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Political Mercury

Old Ike wouldn’t be lovin’ Branstad’s kid-cocooning


The difference between an 18-year-old fresh-faced freshman and a 21-year-old senior in college is the most profound I’ve experienced in a work, social or living arrangement.

The first is a boy. The second is a man.

Yet, the two coexist in American college fraternities.

Which is great for mentoring, role-modeling — and hazing, the latter being the gentleman’s term for bullying.

In 1987, a little more than a month removed from turning 18, I found myself on the third step of the dining room at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I was a pledge, a voluntary probationary member of the fraternity, located in a four-story, ivy-covered residence hall facing Lake Michigan just north of Chicago — a long way from my native rural Iowa.


The parties at SAE, often with six or seven or 12 kegs of beer, weren’t monitored by university officials. Which was great. The visiting girls were smart. Really smart. Even better. The older guys in the house, the actives, were smooth operators, top students.

But admission to SAE came with a price.

For a full quarter, you were a pledge. We had to memorize a book, “The Phoenix,” about the founding of our fraternity, its strange Alabama roots. We committed to quick memory the hometowns and other details about the 75 or so members of the frat and busied ourselves collecting signatures for doing various tasks in our pledge books. We studied long into the night. No one wanted to bring down the house grade-point average.

And then there was The Third Step, a spot literally three little hops up the staircase from the basement dining room. At dinner, pledges were called randomly to stand on the third step and field questions, endure insults, gamely absorb lampooning. (One of the most skilled members of our SAE chapter at hazing us would later go on to be the creative force behind the McDonald’s “I’m Lovin’ It” advertising campaign. So the verbal shots lobbed at us often were exquisite.)

It’s hard to imagine soft-shelled millennials, the helicopter-parented kids of today, standing there, taking it. But as Gen-Xers, we’d not only steady ourselves on the third step but also light up cigarettes.

I guess some of the taunts hurt. But only in the way of those ephemeral day-dreamed crushes lost to time. No scars here.

I knew I was being tested on the third step. We all did.

It is one of the great ironies of my life that the fraternity — generally regarded as a premier guardian of group-think, statuesque in its celebration of rigid, unblinking conformity — gave me a sense of self-sustained by what separates me, what makes me unlike the other.

You see, you have to own those differences, embrace them, if you have any shot at a life that’s not yoked to The Great American They, the what-other-people-thinkers.

Which brings us to Gov. Terry Branstad’s anti-bullying legislation. The governor wants to expand school districts’ responsibilities from their campuses to online and off-school-grounds bullying.

No third steps in the ladder of Iowa life, says the governor.

It’s a good thing REI, the Seattle-based outdoors outfitter, is locating in the Des Moines area. Public school superintendents are going to need sleeping bags so they can camp on the porches of students. Never know when an overnight party of teens may involve insults. School principals may just want to start moonlighting at local pizza joints, lest they let slip some opportunity to intervene as kids pepperoni their conversations with hurtful words for others.

And if you are a teacher, buy some extra iPads, find Internet service faster than anything South Korea has imagined, and turn that spare bedroom into a computer-screen-filled command center for tracking what the teenies are saying about each other in the clipped social-media parlance of the day.

For a quarter century, Branstad has preached the gospel of small government. Now, through the school districts, he wants to insert the government into our lives around the clock. He told me this himself.

“Here’s what we hear from the kids: they’re being tormented 24/7 on social media,” Branstad said in a recent interview in Jefferson. “And it’s much worse than it was years ago before we had social media. So they feel it’s a hostile environment, and they don’t feel safe at school.”

So the school day, under Branstad’s expanded regime, never ends for the administrator, the educator-policewoman. The kid never fully transitions from the government’s hands to the parents’.

Branstad promises a guardian angel for our kids. But what if a school overlooks evidence of bullying, misses a taunting tweet, an inciting Instagram shot? Will schools be liable, morally and legally, for all unkind adolescent exchanges?

“I’m extraordinarily concerned about that,” said State Rep. Chip Baltimore, the Boone Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

It’s a good thing the state’s most high-profile trial lawyer, Bruce Braley, isn’t in Congress. He’s free to sue schools that can’t interrupt a Twitter barrage on a kid in real time.

Why not just put all of our kids in state-funded cocoons where they hear nothing but soothing music and piped-in words of affirmation. Earned self-esteem? What’s that?

At what point do our young people learn that cruelty exists, that capitalism involves winners and losers — and that winners often bully the losers to maintain their favorable positions in the all-American split?

