Friday, October 9, 2009

Intolerance (Not the Movie)

The more I think about it, the more I think I was onto something in my September 11 post (Mystery Solved). Perhaps this is something that all real political scientists learned in graduate school, but it seems to me that the fundamental cleavage in modern politics (say the last 200 years) is between a party that emphasizes tolerance/equality and one that emphasizes nationalism.

That started me thinking about tolerance and equality, and about intolerance. There are really two kinds of intolerance, I realized, for which we don't have separate words.

The first kind is when you find some group intolerable. As I understand it, the Baha'i in Iran are in this situation: they are considered apostates, and apostasy is punishable by death. Obviously, this was also the situation of Jews (Gypsies, gays) in Nazi Europe.

The second kind of intolerance is benign by comparison: you tolerate the other group, but don't consider them to have equal rights. As I understand it, that is the situation of, say, Jews and Christians in Saudi Arabia.

When I say (and I do) that the religious right in America is intolerant, I don't mean it in the first sense. I am not worried that if it came to power, it would be starting pogroms or putting people in concentration camps. It would merely be denying some people equality.

The recent response from the right to charges of intolerance has often been, roughly, "I know you are, but what am I?" What about, for example, those Jews who want to keep people from putting creches on public property? Aren't they intolerant?

Well, no. I'm not sure that even some of my Christian friends get this. To put a creche in front of City Hall is to practice the second kind of intolerance. It is to say, "We are the mainstream, but if you don't want to be part of that, we will tolerate you." As I said before, this is a lot better than the first kind of intolerance. But it's not equality. It announces that I'm an outsider in my own country.

Court cases about religious symbols on public property tend to bog down in minutiae about what exactly the government is endorsing. I don't know whether it's a coherent legal strategy to argue these cases on equal-protection grounds rather than the usual First Amendment grounds. But make no mistake. The primary issue is not freedom of conscience. It's equality.

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