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The “Ground Zero” mosque debate in the US
and the burqa debate in Europe both highlight a tension embedded in the middle
of modern democratic thinking, one that I have been grappling with for years: How does the well-being of society relate to the freedom of citizens? This issue emerged again yesterday and today in two additional forms. John Boehner, Republican Minority Leader in the House of Representatives
the police, firefighters, and teachers as “special interests.” In his logic they serve no common good, they are just individuals seeking their own advantage. Yesterday the same issue arose when a court overturned Proposition 8 that had outlawed gay marriage in California. This is the question that will not go away.
The modern West
is essentially individualistic.
For liberals, individuals have rights that cannot be justly overridden . Most prominent conservatives today are either Hobbesian – the powerful do what they
can, the weak suffer what they must – or utilitarian – the majority (when it is
conservative) can do whatever it wants.
When it is not conservative it can do nothing at all. Which ultimately translates into Hobbes
What all these
different views share in common is no strong appreciation of communities. The view I have come to take is
captured in one of my favorite proverbs, one from Africa:
“I am because
Let’s start with
Boehner and those for whom he speaks.
Teachers, firefighters, and police (at their best) all serve the
public. Many are devoted to this task. Their job is not to make
their employer money but to protect and serve their community as a whole. When they seek to maximize money for
themselves or their employer that is rightly regarded as corruption. They should be respected and honored
for their service, and compensated well for it, and decent Americans are in favor of doing so. But this also means there is a community interest that
somehow transcends individual self-interest. We seek our self-interest within a community that makes it
more possible for all to do so than if we lived in no community at all.
A community that
serves all its members is one where none have special privileges as
individuals. It has equal rights
for all. Obviously just what those
rights are is a matter of debate, but at a minimum it seems to me a community
of free people decides these issues such that at some point everyone’s choice
counts equally (democracy) and no arbitrary penalizing of anyone is done by
anyone else simply because they can (rights). If penalizing others is to take place, it must be to
preserve the community where all are enabled to seek their values so long as
they do so peaceably.
This brings me
to a story I understand to be true.
When Richard Nixon traveled to China, and met with Chinese leaders, he
told one about the injustice of their forbidding Chinese to emigrate to other
countries. The leader to whom he
was speaking – I believe it was Chou En-Lai – asked him “How many million do you
libertarians, who like modern conservatives have little to no sense of a common
good, would say “Bring ’em on.”
The rest of us would say here is a dilemma intrinsic to human beings. We are both individuals and members of societies that shape us and our attitudes. Most humans will only act
for the common good for concrete communities (families, neighborhoods, sometimes
countries) and not for humanity.
In addition, the less concrete the situation the less likely we are to
know what the common good really is. So we are biased towards acting for the good of the group we most identify with at the expense of humanity as a whole. (Spirituality enlarges our context to humanity or the world as a whole, but for most people that is still weak when it requires not pushing the interests of a concrete group.)
A community is
more than a collection of individuals.
It is a collection of individuals united by common customs, histories, attitudes,
and beliefs. The bigger and more
complex the community the more abstract these common traits will be, but they
are there nonetheless. What we see
in fact is a network of interlocking communities in free societies: families, friends,
religious communities, neighborhoods, cities, all the way to the nation. For a free society to last our more concrete loyalties should not conflict with the broader principles the more abstract free society reflects.
Now let’s apply this reasoning to the
proposed Islamic center in New York. Muslims are and have been a part of the
American community. Many died in
the World Trade Center, and their families felt as much grief as any
others. Muslims are no more to be
equated with burqa wearing religious bigots than Christians are with
As a free
society, our entire history has been predicated on religious freedom inspired
by earlier examples of how societies with many religions flourished better than
societies where there was only one officially approved form. John Locke’s experience with toleration
in the Netherlands laid the groundwork not just for America’s religious freedom, it laid the
groundwork for the basic thinking behind our constitution: that a variety of
different groups is a better defense of liberty than homogeneity.
This is why
enemies of liberty, like the religious right, oppose diversity in all its
forms. They dislike racial diversity, religious diversity, cultural diversity,
and political diversity. With diversity many minorities can oppose any attempt to impose a single way of life or belief on everyone. For Pagans, Muslim freedom in New York is linked to our own, if for no other reason than that we have common enemies, enemies who will be emboldened if they succeed in New York.
In addition, as Muslim communities exist within a diverse
society their most tolerant elements are encouraged, their least tolerant
elements are discouraged. This is
good for everyone. Bigotry thrives
when it can isolate itself, whether it be Saudi Arabia or in parts of the American
South. When exclusive religions
are given toleration and simultaneously kept from walling themselves off into
regions where their leaders can enforce orthodoxy, rigid boundaries erode.