“Don’t fight back, we’ll do it for you!” — Is that the rallying cry of our modern nation?

The world has to look at our bullying discussion and laugh. Or cry. The sleights suffered by your average Iowa kid don’t amount to much compared to the bumper crop of atrocities humans commit against each other in less-prosperous reaches of the globe.

Do you think Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had six brothers, ever complained to anyone about being bullied?

And what if he had? Who would he have become?

More important, who would we be today as Americans?

Speaking from experience, you have to stand on that third step. Alone. No parents. No government.

It’s the only way to truly achieve a life free from fear. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who resides in Carroll. He and his family own and publish newspapers in Carroll, Jefferson and other neighboring communities.

15 takeaways from the 2015 Iowa Ag Summit

1. Best one-liner ever on immigration reform: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina: “Strom Thurmond had four kids after age 67. If you’re not willing to do that, we need immigration reform.”

2. Former New York Gov. George Pataki grew up on a farm in that state. He showed remarkable fluidity with ag issues, weaving in and out of topics with depth. But he is an opponent of the Renewable Fuel Standard — and he thinks wind energy is mature enough to flourish with no government support. Any takers for that?

3. Don’t bully the big man. A protestor — whom Gov. Chris Christie identified as being from New Jersey — interrupted Christie’s ag-summit session. “I’ll deal with you here the same way I deal with you in New Jersey,” Christie said. Are there any horse heads missing is Asbury Park or Trenton this morning?

Christie hammed it up during the episode. “My people follow me everywhere, Bruce. I’m magnetic, Bruce. They can’t stay away from me,” Christie told 2015 Iowa Ag Summit host Bruce Rastetter.

4. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds has made great strides as a public speaker. Can she exist outside the protective Branstad shell? Republicans may want to see that soon — if she’s going to be the money horse for 2018.

5. An intriguing idea: Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has suggested a weighted food-stamp system. $1 in food stamps could buy $1.25 in fruits and vegetables, but 80 cents of “junk food.”

6. A time and a place? U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, R-Dubuque, is blowing it. Period. The beneficiary of a rare confluence of political winds (sitting Congressman Bruce Braley running for Senate, voter anger with Obama, mid-term angst) Blum continues to run to the right in a Democratic-leaning district. It likely will be a short run. How does someone so politically deaf win an election? “Unlike the president of the United States, I believe in American exceptionalism,” Blum said, recycling tired barbs in the wrong venue.

7. Jeb Bush is big on free trade. Tearing down trade barriers, Bush says, will do more for the rural economy than anything. Keep this in mind: Agriculture is the second-largest industry in Florida, trailing only tourism.

8. Big prediction: Iowa State University President Steven Leath says central Iowa will be the “Silicon Valley of ag biosciences.”

9. State-level Renewable Fuel Standard or wind-energy tax credits? Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is opposed to the federal government intervening in markets. But at the state level? It’s fine, Perry says. Does he support renewables incentives? “I do if a state wants to do it,” Perry said. “I don’t at the federal level.” Would your position change, governor, if your suggestion about Texas seceding becomes a reality, which would make the Lone Star State government, well, “federal.”

10. Reading Reagan’s mind? Is Mr. Big Christian Oil holding séances? Or does Rick Perry have some other channel to the late Republican president? Would Reagan handle a 1986 immigration plan differently? “If he had to do it again, he wouldn’t sign that piece of legislation,” Perry said. Based on …

11. Ted Cruz doesn’t speak much Spanish. A Republican with Cuban heritage, Cruz joked with La Prensa Spanish Newspaper Editor Lorena Lopez that the only Spanish he learned is “Donde esta el control del televisor” — which translates as follows: “Where is the television remote control?”

12. Another good line from Graham: “Have you ever met an illegal Canadian?”

13. U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, seemed to realize a Grand Canyon-sized hole in one of his own favorite lines, just as he said it. “All new wealth comes from the land,” King said. Except, of course, fish, King quickly corrected. Then he made some points about algae from the sea and biofuels.

14. King can find some religion in big government. Usually Mr. Bash Bash on any government involvement in American life (except wars other people fight in) King refers to the Renewable Fuel Standard as the “Holy Grail.”

15. Who made the most detailed and persuasive case for that standard? Patty Judge, the former lieutenant governor and secretary of agriculture in Iowa, and the only Democrat to speak at the summit on Saturday. CV

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