Monday, November 13, 2006

Penn or Sword?

"The costume is clearly offensive and I was offended by it. As soon as I realized what his costume was, I refused to take any more pictures with him, as he requested. The student had the right to wear the costume, just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it." Penn president Amy Gutman

In all the brouhaha over the political incorrectness of the Picture Shown Round the World, one irony seems to have been overlooked: the picture itself reflects the universal theme at the heart of the controversy -- Good versus Evil.

Penn's president Amy Gutman must have missed it too or she'd have used it as an object lesson for her students instead of trying to distance herself from the PR ramifications of appearing to ratify terrorism. As if. At a college Halloween party of all places.

Yes, the picture shows Gutman standing next to a student who's dressed as a terrorist. But Gutman's choice of costume--Glinda the Good Witch--has its own context. The Wizard of Oz is a classic movie about power. The struggle between Good and Evil. And how Good--in the person of Glinda--cannot triumph over Evil alone.

Who comes to the rescue in the story? A troubled teenager. With an overwrought imagination. A skewed sense of priorities. A fear of the unknown competing with an itch to explore the limits of her world and beyond. And ultimately, the ability to choose the right path.

The movie underscores how appearances can deceive. It highlights the repercussions of prejudice and the stupidity of judging a book by its cover. Sends a clear message about the consequences of taking yourself too seriously. More, about the horrendous danger of believing in--and blindly following--an angry, arbitrary higher power.

It's the ultimate Us vs Them story. And in the end, it highlights the importance of having brains, heart, courage and someplace to call home.

That's not a bad metaphor for the conflict in the Middle East. Or the current ambivalence dividing America on the choice between defending ourselves and protecting our freedoms. Gutman could have said all that and more in a proactive effort to educate her institution and the community. Instead, she played self-serving political defense.

In our supposedly free country, everybody--especially kids on Halloween--can dress as they want, no matter how it incites or who it offends. Which, after all, is pretty much what adolescents are programmed to do. Halloween historically has allowed children to become the bogie man in order to help defuse their fear of him.

These days kids, especially bright Ivy Leaguers, are under enormous pressure. Far from oblivious like little Dorothy of the real peril waiting in the big bad world, they know it much too well. And they know too how badly our leaders have let them down.

So they need a way to minimize, to trivialize the source of their fear. Do they sometimes go overboard? Of course. And while they think they're being clever and mocking, we adults should know they're just whistling in the dark.

As far as I'm concerned, the most level-headed response came not from Penn elders or the legions of outraged pundits and bloggers and parents. It came from the source of the so-called outrage -- the students themselves. Just like Dorothy, they found the truth on their own.

Here's what they said:

My friend, Jason, and I express our condolences and sympathy to all offended by our costumes. We wish to make it clear that we do not support terrorism, violence, or anything that is against society. There is no agenda or statement associated with our behavior shown in these pictures. The costumes are meant to portray scary characters much like many other costumes on Halloween. Additionally, we strive for all societies to instill healthy and non-violent values." Penn student Saad Saadi
If Amy Gutman had seized the opportunity to defend her students with half as much grace, reason and sincerity instead of scrambling to cover her own ass, they all might have learned a valuable lesson.

What they learned, I'm afraid, is that they have more to fear from those who would claim to teach and protect them.

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