By John F. Di Leo -
For as long as there has been a free press, there has been some form of “news of the weird.”
It may be a humorous feature during a radio or TV newscast, or a throwaway corner to fill space in a newspaper… the funny-but-true story has always had a place in journalism. With the advent of social media and internet websites, where publishers no longer have to pay for each column inch or count every second of broadcast time, the place for silly news has grown.
And there’s nothing wrong with that… as long as it keeps its proper place.
There may, however, be a problem when odd aspects of a story get an important issue moved away from the Nation Desk onto the Features Page. And yes, this happens more than one might think.
The Driver’s License and the Colander
On November 13, the AP reported that Lindsay Miller, a Boston Pastafarian, had finally succeeded in her effort to win the right to wear a colander on her head in the photo on her Massachusetts Driver’s License. The short news story, picked up by USA Today and many other outlets, included the fundamentals of the Pastafarian “religion...” and was accompanied by a photo of the subject, with shiny steel colander in place, holding a photo of her freshly minted Driver’s License.
On first read, of course, it is funny. Nobody will deny that Ms. Miller looks ridiculous using kitchenware as a hat.
And we’re always impressed when anyone “beats the system,” aren’t we? Her success in knocking down a regulation banning headwear, to allow her to wear it for her photo, is downright inspirational. Every libertarian and conservative, who cheers when the Leviathan is knocked down a peg, will certainly join in this hearty laughter, at least for a moment.
Congratulations to Ms. Miller, we chuckle. And we move on to the next story, dismissing this story as just another humorous feature, “all the funnier because it’s true!”
Reflecting on What Really Matters
But as we move on to the next story, or even the next, something tugs at our ear. Something seemed wrong there; maybe this isn’t all about meaningless humor after all.
Just what is a Pastafarian?
The Pastafarians are, essentially, a parody of a religion. They claim not to be anti-religious, but they were founded as what they considered to be a humorous opposition to the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools. They say that since the odds of a God creating the universe are the same as the odds of a flying spaghetti monster dropping noodles on the earth, they choose to worship the flying spaghetti monster.
So they invented The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a decade ago, and they make the news now and then.
Of course there are a number of problems with the logic of that prime thesis of theirs. Primarily, those odds are not the same. Right or wrong, there have been reports of interaction with the Supreme Being for as long as there has been human life on earth, while there has never been a report of interaction with a flying spaghetti monster. We don’t mention this to disprove its existence (proof is hardly necessary, in this case), but to point out the flaw in their logic. Their case is built on a false equivalence.
But let’s look at the more serious aspect of this “religion:” the fact that, despite its admittedly being a parody, still they claim special treatment under the law as if it were a real religion.
Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, Quakers… these are real religions. Their advocates believe in the tenets of their professed faiths. By contrast, the Pastafarians demand equal treatment, contrary to all legal precedent.
Consider, for example, the Conscientious Objector exception from the military draft. If you are a devoted member of a peace church like the Quakers, you can be excused from the draft… but just because Quakers are excused, that doesn’t mean that members of all other churches can be excused. A special provision is carved out under the law for true believers, not for parodies of believers.
False equivalencies have long been a problem for the American Left. They’ve claimed that excising a baby girl from her mother’s womb is equivalent to excising a tumor… Or that psychologists and librarians spend the same time in school, so they should be paid the same wage… Or that traditional restrictions on marriage, such as incest bans and a legal age of consent, should be wiped out because after all, “we’re all people; we’re all the same inside.”
The insult to real religions isn’t a political issue. Real religious people (with the exception of one group that comes to mind, of course) can handle a little ribbing. If that insult reaches the point of blasphemy, well, that’s between the individual and the Lord; it’s none of the government’s business.
But it may indeed be the government’s business if the complainant is asking for a government break to be extended to the undeserving.
Reasons Behind the Rules
What is routinely forgotten by the Left is that when there is an exception, it’s there for a reason. It’s not that government is unfairly favoring one group over another, it’s that society has decided that some special circumstance generates a special societal good, and therefore deserves special treatment… not because the person is favored, but because society needs that societal good.
For example, we treat all individual adults alike under the law – but we recognize that heterosexual marriage provides a special societal good (the production of children, raised in a two-parent family of one man and one woman) that deserves to be encouraged through such benefits as joint tax filing, automatic inheritance, and immunity to being compelled to testify against one’s spouse. We don’t say “Ron and Nancy got this when they got married, so we want it too!” We must recognize that the reason for the benefit must be satisfied in order for the benefit to be extended further.
It’s all about first principles. Why do we have special provisions for religions? Because belonging to a real religion makes people more likely to be good citizens. That’s not to say that belonging to a parody religion necessarily makes people bad citizens; they may be good citizens too; but there’s no evidence of causality there, as there is with people belonging to the real religions that our Founding Fathers had in mind. Ours is a Judeo-Christian nation; we respect the traditions of the Judeo-Christian worldview.
