Class Warfare:a History
Capo Valley High's James Corbett isn't the first local educator to face the ire of OC's cultural conservatives
Consider these two quotations:
"You are a liberal asshole. Teach school, not politics and religion. You jackass, you are the type [sic] person poisoning our kids' minds, not teaching them history. Jackass!!!!"
"His lack of discretion and his callousness toward the patriotic feelings of local citizens have helped to show that a threat exists right here in our community."
The first is from an e-mail sent last week to James Corbett, the history teacher at Capistrano Valley High School who is now the defendant in a lawsuit filed last year by sophomore Chad Farnan and his parents alleging Corbett insulted Christians and Christianity during class—including by making a much-vilified statement about "Jesus glasses."
The second—while it would fit in well with the vitriol that has been flooding Corbett's inbox since December, and was directed at an Orange County educator—is actually much older.
It was written in 1961, as a letter to the editors of the Santa Ana Register, and refers to Joel Dvorman, then a high-school counselor in Fullerton and a trustee of the Magnolia School District. Like Corbett more than four decades later, Dvorman had become the target of the county's cultural right—not for allegedly criticizing Christianity in his classroom, but for hosting a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in his back yard.
The parallels between Corbett's and Dvorman's stories are striking, and Corbett is aware of them: His father was a supporter of Dvorman during that controversy.
Last month, a federal judge found the Farnans' lawsuit plausible—based on the claim itself, not on any evidence—and denied the Capistrano Unified School District's request for its dismissal.
The Farnans declined to comment for this story, directing all inquiries to their lawyers. Corbett had refused all interview requests since the Farnans filed their suit, but agreed to speak with the Weekly. He also shared some further correspondence, which includes friendly notes along with the hate mail.
"That's the bizarre thing," Corbett says. "I've never had a letter from a former student except a letter of support. And virtually 100 percent of the letters that are negative come from people who have never been in my class and don't know me."
In breaking his media silence, Corbett is attempting to engage with his detractors, to get his side of the story to the public. Dvorman took a similar tack when conservatives pilloried him for his allegedly communist views, beginning in 1960. As Corbett well knows, the Dvorman controversy helped launch the Orange County front of America's culture war—into which Corbett is the latest draftee.
"The only reasonable thing to do is to resist," Corbett says. "There's not going to be any compromise on my part."
* * *
It's difficult to find the ashes of Joel Samuel Dvorman, even for the caretakers at Fairhaven Memorial Cemetery in Santa Ana. Ask a clerk for Dvorman's cremains, and an elderly woman will furrow her brow, trot out a yellowed diagram and carefully explain their location: in Fairhaven's Neoclassical-style mausoleum, in the right-hand columbarium just before you enter its chapel. Niche No. 374, second-to-last column to the right, seven rows up. Here, you'll see a simple brass plaque bolted to marble with Dvorman's name and his years of life. A shriveled petal and leaf sit inside a flower holder just to the left of the niche.
Nothing about the humble resting spot declares, "Here lies the sacrificial lamb in the conservative revolution for Orange County's soul." But the Dvorman affair was that seminal to the county's political culture.
The Magnolia School District is one of the smallest in Orange County, a collection of nine elementary schools spread across Anaheim and Stanton within the rough borders of La Palma and Katella avenues to the north and south, Brookhurst Street to the east and Beach Boulevard to the west. The neighborhoods served by the district were traditionally white working-class but are now increasingly immigrant—mostly Latino, with a smattering of Arabs and Asians.
A New York native, Dvorman was a World War II Army Air Forces veteran who earned the Purple Heart for his injuries in the European theater. Coming to Orange County as part of the surge of new residents in the 1950s, he became a well-liked counselor and math teacher at Fullerton Union High School. He was married, college-educated, the father of two boys and a girl, a homeowner. He ran for and won a seat on the Magnolia School District Board of Trustees in 1960.
