Boston Public Discovers the Nanny State

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I like Boston Public, really I do. It’s not on my A-list of must-watch shows (*cough* Buffy! *cough* Angel! *cough*) but it’s a solid drama that I find strangely compelling, and catch when I can.
The first rule for enjoying Boston Public is to recognize that the standard dictat of television applies: that something interesting must happen every episode — preferably multiple somethings — and that therefore far, far more noteworthy events happen to the characters than would ever occur to real-life counterparts.
Boston Public takes this philosophy to the extreme. It’s Apocalypse School: a bizarre and chaotic vision of public-school life in which every single possible crisis, controversy, and calamity that has ever happened in any school all happen in one school.
The writing is good, and the acting is stellar. So: fine stuff, as long as you know how to approach it.
But last night, Boston Public irked me by subtly, but powerfully, arguing the case for the state-as-nanny. The scenario:
In the basement of the school lies the Senior Study Lounge, a room reserved for seniors-only where they can go to study and relax between classes. By unwritten agreement, the lounge is off-limits to faculty, reserved as a space for students.
Goober, the assistant principal, however, finds that it is being used for more than studying, uncovering an intricate scheme in which a student has set the lounge up as a ready-to-use motel room for couples seeking a spot for sex. For $25, he finds, students can receive clean linens, condoms, student lookouts and decoys to ensure the couple does not suffer any unexpected interruption.
Naturally, the straight-laced Goober is apoplectic. But restraining his martial urges to expel every last student who ever came near the place, he decides to instead put the student entrepreneur on trial — enlisting a prosecutor, defense attorney, and jury from the ranks of the student body itself.
Now, it would be hard to argue with the show had Goober simply punished the ringleader — whose name I forget, so let’s call him X — with expulsion or suspension on his own. But by staging the trial, Goober’s direction to the students was to consider themselves as a society unto themselves — and to ask them to determine whether X’s behavior should be punished.
And that’s where the show veered wildly off course. By putting the decision in hands of the students; by asking those students to determine what morality they would choose for themselves — the equation had changed. No longer was it a case of adults guiding the behavior of juveniles, where the restriction of certain freedoms might be accepted as a normal part of preparation for adulthood . Now, we had a society of equals, determining how to judge the behavior of their own.
To its credit, the show upheld its traditional flair for ambiguity in morally questionable situations to the very end. The argument for the defense — that X was providing a safe, clean place for students to engage in behavior they would have undertaken anyway, and that no harm was being done — was presented in as compelling a fashion as that of the prosecution. (The fact that X was donating all the profits to an AIDS-charity was a nice touch, if a bit overdone). And other than the legally-unusual sequencing of allowing the prosecution to have the final closing argument, there was no real hint as to which way the jury would rule until the close of the episode.
But rule it did: X was found guilty of… something. It’s never quite said what, exactly, which is one problem. And he’s sentenced to a two-week suspension for his crime.
While some murkiness remained, it was clear that the verdict was intended to be seen as the “right” one, with the principal congratulating Goober after the fact for his visionary strategy.
But the vision Goober evoked was hardly a new one: he gave the students the power to create their own nanny state, and they yielded gleefully to the temptation. The Serpent couldn’t have done a better job itself.
Consider the central argument for the prosecution — that by creating his lair, X “encouraged sex”, and furthermore, made students who were intending to remain celibate feel more pressured to have sex — and it becomes clear. There it is, at the core: certain individuals behavior was making other individuals “feel” uncomfortable. And therefore, that behavior must be stopped; banned; punished.
Orwell wrote of “thoughtcrime”, and indeed, the PC nanny state punishes that violation severely. But we also must recognize this other, nameless trespass — the crime of behaving in a way that others do not wish you to; of making someone feel bad. Of acting in a manner which offends. Lacking Orwell’s flair, I can only suggest “offensecrime.”
I’d like to think that last night’s episode was a cautionary tale, using youth as a proxy for wider society a la Lord of the Flies. But all indications were that it was not; that the outcome of the trial was indeed the “right” one. Justice had been served.
I’ll keep watching Boston Public, to be sure. But last night’s episode reminded me once again — should I have needed it — that the real world requires watching as well.
PS – I don’t even want to think about the Google hits I’m going to get for this one…