First you must chew on the meat of the column, because, in the only wise words ever to come from my generation, “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding” — pudding being what the English like to call dessert.
So here’s my beef: Americans are still a can-do people, but one traditional virtue has somehow been lost to them. What they can’t do any longer is make sensible distinctions.
Examples are everywhere, but they are particularly rife in areas where rules or laws have been enacted. We have all heard of schools enforcing zero-tolerance policies with a view to keeping weapons and drugs off campus.
This seems like a good idea, until the moment a little boy arrives at school for Arson Non-Appreciation Week (or some such) while dressed as a firefighter with a little plastic ax to complete his outfit. Or another little boy comes for America Is No. 1 Day with little toy soldiers stuck to his hat.
At that point, all heck breaks loose with cries of “Weapons! Weapons!” The frantic authorities then take irrational punitive actions, because the rules are the rules and zero tolerance pretty much means zero common sense as a practical matter.
These examples are not entirely fanciful but are written in the annals of shame kept by some of America’s great newspapers. (You could also look up my columns in there.) Now, the question is: Why does this happen? Why can’t Americans make sensible distinctions? Could it be that common sense is not so common after all? Or perhaps we live in such a sue-happy country that everything must be enacted in ironclad, one-size-fits-all language covering all contingencies, with the trivial lumped in with the serious.
Whatever the reason, recently the highest court in the land showed how far the rot has spread. (This is the part where the broccoli is served, so you can put down your steak knives for the moment — and, besides, I have a strict zero-tolerance policy on armed readers.) Broccoli was mentioned in the recent Supreme Court hearing for the Patient Protection from Freeloaders Sponging Off the System and Affordable Care Act, and I, for one, have been simmering ever since.
Taking his cue straight from a popular conservative talking point, Justice Antonin Scalia brought up the infamous broccoli threat, comparing universal health insurance to a government mandate that we must all buy broccoli.
Did I happen to mention that Americans have lost the ability to make sensible distinctions? Now, the justice was treating broccoli as merely a symbol of how the government might overreach, but to have any force as a metaphor the threat of universal broccoli would have to conform to some reality.
Let us go out on a limb and say that mandated broccoli buying will never happen in this nation or universe.
Nor will other vegetables become similarly compulsory — not rutabagas, green beans, Brussels sprouts, turnips, parsnips, cabbage and arugula, either regular arugula or irregular arugula, which if nothing else are fun to say fast.
However, it must be conceded spinach has an outside chance of becoming an official vegetable, because the government might be tempted to enlist Popeye the Sailor Man to promote it.
But if that were to happen, the various Supreme Court justices surely could make a sensible distinction for once, seeing that their job is to make sensible legal distinctions, and rule the government has gone too far in the case of spinach. Even vegetarians might see the merit of such a ruling.
Of course, this decision might mean pleasing Bluto, Popeye’s antagonist, but the justices are no strangers to pleasing the Blutos of this world. They did that in Citizens United.
The lost art of the sensible distinction is one mystery, but so is why conservatives hate broccoli so much. Former President George H.W. Bush famously did not like it, but is broccoli detestation a requirement for party membership? What has broccoli ever done but sit around and be green? Maybe they think it is the Prius of vegetables.
Maybe Justice Scalia was frightened as a child by the thought of monster broccoli growing under his bed. Perhaps conservatives saw that scary Japanese film “Brocczilla” or the American classic “The Broccoli from the Black Lagoon.”
Is it possible they think it is a gay vegetable? It beats me. My best guess is that too many smart people have gone into a vegetative state. J
ust call it another brick in the wall.
Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.