But Dvorman immediately proved unpopular. One of his first actions was to vote against a measure proposed by Magnolia's other trustees to distribute Bibles in schools. For a district that had just desegregated five years earlier—long after the historic 1948 case Mendez v. Westminster ended segregation in Orange County elementary schools—this new trustee was too much for some parents: a liberal Jew who was a member of the ACLU and openly participated in protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
With the Cold War just starting, anti-communist hysteria ruled civic discourse in Orange County, and few groups were as reviled as the ACLU. The organization's Orange County chapter—founded in the late 1950s after the Anaheim Bulletin and other local newspapers tried to stop Nobel Prize laureate and anti-nuclear activist Linus Pauling from speaking in the county—always had a hard time renting rooms for their activities. As a result, Orange County ACLU members began holding meetings at their residences. On June 24, 1960, it was Dvorman's turn.
A couple of dozen people gathered in Dvorman's house, a modest Anaheim tract home that still stands. The guest speaker was Frank Wilkinson, who had just been released from prison for refusing to testify before HUAC. Even before that incident, Wilkinson was a notorious figure in Southern California: As the assistant director for the Housing Authority of Los Angeles in the early 1950s, he had proposed building public housing in the city's Chavez Ravine district. Instead, city officials ran him out of town for the "socialist" idea and sold the land to the Brooklyn Dodgers for $1.
Wilkinson was traveling across the country in the summer of 1960, urging citizens to pressure Congress into terminating HUAC. No records exist of what exactly Wilkinson shared with his audience the afternoon he spoke at Dvorman's house. But attending the meeting was Anaheim resident James Wallace, a supervisor at an aerospace factory who was interested in hearing what a communist might say. Two and a half weeks later, Wallace wrote a letter to the then-Santa Ana Register describing the event.
"To my amazement and horror," he wrote, "instead of treating [Wilkinson] like the traitor he is, [attendees] gave him a very warm welcome." Wallace added that Dvorman was an elected official and fretted, "a flagrantly subversive organization like the American Civil Liberties Union [is] operating undisturbed in our community. . . . I think that our newspapers are neglecting a very important duty by failing to alert people to communist activity here at home."
Wallace's letter sparked an immediate furor. The following day, the Register ran a retraction of Wallace's charge of treason against Wilkinson under threat of a libel lawsuit. "We have no evidence that Mr. Wilkinson has committed any traitorous acts," the paper's editors admitted. "Since we have no such evidence, the Register retracts the quoted statement that he is obviously a traitor."
Even more vicious, however, was public sentiment against Dvorman. Starting in August and continuing through September, hundreds of people attended Magnolia School District board meetings and urged the board to censure Dvorman for his ACLU membership. Dvorman, for his part, goaded critics: During the Sept. 6 board meeting, he told a disbelieving audience he would "condone and tolerate" any Magnolia teacher who hosted an ACLU meeting at his or her house. On Sept. 19, parents delivered a notice to Dvorman during a school-board meeting announcing their intentions to recall him.
His ACLU membership, hosting of Wilkinson and desire to abolish HUAC "indicate Dvorman is either in sympathy with those groups which oppose our present form of government or is unaware of the subversive nature and objectives of these groups," the parents wrote. This was the first time in the ACLU's history that a member was being recalled from public office for his ties to the group.
Recall proponents quickly gathered the signatures necessary to place Dvorman's removal on the spring 1961 ballot. Through it all, Dvorman and his supporters undercut his cause by taking it to the public. The ACLU tried to organize town-hall debates and coffee klatches, but most erupted into shouting matches provoked by Dvorman's opponents. The ACLU filed a complaint with the Orange County Department of Education against the Newport Mesa Unified School District because trustees wouldn't allow the group the use of a room at Harper Elementary (now a preschool). The complaint further inflamed public sentiment against the ACLU and Dvorman.
Then there was the Dec. 20 ACLU meeting held in the basement of First Christian Church in Orange. More than 200 packed the small space to hear the group go through their usual monthly meeting. Knowing that the majority of the audience members were Dvorman opponents, outgoing OC ACLU chairman Ted Hooker launched into an impassioned speech about liberty and patriotism, claiming American democracy "was created by [such] men as Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton and Joel Dvorman."
