Tuesday, August 17, 2010

YOU HAVE CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS, BUT YOU SHOULD NOT EXERCISE THEM

The furor over the possible construction of an Islamic community center with the two top floors for prayer a few blocks from and out of sight of Ground Zero reveals the worst hypocrisy of many Republicans and conservatives (a word or two on Democrats and liberals comes toward the end). If what follows does not apply to you and you do not agree with the views of Boehner, Gingrich, Palin, and other such leaders, then you had better speak up. They have been invoking the Constitution to judge Democrats and federal legislation under the Obama administration, but, comes a case that requires allegiance to the Constitution, and they are the first to abandon it.

Of course. In other circumstances, they have proposed radical amendments to the Constitution either to serve particular partisan planks or to advance a particular partisan platform. The latter is a doctrine of originalism eradicating either all amendments since ratification in 1789 or all amendments after the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791. Either version of originalism runs into complications beyond the care or comprehension of these Republicans and conservatives because they are emotionally driven by their extreme reactions to anything which does not fit their definition of a white, Christian America, apparently the only thing which they wish to conserve.

Not that they do not have go-along-to-get-along types who are not white or Christian. So, when interviewed about the location of the mosque near Ground Zero, Eric Cantor, a Jewish congressman from Virginia, acknowledges the Constitutional right in the First Amendment to freedom of religion; he then adds as rebuttal in this instance, “but come on.” As a Republican leader and conservative spokesman, Cantor, in this comment, sets a new record for an intellectual articulation of a counter-argument. The Cliff Notes version of his statement would necessarily elaborate, in order to explain, his profundity; it would translate Cantor’s statement, as my title suggests, thus: “Muslims have freedom of religion, but they should not practice it, for they are also free not to practice it and should not out of regard for the feelings of non-Muslims.” Some freedom.

I like it that a Jew can forthrightly address this inflamed issue. I can imagine Cantor’s counsel to Jews in Germany in the 1930s: just hunker down, do not make trouble, and all will be well. We know how well this approach worked for Jews (and Christians) unwilling to stand up for their rights and those of others. Cantor is not alone; the ADL agrees with him. I wonder what they will say when it becomes the turn of the Jews in America if and when Christians find their community centers, temples, synagogues, and shuls offensive.

Let me offer to Cantor and those of his ilk a suggestion in line with his eloquent and erudite line of reasoning. Let us apply the same principle of have-it-but-hold-it to another provision of the First Amendment. Let us do the same with free speech: you have the right, but pipe down because someone finds your views offensive. In Islamic states, such speech restraint would accord with sharia law—a little irony, what?

Even more wonderfully ironic is that many Republicans and conservatives who have long decried what they characterize as liberal self-indulgence and sense of entitlement now attack a Constitutional barrier protecting freedom of religion and its restraint on the exercise of strong emotions, in this case, against Muslims and their religion. There has always been a struggle between free speech and the heckler’s veto. Now the struggle is between free speech and hurt feelings. Oh, my, the poor dears; scrap the Constitution. Plainly, the mob and its emotions have taken over the party, its allies, and its cause.

(I note that no one has asked why people who suffered painful losses nine years ago have been unable to do what is necessary to accept the fact and accommodate their feelings. I note that no one has asked how moving this Islamic center would help rather than perpetuate their distress. And I note that those oh-so-sympathetic Americans have waited nine years to give their support to the suffering survivors.)

Because words have consequences, reckless and inflammatory talk is dangerous. Because their demagoguery undermines understanding of and respect for the Constitution, Republicans and conservatives constitute a clear and present danger to American democracy and the rule of law. Rousing a mob to win an election means ruling according to the mob afterwards. I am not entirely partisan here; Democrats and liberals constitute the same clear and present danger, only to a lesser degree. They are busy ducking or spinning the issue, trying to game their campaigns, and figuring out a message instead of standing up for the Constitution and American values. Some, like Harry Reid, are caving out of political expediency; others will surely follow.

Appeasement does not work. Apathy does not make the problem go away. The answer is the one which Obama gave: the Muslim community has the right to build an Islamic community center or mosque at whatever site it chooses in accordance with applicable laws, whatever anyone might think—or feel—about the appropriateness of its location.

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