Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A declaration of war

Forget about what the law says.

Forget about what any of the laws say.

The text doesn't matter; the intent does.

In a few days, the 90th Arkansas General Assembly, the first since Reconstruction to operate with GOP majorities in both houses and the governor's mansion, will wrap up its business and adjourn sine die.  I would call this session ignominious if I thought that more than a handful of these legislators would know what that meant without consulting Webster's.

HB 1228, the so-called "Religious Freedom Restoration Act," has been merely the most prominent in a laundry list of Tea Party-initiated or -favored acts.  (This morning, Gov. Asa! Hutchinson, sensing a disturbance in the corporate force to which he owes his major allegiance, announced that he would be asking the General Assembly to "recall" HB 1228, or at least to "fix" it.  I suspect that Asa! knows that an outright veto would be hastily overridden by this radical legislature--it only takes a simple majority to override a governor's veto, which makes the governor pretty close to impotent.)

This season in Little Rock has seen attacks on Common Core, Obamacare, California's egg laws, workers, solar energy, history classes, and sexual minorities, among other targets.  And there is a common thread to all of it.

These are all acts in a war waged against progress and the future.

We've trod this ground before.

The building on the University of Arkansas campus that houses the admissions offices is named for Silas H. Hunt.  Aside from Razorback Stadium or Bud Walton Arena, this is often the building at the University that students first encounter.  It is the University's "best foot" put forward, because of who Silas H. Hunt was.

In 1948, a full six years before Brown v. Board of Education, Silas H. Hunt was admitted to the law school at the University of Arkansas.  This was a remarkable event because Hunt was black.  In fact, he became the first black student at any all-white Southern university since Reconstruction, and the first black graduate student at any all-white Southern university at all.  Thus began the desegregation of the University of Arkansas.

I do not mean to say that Hunt's time at Arkansas was a bed of roses or that he was in any fashion accepted as an equal.  He was prevented from taking classes designated for white students; instead, he was accommodated with special segregated classes in the basement of the law school (which white students were permitted to attend, and he was in fact joined by a handful of white students), at a time when "separate but equal" was still considered a reasonable position.*

* - Sadly, Hunt died of tuberculosis, a probable consequence of wartime wounds suffered at the Battle of the Bulge, in 1949.  The University awarded him a posthumous degree a few years ago.

As happy and amazing as it is, this story and the small change it wrought are dwarfed by the ugliness of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School not a decade later.  That, too, was part of the war against progress, made worse by a gutless governor caught between his constituency and the path of righteousness.  It took nearly four decades and the election of a progressive native son as President for us to shed that terrible incident as the prime mover of the general public's consciousness of Arkansas.  Others were worse, but we were bad enough.  It was a reputation that was tough to live down.

How much money and time and effort--how much human capital--was wasted fighting the inevitable future?  And how much more will we waste as we are forced by these sorry people to fight it today?

Men like Bob Ballinger and Jason Rapert and Justin Harris exist as legislators because we let them.  This war they are waging--they wage it because we enable them to do so.  The would-be voices of reason in the General Assembly are shouted down by buffoons like these, who love to playact, and whose favorite role is that of the boy with his finger in the dike, holding back the flood of modernity that has already swept most of our great nation.

There are many great things about this state--things I love dearly.  But damn! if there aren't problems that most direly need our attention.  We live in a land where a significant number of people believe that an 11-dollar-an-hour job with no benefits is something to be grateful for, where some people believe that dial-up internet is good enough for rural school districts, where the only thing standing between us and a theocracy is a thin line of court decisions.  It is no wonder that so many have gone mad for Jesus; he's the only brand that's offering much hope in Arkansas these days; too bad you have to leave this Earth to cash in on it.

I have always been a man of unbridled optimism.  I know that the road to prosperity and liberty is long and fraught with danger, but I have always believed that the journey is worth it and that we would get there.  I believe that we are just one good election away from real change to benefit the most and the poorest Arkansans.

But, boy, are they making it difficult.

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