"And Khruschev!" someone yelled, as the audience booed.
Random people began shouting: "Are you a communist? Do you defend communists? The people who want to kill us? Do you protect those who kill you?" Someone noticed there was no American flag in the room, and the audience erupted again.
Eventually, things settled down, and someone asked Dvorman his thoughts on the Pledge of Allegiance. "I am suggesting the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag may not be the best way to fight communism," he replied. "However, it is not wrong to salute the flag. In fact, as far as I'm concerned, people can do it every hour on the hour.
"You can't get rid of an evil by sticking your head in the ground," he continued. "You can't expect Communism not to exist until the 12th grade. We must [teach students] why our system is the greatest."
* * *
James Corbett's classroom is a lesson in modern history. Dozens of posters from Belfast, Beirut, Iran, Italy, France and Greece hang like relics in an exhibit on modern political graphic art. There are photographs of trips taken with Capistrano Valley High seniors to Europe, in front of the Parthenon, on the Eiffel Tower. There are books on the coffee table in front of the couches that line his classroom, on bookshelves, everywhere: The Mormon Experience, Lies My Teacher Told Me, The Celtic Heroic Age, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. It's the kind of disheveled intellectual environment that provokes curiosity.
This is Corbett's sanctuary. It is where he sets the stage and context for some of the most violent and triumphant moments in modern European history. He teaches the class like a college course, daily bringing up an article or two from The Orange County Register or the Los Angeles Times during the class segment on current events and raising pointed questions.
These questions also make their way into his history lectures. He makes leaps quickly and excitedly when he talks. At 61, the married father of two children (with a daughter at the Jesuit-run Boston College, he points out) is passionate, perhaps a little brusque, opinionated and insisting always that history is not about the past, but its connection to the present. Today, he's dressed like a professor: small wire-frame glasses; a neat, deep-green suit jacket; a white linen shirt; and slacks.
"Of all classes, we know that kids hate history the most," Corbett says. "They see it as irrelevant. I'm making it relevant. . . . That really—sadly, on some levels—is the job of a social-science teacher: You mustget across to the kids that there are many different points of view. And of course, the problem comes when you start dealing with recent history.
"As soon as you start talking about what's going on now," he says, "then there are people who have a position—and they don't want that position challenged."
He never imagined he'd be sued. The only other time he was involved in a suit was when another Capo teacher, John Peloza, sued the school district and a string of teachers for trying to prohibit him from discussing creationism in his biology class. The case was eventually dismissed.
Corbett defends his "Jesus glasses" reference by explaining the historical context in which he delivered it, which was the effect the Catholic Church had on peasants during the reign of Joseph II of Austria, who attempted to redistribute land belonging to the monasteries to the poor. The poor were turned against Joseph II by the Church, says Corbett, and rejected what was in their best interests. "In effect, the Church put Jesus glasses on the peasants, and the peasants couldn't see their own best interests. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but apparently other people think there is. It's a wonderfully provocative phrase, when you put it out of context. I mean, that's why I've gotten hundreds of letters from people who are just, I mean, people literally calling for my death, calling for 'you should be tortured,' 'you should be fired.'"
* * *
As Magnolia School District parents battled over Dvorman, the controversy created an unintended offshoot: the rise of Orange County's unique conservatism.
When the Dvorman recall was launched, the county had no unifying conservative movement to rally activists. The Orange County Republican Party was a couple of years away from starting the Lincoln Club; Barry Goldwater was still an obscure Arizona senator. But with Dvorman, conservatives had a palpable menace against which to publicly mobilize.
Almost overnight, the county assumed the reactionary mantle for which it would become infamous. Early in 1960, only a couple of chapters of the John Birch Society existed in Orange County. By the end, dozens of them had sprouted—Anaheim alone had about six to accommodate all interested parties. At the beginning of 1961, Santa Ana College offered a course in the history of communism. So many people attended the first class that school officials decided to offer a second course. They hired a young Marine named John Schmitz to teach it; he would parlay his position to a successful, wildly controversial career as a California state senator and congressman.
