Is Obama’s Constitution Strong Enough?

The morning after the historical surprise in Iowa, people from all kinds of backgrounds were feeling good about themselves, welcoming the real possibility—whether or not they intend to vote for him—of a black American President. I felt that way, too.

Even at the Daily News, not known as a liberal bastion, the lead editorial was headlined “Obama’s Shining Moment,” and the hosanna ended: “We are witnessing the first serious black candidate for the U.S. presidency.”

After the primary results in New Hampshire, however, the need for new history textbooks is no longer certain. But Obama, with customary vigor, is continuing what is essentially his “change will bring us together” campaign. The day after his “shining moment” dimmed, he was stirring a large crowd in Jersey City with his standard stump speech: education, global warming, variations on The Audacity of Hope.

In that book, subtitled “Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,” there is a chapter I was glad to see, “The Constitution,” in which he rails against the Bush White House for opposing “any suggestion that it was answerable to Congress or the courts.”

Obama did make one colossal mistake in that chapter, though, writing of the 1787 Constitutional Convention that “the outlines of Madison’s constitutional architecture are so familiar that even schoolchildren can recite them.”

Ask the first 100,000 schoolchildren you meet who James Madison even was—or whether they know that the Founders were so fearful of a king-like president that they locked in (or so they thought) a separation of powers among three branches of government—and you will be disappointed by their answers.

With his contagious spirit, Obama could be a powerful educator not only of American schoolchildren, but also much of the rest of the citizenry, about why this is the oldest constitutional democracy in the world—and what it will take to keep it. And he could show, forcefully, that the Bush-Cheney administration is dangerous proof that the Constitution is not self-enforcing.

Once in a while, Obama makes a passing reference to our diminishing individual liberties, but hardly ever in his stump speeches. At an early-morning rally the day of the New Hampshire vote, he told some 300 students at the Dartmouth College gym: “My job this morning is to be so persuasive . . . that a light will shine through that window, a beam of light will come down upon you, you will experience an epiphany, and you will suddenly realize that you must go to the polls and vote for Barack.” One of the reasons to vote for him, he continued, was his pledge to end the Bush-Cheney era of “wiretaps without warrants.”

He didn’t add that Bush wants to make this spying on us permanent. And when he’s not in front of a roomful of students with the television cameras on him, Obama hardly ever shows the urgent passion for restoring the Constitution that he exhibits on other issues. Hillary Clinton also invokes “change” as if it’s a medicine to cure all ills, but she too largely ignores the incremental disappearance of the Bill of Rights—including the last rites for our guarantees of personal privacy.

The intersecting precedents this administration has created for what Commander in Chief Bush calls “the unitary executive” will not vanish after he does. This overturning of the very structure of the Constitution can continue for many years to come, under Republicans or Democrats.

So what are Obama’s plans to restore the Constitution—especially regarding the activities of our domestic and international intelligence agencies? And in view of Bush’s legacy with the Roberts-Alito Supreme Court, what would President Obama’s criteria be for filling any vacancies during his time in office? It would help if he would tell us now which Supreme Court justices, past and present, he most respects, and why.

It would also be useful if somebody on Obama’s campaign would give him the Freedom Pledge that Bruce Fein, chairman of the Washington-based American Freedom Agenda, has asked all of the presidential candidates to sign.

Fein, a conservative and a constitutional scholar, was in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department, and he is a searing critic of this administration’s subversion of what it calls “American values.”

In my conversations with him, and in an October 28 letter in The New York Times, Fein has listed the powers that a presidential candidate should absolutely renounce if he or she intends to root out the noxious, lawless changes that Bush, Cheney, and their accomplices have imposed on our nation, and on what we represent to the world:

“Torture, presidential signing statements [which give the president power to ignore the bills he signs]; indefinite detentions of American citizens as enemy combatants; military commissions that combine judge, jury and prosecutor; spying on American citizens in contravention of federal statutes on the president’s say-so alone . . . kidnapping; imprisoning and torturing suspected terrorists abroad; executive privilege to shield the executive branch from Congress; prosecuting journalists under the Espionage Act for exposing national security abuses [The Washington Post‘s Dana Priest had been threatened with such prosecution]; listing organizations as terrorist groups based on secret evidence; suspending the writ of habeas corpus during the conflict with international terrorism; and invoking the state- secrets privilege to deny victims of constitutional wrongdoing any judicial remedy.”

