Friday, June 23, 2023

The Effectiveness of Violence

Some of the storybooks read in Montgomery County Public Schools have gay and transgender characters in them. That isn't very shocking, I know, but some want to make a big deal out of it. The complaint is that MCPS isn't letting students "opt out" of readings on the basis of religous objections.

There was a moderate-sized, peaceful protest a couple of weeks ago, mainly organized by a group of Muslims. County Council member Kristin Mink told the group who organized the event that she knew them as good people but they had put themselves "on the same side of an issue as white supremacists and outright bigots." Certain people have tried to pretend she was calling them bigots but it was the opposite of that.

This next Tuesday, the 27th, we will be hearing from the certified, professional bigots. Florida-based extremists Moms for Liberty are planning a protest at MCPS headquarters that will probably be pretty big. The group has been promoting disruptive events all over the country and now they're coming to Rockville.

And by the way, our local Muslims might think it's smart to form an alliance with the Moms for Liberty (hear one of their leaders being coy about it in this podcast interview; start at 22:00), they will soon find out that Moms for Liberty have no fondness for immigrants, especially Muslims. It's not called "Christian nationalism" for nothing.

The Moms for Liberty flyer for the 2PM Carver Building protest says: "Montgomery County Public Schools has removed opt-out for instruction related to family life and human sexuality and we want it restored immediately. Bring your family to support us as we testify in front to the BOE."

This is a clever sleight-of-hand, using that phrase "related to." There is a family life and human sexuality curriculum in MCPS, a series of health classes including sex ed, and it has an opt-out feature which is almost never invoked. Opt-out for other classes is generally called "truancy." There is no opt-out policy for storybooks. Families and sexuality are part of almost all fiction and do not make a storybook part of the "family life and human sexuality" curriculum. Think for instance of Tom Sawyer's attempted seduction of Becky. (And don't forget where Huck Finn presents himself as a girl.)

Moms for Liberty, now formally recognized as a hate group by SPLC, started out opposing mask mandates, but these things seem to all go together; they moved on to Critical Race Theory, and now they are crusading against LGBT+ topics in schools. They have been disrupting school board meetings, harassing officials at their homes and workplaces, making false accusations of child abuse. Moms for Liberty presents itself as a grassroots coalition of concerned parents, but leaders are well-connected rightwing partisans, manufacturing outrage to stir up local communities all over the country.

The chairman of the Florida Republican Party has said he expects Moms for Liberty to become foot soldiers for Florida governor Ron DeSantis’ reelection campaign, according to the Washington Post. Publicity about a recent Moms for Liberty newsletter quoting Hitler in its masthead has caused them to do some quick backpedaling, at least as far as their public image goes.

From VICE (an article well worth reading, by the way):

A VICE News investigation has uncovered links between numerous Moms for Liberty chapters and extremist groups like the Proud Boys, Three Percenterssovereign citizen groupsQAnon conspiracistsChristian nationalists, and in one case, with the founder of the AK-47-worshiping Rod of Iron Ministries church in Pennsylvania. Around the country, Moms for Liberty has formed links with extremist groups and militias, which are joining forces with the “parental rights” group at protests and school board meetings, and in turn pushing the already far-right organization toward even more extreme ideology.

The benign-sounding group puts the innocuous faces of snow-white upper-middle-class moms -- picture a room full of Sarah Palins -- on a coalition of rightwing terrorists, as violence has more and more become the far right's signature in imposing their narrow worldview on the country. Moms for Liberty member and featured speaker Kaylee Campbell Layton recently tweeted about Joe Biden: "I'm calling for the public execution of this old man and you can't change my mind." When I was a kid it was against the law to talk like that.

Local Montgomery County supporters of LGBT+ rights have decided not to hold a counterprotest this Tuesday, out of fear of violence. Some advocates may make public comments at the board meeting, but there might not be anybody on the sidewalk raising their voices in support of our gay and trans neighbors while the bigots wave their signs and talk to reporters.

The problem with violence is that it works. It will keep people away who disagree but don't want to be shot or beaten. Violence does not persuade people, it only stops them from expressing their opinions. But the TV-watching, Facebook-scrolling, newspaper-reading public will only learn that a lot of people oppose LGBT+ stories, and there will be no way to know that the great majority of people in our county support diversity in educational materials and oppose an option to leave the classroom when gay and trans topics come up. When you see us on the news, Montgomery County, Maryland, is going to look just like some place in Florida.

Because of the effectiveness of violence, the news cameras will record a crowd of protesters who will establish the narrative and call themselves "concerned parents," with no visible opposition. They will call the storybooks "pornography" and insist that stories with LGBT+ characters threaten their children. They will claim to have some made-up right to determine what their children learn in public schools. They will say that their religion requires them to be intolerant of LGBT+ people -- they "hate the sin, not the sinner," uh huh; they will be saying their religious freedom is violated by mention of LGBT+ characters in storybooks. They will claim there is an official opt-out policy where there is not. No reporter will challenge these things, and there will be no voice of reason to challenge the falsehoods. They will put some nicely dressed moms in pearls and barrettes out in front to cheerfully and likeably recite their talking-points to the cameras. As events are canceled and honest public servants all over the country resign quietly from their positions out of fear of violence, fascist protests like the one to be held at Carver Tuesday provide a one-sided display of a point of view that is held by a tiny minority of Americans.

