What were they thinking? Part Two

Some folks at the Capitol who have checked the Benton Mural say they can’t see any damaged caused by the thoughtless use of it for a couple of people to write information on the backs of some business cards a few days ago.   But those thoughtless actions appear likely to change some access to that room.

The House Lounge has become a popular place for groups to hold rallies or press conferences such as the rally to override the Right to Work bill veto last week where this incident took place.

But because of this, it appears likely the House will put some limits on activities in the Lounge and will require a House or Capitol staff member to be present for all of those events just to make sure that someone else doesn’t pull a stunt like that one.

That’s not bad.  The great fear after something like this is that over-reaction will severely limit public access to that incredible piece of art.  While the policy has not been fully implemented yet, it appears to be falling short of the more severe policies that could have been employed.

The lady in the picture has apologized.  The schnook with her who also was writing on a business card hasn’t had the guts to step forward and do the same.  He continues to display bad manners and lack of character, to say the least.

What were they thinking?

The answer is: They weren’t.  And it leaves thousands of people wondering if there is any limit to stupidity.  Or ignorance.  Or bad manners.  Or lack of consideration.  Or…….

Sometimes you just can’t find the words.


We’ve been contacted by a number of people during the last few days asking if we’ve seen this picture.  Yes, we have, several times now. Your faithful scribe does not do Facebook or Linked In and twitters, twits, tweets—whatever the heck it is—only for limited professional reasons because I have better things to do with my time.  I do not disparage those who do spend considerable time each day being involved with a large network of people they do and don’t know. Call me a curmudgeon.  I wear the hat proudly.

Anyway, yes, I’ve seen it.  Somebody asked for my reaction.  It was instant.

This is inexcusable behavior by someone I otherwise would have assumed to have a certain level of intelligence and common sense.  These people are displaying behavior that one might expect from an ignorant third-grader and are endangering one of the greatest works of one of America’s foremost 20th century artists and showing disrespect for the greatest work of art in our Capitol.  They might also be placing themselves in some legal jeopardy, depending on whether there is any damage to public property.  There are tables in the House Lounge where they could have done their writing. Thoughtlessness is not in itself a punishable offense.  But these two people should at the very least publicly apologize for their unthinking behavior. 


Dave Marner, the Owensville newspaper publisher who took the picture, called me during the weekend and we talked at some length about this incident.  His photograph has gone viral and has generated worldwide scorn.  We know who the woman is: Valinda Freed of Randolph County, the vice chairwoman of the Missouri Republican Party, who was in the House Lounge for a rally urging the legislature to overturn Governor Nixon’s Right to Work bill veto.  As another friend of mine has written, “I don’t know the jackass joining in alongside her.”

Another friend who has worked in and around the capitol for a long, long time, sent me a note that said, “It also made me think of the definition of a word you don’t hear much anymore, “philistine”

The incident and the photographic record of it have stirred up a fecal hurricane.  Ms. Freed, after a couple of days in the eye of the hurricane, issued an apology to the Kansas City Star.  “I offer my sincere apologies for my completely unplanned and thoughtless act.  The Thomas Hart Benton mural, and all the magnificent artwork in the Capitol are state and national treasures,” she wrote.  She didn’t elaborate and as far as we know hasn’t done any interviews.

The “jackass” next to her in the picture hasn’t revealed himself or issued any statement regretting his action.  In addition to being a “philistine,” he does not appear to be much of a gentleman because he continues to let Ms. Freed take the fall.

It is also worth noting that this incident is not nearly so sad as the ongoing neglect of the other “state and national treasures” in our capitol.  No other state capitol can match the quantity and the quality of art that we find in Missouri’s Capitol.  Decades of deterioration of the structure and its art are far more egregious than what Ms. Freed and her friend have done. The state is spending forty-million dollars to fix a major foundation leakage problem under the main stairway on the south front of the building, a project so big that it might have an impact on the staging of the inauguration of new state officials in January, 2017.  Those who love the Capitol hope governors-to be and legislatures yet to come will find as much enthusiasm about investing in the capitol as they seem to find in granting favors to interests of economic capital.

It is also fair to note that they were not writing on the painting. They were leaning against it, putting their hands on it, writing on business cards or something.  Their “thoughtless act” did have a positive element to it.

