Gotcha Nation

"Don't you see? It's not a lunch, IT'S A SMOKING GUN!!!!!!!"

For once, I wasn’t sucked in on this one, despite multiple nudges from readers. The story was that a pre-schooler’s lunch, lovingly packed by her mom and containing a turkey and cheese sandwich, a banana, potato chips and apple juice, was vetoed by an elementary school diet-cop, who forced her to get an approved cafeteria lunch that consisted of three chicken nuggets. Then the girl’s mother got a “you’re not properly feeding your child’ notice from the school, and a bill for the cafeteria lunch. Pushed my Drudge, picked up by Fox (“Preschooler’s Homemade Lunch Replaced With Nuggets”) and flogged for days by Rush, Sean, Laura, Mark, Bill and the rest of the conservative airwaves and blogosphere, the tale was widely cited as the tipping point of Big Brother unleashed. This was the work of Michelle Obama’s food crusade, and the harbinger of jack-booted indignities to come! Parents told what to feed their kids! The end of Democracy! Barack Obama’s evil plot exposed!

The hysteria seemed overblown to me: this appeared to be yet another example where Hanlon’s Razor ( “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”) was the tool to use. This wasn’t sinister; this was a school or its employee being dumb, and heaven knows that’s not news.  Sure enough, a couple of days after the firestorm, the school confirmed that it was just another mistake in judgment by a teacher. From the Washington Post:

The cafeteria details are true, but rather than an example of government “lunch bag police” overruling a family, it’s an embarrassing lapse by a teacher, Hoke County Schools Assistant Superintendent Bob Barnes said Thursday. The girl’s teacher should have handed the child a carton of milk to round out the turkey-and-cheese sandwich and banana she brought from home. Instead, the teacher erred by telling the tyke to get a cafeteria lunch, Barnes said. “We do not go over and stare down every child’s lunch,” Barnes said. “If you looked at the lunch the child had, I’d love to have that lunch today. However, there are occasions that kids bring lunches that aren’t that complete, and that’s why we try to supplement them with the things that they need to make it a complete lunch.”

I am less concerned about the lunch incident than about the rapidly increasing tendency on both sides of the ideological divide to declare every silly comment, every mistake, every example of bureaucratic stupidity or poor choice of words as proof positive that Republicans, Democrats, progressives, liberals, conservatives or libertarians have malice in their hearts, lead in their skulls and darkness in their souls. Yesterday one of Rick Santorum’s big contributors used the term “gals” to refer to women in an interview, and based on the outrage expressed in the liberal blogs, you would have thought he was advocating forced prostitution. He also used an old, moldy, politically incorrect joke to suggest that the best birth control for women was not to have sex. (“Santorum Contributor Says Aspirin is a Contraceptive!” screamed more than one site.) So the guy is old and out to lunch; I’ve never heard of him before, and it’s hardly earth-shattering  that any presidential candidate, or the President, has rich and silly supporters.

Not every mistake is a smoking gun; in fact, very few are. Before the internet and the 24-hour news cycle, a teacher could do something absurd and all that would happen was that a parent would go fight with the principle or school board. I had a third grade teacher who refused to call me “Jack” for example, explaining to my mostly Catholic class that there was no such name, because there was no “Saint Jack.” She called on me as “John,” and I, a stubborn little SOB even at that tender age, refused to answer to it.

My Dad, who was also a real Jack, straightened her and the school out pretty damn quick. The chastened teacher treated me like a prince after that, I can tell you. But if this had happened in 2012, it probably would have gotten me an interview on MSNBC. Maybe a reality show. A deal with  Jack-in-the-Box.

One too often neglected ethical value is proportionality, a component of fairness. In this election year, it has already been relegated to the trash, and everyone—the parties, the media, partisans, bloggers, talking heads, the public, Me—needs to retrieve it fast. Not only is it foolish to escalate everything into a major condemnation and controversy, it’s self-defeating. Eventually it becomes impossible to tell real outrages from manufactured ones, and that is a boon to the people, and they are out there, who do have malice in their hearts, lead in their skulls and darkness in their souls.

15 thoughts on “Gotcha Nation

  1. “I am less concerned about the lunch incident than about the rapidly increasing tendency on both sides of the ideological divide to declare every silly comment, every mistake, every example of bureaucratic stupidity or poor choice of words as proof positive that Republicans, Democrats, progressives, liberals, conservatives or libertarians have malice in their hearts, lead in their skulls and darkness in their souls.”

    Jack, you forgot Occupy.

    And check this out… tomorrow, Occupy Las Cruces will hold its very first mic check thanking the citizens and city of Las Cruces for their support these past three months. (I was tasked with writing the script because it was my idea to have a mic check, so, after viewing a bunch of them online and seeing how negative/protesty they were, I decided to go the other direction because we’ve been treated quite well by most folks. We’re going to film it and maybe I can share it here. This may be the kindest mic check ever made… I’m hoping national media picks it up. You can read the script here… http://fattymoon.posterous.com/join-us-saturday-at-1130-at-the-las-cruces-do)

