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The Ross Murty T-Shirt Incident: Teaching Kids About Rights, Responsibility & Respect

Iowa caterer t shirt ross murty

Iowa Deli Owner Ross Murty in the T-Shirt He Wore While Being Paid To Cater an Obama Campaign Event

A few days ago, I was driving a gaggle of kids somewhere or another, and we were listening to a  conservative talk radio show during which the host was discussing  the much-reported recent incident  in which a Davenport, Iowa deli owner named Ross Murty, who had been hired by the Obama campaign to cater an event on their behalf wore a t-shirt while serving at the event making it clear he supports the other guy in the race.

Along with my 5- and 2-year-old daughters, my 14-year-old son and his same-age pal were also in the car with me, and after hearing the pundit expressing his support for Mr. Murty’s decision to wear the shirt, the two boys asked me explain what the radio show host was talking about. So I did. And it led to a really good discussion about rights, responsibilities, and respect.

By way of background, I told the boys that the shirt that Mr. Murty wore while  being paid by the Obama campaign to perform a service read, “Government Didn’t Build My Business. I Did,” a slogan that referenced a comment President Obama made  during  a speech he delivered in Virginia last month. Because I had previously looked up and read the text of the entire speech from which the comment  was taken, I was able to explain to the two boys that when taken completely out of its actual context, President Obama’s single remark about government’s role in building businesses does sound rather dismissive of  personal initiative in creating business success.

I went on to express my view to the two newly-minted high school freshmen riding in the car that while President Obama could have perhaps used more artful phrasing in making his larger point — which was that it’s important to recognize the ways that individual Americans who succeed are helped along by collaborative support from other Americans (AKA: “government”) –  his position is pretty well accepted by Americans on both sides of the political aisle. In fact, his opponent, Gov. Romney actually made much the same point in a different setting when he spoke to Olympic athletes at the opening of the 2002 Olympics, saying,  “You Olympians, however, know you didn’t get here solely on your own power … For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers, encouraged your hopes, coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them. We’ve already cheered the Olympians, let’s also cheer the parents, coaches, and communities. All right! ” 

Just like President Obama in his speech last month, Gov. Romney’s comments were made in the context of a longer commentary in which he praised individual initiative, but both men point to communities providing public works and support as enhancements to that individual initiative.

After I explained the background on the slogan adorning Mr. Murty’s t-shirt, I told the boys that I believed it was really disrespectful for Mr. Murty to have worn it while serving at the event he’d been hired by the Obama campaign to cater.

“But didn’t he have a right to wear the shirt, even though it said something the Obama campiagn people didn’t like?” one of the kids asked me.

I responded by agreeing  that Mr. Murty absolutely had the right to express his political views via t-shirt slogan, and that this right is a fundamental part of being an American, but  I also cautioned the boys that every time we exercise a civil or constitutional right, we should also be thinking about our personal responsibilities, and considering whether our own actions show respect for others.

I went on to say that in my opinion, in exercising his right to criticize President Obama via t-shirt slogan in the particular way in which he did it, Mr. Murty did not consider whether his action would be respectful, or would show responsibility. In fact, I  explained to them, I found it incredibly disrespectful and rude for a small business owner to accept money from a paying customer, but to then wear a shirt that denigrated and mocked that paying customer while doing the work for which he was being paid. And that’s exactly what Ross Murty did.

I further explained to the kids in the seats behind me that my poor opinion of Mr. Murty’s behavior has zero to do with my personal support for President Obama’s campaign; I would feel exactly the same way if the situation were reversed, and a caterer being paid to serve at a Romney event wore a shirt mocking the GOP candidate in some way. I would also believe that Mr. Murty showed lack of courtesy, and ignored his responsibilities to a paying customer of his business if, for example, he agreed to cater an event hosted by Special Olympics, but then wore a shirt expressing criticism for the Americans With Disabilities Act while he served the food, or if he took money from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to prepare and serve a luncheon for them, but then wore a t-shirt reading, “U.S. Military Out of Iraq Now!” while handing out plates to the VFW’s invited guests.

Unlike the talk radio pundit who sparked the conversation I had with the kids in the car the other day, I do not see what Mr. Murty did in wearing that shirt as “courageous.”  It was simply rude, and showed tremendous lack of understanding for basic customer service, which any small business person will tell you is fundamental to success. I never want my kids to be sneaky, and it was sneaky of Mr. Murty to voluntarily accept money from a paying customer – any paying customer – in exchange for providing a service at a special event, but to then flagrantly attempt to undermine the whole point of the event for which he was being paid.

There are two kinds of “right,” I explained to the kids; while Ross Murty may have had the right to wear that much-reported-upon t-shirt, that doesn’t make it right that he chose to do so. One type of right is collective – something that all Americans share by virtue of our shared vision for what kind of country we want to live in – while the second type of “right” is about taking personal responsibility for one’s own, individual actions, and making personal decisions that reflect well on oneself, one’s family and one’s community. In some ways, I realized as I explained this to the boys, the balance of the two kinds of “right” are similar to the balance that President Obama was articulating in the speech that sparked Mr. Murty’s t-shirt slogan.

It was a good conversation. As a parent, I find that these “car talks” often are the best, because I have a captive audience for attempting to create teachable moments. I think what we talked about the other day was very important, and I really hope that the boys “got” what I was saying. But just in case I wasn’t clear enough, I think I am going to sit them both down sometime this week and introduce them to someone named Ms. Aretha Franklin…

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