Thursday, Dec. 28, 2006
By nature, I am a big-picture thinker, and this time of year, ofcourse, encourages such intellectual forays. But it is not just the endof the year that prompts me, today, to ponder the larger vista, butalso the recent, decisive shift in Congress from Republican toDemocratic control. There is little question that, in Election 2006,Americans were sending a message: They want to change the course ofthis country (though the numbers cannot justify claims by the Dems of a"mandate"), and I believe that message has much to do with workingtoward the end of our age of intolerance.
As one looks backover the legal-political universe of recent years, there is onepersistent theme: intolerance. There has been a push from variousforces to expand the potential for intolerance, and it has not justbeen national, but also international.
International Intolerance: The Jihadist Terrorist Front
Theobvious global movement of intolerance is the jihadist terrorist front,including Al Qaeda. This loosely affiliated set of ideological fanaticsis tied together by an intense intolerance - one that mandatesrejection of every religion but a narrow, radical variant onIslamicism; of women's rights; of individual independence of thought;of constitutional democracy; and of children's rights - including eventhe right of young people not to be martyred for their parents' faith.As with all movements marked by extreme intolerance, this bigotedmovement does not define itself by its harsh narrow-mindedness. Itsvenomous leaders, instead, point to a higher divine mandate toeradicate the world of what, they say, stands in the way of religiouspurity. The deeply negative and ugly aspects of the movement aresublimated by the message, which purports to locate the movement's owndeadly choices in an otherworldly authority that cannot be questioned.
Beforemoving to the topic of national intolerance, it bears noting that thejihadis have taken intolerance to a historic level. I believe Osama binLaden will be judged alongside the most memorable tyrants in history,like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Idi Amin. He will inhabit thecategory of those whose intolerance has taken them to the point ofneeding to annihilate the "enemies" of their utopia.
National Intolerance: Political/Legal Discourse
Bycontrast with the jihadists, our national record of intolerance maylook tepid, but bin Laden cannot, of course, be the baseline formeasuring intolerance in the United States. Here, the baseline is aconstitutional democracy that has - miraculously at times - pried openthe door for a series of groups who were previously treated as propertyor worse: slaves became citizens; women moved from being the propertyof their fathers and husbands to being autonomous, voting individuals;the disabled emerged from the shadow of intense, invidiousdiscrimination to gain a strong statute establishing accessibility andantidiscrimination rights; and, today, especially in the wake of theclergy abuse scandal, we are seeing the emergence of a civil rightsmovement for children (as I discussed in detail in a prior column).Of course, the Framers did not put into place by conscious thought theparticulars of such a widely liberating ethos, but with theConstitution and the Bill of Rights, they did intentionally construct aframework that fostered liberation from tyrants.
This era,sadly, has not been marked by liberation, but rather by a tone ofdisapproving intolerance. While the majority of Americans, if the manypolls are accurate, have not shared these values, the public discoursehas been awash in intolerance. For example, women's rights, includingthe right to choose how to deal with a pregnancy, even when caused byrape or incest, have been under attack.
Meanwhile, the BushAdministration's faith-based initiative has expanded the availabilityof federal funds to religious organizations, for social work servinglocal communities. Religious organizations had previously asked for theright to discriminate in hiring, so that they could hire, for positionshaving nothing to do with religious practice, only those who are fellowbelievers. Despite the Republican makeup of the Congress at the time,the Administration was unsuccessful in pushing through legislation togive such organizations this right. Regardless, the Bush Administrationinstituted its own regulations that effectively permit just the kind ofdiscrimination Congress refused to allow.
