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Thursday, September 30, 2010

To what extent should a tolerant society tolerate intolerance?

    I really, really believe in an free and open marketplace of ideas, in tolerance of others and their ideas, and in the value of a pluralistic society generally.  However, as my friend Peg recently pointed out, this leads to the dilemma of how we, as tolerant individuals and a (hopefully) tolerant society, deal with (often aggressively) intolerant people.  In thinking about this, I have come to the conclusion that this dilemma may be a major contributing factor in current political tension and irritation, both for me as an individual and for my fellow citizens, and is a subterranean cause of a certain amount of the anger and resentment that is floating around.

   OK, I'm a nice liberal.  I believe in the separation of Church and State, and that all racial, religious and ethnic groups (and gender and age and sexual preference groups for that matter) should be treated with respect.  But how do I deal with groups that are not willing to offer me (or my fellow citizens) the same respect?  What, if any deference and respect should I give to Nazis who want to march in Skokie, to white "Aryan" racists, to Ministers who want to burn the Koran, or to violent Islamic fundamentalists who call for death to cartoonists (and me, if they were to think about it)?

  Well, let me start with my traditional liberal answer. 

Permissable Stuff:  You can think or believe intolerant thoughts.  You can refuse to associate with me or others.  You can burn my flag, or my or others' Holy books (if you own the copies).  Propose and argue for almost any change in the law. You can say really stupid stuff.  You can call people names, even if you are inaccurate.  You can tell lies, subject to exposure and the laws relating to defamation.  You can peacefully march or demonstrate or rally for about anything.  You can form a political or social group that advocates almost (see below)anything (does everyone know what NAMBLA is?)

Impermissable Stuff:  Trying to force others (either physically or legally) to believe (or, within limits) act as you do. Doing violence to others' persons or property.  Directly advocating violence to others' persons or property or causing riots or shouting fire in a crowded theater (I know, limits on speech).  Actually doing other certain proscribed things that you may believe in (ie. Polygamy, sex with minors, not providing your children with medical care, not sending your children to school (up to a certain age) ),  job-related discrimination , public accomodation related discrimination, housing discrimination, all related to certain protected classifications as set by law.

There are some lines here.  Can you burn your own flag? Yes.  One that I own? No.  Can you darkly hint at exercising "Second Amendment remedies" if you don't win an election?  Probably.  Can you actually call for the populace to rise up in armed revolt?  No.  Can you march with a Swastika flag in Skokie (if you have a permit)?  Yes.  Can you spray paint one on my garage?  No.  Can you openly be a Satanist?  Yes.  Can you start sacrificing people?  No. And so on.

One problem with this is that it (and other rules defined to protect "minority" or unpopular views ) just feels unfair.  Christians and Jews don't have freedom of religion in many Islamic countries.  Islamic radicals are threatening our citizens with death for anything that they find offensive or insulting, and are declaring Holy War.  Blacks sometimes blame all manner of things on whites, claim that there is no such thing as a Black "racist", and call us "evil".  Latinos demand special classes to be taught in spanish (not the same thing but it feels like it).  Affirmative Action, if based on race or gender, is, by definition, not even handed, and one wonders just how long people are going to be given advantages based on historical discrimination.  In short, you [pick your disliked group here-I recommend the Atheists, because I've ignored them so far] want me to play nice with you while you absolutely refuse to even pretend to play nice with me.  I've got to tell you, my emotional reaction is not to be nice.

I know that this feeling is not totally rational.  After all, my fellow American citizen Moslems are certainly willing to live in communities with Churches, Synagogues or whatever.  And we're not always expected to tolerate everything. If an Iman preaching in New Jersey were to recommend that an offending cartoonist should be killed, I would hope and expect the authorities to have him in the slammer, without bail, by sundown.  More significantly, just because overseas Governments (or groups) are acting "badly" [note how I restrained my language here] does not mean we should abandon our (or at least my) most deeply held principles.  Other groups have experienced historical oppression or discrimination, and may deserve some slack.  After all, a minority or otherwise powerless group, even if intolerant, is less likely to have the power to oppress or injure us.  (Now when these groups become the majority - Mormons in Utah, Blacks in certain urban areas, and Jews in Isreal, things may not be so pretty-but that's another subject).

But, here is liberalism's dirty secret (or one of them), it does not seem fair because it is not fair, and the American people (or as we Jewish/secularist/liberal/elite swine like to think of them - the great, unwashed, white Christian masses [I really hope you understand that I'm joking with that line]) are entitled to feel very angry.  Denying the (at least) emotional validity of these feelings of anger has not and will not help us liberals politically.  I think the point that has to be made is "OK, it's not fair, so what do we do"?  Anger, whether at this type of unfairness or at economic conditions [and, boy, are we entitled to be angry about that]   is not really a substitute for policy.  "Throw the bums out" can be, but it depends on who we replace them with.  Right now, a lot of us seem to be supporting snake oil salesmen.  Enough.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The title of this blog/ and an Introduction

