Americans are immersed in bitter arguments over federalized healthcare and multiple-front wars and kill lists and complex federal taxes. Much of the national dialogue orbits the question of how much central government is too much — of whether or not power should be taken from the hands of the feds and returned to the hands of states and localities.
The focus on that argument leads us to lose sight of the fact that local governments can be just as supremely thuggish, priggish, nosy, defensive, reactionary, and muddle-headed as national governments, just on a small scale. I'd venture to say that local government idiocy is a popular theme on this blog.
This is a story of local government idiocy. It's not American — but it's emblematic of why local governments can be the fire to national government's frying pan.
This story is about a local government that put a halt to a citizen taking pictures in a government facility.
Was it someone taking pictures of police misconduct, or photographing public buildings feared to be targets of terrorism?
No. It was a little girl, taking pictures of her lunch, at school.
The little girl is nine-year-old Martha Payne of Lochgilphead in Argyll, Scotland. Martha has a blog. The blog is one of those sweet things in life that makes me uncritically delighted without worrying about descending into sentimentality. The blog is called NeverSeconds, and Martha started it because she didn't particularly like the meals served at her local public school. Most nine-year-olds — heck, most adults — might have started a blog that was crass, sloppy, vulgar, or otherwise modern in outlook to deal with that sentiment. Martha — who goes by "Veg" on the blog — didn't. Her blog is funny, rather polite, full of sharp observation, and with neat and painstaking reviews:
Today's meal was on the menu as Cheeseburger and ice cream/biscuit but as you can see I got an ice lolly. I prefer ice cream. I wish they had stuck to the menu. I did get 2 croquettes though only 3 pieces of cucumber when I said no thanks to the peas.
Mouthfuls- eating and counting and chatting to friends is hard!
Health Rating- 2/10
Pieces of hair- 0!
The good thing about this blog is Dad understands why I am hungry when I get home. Today he made a Banana Loaf, shame I don't like bananas, see I am not perfect!
Each such entry has a closely-focused picture of the lunch, which Martha takes with her camera. Martha does not excoriate the food or the people who make it. She's far more polite about food than my kids.
There are also observations of a child's life. Perhaps her parents help her write, perhaps not. She has a gift for description:
I played a clarinet solo in a concert today after school to celebrate the end of my first year learning to play. I was so stiff with nerves at the end of the performance that I had to take a moment before I could walk away. I still had butterflies afterwards when I played in our small group of five. The concert was in the lunch hall and it was packed and everyone clapped and cheered a lot.
Word spread. Eventually NeverSeconds went viral. Martha handled it with aplomb. She began communicating with students across the world and adding their pictures and descriptions of their lunches, and asking her increasing audience to donate so other kids could eat, all without losing the essential sweetness of her posts.
This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today.
I only write my blog not newspapers and I am sad I am no longer allowed to take photos. I will miss sharing and rating my school dinners and I’ll miss seeing the dinners you send me too. I don’t think I will be able to finish raising enough money for a kitchen for Mary’s Meals either.
Martha's father confirmed the source of the decision was not the school itself:
I contacted Argyll and Bute Council when Martha told me what happened at school today and they told me it was their decision to ban Martha’s photography.
So. There's that danger to good order dealt with.
I confess I know very little about the council system in the United Kingdom. I can say I can't recall hearing a good thing about it, only many bad. It seems to be a part of the descent of that noble land, to which we owe our common heritage of freedom, into freakish statism. Not that America is in a position to throw the first stone — or even so much as the first grain of sand. The mote is lodged firmly in our unseeing eye.
Why did the Argyll and Bute Council decide to forbid Martha to take pictures of her lunch? We don't know. Perhaps it was some new ludicrous zero tolerance for cameras policy. Perhaps the council felt that, even though Martha took pictures of her tray, she might possibly take pictures of a classmate and invade their privacy and inspire a complaint. Perhaps pictures are seen as a security risk. Perhaps they thought she was being insolent. Perhaps they didn't like the tone of the latest newspaper story about the school lunches under their control. Perhaps they felt that if Martha could write about government-supplied lunches in government-run schools, other children might be inspired to write about the government and how it runs things, and grow up thinking that doing so is something proper and admirable to do. Perhaps their sensibilities were offended. They may eventually back off in embarrassment with a vague excuse, or they may stand their ground with some justification. Neither can be trusted.
NeverSeconds was an opportunity for Martha to learn about writing regularly and being responsible for a publication. It was an opportunity for her to show other kids that the could express themselves as well. It was an opportunity to learn about nutrition. It was an opportunity to connect with, and learn about, people in other places and cultures.
But this is a learning opportunity, too. Martha and her fans — both young and old — learned something about government, and how to view it.
The lesson, offered by the short and heretofore pleasant arc of Martha's blogging career, is that the government (and the sort of people who aspire to be in it) feels entitled to dictate such things based on a wide variety of reasons. The government thinks that it ought to be able to tell little girls not to photograph their lunch, in the name of good order. The government things that it knows a great many things better than you and I do, and that it is right and fit that they be empowered to instruct us to do it their way. The lesson, preached often here, is this: the government is not your friend. The people in it are not your friends. They smile. But they are there because they are the sort of people who like telling other people what to do, people they do not know, people over whom they have no moral claim, regarding things that are not justly any business of theirs. That is what they do. That is who they are.
This all happens at our sufferance. One hopes that sufferance is limited.
If, like me, you don't think much of this, perhaps you could let them know.
UPDATED: Hooray for our awesome readers, who updated the story whilst I slept. They report, and provide links, that the Council has retreated, that donations to Martha's charity have surged, and the "leader" of the Council has issued a conciliatory statement. Our readers were too quick for the Council, though, and caught their defiant, entitled, censorship-apologizing first draft:
Argyll and Bute Council wholly refutes the unwarranted attacks on its schools catering service which culminated in national press headlines which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs. The Council has directly avoided any criticism of anyone involved in the ‘never seconds’ blog for obvious reasons …
In particular, the photographic images uploaded appear to only represent a fraction of the choices available to pupils, so a decision has been made by the council to stop photos being taken in the school canteen.
There have been discussions between senior council staff and Martha’s father however, despite an acknowledgement that the media coverage has produced these unwarranted attacks, he intimated that he would continue with the blog.
The council has had no complaints for the last two years about the quality of school meals other than one from the Payne family
Those are only fragments, thanks to commenter Clark; if someone has a screenshot or full version, I would be very grateful to see it.
The original statement is the honest expression of the attitude of the people who work for the Council, and for government everywhere, issued before a higher-up stepped in and judged that power must yield to prudence in this instance. The Council's initial statement demonstrates a sick entitlement by government to be free of criticism, a belief that they may impose their concept of "fairness" upon citizen speech, a sense that government actors ought to be protected from the uninformed opinions of the great unwashed, lest their fee-fees be hurt and good order disrupted. That, again, is the lesson here. These people are not your friends. But there's a more hopeful lesson as well: by publicizing government misbehavior, we can occasionally shame them into respecting the rights of citizens.
Second Edit: Thanks to reader Jay, who has the entire original defensive statement in the comments.
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