The benefits we may extend to a Christian or Jew should not be automatically extended to a Pastafarian; it undermines society’s respect for real religions, as well as rewarding a fake with something that society had intended only for the real.
Any short-sighted bureaucrat or judge who confuses these matters – losing sight of the forest for the trees, as the saying goes – is doing society no favors, even if he does succeed in provoking a few chuckles in the newsroom.
In any public policy decision – no matter whether it’s a legislative decision, a judicial decision, or the executive decision of a bureaucrat – we must resist the temptation to judge a subject by the obvious result. We must instead ask first what the product or rule is there for, and then seriously consider whether any exceptions will compromise that purpose.
Let’s return to the question of the Driver’s License. Should some comical nut be permitted to wear a colander on his or her head for a Driver’s License photo or not?
Well, before we ask whether a parody religious exception – or even a real religious exception, for that matter – should be considered, perhaps we should refresh our thoughts on why the Driver’s License itself is issued, in the first place.
- The Driver’s License represents the state’s confirmation that a person has been tested and confirmed to know the Rules of the Road, and is granted the privilege to drive a passenger vehicle (and in the case of commercial and other licenses, other vehicles as well).
- The Driver’s License also confirms that a person has not had that license revoked for drunk driving or other severe moving violations.
- The Driver’s License is used to apply for benefits, from unemployment to food stamps, from housing aid to free education.
- The Driver’s License also serves as a person’s primary official general identification card, tying the person’s appearance to the name and address that he or she claims, to prove identity for cashing checks, buying firearms, even voting.
Let’s focus on that final point. The Driver’s License is proof of who the person is. The picture is the determining factor; it’s the essence of the card. Without that picture, anyone could rattle off a name and address that he made up 30 seconds ago; but with the picture, on an officially laminated card with watermarks and holograms to prove authenticity, anyone from a state trooper to a retail clerk can tell (barring a talented forgery) that it is real, so the person really is in fact who he or she claims to be.
There are rules about these photos. Every state mandates that the resolution be such that the whole head be present, that nothing obscures the face (except possibly eyeglasses), that it be as good and clear a means of identifying the person as possible.
Some states have authorized the wearing of a headscarf or hat if a religion requires its adherents to wear one, usually as long as it doesn’t obscure the face. But is that really fair? Is it really helpful to the public?
Consider: What’s the first thing you think of, when you picture actors Bruce Willis or Fabio? Patrick Stewart or Hugh Grant? A person’s hair, or lack thereof, is often as much of a distinguishing feature as his nose, eyes, or chin. Is it really safe to allow headwear that might disguise that aspect of the subject’s appearance?
Yes, one can make the case that a religious requirement to wear a scarf doesn’t make too much of a dent in the value of the picture… and remember too, if it’s a real religion, the person likely wears it always. So if the lady has a headscarf on her Driver’s License picture, she’s likely going to be wearing that headscarf if a trooper pulls her over or if she presents a check to a store cashier.
But if the person doesn’t in fact belong to a real religion, then the person isn’t likely to wear that accoutrement all the time. Nobody could convince us that Ms. Miller of Boston, the Pastafarian at issue this week, wears her colander on her head all day long, while driving, while shopping, while dining. When she presents her Driver’s License as identification, that colander taking up half the picture will be a distraction; it will compromise the value of the Driver’s License without a shadow of a doubt.
So not only does she not deserve the exception – because it’s admittedly not a real religion but a scam – but in addition, it does indeed compromise the value of the Driver’s License in a way that real religious people’s circumstances would not.
Remember, muslims have tried to convince states to allow women to leave the burka on for their Driver’s Licenses, rendering the picture completely useless, all by claiming these common religious exceptions.
Under the law and throughout history, every change is precedent for the next change (or as Macchiavelli put it, “every change leaves a toothing stone for the next”). We must remember that the joke that looks harmless today could easily be used to sacrifice our security tomorrow.
What lessons do we learn from this experience?
- That we must turn to first things, when analyzing any public policy matter, as a doctor analyzes a sick patient. The outward appearances of an issue may just be symptoms, and we need first to identify the underlying cause. Before judging an exception, look to the reason behind the rule.
- That the very fundamentals of our society are under assault, as reasonable rules for legitimate religions are twisted. A nation that values freedom of religion and freedom of speech must expect such assaults, but that doesn’t mean we should encourage them. We must work that much harder to protect our traditional values in the face of such cultural attacks.
- And perhaps most importantly, that our defenses can be breached by the smallest of things. Like the crack in a dike that enables a dam to burst, allowing people to weaken the utility of a Driver’s License can enable vote fraud, identity theft, welfare fraud, even terrorism.
The Driver’s License is small, just a plastic-coated card that’s carried around in the wallet or purse. But its abuse can be the snowball that starts an avalanche, from a public policy perspective.
All things considered, this humorous little feature turns out not to be so funny after all.
Copyright 2015 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based trade compliance manager and lecturer. An actor, writer, and recovering politician, his columns regularly appear in Illinois Review.
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