Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Law and Social Norms in the Neighborhood

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Mike Madison's recent post on the "legal" brouhaha arising out of his neighborhood blog in Pittsburgh reminded me of one of my brief forays into public debate a number of years ago.  (By the way, if I were going to blog akin to Mike currently, it would be about people letting their dogs off leash in Cambridge parks, something that is strictly illegal.  One of my dogs doesn't react well to other dogs, and there is nothing scarier than the sight of an unleashed dog heading full bore towards us.)

Through most of the 1980s, we lived in the very homogeneous community of Plymouth, Michigan, situated almost equidistant between downtown Detroit, where I worked, and Ann Arbor, where my wife was going to school.  I am pretty sure you could count the number of Jewish, black, Asian, or Hispanic families on a couple hands.  But it was a lovely little town, with an old style common, a retro movie theater, and lots of quaint little shops.  One of the customs in the town was to place a creche (a manger Creche scene) at one end of the common, and three wise men on donkeys at the other end the night after Thanksgiving.  Each night, city employees would move the magi just a little closer to "Bethlehem."

Being Jewish, and principled in a First Amendment sort of way, this got on my nerves year after year, until the holiday season of 1986, when I paid a visit to the local muckraker, the editor of the town newspaper, the Community Crier, and asked why he had never taken a stand on this earth-shaking issue.  I don't remember the entire discussion, but the end result was that I was suckered, I mean, talked, into writing what I thought was a respectful letter to the editor.  I suggested it was a wonderful tradition, but that it really should be staged on the grounds of one of the local churches and not the public square, which meant that I (like the other three or four other Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and assorted Druids) had to explain to my precocious two year old daughter why this did not apply to us.

I still have the issue from the next week, when a number of the local populace suggested just where and how I could insert the First Amendment into any of a number of bodily orifices.  My favorite response was an anonymous phone call.  I answered the phone.  "Are you watching Channel 4?" somebody says.  I flip to Channel 4 to find Ronnie and Nancy Reagan lighting the White House Christmas tree.  "Thanks," I say, and hang up.  Q.E.D., I guess.

Next episode:  we moved less than a year later to the tony and only slightly less homogeneous suburb of Birmingham, Michigan, which had the benefit of being close to the synagogue nursery school.  If living on a street full of white thirty-something guys named Biff and Randy who grew up playing golf at the restricted country clubs doesn't turn you into a post-modern, left-wing, deconstructionist, relativist bomb-thrower, nothing will.

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