It triggered an outrage on behalf of art and culture.  We are living in a political time when there appears to be little room for appreciation of the arts and the values they bring to society.  The loud insistence from many that their definition of “family values” be the rigid foundation of society seems to leave little room for the liberal freedoms that the arts should communicate.

We do not think, as we view Ms. Freed’s actions, that they are symbolic of that attitude.  We do not believe that she intended her thoughtless action to be a commentary on the arts, certainly not Thomas Hart Benton’s use of the arts to celebrate the efforts of independent citizens to build a diverse, serious, sometimes corrupt but always dynamic state.

While her apology strikes some as inadequate, this viewer wonders what more she could say.  Clearly the photograph has been a gigantic embarrassment to her and for some time to come she will be known to some folks as “that woman who….”   So let’s let her statement stand.  She need not immolate herself on the town square to express her remorse. We do, however, wish that her friend showed at least some class and also apologized instead of letting her get the full load from the hurricane.

Those in Missouri as well as outside the state who have generated that hurricane would do well to retain their indignation and use it to evaluate people, parties, and causes to whom art and culture are on the periphery—at best—of their vision

We’ve heard this before. And before that

Right to Work is a big issue in this year’s veto session that starts today at the Capitol. The legislature passed it last May and the governor vetoed it.  The arguments on both sides last May were soooo familiar.  And sooooo old.

How old?

We’ve been digging into the papers of Governor Herbert Hadley as we wrap up the first, rough, draft of a new book about the history of the Capitol.  We came across one from W. A. Layman (at least that’s what we think his signature says) who was a Vice President and General Management for Wagner Electric in St. Louis when the Board of Public Buildings announced in July, 1911 that the new Capitol would be built with union labor.  Within hours, the Citizens Industrial Association, in St. Louis, organized a letter-writing campaign against the announcement.  Many of the letters from St. Louis businesses—and a few from Kansas City—are in the Hadley papers at the State Historical Society in Columbia.

Here’s part of Layman’s letter:

“To apply the Closed Shop principle…is not only fundamentally wrong in principle, in our opinion, but it will be seriously harmful to all substantial business interests in the State and will have particularly the tendency to place all manufacturing institutions of the State at a great disadvantage in the competitive markets of the country as a whole.

“You are aware that certain leading cities of the country are to-day employing the “Open Shop” principle in all industrial and building operations and the result is not only a condition of social peace and harmony in the industrial life of the community, but in great industrial prosperity for the employer and the employee alike.”  

The phrase “paycheck protection” was about a century away from creation when he wrote his letter on July 6, 1911.  That’s the current buzz phrase to describe what for several decades has been called Right to Work.  But the arguments haven’t changed, have they?  Mandatory union membership hurts business and places manufacturers (and the State) in a competitive disadvantage.  Open Shop leads to economic prosperity and several other entities are flourishing because they’ve adopted the practice.

The Capitol was built with union labor.  It seems to have turned out okay.  That’s not to say it couldn’t have been built as well with an open shop.  It’s just that some of the stuff that goes on inside it never goes away.  And nobody seems to have found any fresh and creative arguments. It gets so tiresome but the issue will always be with us as long as there is labor and there is management and each seeks a politically-protected status.   But, gosh, folks, wouldn’t you think that after more than a century of these same arguments, somebody would be able to provide some conclusive evidence that one side or the other REALLY does create some kind of economic nirvana?

Morale of the story:  No issue is too old to flog. Especially if it plays to the advantage of one party or another and helps undermine the losing side.

I have a religious objection

….to religious objections.

But I’m rooting for Kim Davis, the Rowan, Kentucky County Clerk who spent five days in jail for contempt of court for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses that the United States Supreme Court says are legal under the Constitution.  She’s out now and still has her job.  She remains “religiously opposed” to issuing same sex marriage licenses but is under a federal district judge’s order not to keep her employees from issuing the licenses she opposes.  If she does, she could be on the wrong side of the bars again.

Her lawyer says, “She loves God, she loves people, she loves her work, and she will not betray any of those three,” a statement that seems from this distance to advocate an interesting dance.

She does not want her name on any same-sex marriage license. Her attorneys say the licenses issued by her deputies while she’s been away are not valid because they don’t bear her signature.   However Kentucky law says any act she is entitled by law to do can be legally done by a “lawful deputy.”