Senator Clinton, says Fein, has refused to sign this pledge. In fact, the only candidate to do so thus far has been Representative Ron Paul, the insistently singular Texas libertarian.

Barack Obama used to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and in his chapter on the Constitution in The Audacity of Hope, he emphasizes that “if there was one impulse shared by all the Founders, it was a rejection of all forms of absolute authority, whether the king, the theocrat, the general, the oligarch, the dictator, the majority. . . . George Washington declined the crown because of this impulse. . . . ”

Is Obama ready to commit himself to bringing that “impulse” back to our government? Although he insists that his candidacy will be an engine of change, to paraphrase Duke Ellington, it won’t mean a thing if ain’t got that constitutional swing. He quotes Martin Luther King on “the fierce urgency of now”: Show that where it most counts, Barack.


Small Order

With its windows shining in a steady spring drizzle, Samuel J. Tilden High School hardly looks like a place in its last days. This March evening, the East Flatbush school is lit up for parents and kids who’ve come to meet with Tilden teachers at “Open School Night.”

Maybe a better name would be “About to Close Night.” Grade by grade over the next three years, Tilden will be shutting down. Never mind its clean hallways and bulletin boards decorated with AIDS posters and announcements about new clubs. In December, the city Department of Education declared Tilden a failure. Now the neighborhood school, home to 2,700 kids, is running out of time. Come 2010, when the last class of current students is scheduled to graduate, it will close its doors for good. In its building will be a collection small schools, the city’s new panacea for its ailing educational system. The first two are to open in the building this September. Neither will offer Tilden’s rich bilingual programming for the Haitian students who live on surrounding blocks.

The kids at Tilden are upset. “It’s a really good school,” said Tiffany Julien, a junior leaving Open School Night. “There are rotten eggs in every school. If the school is so bad, how come I’m doing so well?”

For Lamar McIntosh, also a junior, shuttering Tilden seems a little drastic. “I feel kind of bad,” he said. “Not every kid comes to school to make trouble. These kids need activities and programs to help them with their problems. Why is closing the school the answer?”

Fed up with low graduation rates and sometimes chaotic classrooms, schools chancellor Joel Klein has decided to kill off large neighborhood schools like Tilden and replace them with smaller, oftentimes more specialized ones. Klein is joined in this push by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and by a cadre of wealthy donors, notably Bill Gates. In recent years, the Microsoft multibillionaire has poured in $51.5 million to help the city open microschools, some of them occupying real estate recouped by closing places like Tilden.

Before taking this route, Bloomberg and Klein, the former Justice Department lawyer and a newcomer to education, at least did their history homework. In the 1970s, small schools were established in East Harlem with some success. The language of that era compared big schools to factories, in which students get lost and drop out. By contrast, wrote East Harlem principal Debbie Meier, small schools, where students and teachers get to know each other well, lead to achievement.

But what for Meier was an innovation has become, for Klein and Bloomberg, a bulldozer. Today, it’s out with big “zoned” high schools like Tilden and James Monroe. Filling their former buildings are small schools with frankly aspirational names like the High School of Computers and Technology, the New School for Arts and Sciences, the World Academy for Total Community Health, the Food and Finance High School, and the Freedom Academy High School. Never mind trying to graduate from the same neighborly alma mater as your parents. It’s time to make way for the High School of Law and Public Service, the High School for Arts, Imagination and Inquiry, and the High School for Violin and Dance.

Now, kids whose parents are equipped to take advantage of school choice will be able to graze through an even longer list of possible picks. And the small schools will likewise enjoy their pick of possible students.

I saw this filtering effect of New York’s school-choice system as far back as the 1980s, when I taught at a large neighborhood high school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Back then, the failing high school Benjamin Franklin reopened as the Manhattan Center for Math and Science, and Charles Evans Hughes as the High School for the Humanities. These new schools were allowed to screen students who applied. Meanwhile, at Seward Park High, we took all comers—including kids who couldn’t cut it anywhere else. At one point, Seward Park reached 4,000 students and was at 170 percent capacity. No wonder parents and their kids began avoiding so-called “zoned” schools if they possibly could.

Today, students at schools like Tilden get the sense that it’s not so much the kids who are getting a choice as it is the schools themselves. “In a way, it’s discrimination,” says Carlos Richardson, a Tilden baseball player. “They want to get us out of the school to get more high-quality students.”

