Non-Solomonic judgment

Posted on December 20, 2009. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

The story is an old one. Two women appeared before the king, both claiming to be the mother of a young infant. The first accused the other of accidentally smothering her own baby and then swapping the dead child with hers during the night.

“It is not so!” cried the second woman. “My son is the live one!”

“It is not so!” retorted the first. “Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!”

After hearing the two women argue back and forth, the king called to his servants.

“Bring me a sword!” he said. “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.”

But the second woman quickly relented, begging the king to let the child live and give it to the first woman, who bitterly said, “Neither mine nor yours shall he be. Cut!”

Gesturing to the second woman, the king said, “Give her the living child, for she is his mother.”

It’s probably a little ambitious to expect Solomon’s wisdom in our modern courtrooms, but it wouldn’t hurt to have a little more Solomonic pragmatism when trying to get to the real heart-and truth-of matters.

Especially a matter like the one involving the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and the state Capitol.

It’s a familiar story, too. For decades, there’s been a Nativity on the Capitol grounds at Christmastime. Last year, the Freethinkers wanted to put up a display of their own; free speech and balance the holiday and all that. But the state denied their petition on procedural grounds.

This year the Freethinkers dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s on their petition just fine, but the state denied it again, for aesthetic reasons. With the help of the local ACLU chapter, the Freethinkers made a federal case of it and Judge Susan Webber Wright ordered the state to allow the display of the Winter Solstice “Box of Knowledge.”

There’s undoubtedly some knowledge, or at least trivia, captured on the four panels of the outhouse-shaped structure. But, oddly, the Freethinkers let the line blur between theory and fact.

Under the “Top Ten Facts About the Universe” section on the “Did You Know” panel, one of the “facts” starts off “With Mars likely . . . ”-that’s an unlikely word choice for something that’s supposed to be factual-and ends with the conclusion that “it may be that life on Earth was seeded by life on Mars, making us all descendants of Martians.”

Further down, under the “More Facts About the Universe” section, the third item begins with “Astronomers believe the universe contains . . . .” Two items down, another fact explains what the age of the universe is “thought to be.” And there are no fewer than another five uses of the word “estimated” in fact descriptions.

That sure seems like a lot of uncertainty for a list of facts.

The Freethinkers aren’t sticklers about a wall of separation between truth and propaganda, either. On the “Season’s Greetings” panel, the Winter Solstice is portrayed as if it is a named holiday with a legacy predating Christianity.

“Today, many people in Western based cultures refer to this holiday as ‘Christmas,’ ” the panel reads.

That’s about as sloppy a misrepresentation as one can concoct without wandering into blatant falsehood. Nobody in any culture anywhere or anytime has referred to the winter solstice, the astronomical name of the Earth’s farthest axial tilt away from the sun, as Christmas.

The correct fact is that the Christmas holiday and the winter solstice share similar space on the calendar. And while it’s long been acknowledged that Dec. 25 probably is not the actual date of Jesus’ birth that’s been the traditional observance for centuries.

The Freethinkers take a mighty high-minded view of their lawsuit, draping it with the First Amendment and framing it as a victory for all Americans. But just as there wasn’t merely innocent disagreement between the two women claiming the baby, the motives behind the Freethinkers in this case were far from pure and virtuous.

By using pejoratives like “Christian mythology” on their display, they willingly strayed from promoting their belief system to mocking and belittling another. Solomon recognized masked malice and refused to allow zero-sum rancor to masquerade as fair justice.

Christians haven’t sought to put Nativities out around secular holidays. An intellectually honest group of Freethinkers would seek their own holiday rather than act as PR alchemists hoping to transform a little Christmas tarnish into publicity gold.

Our judicial system should protect us against tyranny of the majority, but not by casting a blind eye to an equally unjust tyranny of the minority.

Solomon wouldn’t have been sucked into this holiday foolishness. But the Freethinkers think little of him anyway. They left him off their picture panel.

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