Schmitz—a John Birch Society member who joined because he "wished to identify with the moderate wing of the Republican Party in Orange County"—volunteered in the Orange County Freedom Forum, which sought to "educate the people of our community to threats against our nation's form of government and threats against our nation's way of life." The Freedom Forum opened bookstores in Fullerton, Costa Mesa, Garden Grove and Anaheim that hawked tracts against liberalism, the ACLU and communism. Springing from the Freedom Forum was the Orange County School of Anti-Communism, which counted Walter Knott, Carl Karcher and the Reverend Robert Schuller, among other local icons, as head committee members. This group sponsored a week-long seminar across the county in which films, lectures and rallies detailed communism's evil to its thousands of attendees. The seminar culminated with an assembly at Anaheim's Glover Stadium attended by more than 7,000 students, including most of Magnolia School District.
All the while, the frenzy against Dvorman grew. Hundreds of letters blasting the trustee poured into the Register, Anaheim Bulletin, Fullerton Tribune and other community newspapers. For its part, the Register editorialized that people who supported Dvorman "now find that there are voices rising strongly in opposition to the socialistic trend in government. They have decried 'McCarthyism,' yet they have attacked viciously and irresponsibly anyone who ventures to question the objectives sought by" liberal politicians. One reporter even described a meeting with an ACLU member thusly: "My thoughts raced back to the Nazi occupation of my former homeland in Europe."
Recall proponents dug into Dvorman's past and discovered he once belonged to a "subversive" group called the American Youth of Democracy while a student at Wayne State University in Detroit. When publicly challenged on his membership, Dvorman argued he joined to fight segregation in the city; incredibly, opponents argued blacks there did not suffer discrimination because they lived in a "Negro district." Rumors even flew around town that the reason the Dvormans' front door was painted red was because of his Communist sympathies.
In a last-ditch effort, the Southern California ACLU decided to help Dvorman. On Feb. 21, 1961, they issued a statement to Orange County newspapers saying the "concerted, well-organized campaign of defamation of" the ACLU and Dvorman was "a grab bag of half-truths, distortions and gross misrepresentations of actual fact."
"We ask you only to oppose us on the real issues and on the factual record, not on musty, scatter-gun charges that have long ceased to be meaningful and should at last be accorded a decent burial," stated the release. "We do not believe that Dvorman's qualifications for public office should hinge on his membership in the ACLU any more than John F. Kennedy's qualifications for the presidency should be determined by his religion, his membership in the American Legion, the Bird Watchers Society, or any other private affiliation."
Attached to the statement (and now on file at UCLA's Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections) were letters written by World War II heroes Douglas Macarthur and Dwight Eisenhower praising the ACLU, along with a note by former President Harry S Truman stating the organization had "performed outstanding service to the cause of true freedom."
No newspaper published this.
When it became apparent that Dvorman would be recalled, the ACLU filed two lawsuits in Orange County Superior Court hoping to stop the recall: One claimed the recall's grounds were "factually incorrect," another argued the official notice for the recall was written incorrectly. A judge denied both motions.
On April 12, 1961, Dvorman told an unconvinced group of parents, "I am not a Communist, I have never been a Communist, I am not a Communist sympathizer, and I have never been a Communist sympathizer." By then, it was too late. A couple of days before the April 21 recall vote, James Wallace—the man who outed Dvorman's ACLU meeting—wrote another letter to the Register. "For the part he has played in making the John Birch Society possible in Anaheim, I shall be eternally grateful to Joel Dvorman," he mockingly wrote.
Dvorman was overwhelmingly recalled, with 77 percent of voters favoring his removal. His employers at Fullerton Union High School demoted him from counselor to remedial math teacher in the fall.