Yet the families and teachers at Tilden are not going quietly. They’ve formed a group, Save Our School, and begun standing up to Klein and Bloomberg. They argue that even as Tilden has grown crowded with kids from other closed schools and watched resources shift from its classrooms to ones in small schools, it has remained worth saving.

Samuel J. Tilden was built in 1929, like many of the big old neighborhood high schools, for the city’s influx of Jewish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants. These schools now serve a different wave of immigrants. In Tilden’s case, it’s West Indian—Jamaican, Trinidadian, and Haitian—as well as African, Latino, and Asian. At Tilden, some 300 kids are English Language Learners, meaning that many kids come in not knowing a word of English. Recent immigrants comprise almost a quarter of the student body.


If you want to make the case that Tilden is a failure, you’ll get help from some of the school’s stats. Despite a heavy concentration of kids who need extra support, spending per student at Tilden in 2004 was $8,528, compared to the citywide figure of $11,282. The citywide graduation rate is 58 percent; at Tilden, it hovers just north of 40. In 2005, only 28.8 percent of the students who’d been there for four years passed the Math Regents Exam.

The English Regents is another story. Sixty percent of Tilden students passed it, a rate that approaches the citywide average and is 10 points higher than the one at similar schools.

How did Tilden accomplish that? Sweat equity—the same investment of dedication and passion that fuels the members of Save Our School.

Take Zakiyyah Ali, for one, a social studies teacher and the coordinator of student activities. A line of students stretches out of her office door all day long. She’s Jamaican, with a ponytail of braids cascading to the left, and she is not giving up. “I don’t think a 40 percent graduation rate is acceptable,” she says. “But I don’t think closing the school is the answer.

Ali describes a variety of offerings, including the New Opportunity Program, where kids who have dropped out and are working can come back to school in the afternoon from 2 to 7. Clearly, she knows her students well. “We have kids who came from the country in Jamaica, where, if they were needed to work, their education went on the back burner,” she says. “If you didn’t have money for uniforms, you couldn’t go to school.”

Another SOS member, Margaret Johnson, serves as the parent coordinator for the school. She and Ali often join forces, whether in getting decorations for the school dance or driving to the Bronx to help a former student with her social studies homework. Tilden’s death sentence floored Johnson. “I worked so hard to get the parents involved,” she says. “Now many of them say, ‘Why should I bother? The school is closing.'”

A teacher like Ali will likely have an easy time finding another job once Tilden closes; the city school system is crying out for qualified applicants. But she likes working at a place that serves its neighborhood. “What I love about Tilden is that we’re not selective,” she says. “We see the promise in everyone.”

That’s not necessarily the case with small schools. Come September, the city will have created nearly 200 of them, most with an exemption from accepting either special ed or English Language Learners for the first two years. Two reports, one from the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and one from the New York Immigration Coalition and Advocates for Children, have made the case that this supposed boon for education leaves out kids on the margin. Another group, the Citywide Council on High Schools, filed a discrimination case with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.

Klein may think he’s minting a better set of schools, but Leonie Haimson worries that he’s minting dropouts. For students barely making it through already, the closing of a school can spell the ending of an education. “Once a school is phased out, no one is responsible for those kids,” says Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters.

Just do the math. When the city’s plan is complete, Tilden’s building will be home to four schools with 500 kids apiece. You end up with some 700 “leftovers,” not including the students who’ve fallen off the official timetable for graduation and would otherwise stay at Tilden.

Where are all these kids going to go? The answer for many leftovers has been to cram into the surrounding big high schools. Some schools that once had 2,500 or 3,000 students are now at 4,000 or even 5,000. In Brooklyn, parents at prized big schools like Midwood, Fort Hamilton, Edward R. Murrow, and James Madison have complained about the “dumping” of kids. Dorothy Giglio’s son goes to James Madison—capacity: 2,500. Today, he’s one of 4,300 students served in four split sessions.

Now Giglio is worried about the closing of Tilden and South Shore High, in the same district. She challenged Klein at a Chancellor’s Parents Advisory Council meeting, she said, and “got it from him in writing that they wouldn’t send those kids to Madison.”


If not to Madison, then where?. Haimson points to the rising number of “discharges”—16,647 in 2005, up 3,000 from five years ago. The Department of Education doesn’t follow up on those students. No one really knows where they land. “Like in Latin America,” says Haimson, “these are the disappeared.”

