Long ago, during my high school years, I learned a valuable lesson about laws, enforcement and violations. I never forgot it. Our high school was one of the largest in the state – over 3,000 students in just three grades. In those days, school administration was, shall we say, less lavishly staffed than today. A principal, a vice-principal, and four secretaries, plus a guidance counsellor for each grade, ran that school. (I can’t recall if the counselors had secretaries, too.) Our campus contained a half-dozen significant buildings – the oldest dating back to 1914. The stadium, which seated 25,000, stood a quarter mile from the main campus.
A school of that size was probably close to ungovernable – even in those days, when disciplinary-concerns were different from today. The assistant principal was the “enforcer” who kept a lid on things – slapping tough guys around when necessary, but generally leaving serious students be. There were no outside “watchdog” groups to make sure students were handled with kid gloves. If there were any guns, knives or drugs, we never heard about them. The idea that a student might bring a gun to school and shoot the place up was un-thought of.
The student population was partitioned into three groups: the college prep track, the general track (for kids who would probably go into business), and the shop track (i.e., guys who planned to enter vocational work). Most discipline problems came from the shop crowd, who had their own rough “culture” (using the term loosely) and tended to view authority figures with indifference or outright disdain. In the classic film, “American Graffiti,” the character of John Milner – the tough-guy mechanic who drove the hot Deuce Coupe and kept a pack of Luckies rolled up in his tee-shirt sleeve – was a perfect caricature of many shop guys from my era. (Remember how he stuffed the traffic ticket in his glove-box with all the others he’d received?) Most shop guys wore jeans and tee-shirts, and wolf-whistled at the preppie girls. They did things their own way.
When I was in the 10th grade, the school’s administration decided to upgrade the school’s image by establishing a “dress code.” Tee-shirts would no longer be acceptable attire. Ditto for shorts and other casual wear. Bare midriffs and cleavage-displays were verboten (at least for the girls). This posed no problem for the college prep and general-ed crowds, but it was an unwelcome imposition on the cultural “style” of the shop guys. Their response was both a harbinger of the academic upheaval of the 1960s and a kind of rough tutorial on law-enforcement.
On the day when the new rules went into effect, nearly every guy in the shop section of the school wore jeans with suspenders, a clean white tee-shirt, and a colorful 1940s-style tie. This caused much laughter and merriment in the halls that day. (One big guy’s tie – maybe his pop’s from Hawaii, circa 1943 – featured blinking lights and a hula girl.) Administrators fumed, and the tough assistant principal grabbed a few guys by their ties and jerked them around. But they had little recourse in the face of the widespread disobedience. This was one rule that students were not going to follow, and there was damn-all that anyone could do about it. Administrators realized that serious penalties, like suspension, were impossible.
The dress-code attempt flopped completely, and was quietly rescinded. No further attempts to re-impose it occurred during my years there. Educators being somewhat resistant to learning from their mistakes, it’s probably too much to hope that those in charge learned any lessons about rules and enforcement. I don’t claim that I learned anything immediately, but as the years rolled by I gradually realized that something important was demonstrated by the comical episode of the tee-shirts and ties. Ultimately, I came away with four clear lessons:
1. Rules must have the “consent of the governed” – Thomas Jefferson’s signature phrase. They must make sense to a significant the majority of the population. Unless the authorities want to revert to jackboots and swagger-sticks, this consent is indispensable for a smoothly-functioning “society,” at any level. It’s what separates us from most monarchies, empires and dictatorships. America is founded on it.
2. Unnecessary rules are disruptive. They create artificial violations, at best, and widespread disobedience, at worst. There was no reason for the dress-code rule – other than some administrator’s idea of what the school should look like. What he got instead was a clown-show, widespread mocking – even from the preppies – and diminished respect from students and teachers. An unnecessary uproar was created. The school’s image was changed, all right, but not in the way that administrators expected.
3. Organized disobedience can overturn unpopular rules and laws. The shop guys – supposedly unhip about political matters – were very savvy in this case. They didn’t try to take on the new rules individually. They got together and planned a coordinated action in numbers great enough to insulate the demonstrators from being picked off, one at a time, by the authorities. (“Hang together, or all hang separately” – as Benjamin Franklin famously said.)
4. Government’s authority is harmed by imposition of unpopular rules. Thomas Jefferson also wrote that the best government is one that governs least. (Of course, he was just an old white guy who owned slaves. What could he have known?) Obviously, his sound counsel on minimalist government has been long forgotten – although it is still remembered in some places.
By the 1950s and ‘60s, the colored population in America had finally had enough of the political and economic disenfranchisement produced by Jim Crow laws in the South and by unofficial prejudice in the North. In widespread civil disobedience campaigns they routed these unjust systems and showed their determination to become full participants in American society. In the course of these actions, every one of the principles enumerated above was demonstrated.
I cite all this because in the present day so much of Jefferson’s wisdom about minimalist government and the consent of the governed has been forgotten or ignored. This has produced an increasingly intrusive government, staffed by armies of busybody civil serpents who “…harass our people and eat out their substance” – as Thomas Jefferson described them in the Declaration of Independence.
In Barack Obama’s final term, Americans have been subjected to a series of presidential executive orders and agency-issued rules which represent destructive intrusion into citizens’ freedom, security and property. These have included insertion of tens of thousands of illegal alien children into communities across the country, without the consent or even knowledge of local officials.
Orders issued by the Environmental Protection Agency threaten to destroy the coal industry and make the use of our cheapest fossil-fuel for electric power generation ruinously expensive. And lately the federal government has ordered Westchester County, NY – one of the country’s most expensive communities – to provide more low-cost housing so minorities can “integrate” the heavily-white county. Officials across the country anticipate that similar federal actions might soon affect their communities, thus taking control of residential areas away from the citizens who live there. In some cases, federal judges have reinforced the actions of federal government agencies. In recent weeks, five members of the Supreme Court actually found a “right” to same-sex marriage in the Constitution. (Who knew? One doubts if Madison or Washington did.)
In this new environment, Congress seems paralyzed. Ordinary citizens stand by helplessly as sheaves of new orders and regulations are issued by far-away officials beyond the reach of the local communities affected. People are asking: What can be done? Politicians – many of them lawyers – can suggest only the courts. But aren’t the robed eminences part of the problem? To a great extent, court rulings got us into this mess. It’s doubtful that they can get us out of it. Psychologists say one indicator of mental illness is a belief that the same actions that created a problem can solve it.
In fact, the solution to these radical incursions into our lives, businesses and properties is right in front of us. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz – who had the power of the ruby slippers with her all along – we have the solution to governmental overreach in our own hands. The shop guys in my high school and the oppressed minorities in the South showed us the way. It is, of course, massive, organized civil disobedience, supported by full media coverage. If we wish to break free of government’s oppressive hand, we must find the courage to employ this proven strategy. We need only the will to use it and a willingness to work together. Both qualities have come naturally to Americans in past times of emergency. At our founding, a small band of gutsy men took on the government of the most powerful empire on earth and outlasted it and its armies. I believe we still have the mettle to stop oppression. I pray that I’m right and that the Lord will grant us grace in the challenging days ahead.