The Bounds of Civil Discourse

A discussion of the breakdown in civil debate immediately preceding the recent Board of Education election.

Maplewood and South Orange recently held an election for three seats on our shared nine-member Board of Education. Six candidates were running. Although each candidate made a persuasive case for his/her vision of the future of our schools, I was particularly swayed by the promise of a new focus on Computer Science from the campaign of Madhu Pai, Wayne Eastman, and Jeff Bennett. In fact, this campaign persuaded many other voters as well, and just a few days ago Ms. Pai, Mr. Eastman and Mr. Bennett won their seats on the board.

I had hoped to spend this weekend writing about my own experiences with Computer Science education. I prepared to discuss some entertaining and powerful avenues to CS education. I wanted to share the latest guidance from the ACM on K-12 CS curriculum standards. I even entertained the idea that I might pitch the 100 year-old logical foundation of CS that proves its central role in so many analytical pursuits today. I might have even tried to illustrate a beautiful connection between program analysis and the Calculus, a result that our advanced CS students at CHS would surely love.

I had intended to do all of those things.

But at the tail end of it, this election revealed a disturbing aspect of our local politics and political mechanics that to my mind, sadly, eclipsed the good things that should be said today. Steve Latz, in his capacity as the director of the BOE campaigns for the three opposing candidates, of acceptable campaign tactics when he gave to a campaign subordinate to send out "to 19 of her friends", outlining the stakes of the campaign and exhorting them to likewise contact their friends and get out to vote. This was a message inciting racial animosity while compelling its recipients to translate their immediate anger into votes (and likewise their friends, recursively). It can't reasonably be denied that this network-effect of distributing a political message produces votes, nor can it reasonably be denied that such efforts are the stock in trade of political campaigns -- getting messages out and compelling people to vote is what political campaigns do, and specifically it is what political campaign directors endeavor to have done. However, in this instance the message that was distributed attacked a private citizen with a false representation of his public comments and made what were in my opinion slanderous accusations about the motivations of this citizen and (by the transitive property of non sequiturs) of the Pai/Eastman/Bennett campaign as well.

We cannot allow political campaigns to be run this way.

I realize that politics "ain't beanbag," as they say. In fact, members of my own family have been through tough political battles in the name of education, and I know that state and local politics can be especially underhanded. Yet there is a line between a tough, critical argument and a provocative lie. When Steve Latz had a message sent out with the sentence that "the other slate believes that any gains for Black students will come at the expense of high achieving White students", he was making a provocative lie. Now many people have come forward to defend Mr. Latz and his record of good work for the community. I wouldn't deny the good work that he's done, but we must remember that just as our public schools are not just for the wealthy, not just for the well-connected, not just for the white -- in that same way our rules of public discourse are not just for the unknown political figures, but for all of us. Mr. Latz may be a good man who has done good things, but this campaign message was unambiguously unacceptable in our public discourse and Mr. Latz must recognize that, disclaim this political tactic, and apologize for the damage he's done to the reputations of these four citizens. There is no other way forward.

We must talk reasonably with each other about race to avoid being manipulated by our own emotions.

The thought of racial segregation and slavery incites my emotions. Understanding its history is critical to understanding our country. Just last year, we marked 150 years since the start of our American Civil War. As I've discussed this subject with my 6 year-old son, I seem to have instilled in him an admiration for the figures of the Civil War and the Civil Rights period that followed, and he recently pushed me to take him on a trip to Washington DC. We both went together, both for the first time (I grew up far from the East Coast and never had the chance to see it). We sat together in the Lincoln Monument, and although I've heard it and read it so many times before, sitting there with my young son I couldn't read the entire Gettysburg Address between the tears that overwhelmed me at the final sentence, "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". Considering those words, I can have no other feeling but camaraderie toward all of my fellow citizens and reverence for the union we form together.

Rusty Reeves placed the blame for the underachievement of many black kids on single-parent homes and "culture" and despite the fact that Mr. Latz came with gasoline to the fire, Mr. Reeves's comments did inflame emotions at the time he said them. Still, I grew up in a single-parent home, and in my youth I did see and frankly I did for a time participate in a counterproductive, anti-intellectual culture and to my mind it's undeniable that these things can predispose kids to underachievement in one way or another. I understand and appreciate what Mr. Reeves is saying. Moreover, this is not a new idea in the "black community", but something about it has raised the hackles of many people in this town. I've spent the last few days thinking about our common history, and trying to put myself in the frame of mind of the offended, and it seems to me that it just may come down to how biased you perceive that judgement to be.

Frederick Douglass, a former slave and one of our greatest Americans, summed up this frustration with bias toward black people with this concise observation:

A hundred white men will attend a concert of white negro minstrels with faces blackened with burnt cork, to one who will attend a lecture by an intelligent negro.

Frederick Douglass was a brilliant man, and this observation may even be accurate in evaluating Rusty Reeves's bias; I don't know. But I do know and I do understand the desire that Rusty Reeves and many other parents have had to maintain levels as a device for the progressive academic development of all of our kids, not as a racial barrier. We shouldn't ever tell kids that they're predestined for anything, but we shouldn't shelter them from their failures either. Once again, Frederick Douglass said it best:

If you wish to make your son helpless, you need not cripple him with bullet or bludgeon, but simply place him beyond the reach of necessity and surround him with ease and luxury. This experiment has often been tried and has seldom failed.


— Kalani Thielen is a software developer consulting to firms in the financial services industry, and is a 7-year resident of Maplewood.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

STEPHANIE VOLIN April 23, 2012 at 05:25 PM
Mr. Thielen, I appreciate that you continue to be very bothered by what went down right before the election with the email in question, and by other aspects of the campaign, as I'm sure many people are. But you continue to lose the debate when you assert that "something about [Rusty Reeves placing the blame for the underachievement of many black kids on single-parent homes and "culture"] has raised the hackles of many people in this town." That "something" was Mr. Reeves apparently finding some correlation with his work with poor/jailed/troubled African Americans and our black student population. Really, not a small "something" at all. in the meantime, I guess this political season won't REALLY be over until we've all written a blog about it.... are we going alphabetically?
Kalani Thielen April 23, 2012 at 10:42 PM
Fair enough, although I thought I addressed the view that his criticism was biased and possibly wrong. My "losing" point is that what he said isn't racist and it isn't anything like what Steve Latz portrayed it as -- this horrible idea that he thinks that "black kids" are incapable of success, or that their success comes at the expense of "high achieving white kids". Although as you say, this subject has been done to death, it's not really resolved. If we drop it now, the next election is going to be even worse. JMHO.


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