Since many of the small schools are so new, it’s not yet clear how well they’re serving the kids who do fit in. Some of the small schools have gone through two or three principals already. The Council on High Schools, which has advisory status with the Department of Ed, has asked Klein to postpone his plans.

“The problem with the small schools is not with the model,” says David Bloomfield, the council president and a colleague of mine in the education department at Brooklyn College, “but with Bloomberg’s frantic drive to create so many so fast. Issues of leadership, equity, teaching methods, and community partnerships—the guts of their education program—as well as their impact on other students in large schools have all been left to be sorted out later. Kids and parents suffer while the mayor surfs atop the publicity wave he generates.”

One person who has numbers is Leo Casey, a researcher for the United Federation of Teachers. He used the Department of Ed’s own data to compare big “failing” schools in the Bronx with the small schools that replaced them. “As a general rule…the DOE has created enormous concentrations of the highest-needs students in the large comprehensive high schools,” Casey writes. “Having created a competition in which one school runs on a flat surface and the other school runs up the steepest of hills, Tweed [the Department of Education] pretends in an intellectually dishonest fashion that they are running the same race.”

Tilden has lived the reality Casey calculates. As other big schools closed, Tilden’s special-education population surged—those kids now constitute 10 percent of the student body—as did its number of criminal or violent incidents. Eric “Rock” Eisenberg is the athletic director, the basketball coach, and a dean. He’s also “suspense coordinator,” the one who reports on these incidents.

“We don’t play fast and loose with our numbers,” said Eisenberg, who argues some schools paper over theirs to escape scrutiny. Tilden was included as a dangerous school on the city’s Impact List, qualifying it for metal detectors and extra security.

Jane Roth, another SOS member, can think of a few items Tilden needs more urgently. “We’re dealing with a computer room that hasn’t been serviced for years,” she says. “I can’t even get a cartridge replaced.” Meanwhile, her friend at one of the new small schools is in fat city. “They have money to burn,” she said. “They have new books, anything they want, DVD players, computer projection screens, new furniture.”

Roth and others at Tilden have put a lot of work into designing “small learning communities,” which they see as an alternative to closing Tilden. Eighteen big schools—Christopher Columbus, Beach Channel, and Alfred E. Smith among them—have restructured themselves and stayed open. The Tilden teachers have put together plans for an arts academy, as well as plans for teaching law, science, health and physical education. They also want to continue the Haitian bilingual program.

When you’re dealing with kids who arrived in this country two, those bilingual classes really matter. “It allows them to feel more like the adults they are becoming, rather than babies who must grope for basic words and the structure of English the entire day,” explains teacher John Lawhead.

But chances of Tilden supporters getting to restructure the school seem less than minimal. Jemina Bernard, chief operations officer for the DOE’s Office of New Schools, would have nothing to do with their idea. “In the case of Tilden, it’s really about a school with a long history of low performance and a number of factors making it difficult to run,” she said. “The chancellor’s belief is that every iteration has been attempted and radical reform is necessary.”

Never mind that last year, the School Quality Review team pronounced Tilden a “proficient school with some underdeveloped areas.”

“Quality reviews are only part of the process,” said Bernard. “We’re not going to delay decisions for schools which require radical reform.”

Why would the city be so bent on forcing the move to small schools? “Part of it is the availability of funding,” says Bloomfield, of Brooklyn College. “And part of it is the public relations value in school closure, including taking Tilden off any list of low-performing schools. If you create a small ‘learning community,’ the school still exists. If you close the school, you restart the clock.”


Ramercy Nuñez, a junior, is racing against time. She’s going to school from 7:15 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon, and she’s taking summer school so she can graduate in August and go to John Jay College in the fall. “I don’t want things to get worse for us once they start to close the school,” she says.

Her peers are set to share space at Tilden next year with the Expeditionary Learning Academy for Community Leaders and the It Takes a Village Academy, which, according to the high-school directory, will be accepting students not yet fluent in English.

Standing outside on a bright spring day, Nuñez calls Tilden a decent school. “There are no people hanging around the corner, no drugs,” she says. “I think they’d make a big mistake closing this school.” Around her, kids are making their way to rehearsals and sports practices.

