It’s the time of year when things go bump in the night. Ghosts, goblins, ghouls, skeletons, zombies, mummies and, of course, witches abound. Put aside the last-minute costume ideas and think about what really scares us. It will be different for different folks (my dog, for example, is terrified of puppies and golden retrievers…) Thinking about writing something scary for this week, I came across a 25-year-old law review article that was truly frightening.
The piece was a study regarding what happened in 1995 in a bucolic suburban New York town’s school system when kids created a club to play a card game. Put a pin in that for a second as we turn the clock back to 1995 – Bill Clinton is President. Congress is, for the first time in 40 years, controlled by Republicans – Bob Dole is the Senate President and Newt Gingrich (along with his Contract With America) is Speaker of the House. Toy Story hits the theaters and Forrest Gump will win 6 Oscars. Most of the country is watching ER, Seinfeld, and Friends on television (none is yet in syndication). In criminal law news, we learn all about the Unabomber through his manifesto and the gloves do not fit OJ Simpson. Oh – and illegal immigration is in the news and the government shuts down – twice (the more things change…).
In that space, the people of Bedford, NY found themselves embroiled in a bizarre controversy about a card game (now an online game) called Magic: The Gathering. As complied and explained by Professor of Law, Rosemary Salamone in her law review article, Struggling With the Devil: A Case Study of Values in Conflict, 32 Ga. L. Rev. 633 (1998), when kids wanted to create a club to play the card game, some parents lost their minds (I am paraphrasing). It is a piece about early days of the culture war and how a few misguided people can really interfere with education and schooling, even in one of the wealthiest and best educated towns in America.
As with many law review articles (and with my own blog) it remained mostly unread and so failed to act as a cautionary tale. It was before the right wing became the mainstream and before fascism took over a major political party. It was before anyone really believed the Court would define the Second Amendment as the unadulterated right to bear arms anywhere anytime even as death by firearm cut short countless innocent lives. It was before criminal penalties for abortion would dominate state legislatures. It was before states would ban books from schools. It was before there was such a thing as a red state or a blue state. It was before ignorance would not just be bliss, but coveted, over education. That was 25 years ago.
In the article chronicling what was seen as a bizarre reaction to a card game by extremists seeking to infuse their own religious beliefs on a school system and community, those who wanted to ban the game said they did not want to burn books. They said they were just protecting their kids from evil. Those who believed the game would not turn normal children into devil worshippers and psychopaths were blindsided by the pressure and outside support for the opposition that they essentially "cancelled" them. Indeed, when parents with support from far-right legal groups decided to flex even more muscles and try to opt their kids out of graduation requirements, the school averred that those kids would not graduate. Kids teased the children of the concerned parents as administrators looked the other way. As per usual, the children – both the bullies and the bullied - became the pawns in this game and the casualties of this war.
What started as a pearl-clutching became a full on assault against the school system with extremists running for school board positions. They ended up losing in a collective sigh of relief. They never really addressed what caused this irrational fear in some members of the community. This idea of devil worship, of games and books corrupting children, of, frankly conspiracy theories seemed so preposterous that it was almost laughed off. Parents who either did not care about the game or who saw positive aspects of it grew concerned that their own children would be shunned from prestigious colleges through the town’s association with these fanatics. The majority of people in the area assumed that their core values of living in a peaceful, safe, educated, and supportive suburb were the American dream – they had no idea they were in an early battle of the culture war that would explode into a nightmare over the next few decades.
Backed by far-right lawyers, the zealots came hard – after not just a card game, but questioning the use of staff time and even books in the library. The community, shell shocked that any of their own could be so …unsophisticated, uncouth, and uneducated mocked them. The principal read off titles of books about which they had received complaints. As he did so, mentioning Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson, My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George, and Changes by Anthony Browne. Those who had read the books laughed because – what? These are not exactly how-to books on bomb building.
Indeed, the majority of kids supported the district in opposition to the morality police. Most people supported the district’s ability to know how and what to teach their kids. Unbeknownst to most of them was that this kind of thing, encouraged by fundamentalist Christians, was playing out in other communities just like theirs. Because it was so stealthy – seemingly a few people in isolated cases – folks had no idea that the gates were open and the horse was in.
Between the ostracizing mocking and the presumed quell of the uproar, one might assume that the next generation would have absorbed these lessons and moved past them. Instead, a goodly number have not only embraced these anti-intellectual ideas, but they have improved the tactics to the point where they have helped elect extremists into office who, in turn, appoint extremists to the bench who, in turn, move the legal norm, and therefore the cultural norm, far to the right. The reaction against this in political life is equally far to the left. Those in the middle and just to the right or the left of center – arguably the mindset of the bulk of the country – have become the periphery. And feel powerless.
This is not a profound understanding of life in American in the 21st Century. People far smarter and more eloquent than I have been speaking about this phenomenon for years. But, it strikes me as we enjoy the spooky and macabre delights of Halloween that we spend a moment to ponder what scares us the most.
Because right now it is not a slow creep and a one community study of how a few parents curiously raised a ruckus about a card game. It is the reality that the far-right scared of pictures on playing cards – terrified of words in children’s books – literal belief in religious text - mindset is the norm not of a few fringe members of a community, but of half the country. Maybe it has ever been thus. Maybe we laud ourselves too much in thinking that most people want democracy, want to be heard equally but are willing to compromise to live in harmony, have a curiosity about the world and relish the opportunity to learn about different ideas and cultures, and who see progress as a natural human desire. Maybe this is just not true. Maybe most people do not want those things – they want to be told what to do and think, they do not want to be challenged and they see the world as a place to be feared rather than a place to be enchanted.
If that is true, that is terribly sad. And frightening. Because the earth really does circle the sun – it is not blasphemy to say so. And there really are a lot of different, beautiful, interesting cultures today and in the past worth studying. And people are truly diverse in their thoughts and their expressions and lifestyles and beliefs which is a good thing. Our public institutions and our laws should not be afraid to reflect that expansive approach rather than seeking to shut down those who differ.
That is not the direction we are traveling, however. Governments banned playing cards in the 1400’s. Based on some historical data, this would accompany bloodletting, balancing the humors, subsistence farming, straw beds, regulation on what people could and could not wear, restrictions on who could work where, allegiance to lords and kings, and a whole lot of stagnation. Oh, and witch hunts.
The scariest thing this Halloween is not the monster coming out from under the bed. It is us.