Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


When power is more important than people

posted by Rod Dreher

Writing in The American Conservative, Brian Doherty argues that libertarians are more open to insights gleaned from literature than conservatives are. That’s an interesting topic, but not one I’m interested to discuss here. This insight, at the end of Doherty’s piece, is worth quoting for a reason I’ll explain in a second:

Gregory Wolfe is a man of letters from a right-wing movement background who now edits the literary journal Image. He reminds us that however difficult crafting a culture that will influence society in salubrious directions may be, it’s still vital to try. “Political battles are shaped by the stories we tell, the symbols that are the most living and vibrant in experience,” he says. And if a novel can help people imagine and feel the vitality of personal responsibility, for example, “when people end up debating tax policy, what their understanding of human nature is and how that understanding was nurtured brings them to talk about it in certain ways.”
Conservatism is no longer about a subtle and coherent understanding of the human soul, but about running the modern state and winning influence for that purpose. Governance ought to require a great deal of refined moral imagination. But those most obsessed with gaining power are least likely to have a sense of humane width or even to understand its importance. [Emphasis mine -- RD.] That’s the sort of irony about which any number of nuanced and enriching works of literature could be written.

Let me restate the key line: But those most obsessed with gaining power are least likely to have a sense of humane width or even to understand its importance. This is precisely why I have been so disturbed by the gay magazine violating a confidential self-help group to out a closeted Lutheran pastor who had said anti-gay things. (Read my initial comments, and the long comments thread that followed.) Readers defending the act have said the pastor deserved it because he was a self-hating gay, and/or because by his public statements defending traditional Christian teaching against homosexuality, he was impeding justice and progress for gays. Therefore, he had no right to be treated humanely. Extremism in defense of gay liberation is no vice.
Thinking of Doherty’s remarks in light of the Lutheran pastor outing reminded me of why, even though I’m a pro-lifer, I have always hated the pro-life activist tactic of setting up shop outside the homes of abortion doctors, and harrassing them in their private residences. I am strongly opposed to what those doctors do, and consider it to be a form of grave evil. Nevertheless, to besiege a man in his own home, and to attack his family in that way, is zealotry of the sort that threatens the shared understanding that makes life together possible. There are some bounds you simply do not transgress, out of common decency. In our political culture, on both the left and the right, we have given ourselves over to the pursuit of power (by which I mean not only the gaining of office, but also the achievement of legislative or legal goals) such that we have ceased to bring to our understanding of public life what Doherty calls “humane width” — and worse, many of us have lost sight of why that’s even necessary.
I don’t know why any decent person would get involved in public life today. I really don’t.



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Joshua

posted June 28, 2010 at 8:30 am


Rod,
This YouTube link sums it up fairly well for me:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_foalavjaA&feature=player_embedded



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Martin-C

posted June 28, 2010 at 8:58 am


Well said. The aspect of the political left (of which I am nominally a part of) that has always been bullsh*t is “the personal is political”. That’s wrong and there are some matters that simply should not be dragged into the public sphere. To recognize this distiction is a virtue that I’m sorry to see conservatives abandoning as well.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 28, 2010 at 9:12 am


As I am (too) often wont to do, I shall quote from fiction, this time the work of Frank Herbert, whose epic work Dune is sometimes overlooked as his seminal work expressing his views and observations of the human conditions, whether political, personal, spiritual or in pursuit of the mundane challenges of bare survival.
Not verbatim: Power corrupts, but it is the fact that power attracts the corruptible that drives its results.
As we attempt to ponder this, I respectfully draw our attention to the link above. I was a participant of this forum on Saturday in Philadelphia, and it was a revelation in many ways and on many levels. For a brief on it, click on the Blog link and read the two posts, one that summarizes the day (written by one of the co-facilitators present), and one that answers the mythic and IMO hysterical (as epithet, not humor) rumors being circulated about the event and its organizers, America Speaks.



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Turmarion

posted June 28, 2010 at 9:24 am


If “happiness” is “what I want” and no longer “the well-lived life” (see previous thread); if rights are viewed in isolation from responsibilities; and if there is no longer broad cultural consensus on certain basic ideas about what civil society is supposed to be; then how can there be humaneness? In that case, it is all about power and using it to get one’s way. It’s sort of the endpoint of an extreme desconstructionist viewpoint, where all motivations are reduced to power plays with the result that standards go out the window and it all becomes about nothing more than fighting for your own side, no matter what and no matter whom you have to trample on the way.
I don’t know why any decent person would get involved in public life today. I really don’t.
It’s interesting in light of this and in light of previous posts on Confucianism. I recently finished reading the Analects (which I’d mostly read before, but not all the way through, beginning to end), and one of the statements is repeated more than once (quoting from memory, so not exact): “When the Way (Dao or Tao, the Way of Heaven, that is, proper behavior and disposition) prevails in the kingdom, the gentleman (junzi or chün tzu, translated “gentleman”, but meaning “superior, refined, or virtuous person”) attains eminent rank; but when the Way does not prevail, the gentleman retires from the world.” Could hardly put it better-and he said this 2500 years ago!