Throughout the recall, Dvorman admitted the ordeal had strained his health but was worth it, as he claimed the ACLU had grown to about 300 members. On Jan. 7, 1962, Dvorman asked his wife for a glass of water, complaining about a sore throat. When she returned to the bedroom, her husband was dead of a heart attack. Dvorman was 36.
All the newspapers noted his passing with straight news stories. No paper expressed condolences—except Woody Cove with the Laguna Beach Post. "The veil is ripped from the faces of our local Superpatriots," he fumed on Jan. 25. "We know them well now. We know them by their victims. They are not fighting Communists. They are not fighting America's enemies. They are America's enemies. They have the notch on their gun to prove it. They've got Joel Dvorman's blood smeared across their hands. Walk proud, Birchers."
* * *
Leo and Roberta Corbett remember the day their next-door neighbors packed all of their belongings and fled during the night. The year was 1957. Orange County school districts were reluctantly initiating a slow desegregation process—and many families weren't having it. The Corbetts were raising their two sons, James and John, in the growing, patchy neighborhood of West Anaheim, served exclusively by the Magnolia School District. The neighbors had daughters, Roberta remembers, and they couldn't stomach the prospect of sending their girls to school with "Mexicans."
"That's where this story really begins," says Leo.
James Corbett was just a kid when Dvorman was being vilified by the press, but he remembers the climate while growing up. "I remember that they brought on these Americanism speakers. And they brought all of the elementary-school kids in Anaheim to La Palma Park [where Glover Stadium is located]. And there was a sea of flags. And I was one of those kids," he says. "They gave these American speeches and anti-communist speeches. They were actually passing out fundamentalist-religious literature in elementary-school classrooms at the time." He remembers more vividly his parents' objections to the park lectures and their support of Dvorman.
"He was just a nice, decent guy," says Leo, 86, of Dvorman. Leo says he met Dvorman after reading about him in the paper. "I wouldn't have done anything, except I heard that the reason they were after him was because he was a communist, and the proof was that he had a red front door." Leo went to Dvorman's house to find out if there was anything he could do to help. Soon, he and other Dvorman supporters were outed in the media as members of the "Secret Six," a group accused of sympathizing with communists.
He doesn't think what his son is now going through is much different. "James will fight this—he's tough," Leo says.
"But these people are amateurs compared to the ones 40 years ago," he continues. "They went right to [Bill] O'Reilly."
O'Reilly had Chad Farnan on his show in December and accused Corbett of teaching "left-wing propaganda."
"That may burn them in the long run because O'Reilly has made some bad mistakes. He attacked Jim without ever knowing who he was," Leo says.
"O'Reilly's one of those people," he adds. "He'd be against Joel Dvorman."
* * *
Corbett's sleep is erratic these days. He gets up in the middle of the night to write short essays on why he teaches history, why it matters and what his students mean to him. He consumes cans of Diet Coke Plus endlessly, but they're not the reason he has lost 45 pounds since December. "I don't recommend the stress weight-loss diet," he says one morning from his swivel chair at his desk in his large, virtually windowless classroom.
The veteran history teacher—he teaches Advanced Placement European and Art History—has taught at the university level in Beirut, Missouri, North Carolina and locally at Saddleback College. He has a Ph.D. in journalism from Ohio State University and wrote his dissertation on terrorism in 1970s Belfast. While teaching at the American University of Beirut in the mid-'80s, Corbett experienced "days of 155mm artillery bombardments," he says. "I left after one academic year. The next year, all the faculty were kidnapped."
The suit filed by Chad Farnan and his parents, Bill and Teresa, alleges that Corbett's lectures have caused Christian students like himself to "feel ostracized and treated as second-class citizens." Chad's evidence lies in the more than 20 hours of tape recordings he made in Corbett's AP history class last fall. After Chad came home with questions regarding whether or not the Founding Fathers were Christian, his mother sent him to school with a tape recorder, according to a Los Angeles Times report. Corbett says he denied Chad permission to record the lectures and encouraged him to take quality notes instead. But Chad hid the recorder and taped anyway, says Corbett—which, he says, violates the state's education code.
