Tuesday, October 27, 2020

#301 / Boys State? Maybe Not So Great!

Boys State is a project of The American Legion that is supposed to help high school juniors explore and understand the mechanics of American government and politics. There is a "Girls State," too, by the way.

"Boys State," the movie, is a documentary that provides some insight into what the real "Boys State" phenomenon is all about. I haven't seen the movie, available on Apple TV, but  I have read about it. Clicking this link will take you to a review by Odie Henderson, who gives the movie three and a half stars. Clicking right here will take you to a column in The New York Times, authored by RenĂ© Otero. Otero is front and center in the picture above, and he is one of the persons who is featured in the documentary. Otero identifies himself as "an activist" in his Times' essay, and the headline on his column is this: "I attended Boys State, and Survived."

Those who are reading this blog posting might well run into a paywall, if they attempt to read Otero's essay online. Here are a few samples of what he has to say:

  • What I learned is that the electoral process makes people complacent. It is not intended to accommodate those of us who are Black, or brown, or queer. To effectively represent my identities and communities is to be labeled “radical” and unelectable.
  • I learned that a lot of my fellow Boys Staters were great politicians — but I don’t necessarily consider that a compliment. The program engenders a culture of stringent competition, chest-thumping and underhanded tactics. We were teenage boys whose only understanding of government was what we had seen adults doing. We were all participating in theater.
  • In the premiere episode of “The Michelle Obama Podcast” last month, Barack Obama said of my generation that we “take for granted all the things that a working government has done in the past. The danger for this generation is that they become too deeply cynical [about] government.” ... But I embrace the cynicism, because with it comes brutal honesty.
  • Boys State immersed me in a culture that refuses to criticize America, confusing praise with patriotism while ignoring the fact that with love comes accountability. I believe that to love America is to be as cynical about our political system as necessary until real change is made, because faith in what worked in the past won’t get us through.
  • I learned a lot from my time in the youth civics program — namely that I don’t want to commit my life to electoral politics. 
Otero's main critique of Boys State is that it is, essentially, a high school level copy of our current electoral politics - and that these politics are racist, prejudiced, polarized, and disgusting. He says that the Boys State experience did succeed in making him want to build civic engagement into his life, but that he will do so outside the realm of electoral politics. Citing to Michelle Obama's speech at the most recent Democratic National Convention, Otero justifies his rejection of electoral politics as follows: 

In her address at the Democratic National Convention this month, [Ms. Obama] echoed this sentiment: “You know that I hate politics, but you also know that I care about this nation.” She noted that “going high” and playing the game do not mean you can’t critique the system. This is where we align. Through my brand of civic engagement — marching in the streets, research, advocacy, education — I am marrying my cynicism with action.

I believe that Otero's evaluation of electoral politics is commonly shared - and for good reason. Our party-based and polarized system of electoral politics is profoundly off-putting, because it is so fundamentally flawed. To the extent that Boys State and Girls State hope to inspire young people to enlist in the current system, they do the nation a disservice. If that's the idea, then "Boys State" is not so great.

"Civic engagement," though, which means enlisting with others to change the conditions of our lives for the better, should never be treated as if it were the result only of electoral politics. That is what René Otero tells us in his New York Times' essay. The opposite is the case. As we engage in direct struggles for political, social, and economic change - what Otero calls "action" - we will ultimately and inevitably transform our electoral politics to achieve the changes that the people demand. But focus on the changes, not on electoral politics.

I think Otero is dead on right about that!

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1 comment:

  1. I was an alternate in the Nebraska Boy's State when I was a Junior in High School, 1965. My experience was quite different.

    Yes, the first part was about getting elected at the high school level. We campaigned, lobbied our fellow students, spoke to the student body as a group, made posters, handed out cards and all the rest. Then the student body voted. All very normal. Not racist, prejudiced, polarized, or disgusting (our minority candidates were Lakota, one of whom was elected). We rode the bus to Lincoln, where we formed the Boy's State Legislature, and learned from the real legislatures about state decision making in action.

    I guess things have changed over the decades. Who'd a thunk it? But is it we who have changed, or is it Boy's and Girl's State that has changed?


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