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Scott Lahti

posted June 28, 2010 at 9:48 am


Among those who read and/or have written for journals of political opinion, it is almost axiomatic that the more anthology-worthy, stick-to-the-ribs writing in any given issue is to be found in the proverbial “back-of-the-book” of literary humanism, against which the straitjacket of the magazine’s front-of-the-book party-line “insider” perspectives raking over the ashes of the week just ended is slashed to ribbons, its enforcers of acceptable opinion told to go hang, and its contents looking to be little more than the syllabus version of the week’s cable “news” shows. It is not for nothing that such journals are often called pantomime horses as an expected result. The former blogger “Michael Blowhard” (Ray Sawhill) of 2Blowhards has spoken often of the utter creepiness of “PPPs” (Primarily Political Persons), and for unimpeachable reasons. When among people whose entire engagement with American culture seems to punch in and punch out on the Washington time-clock, with anything non-partisan relegated to metaphoric dessert at lunch hour, one is tempted to enact the world’ most urbanely calibrated moonwalk backward out the door, with an Oscar-worthy smile for cover, mopping one’s brow in the hallway in the corridor in grateful relief upon realizing, like Woody Allen to Christopher Walken in Annie Hall, one’s prior engagements back on planet Earth.
In his review at truthdig of the new memoir by Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22, Sir Peter Stothard, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, relates an anecdote from the late 1960s in which young Hitchens, at table with the critic George Steiner and the budding poet James Fenton, a close friend ever since, learned the value of approaching moral and political writing with a sensibility and frame of reference essentially humanist rather
than journalistic:
From that Hitchens “realized that my new chum had suggested to me a possible relationship, which was that of politics to literature but this time beginning at the literary end and not at the ideological one.” It was a relationship that has lasted a lifetime, bringing a powerful purpose to literary criticism on George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh and a rare literary vigor to his political attacks, whatever their target.
Captcha: godlier cagtegory. Spot on, Cap!



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Peter

posted June 28, 2010 at 10:04 am


Not to rehash the Levender thread, but I think you didn’t understand the main concern about the preacher’s work. It’s not that he was impeding progress on gay rights, but that he was bringing actual harm to gay people through his work. Anti-gay rhetoric like his–wrapped up in Bible talk–bring emotional, psychic, and even physical pain to gay people. Gay people kill themselves because their families reject them because they listen to this rhetoric. Gay kids are tossed out of their homes because of the things the minister said. That’s the justification.
And I say that as someone who completely agrees that outing him was journalisticallly unethically.



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john

posted June 28, 2010 at 10:24 am


“I don’t know why any decent person would get involved in public life today…”
Because it pays so well… just ask Sarah Palin. [Oh wait, you said 'decent', nevermind].



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Rod Dreher

posted June 28, 2010 at 10:36 am


Peter, that logic can be used to justify anything. “Don’t you understand that unborn children are dying because of what Dr. Smith does?!” Therefore, we are justified in standing outside his home screaming at him in front of his children at all hours. One can draw logical connections between beliefs espoused by all kinds of people, and awful real-world actions. It’s all the same thing: the ends justify the means, which require destroying a person’s privacy, character, etc.



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the stupid Chris

posted June 28, 2010 at 10:54 am


I think it important to acknowledge that the quote you’ve cited here refers to the Rove/Limbaugh/National Review right, not the gay left.
As such it is spot on.
Once winning became the only thing for conservatives they steeled themselves to the task at hand, they hardened their hearts to anything but victory. The natural result was to witness “orthodox” Catholics at National Review defending torture and murder by the Bush/Cheney Administration, and “moderate” Republicans joining their more conservative brethren in defining “victory” as generating failure for the other side and the nation.
Did you read Krugman today? The same conservatives who refer to making BP pay for the damage it caused as “a shakedown” and apologize to them for it are leading the fight to limit the government’s action to stem the economic crisis they created. Because it’s not about doing what’s best for America, it’s about winning even if America loses.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken heart, not one steeled to victory at any costs.
Making this about angry homosexuals is to turn the point on its head.



