Wanted: new sentry for tolerance

Relates to:
Date: 2003-01-03

By Jedd Medefind
Written for Assemblyman Tim Leslie
January 3, 2003

Tolerance and free expression might do well to search for new guardians, their historic reputation as protectorates of the political Left notwithstanding.

Berkeley’s newly-elected Mayor, former California Assemblyman Tom Bates, could serve as poster boy for the increasingly dubious nature of liberals’ commitment to open-mindedness and forbearance.

Bates, a longtime titan of America’s most leftist enclave, has credentials that could pass ACLU muster any day of the week. The general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association observed of Bate’s record in the state Assembly, “You could always count on him as a vote for freedom of information and protection of the First Amendment.”

Shortly before the November election, however, Bates took issue with UC Berkeley’s newspaper, The Daily Californian, for endorsing his political opponent in the Mayor’s race. Bates did not respond with a flag burning or hunger strike in protest. When he thought no one was watching, this champion of free speech stole and then trashed somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 copies of the offending edition.

It seems fair to raise the question, Do principles of tolerance and free speech mean anything when they apply only to things you like?

As Webster’s explains it, tolerance is “the endurance of the presence or actions of objectionable persons, or of the expression of offensive opinions.” True tolerance, therefore, is not the same as permissiveness, which simply does not care what others do. Tolerance comes into play when you do care, and yet still choose not to coerce the offending party into submission to your preferences.

Claiming, “I’m tolerant because I don’t call the police about my neighbor’s loud gangster music,” is accurate only if you do not like high-volume rap. Just as bravery is staying put when you could run from your fears, tolerance is having the ability to attack or force an end to things that conflict with your preferences and not using it.

By this standard, the Left’s record on tolerance is every bit as checkered as the Right’s. It seems that when liberals lack the ability to force their will on others, tolerance bumper stickers sell big; as soon as the Left can publicly enforce its own narrowly-defined views of politics and morality, the Inquisition is back in gear.

Take, for example, events at Kodak Corporation, reported recently in the Wall Street Journal. When a Rochester, NY plant millwright expressed disapproval of the company’s request that he and other employees actively commemorate “National Coming Out Day,” he got a full dose of leftist tolerance. Exhibiting what open-mindedness is apparently supposed to look like, Kodak decision-makers fired the 23-year company veteran.

Similar situations are not rare, lately including AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc., where some workers now charge they are being discriminated against because their personal convictions don’t line up with politically correct orthodoxy.

One need look no further than the well-publicized controversy over the Boy Scouts to see this same problem writ large. Whether the Scout’s moral convictions are right or wrong is not the primary issue here: Some people claim all sexual expressions are equally positive and healthy, while others believe certain sexual practices are healthier than others. These are opinions. What is troubling is the coercive force brought to bear against the Scouts for their personal convictions.

First, it was attempts to cut off corporate donations to the Scouts. Next came legal challenges in a drive to use court order to force the Scouts to alter their convictions. When the Supreme Court rendered its common-sense ruling that every group has a right to its own opinions, including the Scouts, the attack turned finally to local politics and policies as a means of coercion. Public officials are being urged to boycott all scouting events. Bureaucrats bar Scouts from accessing public lands—even lands the Scouts spent thousands of hours improving for the general good. Cities that promote one sort of morality by closing public roads for transvestite marches, hanging gay pride flags, and funding homosexual art displays now deny funds for Boy Scout public service campaigns. Intolerance almost seems too weak a word for these actions.

If our nation is to preserve that cherished First Amendment principle—the freedom to hold and express opinions contrary to those of the people in power—tolerance must be defended as a primary American virtue.

This virtue need not be an anything-goes permissiveness. Nor can it be a sham open-mindedness that is forbearing towards only those people and opinion it happens to like. Real tolerance extends respect and civility to individuals who do and say things we do not like, whatever their stand. And that’s something both liberals and conservatives would do well to remember.

--Tim Leslie is Assemblyman of California’s 4th Assembly District, which reaches from the Sacramento metropolitan area to Lake Tahoe.

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