This is one side
of the equation of balancing free men and women with the free societies that
make their freedom possible.
The burqa gives
us the other side of the equation.
(I am avoiding the crime issue here: that people, even men, can disguise
themselves, commit a crime, and then throw away the burqa. That issue strengthens my argument, but
for different reasons, and I want to focus on the reasons.)
When a very
small number of people are practitioners of an intolerant religion their impact
on the majority of men and women who do not participate in such a culture is
slight. Women who do not wear burqas are not penalized. It is simply a matter of choice.
But – and this
is an important but – the burqa is a symbol and an element of societies that
reject every unique value a free society depends on for its existence. No equality, no freedom of thought, and
no freedom of religion. None at
all. Its practitioners are not bad
people, but past a certain number they are destructive of free societies that
make people like ourselves possible. No society where the burqa i common respects women as equals. No society.
learned from Jim (who sometimes posts comments here) that this issue has already
become a problem in Europe. He
passed on a link to Christian and Beliefnet blogger Rod Dreher’s column on this issue. Dreher quotes Claire Berlinski, an American who lives in Turkey, long opposed
outlawing the burqa. Berlinski has
changed her mind, based on what has happened to women in Muslim neighborhoods
in Europe. Hers is a careful, very compassionate, and
in my opinion very wise discussion of the moral complexities of this issue. The money quote is here:
And yet the burqa must be banned. All forms of veiling must be, if not
banned, strongly discouraged and stigmatized. The arguments against a ban are
coherent and principled. They are also shallow and insufficient. They fail to
take something crucial into account, and that thing is this: If Europe does not
stand up now against veiling — and the conception of women and their place in
society that it represents — within a generation there will be many cities in
Europe where no unveiled woman will walk comfortably or safely.
Women who do not
wear burqas in certain neighborhoods are already denounced as whores, men living there
are afraid to have unveiled women friends over to visit for fear of being denounced as seeing
whores, and in time if these noxious and disgusting attitudes continue,
violence will be perpetrated against women, as already is so often the case in
the benighted cultures from which they immigrated. These immigrants are not acting like new citizens seeking to harmonize (not necessarily dissolve) with their new homes, they are
acting like invaders.
millions of Chinese Nixon was offered, there is a point where immigrants
overwhelm a society’s ability to assimilate them without losing the qualities
that make it a free society. The issue is customs that later translate into politics, and long before that into oppressive social pressure. Europe, given what has already happened in conservative Muslim
neighborhoods, is completely justified in banning burqas in public. My initial thoughts on the matter –
that it makes it harder for women to shift out of their culture – have been
proven correct although my original example was flawed.
points to the justness of the court decision overturning Proposition 8. Yes, a (bare) majority passed it, but
democracy exists with rights, and sometimes one should trump the other,
sometimes it should be the other way around. Despite the lies of the anti-Gay marriage contingent, there
is no evidence gay marriage hurts society. Divorce rates are lowest nationally where gay marriage is
least handicapped, and highest where it is most handicapped.
Nor does gay
marriage violate the dominant current reason people get married today: love.
arguments against gay marriage are virtually all characterized by bigotry. Those that aren’t bigoted are simply
confused. Another way of life is
demonized not because it hurts third parties and not because it injures the
practitioners, but because the demonizers choose to disapprove.
Society is not
injured in the slightest by gay marriage.
Only bigots win when it is outlawed. And so there can be no defensible argument against it on
democratic or moral grounds. If
the bigots think their bigoted God disapproves, leave it up to him to do
something about it.
We can apply this
kind of reasoning to other issues, like the current debate over illegal
immigrants from Mexico. Here there
is not nearly the cultural gulf that separates us from conservative
Muslims. Latin cultures have proven
able to adapt and enrich America, as anyone who enjoys their music, festivals,
and food will attest. Most importantly, Mexican
Americans intermarry and intermingle on a basis of equality.
most of those most in favor of draconian immigration measures on the border is not a desire
to perpetuate freedom but a desire to perpetuate a racial and cultural status quo
where they are the majority. That
many are not even sincere in what they say is evidenced by the lack of
severe penalties applied to corporate employers of illegal labor. It is those employers who most attract the migrants. Keeping their workers illegal aids the employers
perspective informed by our Founders’ values, a culturally diverse population
enriches the whole and safeguards the freedom of us all. The only limitation here is in whether
a new culture is harmonious with the basic principles of a free society. That of Mexico is. That of conservative burqa wearing
Islam is not.