Friday, December 11, 2009


The Declaration of Independence’s claim that certain truths are “self-evident” is a nice philosophical problem. A practical problem, quite apart from its latter-day political incorrectness in using “all men” to refer to all humans, is the extension of these truths to all humans.

I believe that Jefferson knew that, despite contemporary thought and feeling, he was laying the foundation for an expansion of rights beyond the original franchise, which extended full citizenship only to white men meeting a property qualification. Cynics might say that he and his co-signers thought that such lofty talk would inspire support for a revolution but would soon be forgotten. Indeed, 12 years later, the Constitutional Convention quantified the politics of contemporary racism and sexism by pointedly defining any black as counting three-fifths of any white man and silently dismissing any woman and any indigenous person as counting for nothing. Although never removing those insults to equality and freedom, we have since adopted Constitutional amendments and interpretations which establish racial, gender, and ethnic equality. Slowly and fitfully, we are moving toward equality of gender orientation.

I cannot think of a good reason for not arriving there. The logic of equality and freedom—which, in the Constitution, mean political equality and freedom—makes it a matter of indifference whether gays, lesbians, and others are so by nature or nurture. They are what they are, and it is not the government’s proper political role to deny them the rights of citizens because of legislation based on moral or religious beliefs about what they and their relationships should be.

But when it comes to differences of culture or lifestyle, we do only a marginally better job separating politics and morals or religion—that is, church and state—than Iranian mullahs and Taliban fanatics do. From the Puritan theocracy in Massachusetts to blue-nose Prohibition, legislating morals or religion has been as American as apple pie.

As some of our elders acted, so some of our “elders” still advocate. Despite ritualistic and theological differences, the Catholic Church and some fundamentalist Protestant sects seek to impose their moral beliefs, not only on their members, but also on everyone else, especially in matters pertaining to sexual orientation and reproduction. These beliefs may be acceptable within the context of their faith communities, but they are inappropriate to legislate within the context of a democratic polity since they would override its principles of equality and freedom. But such believers think that freedom is merely a secular, thus secondary, not a salvational, condition.

The same consideration applies to foreign policy. Does the American creed that all people are “created equal” require that we do something about it elsewhere? Does our belief in the universality of equality and freedom require that other countries accept our beliefs and or risk penalty or punishment if they do not?

When Bush shifted the rationale for the Iraq war from eliminating what turned out to be non-existent threat of weapons of mass destruction, he substituted another: freedom in Iraq and, he hoped by its example, in the rest of the Middle East. I agree with Bush that many people in many places desire freedom, but I question whether it is America’s job to bring it to them or impose it on them. After all, they are not likely to enjoy or even value political freedom if we force it upon them, especially if it undermines or violates traditional cultural values and social structures.

Because many Americans accept women’s equality, we proclaim that worthy cause throughout the world. But many societies, especially in the third world, officially reject it. How much should we push, or how much should we let international influences and internal dynamics pull, such societies toward something alien to them and unasked for? Muslims have traditionally—I do not say correctly as a matter of interpretation of Islam’s sacred texts—subordinated women and denied them rights and privileges equal to those of men, yet some Islamic states are slowly enlarging women’s opportunities in practice, if not doctrine.

Our efforts to accelerate change may be counter-productive, even self-defeating. For instance, some months ago, Secretary of State Clinton offered as a good reason to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan its opposition to women’s equality. The cause may be good, but the effect would be bad. For neither the Taliban, the Islamic priesthood of imams, nor the Afghan populace accepts gender equality. Local support for foreign troops is hard enough to secure without making it harder by linking our campaign against the Taliban to the cause of women’s equality, and thus risking setting both campaign and cause back. Indeed, Afghans would likely perceive this cause for us as part of a crusade against Islam—no way to win friends and influence people. Of late, on this cause, Clinton has been wise to remain silent.

In countries with different cultures and clocks, perhaps our policies should respect their equality and freedom among nations by going slow as the better way of making haste toward desired results in the long run. So, too, at home. We had enough trouble ending segregation with “all deliberate speed” despite the advantages of a culture with a Constitutional basis for political change. Attempting to go faster by using busing to end segregation probably set back racial progress even in parts of the country in which busing did not take place. Continuing voter rejection of hurried efforts to legislate equality of gender orientation suggests that hares still lose to tortoises.


  1. You are correct that some Muslims have denied women's equality, despite the Quran saying that men and women are created equal.
    There have been women leaders and Heads of State in Muslim history and there continue to be women leaders and Heads of State today. When a Muslim country denies women their rights---they are "UnIslamic"---and they can be persuaded to come in line with the Quran.

  2. Quite right as far as it goes. Yes, but women leaders are the exception rather than the rule. The franchise remains quite limited in Islamic countries, many of which have never had a woman leader.