  2. Your personal story reminded me of the chain of pancake+coffee shops, decades ago, that changed its name from Sambo’s (taken, I believe, from a long-censored children’s story which I do remember having read to me, and later read on my own, as a young boy), to something more politically correct (maybe, Honey’s? That could be misconstrued in some ugly ways, too, I believe, yet I know my imagination is not especially fertile). I sure am glad that in your youth, in that teacher’s refusal to call you Jack, similar anti-Sambo pressures did not exist and manifest themselves in microcosms of pathological pettiness, like we are seeing today and as you have pointed out in this Gotcha post. I don’t think anyone would have enjoyed drive-thru ordering at a John-In-The-Box fast food restaurant – and I doubt such a chain would ever have made a sale, let alone turned a profit. But bring-your-own-toilet-seat establishments might be on to something…

  3. I didn’t jump to the conclusion that this was some grand plot about school lunches. It did confirm my belief that there a desire by schools and the government to regulate every bit of our lives. The explanation given by the school is garbage. There is no way this was a ‘misunderstanding’ by the teacher. No teacher would just think they were supposed to be deciding which kids had ‘acceptable’ and which had ‘unacceptable’ lunches unless they were told to do so. They have decided that they now get to dictate what we feed our kids. Now, maybe the teacher was just supposed to give the kid a carton of milk instead of taking away their lunch and giving them three chicken nuggets, but that does seem like an odd mistake to make.

    As for Santorum’s campaign contributor, I laughed as I saw the ‘reporter’s’ face. She should get an academy award for overacting with her ‘shock’ and ‘horror’. I can’t wait until reporters cover a genetics conference and someone tells this old joke: “Q; Why can’t you mate a fruit fly and a mountain climber? A: Because you can’t cross a vector and a scalar”. I would expect the next day’s headlines to read:

    From MSNBC:
    “World Famous Geneticist Claims Mountain Climbers have Small Genitals”
    Mountain climbers’ association demands apology, resignation

    From the NY Times:
    “Geneticists Reveal They Are Working on Human-Fly Hybrid”
    Leading genetic ethicists and sci-fi buffs are horrified. “Didn’t the see THE Fly!, look what happened then!” Undisclosed sources hint at military applications of such resulting super soldiers.

    From The Onion:
    “Interview with our new, Fly-Human Overlords”
    BZZZZ, BZZZZZZZ, BZZ ZZZZZ ZZeZZZ!

    From CNN:
    “Republican Senator Objects to Onion Inteview with Fly-Human Overlords”
    “Congress should be allowed to have an audience with our new benevolent dictators. We need to make sure the United States can negotiate directly with our new rulers, instead of having to go through the UN”, demands Sen. Clueless.

    • I think the school was saying that there was nothing wrong with the lunch. I have no problem with a program, as this school seemed to have, that would supply a nutritious lunch to poor kids who were sent to school with 1) nothing or 2) crap. The problem is that even good programs will result in absurdities without good judgment from the people running it. Everyone agrees that the lunch in question met all guidelines (the cheese covered dairy—there didn’t need to be milk), and the mother knew what her child would eat—the 3 nuggets result wasn’t because that was all the kid was given, but that it was all she would eat. You can lead a child to broccoli….

      If there’s an anti-government message, it’s the slippery slope. But I think the school was right to throw the teacher under the school bus. If the kid’s mother had sent he in with jelly beans, a soda and pork rinds, I kind of think it wouldn’t have been a scandal if the lunch was rejected.

      • I heartily agree, Jack: the dairy guidelines was covered. So I’m thoroughly confused as to why, after all the outcry, the assistant superintendent still thinks the teacher would have been right to modify the meal.

        • That is why I don’t buy the school’s story. There was nothing wrong with the meal, but the teacher went nuclear on it anyway. If the meal met all the criteria, why did the teacher remove the whole meal? If “she didn’t notice the slice of cheese” elicits this kind of response, what kind of program is it? The school still insists that there needed to be an adjustment to the meal despite the fact that it met all the criteria. This just seems like the schools that have banned all outside food and insist that all the kids eat their ‘healthy’ cafeteria food. The result has been more hungry and malnourished kids than before (because no one wants to eat what the school fixes). All schools participate in the school lunch program that provides free and reduced lunch to low-income children. In my area 108% of the children qualify (it is scaled by income). All children who would be sent to school without food qualify for free lunch (if my wife did’t work, my kids would qualify). In short, there is little to no need for such a program. I have a well-worn BS meter I use on school administrator statements. If they can’t (won’t) explain what happened in a way that makes sense, they are lying. It doesn’t work all the time, but it passes the 95.5% CL test.

          Teachers shouldn’t be social workers. They need to concentrate on teaching. If you want social workers to monitor everyone’s children, have social workers go into every home with children for unannounced inspections twice/year and take appropriate actions when problems are found. If the thought of that makes you uneasy, why is it better when untrained and unqualified teachers do it?

  4. Living in New Zealand, regrettably for only a short sojourn, I and my fellow Kiwis can look at this kind of stupidity and moronic descent in the USA and view it as occasional entertainment. How glad I am to see the weekly Wednesday evening public TV show where MPs (members of Parliament) are “grilled” by an informed, gracious and minimally front-biased media in the local bar in Wellington, and actually have to act like they are the people’s representatives, and explain themselves and respond to sometimes embarrassing inquiries from the general public. Amazing! What a concept!

  5. Well, they might as well be warned…. any teacher feeding my grandson chicken nuggets is going to get a smack in the head from me…. even if my son sends a jelly bean lunch. Schools are notorious for not understanding nutrition. Ketchup is not a vegetable anymore than vinegar is a whole grain. This is yet another reason why I love a good school garden program.

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