Puff and Puffery

Puff and Puffery


Jay B. Gaskill

At recent graduation ceremonies at San Francisco State University, the commencement address was delivered by Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame.

Peter Yarrow was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts on the occasion and mostly sung his address, accompanying himself on his guitar. He introduced a new song, about not laughing at me, reprised “Puff the Magic Dragon”, and recalled some of his other hits.

In the spoken portions of his remarks, Yarrow described the supporting role his music had played during the great civil rights struggles and anti-Vietnam war protests of the 60’s.

Then he turned to Operation Respect, his latest passion, aimed at creating ridicule free zones in schools. Yarrow’s anti-ridicule effort is supposed to bring about an increased level of mutual civility and respect among the little barbarians whose aggression and insensitivity can make the school experience a hell on earth–especially for the unconventional kids who actually want to have an educational experience.

The goal is a good one, but Yarrow’s ridicule ban is silly, unenforceable and misses the mark.

Here’s a really radical proposal: Let’s get tough and actually provide safe and supporting classroom environments, undisrupted by delinquent and pre-delinquent little monsters. Schoolyard verbal behavior is one thing but in-classroom behavior is quite another. How about old fashioned respect for the teacher?

Instead, we are expected to sing together. “Don’t laugh at me” (song by Allen Shamblin and Steve Seskin), as performed that day, was a very, very extensive list of the putative PC Victim categories. You know the usual suspects, all of whom are presumably happy to be included on the list of social victims-to-be-especially-respected. Ironically, the song’s list included the “very poor” and the very rich. Inclusion of the second category was unintentionally comic. As a charitable fund-raiser, I’m sure Mr. Yarrow may have learned the fund raiser’s lesson number one: Do not insult the very rich.

But the largest and most virtuous group of all was not mentioned in the “don’t laugh” litany. The struggling, working, productive men and women, neither “very poor” nor “very rich” didn’t even receive honorable mention. Yet it is these very working people whose efforts sustain a civilization capable of defending gentle creative souls like Peter Yarrow.

Over the years, I have heard some of my liberal acquaintances ridicule such working men and women. Apparently the PC notion of “ridicule free zones” has “class” boundaries.

So many thoughts competed for my attention during Mr. Yarrow’s commencement performance, among them:

(1) Principled, individuated acts of kindness-tempered justice (not victim-driven politics) answer the legitimate concerns of every putative victim on the “don’t laugh” list.

(2) Sweet songs (of any length) may inspire the predisposed but they will never tame the predators.

(3) The “random acts of kindness” messages like those of Mr. Yarrow are of great value, until they are unthinkingly applied to the real world of policy. In the real world, we confront the need for the time honored rule-consequences model. Predators need to be exposed to consequences. Teachers and students need a secure educational environment above all. In the real world, this requires the ability to actually punish those who disrupt the classroom.

(4) The primary obligation of society is to actually protect its peaceful and honest members from aggression. Recalling a brave childhood retort from my neighborhood, (“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me!”), I wondered about the sanity of a society bent on protecting some from insult while so dismally failing in protecting so many more from “sticks and stones.”

The graduating students stared at this outpouring of 60’s sweetness and light, watching in amusement as a stage full of graying academics joined in singing “Puff the Magic Dragon”, peering over their reading glasses and reminiscing about what they themselves may have been puffing at the time. The graduates blew bubbles and tossed a large beach ball back and forth, until every so gently admonished by their Commencement Singer.

Western civilization will not be saved by the naïve sentimentalism of folk singers. The task of actually preserving sanctuaries of safety for children calls for more consequences for the disruptive ones and less “Puff”.

Once again, we confront of the utter irrelevance of the PC mindset to the real world.

Copyright ©2003 by Jay B. Gaskill.

For permission to reprint, contact the author by e mail: office@jaygaskill.com.

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