CULTIVATING LIBERALISM
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ACLU Aftershocks
Bill of Rights Offenses

Unacceptable menu

After my ACLU talk Friday evening I was given a dark shirt imprinted with “My bill of rights” on the front and, on the back, that whole list of rights you see in the picture to the right. Back home that evening I gave the shirt to our daughter Sadie, who just turned thirteen. She wore it the next day. We had breakfast at Bob Evans. I was paying at the check-out counter when a woman — white, white-haired, squat, pinched, prosecutorial — approached Sadie and asked her why she was wearing that shirt, and whether she’d been arrested, or had had the sort of problems that would compel her to wear a shirt like that. “My husband was wondering,” is how she put it to us. We explained to her that it was just the Bill of Rights. “I know what the Bill of Rights is,” she said. “I just don’t understand why a pretty girl like you would be wearing a shirt like that, unless it said something like ‘I have a right to my cat’ or something.” Don’t you think it’s a good idea, I asked her, that children be taught the Bill of Rights? Her answer had all the hallmarks of the defensively dogmatic: “I’m so far right I might as well be falling of the street, and I can tell you’re liberal so we’re not going to get anywhere discussing this, especially in front of children.” “It is,” I replied with a sincere smile on my face, “with right-wingers that I prefer to have these discussions, and precisely in front of children. It teaches them something.” She only said again that there would be no point and walked back to her inquiring husband, who remained invisible throughout.

There seemed to be no point then to ask her why she didn’t feel she had reason to wear an identical shirt or distribute a pair to every one of her grandchildren (heaven help us all who those will grow up to be). We left the place, our heads shaking slightly, but not too much, over what had just happened: a woman, an American, plump enough to betray luxuries of age and habitual comforts, had been concerned enough that a thirteen year old was wearing a shirt displaying a list of constitutional rights to leave her table and accost us with her questions. I have no doubt that the ACLU logo got her and her husband going. Here were people who thought that a child wearing an ACLU shirt was somehow transgressing what a child ought to do.

Cheryl had no doubt that had Sadie been wearing the Ten Commandments, she’d have been molested with six approving catcalls and three marriage proposals on her way to the checkout counter, this being Central Florida where Baptist fundamentalism and Republican stupidity have a way of combusting into frequently vocal and visual lava bursts, as with our squat friend at Bob Evans. What pissed off Cheryl most of course was the implication that a pretty girl shouldn’t be messing around with matters of rights. Sadie was much too polite, as we’ve taught her to be, obviously too much so, and probably just as startled, to tell the woman what she thought. She loves the shirt. We’ll make sure she has more of these shirts to wear. And be less polite next time.


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