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A Yankee Notebook

May 4, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – I’ll never forget it: It was the fall of 1955. I’d been quarrying and cutting quartzite building stone for a couple months, and was feeling pretty tough. On a Saturday evening, a buddy (who really was tough) and I stopped in at the old Redfield (NY) Inn for a couple of beers. I was talking fairly colorfully about how quarry work really built muscle, when I noticed two important things I had theretofore not noticed: that it was a loggers’ bar, and that I had collected an audience – a hostile one, too, if I was reading it right.

I was, and have thanked my lucky stars ever since for my buddy that night. Without him, I might not this evening be sitting here typing.

The Redfield Inn was a public accommodation. Looking back, I could easily be miffed at the loggers’ reaction to my exercise of the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. But, sadly, they were not Constitutional scholars; and I was being really, really stupid.

Americans are today, at least as much as ever in the last 250 years, fancying themselves to be what those loggers were not. I lay it all to the unrelenting barrage of rhetoric from right-wing radio pundits, who see a threat to our unalienable rights in almost every government action. Just as Senator McCarthy, 65 years ago, warned us of the godless mortal enemy of Communism within, confused people today are led toward certainty by the false watchmen on the ramparts of the republic. Look it up! they cry. It’s in the Constitution!

Well, yes and no. The Constitution, like the Bible, can be read to mean pretty much whatever any interested party wants it to mean. The constant arguments over both should make that pretty obvious. The Supreme Court is kept busy with interpreting the Constitution, and thousands upon thousands of preachers of almost as many persuasions must come up weekly with new insights as to what the Word of God might mean. Which leads to one of my holy mantras: Give me the person who asks the right questions, but spare me the character with the answers.

The widespread fear engendered by these purveyors of paranoia has grown so pervasive that citizens of the State of Texas, hearing that the United States military will be conducting a routine exercise there this summer, have petitioned their Governor to monitor the activity with the Texas State Guard in order to discourage what many seem fairly sure is the beginning of “a government takeover.” The notion is so utterly bizarre, and yet so widely credited, that it’s enough to make me wish I’d gone into politics or preaching; there are millions to be made out there. Meanwhile, the nation’s most active guardian of Constitutional rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, is derided in right-wing circles as a hotbed of liberalism. Which, of course, it is, and is why you’ve gotta love it. Liberals typically stick up for others than themselves.

In a similarly bizarre twist on the religious front, many aggrieved Christians of conservative persuasion claim to be “under attack” for their profession. Their efforts to, for example, deny gay people the right to marry, gay couples the right to adopt, and women to end unwanted pregnancies have created significant pushback by organized opponents (Newton’s Third Law of Motion), which to someone who’s sure he’s on a crusade must seem like an attack. But it’s not. The real threats to conservative institutions are demographic: The so-called white race will within a few decades be in the minority in the United States, and the young people in those congregations simply don’t burn with the white heat of their parents’ exclusionary principles.

An anti-Muslim group calling itself the American Freedom Defense Initiative exercised its First Amendment right the other evening, gathering in Dallas to hold a Prophet Mohammad cartoon contest. First prize $10,000. And the organization got a booby prize. Two bad guys, inflamed by the intentional affront to Islam, tried to shoot up the meeting, wounded a guard, and were killed.

The Constitution is a wonderful and powerful machine. But like all powerful machines, its operation and application require some common sense. The Supreme Court has, for example, affirmed for the time being that private ownership of personal weapons is a protected right; but carrying them conspicuously in public to demonstrate your right to do it is just conspicuously stupid. Also, you can say anything you like – as long as it doesn’t violate the statutes on slander or libel – but you can’t yell. “Fire!” in a theater just to see what’ll happen.

With a right comes the responsibility to accept the reactions to your exercise of it. Even Pope Francis, who’s let more light into our lives than any other pope in my memory, allowed recently that the violent attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was hardly surprising. Standing next to his old friend and travel consultant Alberto Gaspardi, he said, “It is true that you should not react violently, but although we are good friends, if my good friend Doctor Gaspardi says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch....It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

An old Pennsylvania Dutch aphorism goes, “We get too soon old, and too late smart.” I’m delighted that at the age of only twenty I shot off my mouth in that old-fashioned equivalent of a biker bar. The freedom of speech enshrined in the Constitution was, I found, best enjoyed with a strong splash of common sense. Perspective helps, too. As Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Photo by Willem lange