Sub-subminimal July 9, 2009

Every job comes with a set of minimum standards. An entry-level volunteer firefighter, for example, must meet a basic standard of physical fitness as well as be able to demonstrate a basic capacity for learning the craft of firefighting and a basic commitment to keeping the community safe.

Every once in a while, though, someone slips through the screening process and reminds us that every job also comes with a set of sub-minimal requirements. A volunteer firefighter, for example, shouldn't also be an arsonist on the side.

00000ONUG We tend to think of such subminimal requirements as things that go without saying, and thus we rarely state them explicitly. The recruiting materials for volunteer fire companies will mention the minimal requirements of time and physical capability, but they won't usually spell out the subminimal requirements. They won't say, in large block letters at the top of the page: "Firebugs need not apply."

Perhaps they should. Because again every once in a while some person comes along who meets the minimum requirements but turns out not to meet the subminimal ones and we are forced to rethink what we have previously allowed to go without saying. We start to think that maybe we should have stated explicitly that candidates shouldn't expect to spend all day in their cubicles surfing cyberporn, or that they will be expected to refrain from embezzling, or not to fabricate articles or plagiarize.

Or not to set fire to the fire station itself.

But of course we could never keep up. Subminimal requirements, it turns out, not only go unspoken but unimagined. It simply wouldn't be possible to list all of them, or even for most of us to conceive of what they might be until we actually witness some sub-subminimal employee who demonstrates for us some new and startling way to delve beneath simple incompetence into the astonishing realm of the sub-subminimal.

The firebug firefighter may be one exception — an example of a subminimal standard that does need to be stated explicitly. Arsonists — the sort who set fires for thrills, not for insurance fraud — tend to seek work with fire departments and volunteer companies. Most squads, therefore, have learned to carefully screen against this, incorporating this one particular subminimal standard into their hiring process.

The closest parallel to the fire departments' problem is an equally common affliction bedeviling school boards and state boards of education. As with fire companies, the vast majority of candidates for these positions are responsible people committed to public service, the common good and quality education. But just like the fire departments, school boards seem to attract a significant unhinged minority of firebugs — people who just want to destroy public education and laugh while it burns.

The latest of these is Cynthia Dunbar of Texas, whom I learned about thanks to an e-mail from Matt D.

Gov. Rick Perry is reportedly considering appointing the chair of that state's school board. Dunbar wants to destroy public schools, which she regards as "tyrannical" and a "tool of perversion."

Let me repeat that: Gov. Rick Perry of Texas wants to put in charge of his state's public schools a woman who wants to destroy those schools.

Perry doesn't just want to hire the giggling firebug, he wants to make her the fire chief. This makes Gov. Perry the second craziest person in this story.

The craziest, of course, is Cynthia Dunbar who is — even by Texas Republican standards — barking mad.

In a book published last year, Dunbar argued the country’s founding fathers created “an emphatically Christian government” and that government should be guided by a “biblical litmus test.” She endorses a belief system that requires “any person desiring to govern have a sincere knowledge and appreciation for the Word of God in order to rightly govern.”

Dunbar — who is, astonishingly, an attorney — takes as her first principle of government an illegal and flagrantly unconstitutional religious test. "Unconstitutional" isn't strong enough a description of Dunbar's views on this point, actually, she's anti-constitutional. Her idea of "an emphatically Christian government" ruled by a "biblical litmus test" douses the Constitution in kerosene and sets it ablaze, then pisses on its ashes.

If Dunbar is really an attorney, then the views in her book make a good case for her being disbarred. Maybe even deported.

It doesn't help that Dunbar is also a staggeringly unoriginal whackjob. Her book is titled, One Nation Under God.

That's the same title as dozens of previously published theocratic "next to of course god america i love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth" books. This hackneyed title comes, of course, from the Pledge of Allegiance — an incantation from which Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has been working hard of late to remove the word "indivisible."

Also in the book, she calls public education a “subtly deceptive tool of perversion.”

The establishment of public schools is unconstitutional and even “tyrannical,” she wrote, because it threatens the authority of families, granted by God through Scripture, to direct the instruction of their children.

Dunbar home-schooled her own children.

The Houston Chronicle's Lisa Falkenberg provides some additional background on Cynthia Dunbar:

If the chatter from some board members proves correct, and Gov. Rick Perry is indeed considering appointing member Cynthia Dunbar as the board’s new leader, we may find ourselves reminiscing fondly about the good ol’ days when Chairman McLeroy simply disregarded experts, sidelined teachers and insisted on inserting his religious beliefs into public policy-making.

Dunbar’s shortcomings go far beyond ideology and poor leadership skills to beliefs promoting paranoia and bigotry.

This is the same Richmond Republican who penned an online essay shortly before the presidential election warning Barack Obama was plotting with terrorists to attack Americans. She refused to retract her claim, even under pressure from Republicans.

There are 4.7 million children in Texas' public schools. There are children in those buildings that Gov. Perry is willing to watch Cynthia Dunbar set on fire. Somewhere there's a line between simple incompetence and outright, deliberate, predatory evil. Dunbar and Perry have crossed it.

Some subminimal standards are worth stating explicitly. Fire companies mustn't hire firebugs. School boards mustn't hire insane home-schooling zealots who want to destroy public schools. Cynthia Dunbar is sub-subminimal.

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