Danaya Hamilton, a sophomore getting ready for a talent show, says Tilden deserves a chance. “They’re always talking about our graduation rate,” she says. “You look at Tilden, and then you look at Madison or Murrow, where you have to have an 85 average to get in. That’s leaving us with kids with 65 averages. How do you expect us to do?”

Baseball player Carlos Richardson says things are better under new principal Diane Varano. “She is listening to our opinions to hear what we have to say,” he reports.

“And we have more after-school activities, like music clubs, SAT classes, martial arts, and the leadership program,” says his teammate, Warren Hazel. “A lot is going on.”

With that, they excuse themselves for practice. “Maybe you can help us out,” says Richardson. “Thank you very much.”

Jessica Siegel is an assistant professor of journalism and education at Brooklyn College. She taught for 12 years in the New York City public schools.


Freedom Booze

We’ve never thought about our founding fathers’ hooch of choice, until an invite from the Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams, landed in our box. In honor of the new Samuel Adams Brewer Patriot Collection—four beers allegedly inspired by our founding fathers—the company was hosting an evening of “colonial-inspired” food to drink with the beers at fancy-schmancy West Village restaurant One if by Land, Two if by Sea.

“Colonial-inspired” in this case meant everything from bacon-wrapped scallops to berry soup, but we were expecting something a little more rugged. Wasn’t there supposed to be some moose head to chomp on? Fresh roasted deer from the Appalachian backwoods? And for that matter, why wasn’t Boston Beer honcho Jim Koch in knickers and a goofy hat? The brewing world’s beloved beer gnome—Papa Beer, we like to call him—delivered a speech wearing the classic Bill “loaded, who me?” Gates get-up of a chambray button down and khakis.

The affair might not have been very authentic, but the beer was. Koch described how several of our founding fathers—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Sam Adams—were dedicated home brewers. Thomas Jefferson had a brewery at Monticello; James Madison learned about brewing from Jefferson and at one time considered starting a “national brewery” in D.C.; George Washington believed in buying only American-made brew. Released in time for July 4th, the new Brewer Patriot Collection honors each of them with his own beer. “As brewers,” says Koch, “they were very improvisational. They couldn’t go to Whole Foods—they made beer from what they had.” Washington used blackstrap molasses in his beer because of its availability. The George Washington Porter (porter was apparently Washington’s favorite type of beer) had a deep, chocolate-y brown color and a rich, molasses flavor. By far the easiest sipping beer, the James Madison Dark Wheat Ale, includes malt barley hand-smoked with oak from land Madison himself once owned. Apparently Thomas Jefferson and his wife regularly brewed gallons of ginger beer with honey and lemons to drink daily; in Jefferson’s honor, the Traditional Ginger Honey Ale is a pleasant summertime refresher fashioned after old ginger-brew recipes from the 1700s. Reminding the rest of us that root beer was a beer first, the 1790 Root Beer Brew is made from ingredients that Sam Adams would have been used back in the day: blackstrap molasses, sassafras root bark, dried wintergreen, and licorice. Because of its thick sweetness—a small shot glass of this would be fine, a whole pint, a challenge—we thought of this more as a novelty beer than an everyday drink. “They weren’t brewed to be palate pleasing,” Koch says of his beers, “they were brewed to be authentic.”


When Chloe Met Charlotte

Every winter at Yale, the Rumpus, a student monthly, publishes a list of the hottest undergrads at the school, which takes up an entire issue of the magazine, then lies soggy on the floor of dorm bathrooms for the rest of the year. It features 50 very attractive men and women, each with one or two pictures, and a page full of answers to questions like “What is beauty?” and “When did you first know you were hot?”

As Natalie Krinsky, the Yale Daily News‘ recently graduated sex columnist, tells the Voice, “If you’re a freshman in ’50 Most,’ it’s kind of like you’re a debutante coming out.”

In her first novel, Chloe Does Yale (Hyperion), Krinsky structures the story around this and other giddy sexual rituals, recycling her columns and integrating them into a novel, much of it autobiographical. Focusing almost exclusively on drunken party, bar, and dorm activities (” ‘Hello, vibrator,’ I say”), she relies on an endearing code of high-tech language: the MIICRNYCOAGNWMA (maybe if I call right now you’ll come over and get naked with me again), OOO (overly organized orgasmers), and—most importantly—GLWC2-ing (get laid with commitment and conversation).