This is the first post, and it's more of an description of where I am coming from than anything else. If you already know me, you can probably skip most of it.  But the introductory story is important.
       Some years ago, my brother Joe shared the following joke/urban legend with me:
One summer evening, a young woman was driving down a deserted street, passing a psychiatric hospital, when she had a flat tire.  She began to change the tire, taking the hubcap off of the flat and putting the nuts in the empty hubcap as she removed the tire.  At the same time, she noticed a solitary figure standing on the grounds of the psychiatric hospital, behind a chain-link fence.  The figure was a man.  He was tall, thin, and dressed in scrubs.  He had long, scraggly hair, a beard, and appeared generally disheveled.  His fingers clutched the wire fence tightly.  The woman became  concerned by this figure and let her attention momentarily lapse.  As a result, she stepped on the edge of the hubcap and the four nuts she had removed went flying directly into a nearby sewer.  She cursed, looked down at the hubcap and then to the man behind the fence.  He said, “Now ya got troubles, don’t ya lady?”  She began to try to determine how high the fence was, how long it would take him to climb over, and how fast she could run in the shoes she was wearing.  The man interrupted her train of thought, saying: “I’ll tell ya what I would do if I were you.  I would pop the other three hubcaps off the wheels.  Take one bolt off of each of the other three wheels.  That would give you three nuts on each of the four wheels.  And that would get you to the next gas station easily.”  The woman looked at him and said, “That’s a great idea.”   She then began to do as he suggested and started to chat with him, eventually asking, “Are you a doctor or an orderly or what?”  He started to laugh, and said, “Lady, just because I am crazy, doesn’t mean I am stupid.”

[Yes, I am talking about the Tea Party, among others-and I will talk about them specifically later]

            This is a story I tell young attorneys who work with me because we get, as do all lawyers, people who come into our office sounding, to put it loosely, crazy.  They may be, in fact, crazy.  More likely, however, they are under stress because of a troublesome situation, they have their own and often emotional take on that situation, and they frequently feel angry and aggrieved.  [think about the current U.S. economy here]  When faced with this outpouring of “stuff,” my initial reaction is to flee, at least mentally.  Such a reaction is neither bright nor useful. I had to teach myself to sit, listen, let the emotion, irrationality and anger flow by, and ask questions. My clients/potential clients usually are not stupid people.  They know what has happened.  They know what they want.  In short, they know the facts better than I  and, once past their "craziness", they often have a good idea of both  the legal issues and practical options as well. 
            Like my fellow citizens, I read newspapers and magazines, go on the internet, and watch television.  I am  interested in what my government and representatives are doing, and in what various commentators, political groups, and so forth are saying about them.  For the last few years, I have found myself becoming grouchier and grouchier as I listen.  Frankly, I think lots of other people besides the ones on TV are also getting grouchier. 
         It appears to me that  the quality of political argument/debate in American society has become “stupider.”  My perception is that the members of our various governments do not seem to be focusing on what they are supposed to be doing (they are focused on getting elected or reelected, but more on that at a future date), and that we, the people, the commentators, the news media, and so forth, seem to be not only letting them getting away with this, but are actively encouraging this stupidity. 
            What are the basic purposes of our government?   The Preamble of the Constitution states as follows:  We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  I suspect that many state constitutions  include similar statements of purpose.  Obviously, most people can and do differ as to what government should do (and what it should not do) to accomplish the aforesaid purposes.  I think what passes for current debate, however, retards rather than accomplishes any of these purposes.  I will be the first to admit that partisanship, phony journalism, backbiting, etc. is not new.  It has been around for longer than the Constitution itself.  However, and this may just be that I am getting old (but I don’t think so), it seems it is  getting worse.  We are seeing more party line votes in the legislature, filibusters in the Senate on most issues of any import, and name calling, not only by what I would call the “lunatic fringe” but by elected leaders themselves.  And, frankly, the federal government seems, at least to me, to be doing much better that a number of our states in terms of taking care of business.  Illinois, New York, and California, to name three states, are operating at incredible deficits and do not seem to be willing or able to make the decisions necessary to keep the government functioning.  At least in Illinois and in New York, we can’t blame that on partisanship.  Both houses of the legislature and the governor's office are controlled by the Democrats.  [Note my personal embarrassment at having to admit this-not that I think the Republicans would do any better]
     While this problem is not exclusive to the United States.  my focus is on my own governments , the people I  (or we) hire to represent us, and the fellow citizens for whom I feel somewhat responsible. 
            Right now the reader may be thinking just who the Hell is this guy to be lecturing us about what we probably already know?  No one in particular.  I am not a politician.  I hold no government office, nor have I ever done so.  I am not a scholar.  I have not done any extensive research on the issues I may discuss (at least so far). I do not claim to be particularly bright.  And I will be surprised if I present a truly original idea.
         That is who I am not, but I should probably also give the reader some idea of who I am.  It is my view that when discussing issues like these,  we should strive to locate some form of “objective truth.”  That is not to say that I believe any person is free from his or her own biases.  Still, I think it is useful to at least attempt to be aware of those biases when trying to accomplish common goals.  I am, at the writing of these words, sixty-one years old, an American, Jewish, a lawyer, married with two children and a dog, and live in the suburbs of Chicago.  I am, at least by my own definition, a liberal.  I generally, but not always, vote for candidates who identify themselves as Democrats. 
            I am excessively analytical, particularly self-analytical.  I was brought up to be very suspicious of overly emotional reactions and what my parents referred to as “sloppy thinking.”  I believe means are as important as ends, and that we have to focus on processes as well as results.  I am a fervent believer in the idea of a free market of ideas, and in pluralism [not just tolerance; it's good that people are different from each other]. 
        To return to something substantive, I think that many members of the movement called the Tea party are at least acting crazy.  I think that most of them are not stupid, despite the fact that I really strongly disagree with most of their substantive positions. I think that no part of the political establishment/elite wants to really listen to them.  The Democrats hope to marginalize them by calling the "extremists", and the Republicans [the party of "Borrow and Spend"] are trying to co-opt them and their anger in Order to increase theParty's own power for their own purposes.  In short, one party insults them and the other party tries to make suckers out of them.  Enough.