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Peter

posted June 28, 2010 at 11:10 am


It’s all the same thing: the ends justify the means, which require destroying a person’s privacy, character, etc.
I don’t disagree, but you should at least put your opponents’ points in the proper context since you’d decided to frame this as gay folks as the bad people (turning the original essay on its head).



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m.e.graves

posted June 28, 2010 at 11:14 am


It’s all the same thing: the ends justify the means, which require destroying a person’s privacy, character, etc.
Is the “right” to privacy sacrosanct? What is the line to where a person’s actions require the intervention of the public? Take, for instance, the posts regarding priests accused of pedophilia. Remember, a lot of priests were merely accused and not convicted, but their names are plastered over news organizations. Also, remember that a cash settlement is legally not the same as a conviction. Does a priest have a right to privacy in that case? And what if, say, a bishop were to move said accused priest to another location; does the priest’s “right” to privacy continue? Or does the community have a right to know what he has been accused of when they send their children into the confessionals alone with him?
I am simply trying to understand how you balance the “right” to privacy vs. how his words cause violence toward the gay community. How many teenagers have to commit suicide; how much violence has to occur against the gay community before it finally outweighs the privacy of one man? How many children have to “accuse” a priest before it outweighs his “right” to privacy?



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Rod Dreher

posted June 28, 2010 at 11:18 am


But in the instance that sparked this whole bit of commentary by me, gay people were and are the bad folks. But I also pointed out that the same principle that caused me to react so strongly against what the gay journalists did here informs my extreme distaste for certain tactics of pro-life activists, whose cause I generally share, but whose tactics I find deplorable. I don’t think the context justifies such extreme tactics in either the gay case or the pro-life case, which is why I downplayed it. A number of readers have said, of the gay outing of the pastor, that it was justified because the pastor was a bad man who hurt gays with his words. I think that’s wrong, and what’s more, that the pastor’s right to privacy re: his participation in a confidential support group is near to absolute. (“Near to” because if he were part of a confidential group advocating or facilitating criminal behavior, outing him would be more defensible).



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Franklin Evans

posted June 28, 2010 at 11:30 am


Part of the problem — the main part, I submit — is the blurring of the line between personal and public rhetoric, between private and societal impact.
Rod’s point is telling, as is ser Graves’. The answer is one we as a society shy away from every day.
If society is not willing to step up and establish standards that it expects its members to live up to, at what point is a law required to address society’s failures?
In the case of a sectarian hierarchy, and especially in the US with our distinctions between religious and secular authority, the legal and moral conflict becomes simple: Under secular law, the recourses available to injured parties are direct and specific, whether to address civil or criminal injury. Under sectarian law, if the group in question is unable or unwilling to provide similar recourses, injured parties will rightly look to secular recourses.
I assert simplicity because injury is not difficult to define. Under criminal statute, sexual crimes are specifically defined. If the sectarian equivalent is missing, claims by the sectarian group to immunity under secular law are disingenuous at best.
Speaking of disingenuous: The whole point of innocent until proven guilty and due process is a guarantee to all, regardless of other identification. If a sectarian group wants to complain about smearing and such, their complaint should rightly fall on deaf ears if they’ve previously demonstrated the failures of their “private laws” — the literal meaning of “privilege” — and they cannot claim the moral high ground when they’ve already claimed isolation from that guarantee.



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Major Wootton

posted June 28, 2010 at 11:32 am


“But those most obsessed with gaining power are least likely to have a sense of humane width or even to understand its importance.”
One more science fiction book to read — and one that really connects with the quoted sentence — is Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, praised by Guy Davenport, when first published, in the pages of National Review.
And the sentence could serve beautifully as the theme of C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet or Orwell’s 1984.
Thank you for pointing out this essay. I suspect I will refer to it repeatedly in times to come.
Captcha: “in pounce”



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Charles Cosimano

posted June 28, 2010 at 11:42 am


Politics, any politics, is a game played without rules and Lombardi’s Law is the only law. Winning truly is the only thing. It is only the losers who object to the principal of “the end justifies the means.”
The winners do not care. The winners have never cared.
The only defense that works, in the end is to not even appear to be decent, to be so open about yourself that nothing anyone finds out about you will matter, because your people will simply not care and if you have them, it does not matter what anyone else thinks. It was a wise governor of Lousiana (ok, I know that is an oxymoron but bear with me) who said, “The only sex scandal that could hurt me would be if I were found in bed with a live boy or a dead girl.”