A history major who wrote her thesis on the feminist implications of the films of Pam Grier, Krinsky, like other columnists, revels in analyzing the superficial—”we can act shallow because we’re so nerdy,” she says. She worked her essays into a weekly lather of girliness, encouraging women to do things like befriend their own silly, lovable “FG” (favorite gay) or carefully groom their pubic hair. One December 2001 article, “Spit or Swallow?” (the answer: swallow), generated more than 350,000 hits, somehow worming its way into her father’s inbox and sparking a collective media freak-out about a new generation of “sexperts.” (Full disclosure: Krinsky is keeping a blog for the Voice.)

Now that there are well over 30 columns like Krinsky’s (written almost exclusively by straight girls), it’s difficult to conceive how this was once a controversial topic. Hyper-feminine, even reactionary, most articles read like giggly guides for good manners. We imagine these writers much like Carrie Bradshaw: on their beds with a shiny white laptop, typing, but also taking plenty of breaks to paint their toenails, peer out the window (is there a hot man on the stoop?), and fluff up their hair.

At Cornell, the sex columnist describes herself as “tall and blonde,” a lover of “stilettos and tequila.” At the University of South Florida, she is “a short, sheltered girly-girl,” who encourages “ladies” to “love thy boobies.” That age-old burning question—how come guys love watching girls kiss each other?—is often the only mention of homosexuality. In an honorary survey of different ways people are “messed up in the head,” Becca Worthington of James Madison discusses a couple wild fixations, like balloon licking and furniture porn, but is left “somewhere between wanting to laugh hysterically and vomit profusely” (“Will sex ever get back to the basics?” she pleads). Looking to prevent bodily sickness, more recent columns at the James Madison Breeze have stuck with perfectly inarguable topics, heralded by headlines like “Dating Stages Seem Unclear, Confusing” or “Relationships Not Flawless, Especially During College Years.”

Last winter, the editors at the Columbia Spectator read through 34 submissions to pick their columnist, but still the two final winners were accused of being heterosexist and gushy. They gave girls tips on post-fellatio kissing restraint (“It’s not that he didn’t appreciate it”), as well as vaginal soaping—so that the guy won’t “pass out from the smell.” One student, who submitted to the contest but didn’t win, wrote an article about the process in Columbia’s humor paper, The Fed: “The columnist they have hired instead of me is spouting candles-and-rose-petals mumbo jumbo. That cliché outlook on sex is imaginary . . . fairytale shit.”

Yvonne Fulbright, the 29-year-old author of The Hot Guide to Safer Sex (Hunter House) and a columnist for NYU’s Washington Square News, says she too was disappointed with the Spectator‘s final selection and takes offense whenever she’s clumped together with the rest of the sex-writing “pack.” “They make things so Mars-Venus. It’s nonpolitical and nearly always silly,” she says. “No one steps out of the system, because if they do, they think they’ll be called perverts.”

Rife with implausible scenarios, these first-person accounts of college sex give credence to Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, a fantasy vision of university life repeatedly criticized for its stereotypes—wild, long-limbed (anorexic) girls flirting or screaming whenever they’re around males, then spending hours intellectualizing the process. At Wolfe’s invented Dupont University, sex is “in the air along with the nitrogen and oxygen! The whole campus was humid with it! Tumid with it! Lubricated with it!”

“I think he really captures it,” says Krinsky, “because college is kind of like a cartoon.” In her novel, which she loosely compares to Wolfe’s (“without the social commentary”), girls religiously apply anti-cellulite lotion and follow assholes to bed because it will improve their “hookup quotient,” that “simple mathematical concept.”

Another student, writing about Charlotte for The Cornell Daily Sun, defends the book’s accuracy, quoting Heather Grantham, the author of the biweekly Cornellingus column, as proof. “Let’s face it,” he writes. “It is a bit uncanny for people to complain about the stereotypes put forth in this book when this campus’ very own sex columnist has bragged about losing her virginity in the same fashion that the title character loses hers.” In the article in question, Grantham recalls how she arrived to school “wide-eyed and pony-tailed,” the “last virgin on Earth” then wandered into a swampy frat party where she “dispense[d] with . . . [the] tenacious remnants of my hymen.”

Although grounded with some alarmingly icky details, Grantham’s and others’ essays reiterate the kind of bite-size sexual formulas that students spend pages deconstructing in their term papers. Whether or not the stereotypes are true (and Wolfe certainly believes they are), these writers circle around the same safe set of issues—the fact that they’re females talking about sex is somehow still more groundbreaking than whatever it is that they’re saying.

