|Liberals’ Tyranny of Tolerance|
By Troy Senik
Thursday, July 26 2012
In recent years, American liberals have developed an undying affection for a quote from the late comedian George Carlin expressing their deathless paranoia that the nation is always one Republican administration away from totalitarianism.
“When fascism comes to America,” Carlin said on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” “it will not be in brown and black shirts. It will not be with jack-boots. It will be Nike sneakers and Smiley shirts. Smiley-smiley.” Given Carlin’s political disposition, it hardly bears mentioning that this remark came moments after a rant accusing George W. Bush of being the progenitor of said fascism.
Though Carlin’s specific prediction (to the extent it was coherent) hasn’t born fruit, he may have been onto something with the broader concept. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the biggest threats to American freedoms are the product of interventions designed to make the United States into a nation of Shiny, Happy People by enforcing uniformity of thought under the guise of “tolerance.”
This impulse is bad enough when it controls public policy. But it’s even more execrable when it seeps into the groundwater of civil society, infecting the mores of the culture at large.
Proof that such a trend is taking root came earlier this week, as liberals – suddenly developing an appreciation for competition – sparred with each other to see who could denounce the fast-food chain Chick-fil-A the loudest and with the most vitriol. The occasion for the secular jihad: an interview with a Christian publication in which the firm’s president and COO, Dan Cathy, explained the firm’s charitable work promoting families. Yes, you read that right.
At issue was the fact that Cathy referred to the work as supporting “the biblical definition of the family unit,” a phrase that was taken as a slight by supporters of gay marriage, despite the fact that Cathy never said one negative thing about homosexual couples (most media reports chose to ignore his much more pointed statement that the leaders of his company “are married to our first wives”).
The left – which has no talent quite so fully developed as the interpretation of penumbras – immediately flew into high dudgeon. Boycotts of the chain were organized throughout the nation. Reversing the typical polarity of liberal activism, the outrage then traveled upstream to politicians, with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel among those letting the popular fast-food chain know that it isn’t welcome in their city. Before long, conservative political figures like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum were leading a counter-offensive in defense of the eatery.
For now, the Chick-fil-A debate has been established as just another front on the culture war, with opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage filing into their respective camps. But perhaps a little perspective is needed before we fight a civil war over peach milkshakes (delicious ones, by the way).
One’s reaction to Cathy’s remarks shouldn’t turn on views of gay marriage – an issue so far from being a closed conversation that polling routinely shows the public split roughly down the middle on it. Rather, it should be anchored in the simple fact that the Chick-fil-A president didn’t breathe a word of intolerance, bigotry or even derision. In fact, he didn’t even make a political statement.
The poisonous trend at work here is a complete inversion of the traditional understanding of “tolerance.”
As articulated in the great Western tradition of liberalism (the name given to the political philosophy espousing individual liberty before it was hijacked by statists), tolerance means granting others the freedom of their own actions and views so long as they don’t harm others.
This view was ably expressed by Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia, when, in regard to religious liberty, he said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Ditto Frank Cathy’s views on marriage.
While Jefferson was speaking in the context of legislation (the line immediately preceding the one quoted above is, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others”), that live-and-let-live spirit is also an invaluable social lubricant that ought not to be abandoned except in the most egregious of instances.
American citizens are certainly within their rights to withhold business from a company whose values contradict their own. But imposing that litmus test consistently would pollute private life by making it indistinguishable from the public square.
Should conservatives boycott companies run by CEOs who favor progressive taxation? Would it be reasonable for liberals to refuse to buy products purveyed by a member of the NRA? Should socialists excuse themselves from the marketplace entirely, so as not to be complicit in capitalism?
Doing so would risk obliterating one of the most valuable social byproducts of America’s system of limited government: the idea that politics need not intrude into our personal lives beyond the circumscribed sphere delegated to government by the Constitution.
Were we to audit the ideology of every CEO that we graze through commerce (and why stop there? Why aren’t we scrutinizing the voting history of the fry cooks at Chick-fil-A?), our economic and social lives would devolve into endless box-checking, with every commercial transaction designed to generate the least possible friction for our conception of how the world ought to work.
The Chick-fil-A example demonstrates the ugliness that such score-settling engenders. Imagine for a moment that liberals were to meet with unmitigated success in their boycott of the chain and, as of tomorrow, all Americans stopped eating at the restaurant. The result would be the bankruptcy of a company that had over $4 billion in sales last year, employs an untold number of Americans at over 1,600 locations and awards over $1.5 million in scholarships per year to its workers. Is that loss of wealth, employment, and educational opportunity really the penalty liberals are willing to exact for the sin of disagreement?
This, alas, was the flaw in the now-famous statement by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels that the next president will “have to call a truce on the so-called social issues.” A truce, by its very nature, is bilateral. Until liberals allow honest disagreements born of guileless motives to be met with something less than an all-out assault, no such détente is possible.
Let’s hope that trend isn’t permanent. A more decent society is possible. It just requires shifting our ambitions from everyone getting along to everyone leaving each other well enough alone. That’s a “smiley-smiley” worth striving for.
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