Reflections on a Civics Curriculum – New Jersey Style

Norcross, Sweeney and Christie.

The image of half naked guys in minotaur headdresses desecrating the United States Capitol produced the doubly disturbing effect of making the politicians of New Jersey – especially those scandalized members of the Democratic Party and their establishment GOP functionaries – look remarkably civilized by comparison.

It’s the kind of ghastly dichotomy that makes the impending retirement of someone like Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) more acutely painful.

An old school brawler at heart who nonetheless has real policy chops and idealism to go along with the pragmaticism, Weinberg had to routinely dumb herself down to squeeze into the male-dominated pigpen of New Jersey politics, where civics might just as well be the equivalent of power, and power another word for some static, wretched, hermaphroditic homunculus occupying a rung on the stepstool of a miniaturized Genghis Khan.

Weinberg, after all, had to play second banana to a Goldman Sachs multimillionaire basking at the top of the 2009 gubernatorial ticket, or to those bossed sentinels of senate power with no education, while catching hell occasionally from progressives and do-gooders who writhed every time a camera caught their hero in the same shot as one of those less than distinguished “political power players.”

Whatever her comfort zone in the end, there was still always a disconnect or a social and intellectual gap, just as there was between the late Steve Adubato – whose passion for education equaled his love of politics – and the other bosses who seemed more intrigued by the prospect of playing with human Play-Doh than with Plato.

This week, a bill backed by veteran state Senator Shirley Turner (D-15) from Lawrenceville made it through the Senate Budget Committee with bipartisan support. Envisioned as a way of engaging young people who frequently look disengaged from the political process, the bill authorizes the creation of a middle school civics curriculum to prepare future voters, decisionmakers and community members. A Capitol stampeded on Jan. 6th by Clockwork Orange extras swaddled in red, white and blue, programmed by infantile tweets from an illiterate TV celebrity turned national whiner-in-chief reinforced the senator’s argument with a vengeance. But a conversation about the bill prompted some InsiderNJ reflection on similarly urgent – and less immediately obvious, if more immediate- civic dislocation. Notwithstanding the examples of Weinberg and Turner, who over the years have both shown a substantial amount of independence and actual dedication to real people, and to the finer processes of civilized representative government, the machine politicians of this beleaguered state do not exactly radiate a sense of civic virtue.

Indeed, the very invocation of “civic virtue” in the same sentence as “New Jersey politics” prompts – at the very least – an inner howl of tremendous agonizing irony.

That’s why it’s a damn good thing that educators – not lawmakers – write that curriculum in Senator Turner’s bill.

Now granted, in this state, an unwitting student might well look up at the front of a classroom and see the installed surrogate of a corroded machine in the esteemed position of “professor.” So one must always be on guard for utter institutional usurpation, and yet, we suspect – at the moment – the presence at Rutgers-New Brunswick of enough legitimate intellectual heavyweights to legitimize the coursework.

Certainly, it’s not hard to picture what that course would look like if our present political “class” got its grubby and soft hands on the curriculum.

How a bill becomes a law?

You make damn sure you take that phone call when the boss rings.

You also make sure you put the needs of the people first, like tax incentives for a helicopter pad for the boss who called you and not supermarkets in urban food deserts for mothers who need to feed their children. Make sure, too, the person who signs the bill will actually be able to personally benefit once he leaves office.

Make sure you bring in plenty of stooges from the very corporations seeking incentives to roam the halls between the two houses of the legislature to hand laminated folders on the public benefits of the bill to those scraggly diminished forces otherwise known as the free press.

Anything in the public interest should also be ramrodded at Christmas time, and on Friday, so the public doesn’t see what the legislature does for them in their best interest.

And in the name of making the poor slobs out there who pay taxes and get very little to nothing in return, throw the word “folks” around copiously, and sprinkle the bills you ram through with the word “diversity” to remind “folks” that you look out for everybody.  Also, be sure to throw the name “Martin Luther King, Jr.” around as much as you can, even if you haven’t the foggiest idea off what he actually stood for; he wanted peace, didn’t he, on planet earth.

It also helps to bring in the latest big moneymaker from Wall Street to run the state instead of actually expecting party organizations to do the hard work of recruiting people from their own ranks, otherwise the people who run those organizations might have to actually justify their existence and work. Come to think of it, make sure the personal benefits of sitting in legislative chairs of power for decades outweighs the potential benefits of moving up to occupy a position like governor. We wouldn’t want to confound those particular qualities one associates with a public leader with someone as privately plugged-in as a legislator.

Civics.

New Jersey-style.

Let’s see.

If you have to publicly criticize an impeached president, make sure you get him to help your constituents in the process, or at least, help he who hurt your constituents.

If a colleague has a differing point of view on the floor of the state senate, transmogrify into a harpy-with-its-hair-on-fire in response, especially if that opponent happens to have honorably served his country in the military.

Be sure to be as unfit as possible to transmit the important notion that lack of fitness signifies power for its own sake. Only people who actually do things care about physical fitness – and that would be an awful and confusing message to send to “folks”.

One more thing.

Don’t read.

If you read, it will merely clutter a mind that needs to be attentive at all times to the boss hovering near the telephone, who might sense an off-the-reservation proclivity in the mention of a book or – worse – an idea. Indeed, a politician in this state published – of all things – a book once in which he advised his fellow politicians on proper public etiquette and made sure to note that they should never, under any circumstances, ask people if they have read a book.

Someone might be offended.

It might help, however, to occasionally sift through a Puss in Boots or Emperor Nero coloring book to get a better read on the habituations of the particular political boss one serves in New Jersey.

Those might be some of the contributions of our our sitting politicians to a civics curriculum designed to improve the awareness of middle school students; or at least to improve those students’ awareness of the utter and exasperating gulf between civics and NJ politics as prioritized by the state’s political machines.

Better yet, come to think of it, while there’s still time, maybe those machine politicians in Trenton should augment the legislation to require sitting lawmakers, in other words themselves, to take that civics course. They couldn’t possibly pass it, most of them, though they might appear more sedate at their desks than the confederate forces laying siege to the Capitol on Jan. 6th.

Turner would pass it, of course, and so would Weinberg.

But if they did take it and finally pass, some of the rest of them might just learn something to pass along – instead of incessantly, gluttonously taking – to those future generations we hope to arm with the finer lessons of our civilization.

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  • Kathleen Demarest

    ………………………..DISILLUSIONED!!
    Was a big fan of Pasta and Politics with dear Nick Acocella.
    The legislators he interviewed always seemed quite accomplished
    at chopping and dicing, also seemed pleasant and cheerful.
    Most impressive, he or she always wanted to help their constituents
    in any way possible. They were at the ready! I even thought, perhaps
    mistakenly, I would be gladly and happily helped and supported even
    if I did not live in their legislative district.

    THERE I WAS happily and confidently living in North Jersey, cheerfully
    paying my taxes, capped at ten thousand federal tax………………………..
    BECAUSE I thought I had a vast army of legislators willing to help me
    if I had a problem in my senior years. I even had visions of Steve Sweeney
    zipping up the parkway to assist me.

    …AFTER READING THIS INFORMATIVE COLUMN, I AM NOT SO SURE!

    PS… Max P., I will take up knitting and read a book, no need to worry about me.

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