I’ve heard it all my life: “I’m all for equal rights (or freedom of speech, or freedom of religion), but….” That’s followed by a statement that proves the speaker really is in favor of no such thing. For example, “I’m all for equal rights, but the coloreds really should stick to their own schools and neighborhoods.” Or, “I’m all for freedom of speech, but burning the flag is anti-American and should be banned.” Or, “I’m all for freedom of religion, but Islam isn’t one.”
That kind of mindset has been vocalized a lot in the last few years, and it’s been brought to a head by the recent discussion — if you can call it that — about the plans of a group of citizens in New York to build an Islamic community center in an abandoned coat outlet within a couple of blocks of the site of the World Trade Center. It has stirred up a whole lot of passion from a wide range of people: those who are using it to exploit the fear and paranoia of Americans who are uninformed about the facts of the case (“Al-qaeda is building a mosque on Ground Zero!”) or people who are exploiting it for political gain by playing off those who are misinformed, to those who are defending the basic premise that America’s foundation rests on the fundamental rights of all the people to exercise all of their rights as enumerated by the Constitution of the United States in compliance with the laws.
There’s not a lot of middle ground being sought, but in a case like this, it’s hard to see that there is one. After all, rights are binary: you either have them or you don’t. There is freedom of religion and the freedom from state interference in the lawful exercise of it, or there is not. You cannot come in and decide one religion is better than the other — at least not on secular grounds — nor qualify it based on the sensitivity or lack thereof of the people involved. (Ross Douthat tries to make the case for understanding both sides of the argument in his New York Times column today and basically says that in America today, there’s always room for bigots.)
For a very long time a lot of people in this country; the Chinese, Italians, Irish, African-Americans, Japanese, Hispanics, Catholics, Jews, women, gays and lesbians, even the disabled, have had to endure the “But” clause in their basic rights. They have been told by ruling class — usually by the white straight patriarchs — such things as “the time isn’t right,” or “there’s a lot of raw feelings” about some recent event, and that granting them the same rights as everyone else would “tear at the fabric of society” or even “destroy America as we know it.” And these same people have exploited the unknown and the unfamiliar for their own political or financial gain without really caring whether or not they do more damage to the rights of their fellow citizens by their actions.
If there’s anything we should learn from this most recent disgraceful row over the basic rights of Americans, including as well the ruling in California about equal protection under the law for citizens of California to marry those who they love, is that those who would qualify the rights and the freedoms of all citizens based on ignorance and cynicism can get their “Buts” out of here.