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October 7, 1969 is a date that lives in infamy among the older citizens of Quebec much as the mere mention of December 7, 1941 or September 11, 2001 elicits a visceral response in her neighbors to the south. But rather than a planned attack, the mayhem that day had erupted as organically and spontaneously as a lawn fungus. The “Night of Terror,” as it is still known among longtime residents, had been unrehearsed and uncoordinated, but it was utterly predictable. The chaos had not arrived as a bolt-out-of-the-blue like the violence that befell Pearl Harbor or the Twin Towers. Nevertheless, anyone who correctly understood human nature could have seen this coming from light-years away.The implications of the lessons learned that night are palpable for those who seek to run orderly classrooms, schools, or school districts. As an education speaker, I try to help educators prevent similar anarchy.
The local Montreal city police and fire departments went on a scheduled strike at 9:00 AM that fateful day, hoping for better pay and working conditions. What ensued was pure madness. By noon, the first bank had been robbed. Five more would be hit before closing time. So many storefronts were smashed that it would take forty train car loads of glass to repair the damage. More than 100 stores were looted. A dozen buildings were torched. Property damage averaged almost 1.5 million inflation-adjusted dollars per hour  before the army restored order in the wee hours of October 8. By the time the sun rose on the rubble that had been less than 24 hours earlier one of Canada’s glittering jewels (watch VIDEO from Canadian Broadcasting Company’s news reportage of the event), two men had been shot dead, including a provincial police corporal called in to help quell the rioting in the absence of city officers and 20 more wounded. The dreadful episode underscores the aptness of the “thin blue line” metaphor depicting the lone bulwark protecting civilization from anarchy: a proportionately microscopic queue of blue-clad law enforcement officers.


The catastrophe that shut down Montreal that day should have surprised no one, but nonetheless unleashed shock and awe among those who believe that human beings are innately good. Their blank slate (tabula rasa) theory of human nature under-girds much political thinking to this very day. The term “noble savage” was first employed by 17th century author John Dryden in his play, The Conquest of Granada. Dryden’s assumption was that man in his natural state is innocent and pure, untainted by selfishness and greed. In this view crime, war and hatred are the result of corrupting influences introduced to the individual by society, much as smallpox was carried to the Seneca, the Cree, the Blackfeet, the Mandan and the Taino tribes of America  by European settlers. This romanticized view of man remains today (even dominates in some quarters) despite thousands of years of actual human history during which war has been continual and strife has been a constant. Orderly civilization (absent the iron-fisted rule of the occasional tyrant) has been the exception, not the rule, throughout human history, and is a relatively recent anomaly birthed predominantly in Western Europe. Some of the supposedly-noble “savages” from faraway lands who had been hailed as proof of mankind’s innate goodness are now known to have been absolutely brutal with their own enemies. In contradiction to the dogma, crime rates generally vary inversely with the strength of law enforcement. At the global level, the reach of our nation’s enemies extends as American military power shrinks, and retreats when we expand it. To the noble-savage crowd, the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq represented the elimination of an aggravating factor – the removal of a thorn in the flesh or a grain of sand from the eye – that should have resulted in a lowering of tensions in the area. Instead, it emboldened the crazies of ISIS and intensified the fighting. This tendency is also notable in education.


In December of 2017 an analysis of school discipline reforms in Philadelphia’s public schools revealed that the new policies had not helped, but backfired. Embracing “restorative justice,” as the reformers had dubbed it, meant that students would no longer be suspended for classroom conduct. The results were as sobering as they were predictable: skyrocketing truancy, increased violent behavior, and declining achievement. Though truancy rates had been declining prior to the reforms, they increased dramatically after implementation. Compared with other similar Pennsylvania school districts, math and reading skills declined. Ironically (but only for the blank slate crowd), student suspensions increased because the few who had previously been punished for mild misbehavior were replaced by the many who became guilty of much more serious infractions. Similar discipline reforms in New York, Chicago, Syracuse, Baton Rouge and Minneapolis were also followed by serious deterioration in student conduct and a sharp uptick in violence. But adherents of the discipline reforms dismissed these results and yawned, arguing that merely revealed a need for better implementation and more tweaking. Like the faith healer who always has a rationale for explaining why attendees at his “miracle rallies” never receive any actual miracles, the blank slate devotees are religious zealots who never question their underlying faith.


Adherents of the blank slate view genuinely believe that crimes are committed as an angry, spiteful retaliation against a society that permits aggressive law enforcement, or a school system that strictly enforces conduct codes. In their bizarre world, a profoundly good person hears that incarceration rates are high, becomes filled with righteous indignation and is driven by this injustice to grab a gun and mug an innocent person in the park. As crazy as it sounds, the presupposition that the criminal was intrinsically good prior to the crime leaves no other alternative explanation, for why else would a good person turn to crime if not induced to do so by an oppressive society? For true believers, the August 9, 1998 New York Times headline made perfect sense: “Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops.” The salient word in that title is “although.” To the blank-slate crowd (presumably including the NYT reporter), a drop in crime could not be caused by removing criminals from the streets, for that most certainly would have had incited hordes of good people to break bad and thus produce an even higher crime rate. To them, a lower crime rate merely served as proof that incarceration had been altogether unnecessary from the start: why bother locking people up when the crime rate is dropping anyway? It reminds me of the time I was on a plane about 15 years ago. When I requested a Diet Sprite, the flight attendant looked momentarily bewildered. She shook her head in wonder and said, “I just don’t get it. Why is it always the skinny ones that order the diet drinks?” Like the Tabula-Rasa folks, she had her causes and effects backwards. People don’t order diet sodas because they’re skinny; they’re skinny because they choose drinks with fewer calories. War isn’t caused by our powerful military; it is averted. Crime doesn’t occur because of aggressive law enforcement, it is reduced by it. Truancy isn’t caused by rigorous rule enforcement; it is reduced. When politics are led by religious dogmas like the Blank Slate, the result is always the opposite of what was predicted. Believe the right things, and you will tend to do the right things; hold fast to your illusions, and all your efforts will be for naught.

Written by billyriggs