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Pat

posted June 28, 2010 at 11:49 am


I’ve read a lot of this ‘libertarian’ fiction. Libertarians write science fiction because their ideas are fit for nothing else; only in a fictional dystopia/utopia can you harm as many people as libertarian ideas in their pure form would harm, without consequences nobody, even the purest objectivist, wants to face. Only in fiction can you make those ideas work.
Whatever you may say about conservatives’ dismal performance in fiction, at least they are occasionally interested in doing what works in the real world, and this attention to reality is a strength rather than a weakness. It’s when they divert their attention from what would really work for people’s welfare to what would really work to get themselves back in power that they go astray.
This means that artistically, conservativism has one foot on either side of libertarianism. Practical, classic conservativism is too prosaic to create a fiction recognizable as ‘conservative’; it deals with ideas of general interest to humans, and produces nothing ideologically distinctive. Power-mad conservativism is too focused on the short term to engage in the long, slow process of creating good literature; it produces only sloppy polemics. But libertarianism is right in the middle, with a view cohesive enough to create something distinctive but too unwilling to grapple with people’s actual interests to create anything realistic.



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Jon

posted June 28, 2010 at 2:01 pm


Re: Don’t you understand that unborn children are dying because of what Dr. Smith does?!” Therefore, we are justified in standing outside his home screaming at him in front of his children at all hours.
Rod, when I lived in St Pete there was a group that went around town harrassing drug dealers (only those convicted but still in business). They would gather outside the dealers’s house and shout derogatory slogans (G-rated; nothing obscene) half the night suggesting he should pack his bags and get out. What’s your opinion of this?



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Franklin Evans

posted June 28, 2010 at 2:33 pm


Jon, if I were Rod (we can all be thankful I’m not), I would avoid the obvious trap of your question and ask you this in return: Under what circumstances do you consider vigilantism a valid activity?
If you answer anything but “none”, you are in violation of the US Constitution, and any police officer who overlooks such behavior should be fired with intent to investigate.
I don’t care how may examples you find that people will feel good about agreeing with. So long as you promote violation of due process, you are no citizen. Once you place the rule of law into the hands of ordinary citizens — without training, without an oath and obligation to follow that training, the whole point behind law enforcement — you open the door to violent anarchy.
And Jon, I’d normally prefix such a strong statement with one of respect… but as much as I enjoy reading your posts, this one about vigilantism should be a no-brainer. I’m apalled that you’d suggest it, and I truly hope I’m wrong about you and that you are just playing (unlabeled) devil’s advocate.



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Hector

posted June 28, 2010 at 2:37 pm


Re: They would gather outside the dealers’s house and shout derogatory slogans (G-rated; nothing obscene) half the night suggesting he should pack his bags and get out. What’s your opinion of this?
I’d say the difference is that drug dealing is still a crime. (Thank God, the cultural libertarians haven’t managed to make selling heroin legal yet). Performing non-therapeutic abortions ought to be a crime, but it isn’t yet, and I’d say that harassing someone for doing something immoral-but-legal is different then harassing someone for doing something thoroughly illegal.



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Hector

posted June 28, 2010 at 2:39 pm


Re: And Jon, I’d normally prefix such a strong statement with one of respect… but as much as I enjoy reading your posts, this one about vigilantism should be a no-brainer.
the First Amendment still protects our right to yell verbal (and nonviolent) abuse at drug dealers, I think. And if that prevents one kid from getting hooked on coke or meth, then I’d say it would be a good cause.
I have very little sympathy for hard drug dealers, I’m afraid.



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Hector

posted June 28, 2010 at 2:42 pm


Re: Under what circumstances do you consider vigilantism a valid activity?
Since when does rude language count as vigilantism?
I’d answer your question by saying that vigilantism is only justified when the authority of the State has broken down and has become either ineffective or illegitimate, such as in conditions of war or revolution. But I’d also say that gathering outside a drug dealer’s house and yelling rude slogans hardly counts as ‘vigilantism’.



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Scott Lahti

posted June 28, 2010 at 2:58 pm


I don’t know why any decent person would get involved in public life today. I really don’t.
I thought for a second I was eavesdropping on Sybil Fawlty in bed, chatting on the phone with one of her beleaguered gal-pals on the Torquay town council, in between drags off her fifth cigarette of the hour…



