Tolerance and the Ship of State

John J. Hohn and dog Jessie

Matthew and Shirley Wirth throw a hell of a bash for all of the guests on the Fourth of July in Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds.

At an actual dinner party recently, the subject of the proposed Muslim Center for lower Manhattan came up. Our hostess was outspoken.

“They are just shoving our faces in it.”

By “they,” of course, she meant Muslims, presumably all Muslims. By “it,” she meant that Muslims were gloating over the destruction of the New York World Trade Center and the slaughter of almost 3,000 innocent people–a lot of meaning to pack into one lowly pronoun.

“Most Muslims are a peace-loving religion,” I protested. “You’re painting them all with the same brush.”

“They can build their damn center somewhere else. Somewhere outside the city. Miles away.”

“And if we wanted to build a church in downtown Baghdad, and they told us to go somewhere else?”

“Fine! We’d have sense enough not to stay where we weren’t wanted.”

Hypothetical arguments may be elegant rhetoric, but they seldom work very well.

Our hostess is a true and loyal American. She and her husband are active politically. They’d send their sons off to war to defend our way of life. They are generous, God-fearing Americans.

The United States always emerges as a healthier, stronger, more resilient whenever it incorporates others into the mainstream of our culture rather than when it excludes them.

Our hostess believes that all Muslims are violent and cannot be trusted—a belief reinforced throughout her life by movies and TV shows depicting Arabs as sleazy low-life peddling stolen goods in the back allies of a filthy Middle-Eastern city and killing anyone who interferes. Her parochial fifth grade history lesson explained that the Crusades were carried out to retake the Holy Land back from the infidel Arabs who did not accept Jesus as the Savior of all mankind.

On another night, with another topic as the focus of the conversation, she would have been forthright in defense of our freedom to worship as we choose, to be free to assemble, and to speak our minds. She and her husband are conservatives. Conservatives believe in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

Changes in society take place slowly over time—agonizingly slow, even when the change is intended to bring law and social custom into compliance with the constitution.

Conservatives want to protect the traditional values of the culture such as freedom of speech, freedom to worship, and the right to congregate. Yet on many issues, they supported the established social order that existed almost in repudiation of the wishes of the founding fathers. Conservatives opposed giving women the right to vote. They opposed integration and civil rights legislation. And many want the Muslims denied the right to build in Manhattan and who knows where else.

Liberals are often depicted as rejecting the established social order and favoring changes that ignore individual rights. Yet liberals more often than not are at the front of the fight in insisting on the rights of others.

The rhetoric against Muslims today echoes the racist rhetoric of a few decades ago when the nation violently resisted allowing African-Americans into the mainstream of our society.

The ship of state alters its course a little every time a passenger strolls from starboard to port or port to starboard. The influence of one person may not be felt at the helm, but the influence of one upon another is the level at which change takes place, and actions will always be more persuasive than words.