I recently attended the Democratic National Convention (after many unsuccessful attempts also to get an invitation to the Republican National Convention). As with every political convention, this one was a mix of soaring rhetoric, inspiring vision, nonsense and earnest theatrics. In fact, somehow I was identified as representing part of the tapestry of American life and invited onstage to stand in a tableau of ethnicity. I believe I was “old Jew.”
If you weren’t paying attention, there was some controversy. Some supporters of the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders were vocally and visually disappointed that he failed to capture the nomination for president. Throughout the four days, they erupted into chants in an attempt to over-shout the speakers at the podium. The sentiments were admirable – after all, who would disagree generically with “No More War?” – but the behavior provoked the supporters of Sec. Hillary Clinton to respond with their own chants of “USA” or “Hill-a-ry” to drown out the oratorical interlopers in canary-yellow tee shirts.
My college roommate and I have been active in various causes together, but I know he will head for the exit at any protest or demonstration if people start to chant. He does not argue that chanting is not protected by the First Amendment. He just thinks it is obnoxious and annoying. He got smarter about this situation fifty years earlier than I did.
I have come to object (in my heart only) to any behavior that makes me regret the Bill of Rights. And just to be clear, it is not the content of speech or the reason for peaceful assembly or the particular grievance for which redress is being sought. It is the behavior of those willing to spend down to nothing the accumulated capital of mutual respect that makes those rights so meaningful – like the yellow-breasted saps who believed they would bring an end to war by attempting to deny a speaker the floor.
Politics has always been something of a contact sport. I guess it comes with the territory. But the fusing of politics and entertainment, which appears to be as thorough as two molecules of hydrogen to one of oxygen, has produced an acceptability of bad behavior in the name of gaining attention. And it ought to stop.
I devote my professional life to the protection of true religious freedom. Most of the reason I do so flows from the religious right. That segment of the American population consists mostly of people who call themselves conservative Evangelical Christians and believe that the values they identify with their religious beliefs are the foundational values of the United States. They are, of course, wrong. And, by the way, they are objectively wrong, not just wrong in my opinion. Read a book (that is not written by a member of the religious right).
These activists have forced court after court to rule on their manipulation of existing laws as they attempt to pervert legislation designed to ensure religious freedom for minorities. The most famous of these attempts include the county clerk whose deeply held religious beliefs prevented her from issuing marriage licenses to couples with legal entitlement and the family business whose owners’ deeply held religious beliefs prevented them from providing certain kinds of health care insurance to employees who are legally entitled to them. Civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition in the United States, but these folks are claiming that it is the law which is disobedient and they, Bible-believers they claim to be, who are being disobeyed.
Maryland politico Jamie Raskin said that public servants swear on the Bible to uphold the Constitution, they do not swear on the Constitution to uphold the Bible.
But now we have people on the secular left attempting to do the same thing. The sweet satire of the Pastafarians, adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, made the point widely that no one need subscribe to any established religion – or any religion whatsoever – until they sued to be recognized as an actual religion. And now we have Satanists (well, not really, but they use the name for identification purposes) laying claim to the leisure hours of schoolchildren to object to the use of public buildings by rent-paying religious groups.
(I went to Sunday school in a local public school, for which our synagogue paid rent, because we didn’t have a building and the school sat otherwise unused and empty. Sheesh!)
Both the right and the left seem to have no argument to make other than “you’re not the boss of me.” Those arguments were always a colossal waste of recess, and they remain so now, especially since the casualty of this bad behavior is the mutual respect that holds a diverse population together. The effect is not to persuade, but to offend. In the process, more and more Americans who have in the past celebrated a wide center have fled to the margins and pledged allegiance to practitioners of crude and low-class protected speech. These are people who, knowing they may not shout “fire” in a crowded theater, merely yell, “Does anybody smell smoke? I don’t know, you tell me.”
Jewish tradition, which at this writing is still protected by the First Amendment, includes a strong encouragement to go beyond the letter of the law. That means, I believe, to live life not trying to get away with as much as possible, rather trying to live up to the ideals the law tries to protect. I have certainly been obnoxious and annoying in my time (even participating in the occasional chant), and I am glad to be protected from anything more dangerous than my friend’s eye-rolling.
My mother-in-law, of blessed memory, was the arbiter of a quality she called “class.” It had nothing to do with economic status or even pretensions to royalty. It had to do with comporting one’s self, even in disagreement, with a sense of respect and a willingness to be self-effacing even when convinced you are entirely right. So take off those shirts, stop pounding those Bibles, eat your linguini and learn some adjectives other than “stupid” and “great.” Try going beyond the letter of the law.