Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Dennis Prager's Identification of Freedom with Bigotry

"The Way We Were"

Like the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories
Of the way we were . . .
Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Or has time re-written every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we? could we?

Against Nostalgia. I'm not a big fan of nostalgia. Having grown up in an abusive household, I don't have a lot of warm memories of my childhood and I can't remember which I wanted to leave more--my family, my hometown, or my adolescence. I can't stand to hear nostalgia about the fifties and I'm not that positive on warm tales about how good things were in the sixties either.

And then there's the fact that the movie "The Way We Were" pretty much cost me my first marriage. Actually, things were going that well for my first wife and I when we were in London anyway. But "The Way We Were" made it much worse. My first wife was extremely eager to see "The Way We Were" because she saw the movie as combining the all-encompassing sentimentality she craved with the radical politics to which we were both committed.

So, the movie was a big event in the hostel where we were staying while working on our dissertations.

But the movie was so ridiculously bad that the whole crowd roared with derisive laughter from absurd beginning to extremely forgettable end.

Except my wife who blamed it all on me. And what I can I say. It was horribly bad and I laughed my fool head off and it drove another wedge between us.

Getting to the Point. The conservative columnist and radio host Dennis Prager reminded me of my distaste for nostalgia today by writing about how "When I was a boy, America was a better place."

Prager was born six years before me in 1948 and would have graduated from high school in 1964 or so. Given that the culture of the fifties really extended into the early sixties, Prager is pretty much a child of the fifties.

And what he's mostly nostalgic about is a time when people could enjoy harassing women, African-Americans, gay people, Jews, Hispanics, and other groups without feeling guilty or fearing consequences.

From Prager's point of view, the freedom of bigots is freedom per se.

Think I'm kidding. Consider this from the beginning of Prager's column:
When I was a boy, America was a freer society than it is today. If Americans had been told the extent and number of laws that would govern their speech and behavior within one generation, they would have been certain that they were being told about some dictatorship, not the Land of the Free. Today, people at work, to cite but one example, are far less free to speak naturally. Every word, gesture and look, even one's illustrated calendar, is now monitored lest a fellow employee feel offended and bring charges of sexual harassment or creating a "hostile work environment" or being racially, religiously or ethnically insensitive, or insensitive to another's sexual orientation.

What's especially weird about this is that Prager was a boy at the height of McCarthyism when the political proscription of everyone on the left was the order of the day.

But let's follow Prager's line of thought. He claims that America was a freer society during the fifties than it is today because of all the "laws" governing "speech and behavior." The laws to which Prager refers are the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Fair Housing Act of 1968, and the various anti-discrimination statutes passed by local and state governments. Prager isn't very precise here, but he believes at the very least that a significant part of freedom is the liberty to make deprecating comments about another person's gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnicity. He seems nostalgic for a time when nobody really seemed to mind "catcalls" to women, forcing blacks to respond to racial stereotypes, or using the n-word or various pejorative terms for blacks, Jews, women, and gay people. From Prager's point of view, the people who engaged in that kind of discourse were speaking "naturally" (perhaps out of a "natural" sense of group loyalty) and their ability to do so meant that they were "free."

I'll give Prager credit for thinking that the racial discrimination of the segregation was wrong.
"With the important exception of racial discrimination -- which was already dying a natural death when I was young -- it is difficult to come up with an important area in which America is significantly better than when I was a boy."

But I'm not sure why he would.

What ties together all of the pejorative talk that Praeger identifies with freedom is the treatment of the target as less than a human being. All the pejoratives mentioned above mark black people gays, Jews, Hispanics, and gay people as having traits of ignorance, stupidity, filthiness, disease or as engaging in immoral or abominable conduct that puts them as outside the circle of humanity. Because the pejoratives mark target groups like African-Americans or women as less than human, they also indicate that these groups don't deserve rights even if they have some or all of those rights and can be legitimately treated as though they're less than human. Or less than free beings.

For Praeger then, a large part of freedom is the ability to treat other people as though they're less than free and his idea of a dictatorship is a society in which he can't use the n-word.

This is where Praeger is horribly mistaken in two readily identifiable ways.

Most importantly, free beings are expected to be willing able to defend their freedom. Therefore, it is no surprise that blacks, women, gay people, Jews, and Hispanics are willing to defend their human dignity against pejorative speech and actions. In fact, they wouldn't deserve their freedoms is they weren't willing to protect them.

At the same time, Western philosophers since John Locke have identified the ability to recognize other humans as free beings as an integral part of human freedom. For Locke, criminals and tyrants are not fully human because they do not have the rationality and the self-control needed to treat other people as beings with rights to their personal freedom and their estates. In this sense, American society can be seen as making significant progress because bigots have been forced to at least publicly treat traditionally stigmatized groups as human beings.

Too bad that Praeger and a lot of other conservatives are incapable of recognizing this.

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