Of course, some political candidates are quick to hitch their campaigns to Davis, who has become a symbol to an important voting segment of our population. Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee have gone to Kentucky to sand by Davis. Other Republican hopefuls are keeping some distance.  One of our Missouri Attorney General candidates already has claimed that, if elected, he will have the power to issue an opinion that will protect those who have sincerely held religious objections to state and federal laws.  Apparently this candidate for Attorney General does not realize that an attorney General’s opinion does not have any force of law and is, as a judge said many years ago, is just another lawyer’s opinion.   Interestingly, none of the other candidates for Missouri Attorney General have claimed they also could be a savior.

Kim Davis is the darling of the Religious Right today and, should she wish, could make a lot of money on the speaking circuit.   Her release was a disappointment to many people, not because they believe she is wrong in her position but because her case could set up a court test of the Religious freedom Restoration Act movement.   But she and her supporters are fighting the same-sex marriage issue on more than one front, so her case is likely to get to the United States Supreme Court one way or another.

Some see this case that was, to be blunt, inevitable when RFRA started gaining popularity in increasingly conservative legislatures.  It has been framed as a question of whether government can force someone to violate their personal religious beliefs. The mirror image of the question is whether one person can impose their religious freedom as a way to limit the religious freedom or the secular civil rights of fellow citizens in a nation that has a history of trying to keep church and state apart.

We saw a cartoon the other day portraying the chaos that can result if RFRA is fully sanctioned in society.  A person in a supermarket checkout lane wants to buy some condoms but the checkout clerk says she cannot ring up that sale because it would violate the clerk’s sincerely-held religious beliefs.  “You have to go to register ten,” the clerk says.   So the customer takes the groceries to register ten and has no problem buying the condoms but is told, “I can’t ring up that ham because my sincerely-held religious beliefs do not allow me to sell ham.   You’ll have to go to register eight.”

There is another story that might provide some guidance.  Might.

The ancient historian Josephus, a Pharisee, has written that followers of that movement were supported by the common Jewish people in the time of Jesus.  They claimed to be guided by the law of Moses in their interpretations of Jewish law.  If your correspondent’s understanding of Jewish history is correct, the Pharisees claim to be the founders of today’s Rabbinic Judaism.   Josephus contrasts them to the Sadducees, an upper class whose authority came from the high priest in the times of Solomon.  We fear we have over-simplified the difference, but over-simplification of religion and government is so common today that we hope our indiscretion has not been a serious one.

Three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, record the day that some Pharisees hoped to trip up a young rabbi with a challenging question.  Matthew and Mark say they were Pharisees.  Luke says they were “spies pretending to be sincere.”   Luke says they were trying to set up Jesus so he would say something that would make him vulnerable to prosecution by the Roman governor.

They first flattered him: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.”  Then came the zinger: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  The Jews objected to paying those taxes, of course.   Matthew says they asked the question maliciously.  Mark says they asked it hypocritically.

Jesus, who was born at night but not last night, recognized immediately what was afoot.  And he got a little testy because, as Luke says, he saw through their craftiness.  “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites,” he said in Matthew’s version.

“Show me a coin,” he demanded.  And when they gave him a denarius, He asked them, “Whose face  and inscription are on this coin?”  The scriptures don’t say if there was any hemming and hawing although there might have been at least some of the Pharisees who might have immediately seen where their strategy was about to go out of the wagon tracks.   “Caesar’s,” they answered.

We wonder if Jesus paused for dramatic effect or if he flipped the denarius back to the person who gave it to him as he said, “Therefore, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”   The Pharisees, the scriptures say, were stuck silent and after a while got up and walked away.   They still didn’t like this guy.  But they couldn’t argue with him that day.

The Pharisees, common people like Kim Davis today, had a strong religious objection to the edicts of their government.  And they didn’t want to obey that government.   And some perhaps curried favorable public opinion by opposing them.

We’re not scholars of the Bible in our house.  But we are unaware of any similar statement in the Old Testament, which was the foundation for the Pharisees’ positions in those times.

What Jesus did that day was define the line between church and state.

Many of those who side with Kim Davis argue that she should not be persecuted in this Christian Nation for standing up for her Christian beliefs.   Others say it might not hurt for the Christian Nation to remember the day Jesus Christ defined the line between church and state.   And perhaps the Kim Davis case, if it works its way through the legal system, might determine how much the definition in the First Century of the Common Era remains the same these twenty centuries later.