me about twelve minutes to speak all of them and I must tell you that such economy was not easy for me to arrange, because I have chosen as my topic the complex subject of your ancestors.

Not, of course, your biological ancestors, about whom I know nothing, but your spiritual ancestors, about whom I know a little. To be specific, I want to tell you about two groups of people who lived many years ago but whose influence is still with us. They were very different from each other, representing opposite values and traditions. I think it is appropriate for you to be reminded of them on this day because, sooner than you know, you must align yourself with the spirit of one or the spirit of the other.

The first group lived about 2,500 years ago in the place which we now call Greece, in a city they called Athens. We do not know as much about their origins as we would like. But we do know a great deal about their accomplishments.

They were, for example, the first people to develop a complete alphabet, and therefore they became the first truly literate population on earth. They invented the idea of political democracy, which they practiced with a vigor that puts us to shame. They invented what we call philosophy. And they also invented what we call logic and rhetoric. They came very close to inventing what we call science, and one of them, Democritus by name, conceived of the atomic theory of matter 2,300 years before it occurred to any modern scientist. They composed and sang epic poems of unsurpassed beauty and insight. And they wrote and performed plays that, almost three millennia later, still have the power to make audiences laugh and weep. They even invented what, today, we call the Olympics, and among their values none stood higher than that in all things one should strive for excellence. They believed in reason. They believed in beauty. They believed in moderation. And they invented the word and the idea which we know today as ecology.

About 2,000 years ago, the vitality of their culture declined and these people began to disappear. But not what they had created. Their imagination, art, politics, literature, and language spread all over the world so that, today, it is hardly possible to speak on any subject without repeating what some Athenian said on the matter 2,500 years ago.

The second group of people lived in the place we now call Germany, and flourished about 1,700 years ago. We call them the Visigoths, and you may remember that your sixth or seventh-grade teacher mentioned them. They were spectacularly good horsemen, which is about the only pleasant thing history can say of them. They were marauders-ruthless and brutal. Their language lacked subtlety and depth. Their art was crude and even grotesque. They swept down through Europe destroying everything in their path, and they overran the Roman Empire. There was nothing a Visigoth liked better than to burn a book, desecrate a building, or smash a work of art. From the Visigoths, we have no poetry, no theater, no logic, no science, no humane politics.

Like the Athenians, the Visigoths also disappeared, but not before they had ushered in the period known as the Dark Ages. It took Europe almost a thousand years to recover from the Visigoths.

Now, the point I want to make is that the Athenians and the Visigoths still survive, and they do so through us and the ways in which we conduct our lives. All around us-in this hall, in this community, in our city-there are people whose way of looking at the world reflects the way of the Athenians, and there are people whose way is the way of the Visigoths. I do not mean, of course, that our modern-day Athenians roam abstractedly through the streets reciting poetry and philosophy, or that the modern-day Visigoths are killers. I mean that to be an Athenian or a Visigoth is to organize your life around a set of values. An Athenian is an idea. And a Visigoth is an idea. Let me tell you briefly what these ideas consist of.

To be an Athenian is to hold knowledge and, especially the quest for knowledge in high esteem. To contemplate, to reason, to experiment, to question-these are, to an Athenian, the most exalted activities a person can perform. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless unless it can help you to earn money or to gain power over other people.

To be an Athenian is to cherish language because you believe it to be humankind's most precious gift. In their use of language, Athenians strive for grace, precision, and variety. And they admire those who can achieve such skill. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another, one sentence in distinguishable from another. A Visigoth's language aspires to nothing higher than the clich�.

To be an Athenian is to understand that the thread which holds civilized society together is thin and vulnerable; therefore, Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint, and continuity. To an Athenian, bad manners are acts of violence against the social order. The modern Visigoth cares very little about any of this. The Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe. Tradition exists for their own convenience, good manners are an affectation and a burden, and history is merely what is in yesterday's newspaper.

To be an Athenian is to take an interest in public affairs and the improvement of public behavior. Indeed, the ancient Athenians had a word for people who did not. The word was idiotes, from which we get our word "idiot." A modern Visigoth is interested only in his own affairs and has no sense of the meaning of community.

And, finally, to be an Athenian is to esteem the discipline, skill, and taste that are required to produce enduring art. Therefore, in approaching a work of art, Athenians prepare their imagination through learning and experience. To a Visigoth, there is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. What catches the fancy of the multitude is good. No other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.

Now, it must be obvious what all of this has to do with you. Eventually, like the rest of us, you must be on one side or the other. You must be an Athenian or a Visigoth. Of course, it is much harder to be an Athenian, for you must learn how to be one, you must work at being one, whereas we are all, in a way, natural-born Visigoths. That is why there are so many more Visigoths than Athenians. And I must tell you that you do not become an Athenian merely by attending school or accumulating academic degrees.

My father-in-law was one of the most committed Athenians I have ever known, and he spent his entire adult life working as a dress cutter on Seventh Avenue in New York City. On the other hand, I know physicians, lawyers, and engineers who are Visigoths of unmistakable persuasion. And I must also tell you, as much in sorrow as in shame, that at some of our great universities, perhaps even this one, there are professors of whom we may fairly say they are closet Visigoths.

And yet, you must not doubt for a moment that a school, after all, is essentially an Athenian idea. There is a direct link between the cultural achievements of Athens and what the faculty at this university is all about. I have no difficulty imagining that Plato, Aristotle, or Democritus would be quite at home in our class rooms. A Visigoth would merely scrawl obscenities on the wall.

And so, whether you were aware of it or not, the purpose of your having been at this university was to give you a glimpse of the Athenian way, to interest you in the Athenian way. We cannot know on this day how many of you will choose that way and how many will not. You are young and it is not given to us to see your future. But I will tell you this, with which I will close: I can wish for you no higher compliment than that in the future it will be reported that among your graduating class the Athenians mightily outnumbered the Visigoths.

Thank you, and congratulations.

Very good stuff.