This move results in intolerance at twolevels. First, organizations supposedly serving the larger community'ssocial service needs are capable of discriminating againstfully-qualified individuals to deliver those services on the basis ofreligious belief. As a consequence, the pool of applicants becomes moreshallow. The failure to be concerned about this reduction in the besttalent available is a form of intolerance, or at least insensitivity,for those who are suffering and are the beneficiaries of the socialservice programs, and one should never forget that those who qualifyfor government social services are typically those most in need.Moreover, those applicants who, though best-qualified, are not hiredfor secular jobs merely because of their religious belief, might aswell be living in a theocracy when they learn that their superiorqualifications are being rejected because of their religious beliefs.
Second,and this is even more pernicious, thanks to the Bush Administration'sregulations, the social service goal is fully transformed into areligious mission, and those needing the services are more likely to besubject to a message of intolerance for any belief other than the faithof the service-delivery organization, whether that message istransmitted through religious symbols throughout the space, or by moredirect references to belief as part of the treatment. In some cases, ithas meant that a client must withstand a gauntlet of proselytization inorder to receive desperately-needed social services like alcohol ordrug rehabilitation or employment assistance.
(As a side note,readers should not confuse the faith-based initiative with the entirelyseparate regime within which religiously affiliated organizations canobtain government money for social services on the condition of certainpractices, including keeping the government's money segregated frommoney to be used for religious purposes. The best example is CatholicCharities, which typically takes over 80% of its funding from thegovernment.)
Finally, while there is a long history in theUnited States of intolerance for homosexuality, the gay marriage debatespurred by the Goodridge decision in Massachusetts has addedpublic heat to the disapprobation. In the past, this intolerance wasspurred in no small part by religious organizations and groups, such asthe Roman Catholic Church, evangelical groups, and groups of OrthodoxJews. Now, however, Goodridge has led some states to quicklyinstitute constitutional amendment campaigns to be certain that gaycouples cannot be married in any traditional way. In all but Arizona,these so-called marriage amendments, which were in factanti-homosexuality amendments (who else was threatening maritalprivileges?), passed with ease.
Intolerance in the General Culture
Whereverone stands on abortion or homosexuality, it cannot be gainsaid that theloudest voices on these issues have been those taking an intolerantapproach to both. It has been the dominant tone of the age. But theseso-called "hot button issues" do not end the discussion -- an attitudeof righteous disapproval has seeped farther into the cultural well.Indeed, I would say it has poisoned many of our interactions. "Roadrage" is a product of it, as is the practice of saying in emails thatwhich you would never say to someone's face, and just general,widespread incivility. Everyone seems to have developed a "right" tosay whatever current, unexamined emotions dictate, which is rankintolerance for the needs of others. Self-control seems to have walkedbackstage in our national theater.
This "right" to speakwithout care for consequences to others has further invited a rash ofhubris that is almost impossible to calibrate. The virtue of humilityhas become a relic of the past. There was a time when Republicans werethe "white shoe" elements of the culture, but today, popularconservative commentators, who have made careers of criticizing thebiased media, refer to themselves as "El Rushbo," or the "Great One."Moreover, unbounded arrogance is hardly limited to either party withauthors such as Michael Moore and Ann Coulter making rudeness and lackof nuance a hallmark of their work.
The beauty of theAmerican system, though, is that it works like a pendulum. We willtolerate only so much of anything, and then the pendulum swings backtoward equilibrium and balance. One needs a larger historical lens tobe able to assess precisely what the midterm elections meant, and willmean, but there does seem to be voter fatigue with the culture ofintolerance.
This observation is buttressed by the currentlyhigh poll numbers for a truly moderate Presidential candidate like RudyGiuliani (and the race to the middle for the politically savvy HilaryClinton). On all of the most heated public issues, Giuliani takes thetolerant approach. At the same time, Arizona, at least, rejected ananti-gay marriage amendment and on the far right, intolerantindividuals like Sen. Rick Santorum (R., PA) were defeated. Thependulum movement is there. Its next high swing is impossible topredict with great certainty, but perhaps in not so many years, I'll bewriting a column on "The End of the United States' Age of Intolerance."Ending the intolerance of the jihadist movement is quite anothermatter.