As Grantham puts it, “There’s politics in the act itself. It’s just like, Hey, look! I’m a woman. I enjoy sex. I’m talking about it. Isn’t this cool?”


Church and State Separation in Crisis

To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical. —Thomas Jefferson

In 1775-76, there was a fierce debate in Virginia as to whether a tax should be enacted to support that state’s established church. Fighting unsuccessfully against that proposal were Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

In his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”—which I hope members of the Supreme Court will have read before deciding this term’s case on using public money for religious schools—Madison, as summarized by Kermit Hall in The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, argued that:

“A true religion did not need the support of the law; that no person, either believer or nonbeliever, should be taxed to support a religious institution of any kind.”

This led to the passage in Virginia of Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Liberty, which formed the basis for the establishment clause in the First Amendment, written by James Madison. That clause, as Jefferson put it, erected a wall between church and state.

In recent years, the Rehnquist Court has somewhat breached that wall, but no damage it has done so far will come anywhere near the magnitude of commingling government and religion if the Court decides that the Ohio voucher program—providing $2250 in public tax money to parents who want to send their children to Cleveland private schools, including religious ones—is constitutional.

The case before the Court is Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, and no one involved contests the fact that 99.4 percent of the Cleveland children using vouchers are in religious schools.

This is how it works: The state sends the voucher check directly to the chosen school, made payable to the parents, and the parents then come in and endorse the check to the school. Proponents of vouchers say that, this arrangement notwithstanding, the government is really just giving parents public money to use for education, and the parents make an independent school choice, so there is no violation of the establishment clause, which forbids our taxes to be used to advance religion or entangle it with the state.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor will be the swing vote in this decision, and I hope—though I am far from certain—that she will stay with her concurring opinion in Capitol Square Review & Advisory Board v. Pinette (1995): “The establishment clause forbids a State to hide behind the application of a formally neutral criteria and remain studiously oblivious to the effects of its actions.”

And that’s the determining question in this case: Whether the public money goes directly or indirectly to the religious schools, what are the effects of these contributions to church coffers on the separation of church and state?

Last week, in quoting from the mission statement of some of the schools in the Cleveland program, I showed how these religious schools, in conscience, cannot help but advance religion—wherever their money comes from.

Here is another example, from the handbook of the Saint Mary Byzantine School: “In keeping with our intention of developing religious and moral values in accordance with Christian Catholic teachings, every student participates . . . in daily prayer within the classroom community. . . . All students enrolled in our school must participate in our religious instruction program.” (Emphasis added.)

If the Supreme Court now rules that it is constitutional for public tax money to go to this and other such religious schools, the Court will have eviscerated—if not actually reversed—its longstanding prohibition of excessive entanglement of the state with religion. Of special relevance on this point is Chief Justice Warren Burger’s ruling on entanglement in Earley v. DiCenso (1971).

The state of Rhode Island had provided supplements from public funds for the salaries of teachers of secular subjects in nonpublic schools, including religious schools. Said the chief justice: “A comprehensive, discriminating, and continuing state surveillance will inevitably be required to insure that . . . the First Amendment [establishment clause] is respected.”

The chief justice explained: “Unlike a book, a teacher cannot be inspected [only] once so as to determine the extent and intent of his or her personal beliefs and subjective acceptance of the limitations [on church-state entanglement] imposed by the First Amendment.”

In the voucher program that the Supreme Court has before it, there is no such continuing surveillance of any kind, and there are no restrictions on how the public money can be used. Therefore, with the uninspected, persistent blurring of church and state, all the limitations on church-state entanglement have been simply and sweepingly done away with.

The late Marvin Frankel, who had a long and exceptionally distinguished career as a defender of the Bill of Rights, submitted to the Supreme Court the most cogent brief in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. It ends:

“This is indeed a case where the result of the government program in issue is to ‘convey a message of [government] endorsement of Christianity’ and other established religious messages. . . .

“To allow such massive direct funding of such a program,” Frankel continued, “violates establishment clause principles that remain as vital today as they were in Madison’s classic formulations over two centuries ago.”

But do they remain vital to this Supreme Court? The Court appears to be split down the middle. Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy are odds-on favorites to approve the Cleveland voucher program—with Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg, and, I hope, Breyer against. Right smack in the middle is likely to be Sandra Day O’Connor, who wrote, in a concurring opinion in Rosenberg v. Rector (1995): “Public funds may not be used to endorse the religious message.”

