As the lore goes, she was told about the plight of the French people who were suffering during a famine. And upon learning that there was a shortage of bread, a staple of the diet, she said, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. And since that day, the term “let them eat cake” has been a symbol of the callousness or obliviousness of the wealthy elite.
Actually, she probably never said it. A story written when she was a child (living in Austria) was combined with anti-royalist sentiments and, as is often the case in politics, actual truth was far less interesting than a story too good not to repeat. The real Marie was less villainous than the cartoon characterization and was reportedly concerned about the plight of the people and generous with charity. Had she also not been even more generous with herself while France was in financial disarray (or had royalists quelled the revolution) history would be kinder.
But whichever noblewoman (real or fictional) uttered the phrase, they don’t deserve to be the symbol of callousness.
The response reflects on a character so self-absorbed that it isn’t aware of the plight of others and so oblivious of the lives outside their experience that they make absurd assumptions. But at least she offered a solution. An ignorant foolish solution perhaps, but one that hints that she cared at least some little bit about their plight.
Which is more than I can say about some today in the anti-gay movement.
I don’t think we need to reiterate here that there is an epidemic of bullying in schools across the nation. At this point, it is not speculative or alleged or partisan. On this, voices as diverse as Lady Gaga and Mike Huckabee can agree.
And it is simply irrefutable that gay students are more likely to be a target than are most students. And after several kids who identified as gay (or were assumed to be) took their own lives, our community coalesced around a serious effort to reduce the terrorism that gay kids experience. One of the efforts implemented is to encourage schools to establish anti-bullying programs that specifically address anti-gay bullying. And related to that is an annual Day of Silence to bring attention to the problem and the encourage students and staff to take this problem seriously.
But solutions are not easy or obvious. Even schools that have implemented anti-bullying programs still experience levels of bullying that would have been considered unacceptable a decade ago. And people of good intention may differ on the response.
Some religious conservatives also have been worried that in their advocacy for gay kids, schools might not fully consider the consequences of some messages. Many people of faith have restrictions on sexual behavior as part of their moral code and teach their children certain rules about sex outside of marriage. Sometimes those outside the faith do not understand the nuance of such teachings. And should a public school misrepresented such teachings or declared them “harmful” and those who followed such rules as “bigots”, it could make targets out of religious kids.
Replacing gay kids as a target for scorn and humiliation with Christian kids doesn’t solve the problem, and it is valid to raise that point. And, indeed, some school districts listened to those views and were able to bring in gay people and pastors and people of diverse communities to make sure that the programs addressed everyone’s concerns and were supported by the full community. This is an area about which there should be no disagreement and, when all parties want to work together consensus is possible.
Alternately, some chose to respond directly by participating in a Golden Rule Pledge. Rather than discuss the possible implications, they sought to offset any possible negative views of Christian kids by visibly breaking the association with bigotry. By having religious kids say, “Yes, we agree, no one should be bullied and we promise to stand with you and protect you”, Christian kids could oppose the harm without having to defend their own values.
But there were those among conservative Christianity who had a less generous response. For example, Dr. Michael Brown writes today about the Day of Silence in a way that makes it clear that kids bullied to death are the least of his concerns.
Brown sets the tone by starting with dishonesty:
On April 20th, in thousands of schools across America, your hard-earned tax dollars will help underwrite the homosexual indoctrination of your kids.
Setting aside the absurd notion that protecting children from bullying is the same as “homosexual indoctrination of your kids”, the Day of Silence is not funded by tax dollars. It doesn’t really cost much of anything for students to be silent for the day and the direct costs of posters and other publicity are not paid by the schools. I suppose that one could argue that anything that occurs on a school grounds is “underwritten” by “your hard-earned tax dollars”, but by that logic it would be much more truthful to say, “your hard-earned tax dollars help underwrite the abuse of gay kids today”.
Dr. Brown is a careful writer. He usually avoids sentences or short passages that can be extracted from his writing to illustrate his animosity. He doesn’t use words like “pervert” or “abomination”. He works with innuendo and insinuation and plays on the existing biases of his target audience. Consider:
But don’t some schools already have generic, anti-bullying programs in place along with special, daylong events to highlight the destructive effects of bullying, a subject that should concern all of us? Of course they do, but that’s not enough. GLSEN insists that a special focus must be put on LGBT kids, as if bullying a gay kid was worse than bullying a fat kid.
It’s clever. In one sentence absent of any slurs he manages to insinuate that gay people are demanding special consideration, that any attention given to gay bullying takes away from other targets of bullying, and that gay activists are unfairly demanding resources that aren’t needed.
Of course, that isn’t close to true. As the epidemic of bullying illustrates, most schools have, at best, a perfunctory anti-bullying program (that isn’t implemented with seriousness) coupled with a devoted commitment to denial. The movie Bully provides an illustration of a child being tormented daily on a school bus while administrators assured the documentarian that the other children were “good as gold”.
And as any gay kid – and most fat kids – will tell you, bullying of gay kids really is worse. Fat kids have families to turn to while gay kids often do not have that option. And on most campuses there is an agreement that calling a fat kid names is “a bad thing to do” while many children attending churches of which Dr. Brown would approve do not share the belief that saying “you’re an abomination and going to hell” to gay kids is “a bad thing to do”.
But that isn’t really the most telling point about that paragraph. I’ll come back to that.
He goes on with artificial concern about ex-gays being excluded from the Day of Silence (as though there has ever been a single kid to identify as ex-gay who was in any way excluded from this student organized event). He rants about a nameless black teacher who “did not approve of equating gay activism with the civil rights movement.” He makes the usual intentionally dishonest false equation in which the balance to “don’t bully gay kids” is “a religious or moral objection to homosexuality”.
But all of that is just filler and fluff; it’s what he didn’t say that is worth noting. At no point in his 869 word essay did Dr. Brown ever express the slightest concern about the plight of tormented gay kids or provide any alternate solution. His position – that which is opposite of GLSEN’s position, can be seen in the paragraph we noted above.
Of course they do, but that’s not enough.
Dr. Brown and GLSEN are both aware of the high rate of gay teen suicides. Dr. Brown and GLSEN are well aware that openly gay teens – and even those suspected of being gay – are tormented at rates far higher than any demographic. Including the “fat kid” demographic. GLSEN believes that the current status is “not enough” and Dr. Brown disagrees.
Now Dr. Brown would never use the words. He would never say them out loud. And he’ll likely send me an email telling me that I’m misrepresenting his position and putting words in his mouth. But the message is clear.
When told that due to the famine the peasants had no bread, Marie Antoinette’s solution was, “let them eat cake”. When told that gay students are being bullied to the point that they kill themselves, Dr. Michael Brown’s answer is, “let them die.”
Marie Antoinette got a bad rap.