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A Sinecure for Your Thoughts

by James Lileks

In the future, I would like to see every sentence that begins “The public official declined comment” end with the following words: “and was promptly terminated under the Mandatory Comment Act of 2013.”

The spur for this idea came from a Wall Street Journal article on an innocuous subject: An Iowa museum had removed a puppet from the lobby. Not just any puppet: Floppy, a mascot from an old children’s TV show that entertained corn-fed tots in the days before cable. Every town had one. Some fellow in a costume with an avuncular name would amble out, tell tales, talk to a jabbering piece of cloth with googly eyes, then run a cartoon. The show’s gone but the puppet was enshrined in the museum, delighting aging boomers for whom it was an object of veneration, like seeing Captain Kangaroo’s Mr. Bunny Rabbit.

The museum moved it out. The puppet was replaced with “antique bicycles from an exhibit about Iowa’s cycling history,” which sounds great! because it’s green and sustainable, and will no doubt set the stage for an exhibit about the struggle of 19th-century transgendered cyclists to choose a boy’s or girl’s bike regardless of biological identity.

The WSJ asked the executive director of Iowa’s Department of Cultural Affairs for a comment: “Ms. Cownie declined an interview request. The museum declined a request to examine Floppy and the other puppets.”

That’s what set me off. Unless the puppet is a material witness in an ongoing sexual-harassment investigation prompted by reports that it flew out of its case and pressed its musty, mite-infested felt against unwilling victims, let the paper see the puppet — and if you’re paid by the state to manage Cultural Affairs, talk to the press, for heaven’s sake.

How hard can it be? You could lie: “Oh, Floppy’s just being restored by a team of puppet historians. We look forward to bringing him back better than ever!” And then replace the bikes with an exhibition of Buddy Holly plane-wreck fragments gleaned from the Iowa field where he died, put out a press release that has a picture of black glasses with the lens shattered, and people will unclench. It might not be Floppy, but at least it’s Iowa.

Or, speak frankly: “You know, we’d planned to put Floppy in storage, because it’s embarrassing when you’re at a convention of museum people and everyone’s talking about what they have in the lobby — a Roman bust, a Hopi rug, a Sumerian phallus amulet — and you’re thinking, ‘I have a sad dog head that’s like the Shroud of Turin for boomers.’ But the outcry has really made me rethink my elitist preconceptions and reconnect with the essential nature of Iowa culture.”

But no. Hence my proposal for the Mandatory Comment Act: Public officials may not turn down interviews. Tell me if you’ve seen this story in some variant in the last few years:

“The parents of five-year-old Dylan Czerobik say he was placed in handcuffs and put in the backseat of a police car for an hour after day-care officials said he bent a Barbie doll in half and pointed it at another student. ‘The teacher said he was using the doll as a gun,’ said Mrs. Czerobik, ‘but Barbie doesn’t conform to the profile of any known handgun ever made, and while I’ll admit he’s an imaginative boy, the idea of shooting high-velocity projectiles out of the tips of her toes is ridiculous.’

“The case mirrors another incident several states away, where an eleven-year-old was tased for wearing a shirt that said ‘NRA’ — in this case, a vintage graphic of the Depression-era National Recovery Administration — and a case in Montana where a middle-school boy was expelled for an online remark about ‘painting the school red,’ which his parents insist was a reference to his Scout troop volunteering to paint several classrooms for a merit badge in public service.

“Reached for comment, the school declined to speak to a reporter.”

Of course. Probably wise, since they’d have to admit that policy requires that any child who draws a picture of a soldier with a gun be treated as if he’d yanked a Luger from his lunch pail and shouted “COLUMBINE SATAN HITLER.” But under the Mandatory Comment Act, public employees would be free to speak their mind without fear of reprisal. Oh, you might get the rote gargle of bureaucratic lingo:

“We here at Sanger School strive for an inclusive, safe environment that includes a policy of zero tolerance and inclusiveness towards all diversity that moves us forward towards fostering a values-based, individually motivated structural change that respects and acknowledges our challenges, which is why we are encouraging reusable lunch trays that can be composted for a sustainable approach. Does that answer your question? No? Good day.”

This would help the public understand that administrators regard parents as idiots.

Or you might get an honest teacher.

“A kid pointing a Barbie Doll like a gun is a threat to the other students? Only little Milton over there, who’s so nervous he wets himself when the class hamster sneezes. Otherwise, c’mon. But hey, it’s policy to regard little boys as feral maniacs and replace their high spirits with a sense of shame, and that’ll work out so well they’ll be spending their teen years online shooting peers in the groin with rocket launchers.”

In the absence of comments, you’re free to draw your own conclusions. Infer guilt and shame all you want. Private citizens, of course, are exempt from the Mandatory Comment Act, but if you’ve rolled the public teat around in your mouth, one simple request.

Humor us.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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