Now, snippets of the recordings have aired on Fox News programs including The O'Reilly Factor, and transcript segments have been published in news reports and dozens, if not hundreds, of blogs. They are incendiary, eye-catching snippets that Corbett and his lawyers believe have been stripped of context. One of the most widely circulated is Corbett's statement about the "Jesus glasses."
He hands over a statement titled "How to Succeed in European History," which he sends to students' homes during the summer before they begin his class. "That's one of the problems with this whole thing no one understands," he says. "As you can see there, I spend 10 minutes or so each day, sometimes more, talking about current events."
He is explicit in the letter: "Discussions will be quite provocative and focus on the 'lessons' of history," it reads. He also explains that his goal for the current-events segment is for students to go home "with something that will provoke discussion with your parents."
"Students may offer any perspective," it reads. "I encourage a full range of views."
Corbett says he is deliberately trying to provoke students. "I understand kids. Kids are very unwilling to get involved in hot topics in a classroom. I do my best to try to provoke them in becoming interested," he says. "Parents, I would say, are probably the best people to talk about controversial issues with their kids." He includes his e-mail on the letter and encourages students or parents to contact him with any questions.
Before the lawsuit was filed in mid-December, neither Corbett nor the principal nor the district had heard from Chad or his parents regarding the allegations in the suit. "If his parents had come to me, I think we could have solved all of this without going to court," says Corbett.
Jennifer Monk, legal counsel for Advocates for Faith and Freedom, the firm representing the Farnans, says the family never contacted Corbett, the principal or the district because they didn't think it would do any good. "Many students have complained in the past, and nothing has been done," she says. "In fact, one parent discussed the issues with Corbett during a conference, and Dr. Corbett ridiculed this parent in class the next day. He ridiculed the parent for asking Corbett to be fair-minded." She says Chad was in class the day this happened.
"Primarily, we felt it was important to establish that neutrality is required under the [First Amendment] Establishment Clause," Monk says. "And Dr. Corbett's actions were unconstitutional. . . . If Christian teachers are required to keep their faith out of the classroom because of an incorrect interpretation of the Establishment Clause requiring separation of church and state, then at the very minimum, teachers should also be prohibited from espousing anti-Christian viewpoints on a daily basis because that is not neutral either." Chad was subject to these sentiments repeatedly, Monk says. "Dr. Corbett should know better. He cannot, as an actor for the government, stand up in the classroom and espouse anti-Christian viewpoints on a daily basis."
Corbett maintains that his comments in class were and are not hostile to Christianity. "Honestly, I think that most people who hear what I have to say are going to realize that I would never do what they have accused me of doing," he says. "I don't care what other people's religion is. I will admit that I'm intolerant of religious-based racism, misogyny, homophobia and a variety of other religious-based excuses for discrimination."
One of Corbett's former students, a staunch Christian who plans to earn a master's of divinity, recently sent a statement to Corbett about his years as a pupil: "Dr. Corbett does not hate religion or religious people," Taylor Ishii wrote. "As an educated person, he understands a lot about Christianity and has no problems with pointing out if things that Christians do don't line up with their core beliefs. Never did I feel like he hated me or persecuted me in class for my beliefs. If anything, he challenged me to think more critically from my given Christian perspective."
Monk's clients are asking that Corbett be removed from teaching this particular class at Capo Valley. If he is removed, apologizes and takes sensitivity-training classes, Monk says, the suit will be dropped.
Corbett says he rejects these terms and is preparing himself for what may come, either a summary judgment from the court or a jury trial. The next court date is April 28, a hearing on a motion by the California Teachers Association, of which Corbett is a member, to "intervene as defendants" in the case.
"It's stressful, but I still see it as a teaching moment," Corbett says. "The kids have to see now, because I've talked about this my whole life, that you have to have the courage to stand up to people who would try and beat you down through intimidation.
"It is unsettling. But hey, they're only shooting at me intellectually," he says. "I've been shot at with real bullets. So, this I can handle."
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