Monday, November 28, 2011


Ah, the power of Twitter. It can help organize protests, keep people in contact in the midst of tragedy, spread news like wildfire, and allow governors to become aware of the fact that teenagers are saying mean things about them. And then take action!

Emma Sullivan is an eighteen year old student at Shawnee Mission East high school in Kansas. While making a visit to the state capitol of Topeka as part of a Youth in Government program, she made the following tweet:
"Just made mean comments at gov. brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot." 
She didn't actually meet him-- the tweet was a joke with friends. But that wasn't a factor to Brownback staffers, who in scanning social media for mentions of him came across the tweet and proceeded to contact Sullivan's school. The school's principal, Karl Krawitz, called Sullivan into his office and proceeded to berate her for nearly an hour:
"I had no idea what it was about or why I was being called into the office," she said. "I had never been in trouble before."
Sullivan claimed that the principal "told me he needed to do damage control and was really upset."
"He said I was an embarrassment to the school and the school district and that I had been disrespectful," she added.
Krawitz followed this with a demand that Sullivan write a note of apology to Brownback for the tweet, to be turned in on Monday (today). Sullivan had decided by Sunday night, with the support of her parents, that she wasn't going to do it. This became a non-issue today, however, when the school district decided it could not demand an apology:
“The district acknowledges a student’s right to freedom of speech and expression is constitutionally protected. The district has not censored Miss Sullivan nor infringed upon her freedom of speech,” said a statement. “She is not required to write a letter of apology to the Governor. Whether and to whom any apologies are issued will be left to the individuals involved.”
Sam Brownback himself responded by blaming his staff:
A statement issued by Brownback on Monday did not reference Sullivan by name or mention the prospect of any apology letter. He did emphasize his support for "freedom of speech," while thanking "the thousands of Kansas educators who remind us daily of our liberties, as well as the values of civility and decorum."
"My staff overreacted to this tweet, and for that I apologize," the governor said. "Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms."
Meanwhile Sullivan's Twitter following has jumped from 63 to almost 11,000 (as of now). Brownback's is at about 3,000. And the #heblowsalot hashtag is being used constantly by Sullivan's supporters. A representative tweet:

It's unusual, I think, not to have heard of Brownback before considering that he was a U.S. senator from 1996 until this year, and ran for president in 2008. Still, there's no question that awareness of him is exploding because of this...and doubtless not in a way he would prefer. Like the enormously successful campaign to re-define Rick Santorum's last name, "heblowsalot" might become the phrase that comes to most people's minds when considering Governor Brownback.

Now, here's the question: would that be a good thing? Does Sam Brownback, in fact, blow?

Maybe not literally. But as those of us from Kansas--especially women-- who are not right-wingers are more than aware, figuratively he most certainly does. If you want a quick idea, imagine Rick Perry and take away some reasoning ability and restraint. As Amanda Marcotte notes over at Slate,
I suppose it's not that big a surprise that someone like Brownback, who has a strong belief that women should not be in control of their own ladyparts, would also find the notion that teenage girls have the legal right to make fun of him deeply threatening. First he comes for your abortions, then your contraception, and next any fancy electronic devices that could be used to register displeasure with dudely authority figures. The freakout over a teenage girl having a less-than-flattering opinion of him was also predictable if you look at Brownback's long history with the C Street Family, a religious-political group that specifically promotes patriarchy and disdains the idea of women holding political power. (Though they have been known to make exceptions for the occasional woman who has economic goals in common with them.) To a large extent, Brownback has created a bubble around him that has a pleasing 19th-century cast to it, where young people and women knew their place, and men of privilege are protected from the opinions of those who are most subject to social control. No wonder a juvenile bit of tweetage caused such an oversized reaction.
This is not an exaggeration. Brownback has spent his years in office, both as senator and governor, doing everything he can to restrict reproductive freedom for women. He is also not a fan of state funding for art, having eliminated Kansas' arts commission this year making it the only state without such an agency. He denies evolution and supports the Discovery Institute (intelligent design think tank), is relentlessly pro-war (supporting the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the suspension of habeas corpus rights under the Military Commissions Act of 2007), and is so adamantly opposed to gay marriage that in 2006 he blocked confirmation of federal judicial nominee Janet Neff because she had attended a same-sex commitment ceremony. He believes that the Constitution does not carry any guarantee of a right to privacy. His record on civil rights is rated-- this will shock you-- 20 percent by the ACLU. Pretty dismal. As is, no doubt, the outlook of any Kansan who cares about civil rights since Brownback assumed governorship, which I'm guessing includes Emma Sullivan.

But regardless of why Sullivan thinks Brownback blows, specifically, I think her handling of the issue has been excellent. She seems quite level-headed:
Emma Sullivan said Sunday that she thought the tweet "has turned into a good starting point to open up dialogue about this ... free speech and the power of social media and the power that people my age could potentially have, that people will listen to us."
Indeed, indeed. Although it's unfortunate that this dialogue would not have opened up in the first place had Brownback's staff and Sullivan's principal (any bets on whether she'll get an apology from him?) both not wildly overreacted to something said in that context.

This whole event could result in a bully pulpit for Ms. Sullivan, should she choose to use it. She said that she's interested in getting involved in politics, and judging from the coverage this is getting not only on Twitter but ABC, CNN, HuffPo, and so on, this seems like a good start! I hope she takes advantage of it to go out and do something. Whatever she finds most appropriate to do in terms of combating the many ways in which Sam Brownback sucks. And blows.

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