A very American distinction

Paul Jacob

5/1/2011 12:00:07 AM - Paul Jacob

If you’re like me, you don’t particularly want to live in an America where Donald Trump has a chance of being elected.

But, also if you’re like me, you definitely don’t want an America that would prohibit The Donald (or is it “The Trump” . . . or “The Hair”?) from running.

This distinction, between the outcomes or the things you approve of, on the one hand, and the system you support, on the other, must be kept in mind as the political season heats up. Especially in America, because, in the land of the free, we pride ourselves on making just such distinctions.

But too often forget them.

The classic example of this is free speech. “I may disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” If you are for freedom, you must often defend speech, or ideas, or what-have-you, that you disagree with.

The inability to “get” this principle, this division of sentiment, is a perennial problem in civilized life. Too often you hear people say “Think about the signal you are sending if you make such-and-such legal.”

But what applies to speech also applies to religion, and sports, and even less savory things, like recreational drug use.

We must uphold the distinction. It was once a live issue whether “tolerating” Catholicism would be allowed on this continent. (Indeed, one reason for our vast public school system is that so many immigrants were coming from Catholic countries, and the Protestant old-timers thought that the country could not survive unless Catholic children were seized and schooled into a sort of lukewarm Protestantism, so we’d all have a “common” history and viewpoint.) Few see a great harm in religious freedom, today. Indeed, there’s every reason to believe that we’re much better off in America not only to have such freedom of conscience — freedom to worship and gather, peacefully, as we see best — but to have no official church steering the body politic towards one way of doing things.

We can cope with diversity.

Indeed, I suspect that the ordinary Joe sees this better than many more extraordinary Abels and Zekes — of anything, whether it be a creed or even a diet.

The distinction between a possible “end” (something we judge in and of itself, or as the result of something we might work towards) and our concerned and considered attention to the shoring up of acceptable “means” (in this case, the framework of law and government, of our rights and the institutions that would defend them) is probably the most difficult notion in politics and policy. Too often we see impatient folks forgetting about the distinction, advocating, instead, the allegedly “practical” plan of just “doing” whatever it is we want done.

We live in a time of reckless shortcuts. Political shortcuts. It’s much quicker for a president to just give a command to bomb a bad guy in a foreign country than it is to go to Congress and ask for a declaration of war. But the latter, more difficult method is what the Constitution prescribes.

It is also what wisdom prescribes.

Hate as we must foreign bad guys, dictators and tyrants and the rest, but the very essence of being a “bad guy” is to disobey the rule of law — by doing the shortcut thing, our presidents (including the current one) flirt with the badguyhood they say merits immediate and unhampered destruction.

It might be nice, in a limited fantasy world, to just be able to “push a button” and have all the world’s bad guys disappear. Or be bombed.

But real-world attempts to make this so are, in themselves, horror stories. The wrong kind of fantasy.

The real world is more complicated.

Aficionados of realpolitik often say that talk of rights and laws and the like are “naive” and “fanciful.” Everything I’ve learned in the course of dealing with law and politics and lawyers and politicians — bad guys and good — for the past 30 years or so, leads me to the conclusion that the realpolitik folks are just plain wrong. Rights and laws and dedication to acceptable means are not naive. They are absolutely necessary to keep people like the realpolitikers — as well as people like me — from straying into corruption, tyrrany and the like. Not naive, but wise to the ways of the world.

The two levels of “Things and People We May or May Not Disagree With” and “The Principles We Must Defend” can be seen everywhere. My own area of expertise — initiative and referendum politics — provides ample examples of these separate levels, too. For instance: I support, very strongly, the right and practice of the citizen initiative. But this does not mean that I support every initiative. Right now, in California, there’s a petition to put on the ballot a prohibition of circumcision. I understand where the measure’s supporters are coming from, but I think this proposal is absurd, laughable even (were it not contemplating the force of law).

Indeed, it is properly a personal issue. As it was for my wife and me before the birth of each of our . . . daughters. (But then, some problems solve themselves.)

Issues that can be handled through persuasion . . . should be. The initiative is a fine way for the people to legislate. But not everything should be legislated.

This is not a “contradiction.” It is not “irony.” Nor “antinomy.”

It is a basic distinction in ethics. The right and the good are not quite so tyrannical as some suppose. Not everything you may rightly wish to discourage should be prohibited. Not everything you wish to encourage should be made mandatory.

In other words, totalitarianism is not a moral option. And flirting with it, at the state or federal levels, is not acceptable politics.

Now, return to your regular programming, watch Donald Trump, and have a ball.