I was reminded last week of the importance of scripts in public life. Much of what passes for political discourse these days turns out, upon reflection, to be little more than dramatic (or comedic) set-pieces in which political actors dutifully mouth some familiar lines and lazily follow the stage directions of productions that closed years or decades ago. We watch it (or perform ourselves). We feel comfortable and validated. We clap. Then we leave the theater for a while to get refreshments or relieve ourselves before taking in another pointless, predictable show.{mosimage}
    Last week’s occasion to witness political scripting came when I debated someone representing the University of North Carolina on the issue of taxpayer funding for public broadcasting. Without public TV, my adversary intoned solemnly, viewers could not possibly find high-quality programming on history, culture and the arts. Children wouldn’t see Big Bird. Citizens wouldn’t get the respected news coverage they craved. Survivor and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers would be shown 24 hours a day on a continuous loop on every channel.
    OK, maybe I’m not remembering that last one verbatim, but you get the point. He was making the same arguments that defenders of public-broadcasting subsidies were making 10, 20 or 30 years ago. If ever valid, they certainly lack little relevance to the debate today, which is occurring at a time when most American households have cable or satellite television and high-quality programming, both fiction and nonfiction, has never been more available to more people.
    Another example of just following the script has been the way that UNC-Chapel Hill officials have responded to controversies about a freshman reading assignment begun several years ago. Chancellor James Moeser and others are bound and determined to make the dispute into some kind of book-burning episode involving Joe McCarthy, returned from the dead by a bizarre religious rite performed by Taliban-like Christian evangelicals. They view any criticism of their judgment as an attack on their “academic freedom,” and pretend that it is they who are interested in exposing students to a wide variety of people and ideas.
    So, for example, Moeser told the Herald-Sun recently that he expects protests and controversy to come from the school’s 2005 selection of a book by Timothy Tyson called Blood Done Sign My Name. It deals with a racially motivated murder in Oxford, and the violent response of the black community there. “The book may rip scabs off of wounds people may think healed long ago,” Moeser said. He apparently believes that incoming freshmen at what he often calls the finest public university in the nation are unfamiliar with the troubled racial history of the South, and that politicians and conservatives outside of Chapel Hill don’t want students to find out about it.
    It’s past time for UNC officials to, well, grow up. I don’t know any other way to put it. It is they who are living in a fantasy world, who brook little dissent or real intellectual diversity, and whose perceptions are shaped by their lack of experience with people who don’t think the way they do. The 2002 and 2003 controversies about the UNC reading assignment centered on the choice of the book, not the subject matter. It made sense for students after 9/11 to learn more about Islam and how it informs the war on terrorism. But the book UNC selected carefully left out the passages of the Qur’an that the Islamofascists distort into their divine commandment to kill, so it was unsuitable to the educational goal (though compatible with less praiseworthy ones). And in 2003, the problem wasn’t that students were examining poverty in America, but that the choice of book was a one-sided, socialist screed that provided little real insight into why poverty persists and what policymakers might do to alleviate it.
    I have no problem at all with Tyson’s book, or more generally with students learning about North Carolina’s sordid racist past. I also don’t expect it to come as a major shock to incoming UNC freshmen that segregation existed, that racism had real and tragic victims and that its legacy remains.
    Ladies and gentlemen, how about less reading from the script, more independent thought, and, most important of all, more listening.

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