However, Justice O’Connor has more than once expressed views that seem contradictory, and she prides herself on judging one case at a time—keeping precedents in mind, but focusing on the specific facts in each case.

If the Supreme Court approves public money for pervasively religious schools, the decision may be challenged in those states—like New York—whose own constitutions provide greater separation of church and state. But the outcome is not certain.


Racism and Free Speech

If large numbers of people believe in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it. But if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.

—George Orwell

“Most Americans,” said Martin Luther King, “are unconscious racists.” Indeed, while many Americans claim they are not racists, what they actually say in private—very consciously—indicates they are hardly free of bigotry.

Alvin Poussaint, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School—commenting on the best-known relief pitcher in baseball, John Rocker—noted in the January 9 New York Times: “Officially, mental health professionals believe that racism is so common in America that it represents a social problem rather than personal pathology.”

This would seem to contradict a finding in a 1999 survey of American attitudes toward the First Amendment. The Freedom Forum of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University polled 1001 people, 18 years or older, from around the country.

In view of what Dr. King and Dr. Poussaint wrote about the prevalence of racism, how do you explain that, in the Freedom Forum poll, 78 percent “would not allow the public use of words that racial groups might find offensive”? Or that 57 percent said the public display of some art that might be considered offensive to racial and other groups should not be allowed?

But George Orwell was right: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

The answer to this apparent contradiction between public attitudes toward offensive speech and what people say in private is that political correctness still flourishes. Some prejudiced white Americans speak one way at the dinner table or at the neighborhood bar—if no blacks patronize that bar—and another when a pollster calls and asks how they feel about public displays of bigotry. They reserve the right to not identify themselves as racist.

Other results of the Freedom Forum poll are scary because they reveal how little regard for the First Amendment most Americans consciously, openly have.

For instance, 53 percent of those surveyed believe that the press has too much freedom. I expect that if members of city councils, state legislatures, and Congress were polled—and were told the answers would be confidential—their support for restricting the press would be even stronger.

More surprising was that only 35 percent strongly agreed that the press should be able to endorse or even criticize political candidates.

Most telling—and this should alarm people in and out of the press—the survey asked which right guaranteed by the Constitution was most important.

Only 50 percent said “freedom of speech.” A mere 6 percent cited “freedom of the press.” But doesn’t freedom of speech include freedom of the press?

A close reading of that section of the First Amendment may indicate why the public sees a big difference between those two rights:

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Keep that comma after “speech” in mind. According to the Freedom Forum, the reason most Americans are so much more willing to defend freedom of speech than freedom of the press is that they believe freedom of speech is a constitutional right belonging to individuals. But that comma appears to mean that freedom of the press belongs only to the press. Therefore it’s of less importance to the American people.

All media have been complacent—and lazy—in not explaining to their readers and viewers what James Madison had in mind when he wrote the First Amendment.

Madison described the freedom of the press and the rights of conscience as “the choicest privileges of the people.”

In another powerful tribute to the press, Madison wrote: “To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression. . . . To that same beneficent source [the press], the United States owe much of the lights which conducted them to the ranks of a free and independent nation.”

None of these tributes from Madison should serve to excuse the manifold failures of the press. That’s why press criticism—such as that of Cynthia Cotts in this paper and David Shaw in the Los Angeles Times—is vital, and there should be more.

But what the Freedom Forum survey most glaringly reveals is the pervasive miseducation in our schools about the liberties and rights of all Americans—including freedom of the press and freedom of speech, from which all our other rights flow.

Barely over half those responding to the survey recalled ever having a class in the First Amendment somewhere along the line in grade school, high school, or college. Forty-seven percent said they did not recall such a class.

In a different Freedom Forum survey three years ago, only 4 percent rated their education in the First Amendment as “excellent.” Sixty-three percent said it had been poor or “only fair.” That’s why so many Americans are ready to kick bigoted John Rocker out of baseball and into a probe of his mental health.

As Alexander Polsky wrote in a letter to The New York Times (January 22): “Can we have forgotten the Soviet ‘psychiatric hospitals’ ?”

Yes, we have. John Rocker has been suspended from baseball until May 1 “for his racial and ethnic remarks.” And must undergo sensitivity training.