Editor’s note: This commentary is by Deborah Bucknam, a St. Johnsbury-based attorney and the vice chair of the Vermont Republican Party.
Two weeks ago, all the members of the Mt. Ascutney School District Board publicly humiliated and punished Windsor School Principal Tiffany Riley for exercising her first amendment rights and her rights under Article 13 of the Vermont Constitution. The school board’s statements made their reasoning clear: They claimed to understand the “struggles of people of color,” and their principal did not. The board stated: “The ignorance, prejudice, and lack of judgement in these statements are utterly contrary to the values we espouse as a school board and district.”
The school board’s actions and their rationale are evidence of a slide toward totalitarianism that should alarm every American. In an utterly patronizing — and one should say, racist — statement, white school board members in the whitest state in the union claim to understand how tens of millions of black Americans think and feel as one solid, unbroken “race” about a political message from a controversial group, Black Lives Matter, which espouses anti-police and anti-family policies. The board decided that they knew what offends every black American, because they concluded that every single black American thinks exactly alike.
The Mt. Ascutney School District Board could come to this extraordinary decision, without shame, in blatant violation of Tiffany Riley’s fundamental constitutional rights because they have been immersed in a dangerous philosophy that is permeating our culture: group guilt and group innocence, the foundational principles of a totalitarian society.
According to totalitarian orthodoxy, individuals, with their unique stories and backgrounds, have no intrinsic value. They are only valued as members of a group. Moreover, totalitarians decide not only what group individuals belong to, but also whether that group is guilty or innocent.
To the Jacobins of revolutionary France, the guilty were members of the clergy, the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and ultimately, anyone who questioned the Jacobins’ revolutionary fervor. Jacobins tore down statutes, defaced monuments, and even renamed Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral as the Temple of Reason, in an campaign to wipe out history and obliterate anything connected to the guilty group. They humiliated and silenced opponents, and ultimately terrorized and murdered members of the guilty group, which, as in all totalitarian societies, continued to expand until the guilty ultimately included their own members.
For the Nazis, the guilty were a “race” — the Jews. Jews were guilty of the sins of their ancestors. There was nothing Jews could ever do individually to atone for those sins. Aryans, on the other hand, were the innocent victims of historic Jewish perfidy. Aryans could smash Jewish businesses, kick Jewish women and children down in the streets, and ultimately torture and kill Jews because Aryans were absolved of any individual responsibility as members of an innocent victims group.
Chinese society has had a centuries long tradition of reverence for teachers and learning. However, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, educators were declared to be members of a guilty group. As if on cue in a matter of months, school children humiliated their teachers and principals, requiring them to wear dunce caps, signs around their necks, to kneel in front of the students, crawl on the ground, eat dirt, and to recite “I am a poisonous snake.” In some schools, classrooms were made into jails for teachers, and many teachers were ultimately beaten to death by their students.
Today in America and in Vermont this same premise is desecrating our fundamental rights. White Americans are guilty of white privilege, no matter their background, their ancestry or their personal moral character. Black Americans as a group are innocent victims of white privilege. The individual character of black Americans has no value. We are guilty or innocent on the basis of blood and birth.
Assigning each individual American to a group, and dictating what those group members think and feel is dehumanizing and ultimately, totalitarian. A Vermont lawyer posted a telling comment on Facebook in response to my comments about the violation of Tiffany Riley’s First Amendment rights. She commented about me: “We know what she is.” The message? We are no longer thinking, feeling human beings; we are things — marionettes mouthing words and phrases conforming to edicts of our own group. Black Americans are subject to this same dehumanization.
Do you think that the Vermont lawyer’s words are outliers? Do you think America could never devolve into Jacobin France or the horrors of Nazism or the Cultural Revolution? Think again. France, Germany, and China are some of most civilized countries in the world, with cultural histories far longer and richer than ours. Liberal intellectuals in France, Germany and China never thought such terror would reach their country — until it happened.
How does it happen? Because no one speaks up, perhaps out of fear of being seen as supporting the guilty.
In Vermont, organizations like the ACLU, the Vermont Bar Association, the Agency of Education, the Vermont Medical Society, Vermont Business Roundtable, the Vermont Trooper’s Association, and dozens of state and local leaders from Sen. Leahy to Gov. Scott, to local school boards, issued statements condemning the murder of George Floyd and the group guilt of “systemic racism” behind the atrocity. Not one of these organizations has issued a statement on the unprecedented assault on the First Amendment by the Mt. Ascutney school board. Tiffany Riley’s loss of her career, and her public humiliation as a result of the board’s violation of her right to free speech, is of apparently no moment.
Thugs are tearing down statutes of Ulysses Grant and George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt. They are defacing monuments to Lincoln, black Civil War soldiers and American soldiers, black and white, who liberated Europe. They are humiliating and silencing members of the black community and others who dare question the catechism of Black Lives Matter. The silence in the face of these assaults on our heritage and our fundamental rights is deafening.
It is time to speak up before it is too late.