There is a lawsuit over the storybook opt-out matter, and I hope MCPS has their legal ducks in a row. We know from experience that school district bureaucrats tend to shrink from intimidation and that they fear controversy; on Tuesday they will be hearing from only one side of the matter, and it may seem to administrators that appeasing the mob will solve their problem. They can choose to change their policy if they can be fooled into believing that's what the public wants, but they should fight a good fight in court first.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

Muslims Protest MCPS Lack of "Opt-Out"

Tuesday there was a demonstration at the Montgomery County Public Schools office building, led by a group of Muslims who want their children to be allowed to opt out of class discussions and readings about LGBT+ topics. There might have been about a hundred people there, counting both sides, though the numbers shifted through the morning.

The nominal issue is kind of subtle but the real issue is not. The nominal issue is about an "opt out" policy where some parents want their children to leave the classroom for religious reasons during discussions of certain books that are assigned in class. That's complicated, because it sounds somewhat reasonable if you accept the premise that some students follow religious teachings that promote persecution of people of any faith who violate the sect's taboos, and the schools are somehow obligated to cooperate with that persecution against community members. "Opt-out" is a couple of paragraphs of a PDF file, probably in Courier font, with a lot of whereases and some signatures at the bottom: done. A bureaucratic item to check off a list. Sounds easy enough in light of "freedom of religion."

The nominal topic is "opt-out," but the real issue is that these people find some of our neighbors so loathsome that they cannot bear to be in the room when they are mentioned. The people who demand this option are not thinking for themselves, these beliefs do not reflect conclusions they have come to through evidence or logic. They have been taught that some of our neighbors are inherently disgusting, and they choose as individuals to believe this. They believe that some students in the classroom, some teachers, some students' parents, some community leaders, some of their neighbors are so immoral that righteous people cannot even allow themselves to acknowledge their existence. And these religious extremists believe that the Montgomery County Public Schools should adjust their policies to enable them to profoundly insult our community members.

Here is some video from the protest:

Frankly, it appears to me that the school district might have been picking a fight with this one. After one parent had a child sit outside for a book discussion in March, with a teacher's permission, MCPS implemented a policy the very next day saying that students could not opt out of the readings. I agree with the decision, and do not believe students should pick and choose what they will learn in school -- but neither should the schools be flipping their policies around without any input or explanation, especially when they know there will be controversy.

A lawsuit has also been filed. I have no idea how that will come out. If Maryland has an opt-out requirement for storybooks and MCPS is in violation of it, then they will lose. If the school district convinces a judge that they can't have students popping in and out of class depending on the topic, then they'll win. We do expect rightwing legal grandstanders to participate, so this will probably be in the news when it gets to court.

Some of the protesters spoke at the school board meeting after the demonstration. A number of speakers referred to a right that parents have to determine what their children should be taught in school. There is no such right. They have the right to send their kids to a religious school if they want a religious education, but public schools have a responsibility to stick with the facts, regardless of what parents believe. Public education is not a marketplace where you give consumers what they ask for. Curriculum is determined by careful deliberation, and there is community input in that process but the goal is not to add everybody's favorite thing to the classroom agenda.

Here is video of all the BOE public comments from that day:

The last speaker at the board's public comments was Montgomery County Council member Kristin Mink, whose presentation was informal and sometimes wandered, but she made some good points -- if anything, the extemporaneous quality of her presentation made it more effective. She had spent the morning at the protest talking with the Muslim protesters and said, "This issue has unfortunately put some Muslim families on the same side of an issue as white supremacists and outright bigots," which drew a negative response from the Muslims present (and a written response from CAIR), but, well it's true, and she clarified well enough that she was not calling them bigots. In this case they are on the same side as the bigots, you can't argue with that.

Ms. Mink noted that the opt-out policy tells a certain demographic of people that "when they appear in books we're going to let some people say we're not going to read those books. There's no way to do that without sending a clear message to the LGBTQIA community that you are seen as different, as other, and other people don't need to learn about your existence or have you included in the curriculum. Montgomery County Public Schools has a responsibility to teach a fact based, science based, curriculum."

She said, "Same as evolution, we don't let religions opt out of that part of the science curriculum. Those parents who don't believe in evolution are free to teach a counternarrative at home or in their own religious institutions and say here's what you're going to learn about in school and here's what our family believes. All different religions of people have the ability to teach around the facts and the science that are going to be reflected in the MCPS curriculum but we cannot modify our fact-based, science-based curriculum to reflect particular religious beliefs that are not aligned with that science-based curriculum. And that's not an infringement on particular religious freedoms; just as we cannot allow folks to opt out of teaching about evolution, we can't allow them to not teach about this."

This is the grown-up solution. Schools will teach facts, and if someone's religion denies the facts then the family has the choice to send their kids to a private school or to discuss in the home where there are differences between their beliefs and the facts that are taught in class. Certainly if you belong to an extremist religious sect (and a couple of speakers made it clear that most Muslims do not share these anti-LGBT views), then you must realize that you are surrounded by people who believe differently from you and that has to be part of your children's upbringing. The lesson is: we do X but people outside our group do Y. It's not that hard to understand. So if you want to teach that gay and trans people are unclean, then you will have to teach that at home, not in our public schools.