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Franklin Evans

posted June 28, 2010 at 3:10 pm


I don’t know, Hector. It sounds like people have an absolute right when they are doing something sympathetic. Where is the rule of law in Jon’s example and your follow-up? Who gets to decide when such behavior is “acceptable” and when it constitutes a violation of the rights of the “target”, those very same rights being cited by the “protesters”?
Does my objection mean that I “side with the drug dealers”? Does this mean that we will always tolerate such behavior towards anyone convicted of a crime, regardless of its severity? The whole point of rule of law is that these distinctions are defined clearly, and we task a specially-trained component of our society (police, courts, attorneys) to make judgments of those distinctions in each case and decide under due process when those distinctions become blurred in any given case.
How many of those protesters witnessed the court proceedings? How many of them considered that they were deciding on a behavior based on hearsay or rumor? If they gathered at the wrong house, do they just say “oops! Sorry!” and gather at a different house the next night?
And, in my imagination, I wonder which of them might come out with a loaded weapon when, some night, a similar group shows up at their house by mistake, or even by rumor that turns out to be inaccurate?
[sarcasm] I know, let’s bring back the days of the Scarlet Letter, and brand convicted criminals with a letter that stands for their crime, making them targets in an open season of any passerby exercising his or her rights to harrass that person. [/sarcasm]
I’m not going to ask you where you would draw the line, because US law has already drawn it. The argument here, as I see it, is people ignoring that line with malicious intent (“suggesting he should pack his bags and get out”). I, for one, do not wish to wait for the first such incident to result in violence. I have less trust for mobs than I do for convicted drug dealers, which would be less than none.



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the stupid Chris

posted June 28, 2010 at 3:29 pm


…gay people were and are the bad folks…
But Rod, seriously. The observation you boldfaced here applies broadly to The Conservative Movement, what’s left of it, while the activities of gay activists that you decry are a relatively small group compared to the entire population of “gay people.”
And so it seems that this is a case of focusing on the splinter in someone else’s eye when what’s been pointed out is a case of moral blindness on the part of an entire movement.



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Jon

posted June 28, 2010 at 4:16 pm


Re: Jon, if I were Rod (we can all be thankful I’m not), I would avoid the obvious trap of your question and ask you this in return
I wasn’t laying a trap, Franklin. The examples being discussed made me think of this from my own past– the group in question was profiled in the St Pete Times and one evening while I was visiting a friend they were gathered at a house up the steeet doing their thing.
I am generally interested in hearing what Rod and others think of this sort of thing.
And no, I do not think much of vigilantism, except in emergency circumstances where a person has every right to defend him (or her) self. However I am also not so sure the example I cited qualifies as vigilantism. There’s no taking of the law into one’s own hands here; the drug dealers were not being physically evicted by a mob of angry citizens. The behavior was mannerly: it ceased at 10pm so no one was kept up, and the language would not have shocked a Victorian grandmother. Surely social disapporval of illicit behavior is permissible? And at what stage does disapproval cross the line into unacceptable vigilantism?



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Dan O.

posted June 28, 2010 at 4:16 pm


“And so it seems that this is a case of focusing on the splinter in someone else’s eye when what’s been pointed out is a case of moral blindness on the part of an entire movement.”
The above is evidenced by the call for ‘denunciations’, a time-honored tactic of those interested in obtaining rhetorical capital. It’s evidence that people who care about gay-rights shouldn’t support such tactics, not only because they’re wrong, but because they’ll surely win playing clean. Only by getting mired in the game of trading denunciations is failure a possibility.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 28, 2010 at 4:58 pm


Jon, thanks for the clarification. I apologize if I came across too strong.
Surely social disapproval of illicit behavior is permissible?
Yes. Indeed, I believe that our society is so bad at this, it is laughable to suggest it for any given situation. The “culture war” meme is a symptom of that weakness, IMO.
I am a living example of the following truth in our society: It is okay to be rude (because people don’t want to rock the boat no matter the provocation), and it is further rude to be pointing out rudeness in others (that boat again). If that’s not a failure of the social disapproval process, I don’t know what is. Anyway, getting past the don’t-get-me-started point… ;-)
As they say, the devil is in the details. I stand by my malicious-intent statement, and on that basis find no difficulty in likening their behavior to vigilantism, even if we may want to make the dividing line arguable in that case. The details you offer are all fine and good, but I suggest that they were poised on a very slippery slope. That’s why my main rebuttal is: How would they feel and react if they were on the receiving end of it?



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Jon

posted June 28, 2010 at 5:49 pm


Franklin (and all)
For the record I don’t think the St Pete chanters were crossing the line, from what I know of them. But I don’t think I would have joined them either. Rod’s example, though, is a different beast. Given the history (Paul Hill etc.) people protesting at abortionists’ homes may well harbor malicious and indeed violent intent– and even if they would never pull the trigger, they may harbor sympathy for those who would. Like Rod, I do not approve of our abortion license (though there are abortions that are necessary evils), but even the most veiled of extra-legal threats is suspect in this matter.
On the other hand, and unlike Rod, I don’t have a problem with the public having information as to who signs ant-gay marriage petitions (or any other petition). My opinion is subject to change if acts of violence occur against such people, but for now my attitude is rather hard core: stand up for your beliefs and be counted folks.



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