One Perspective: Once more into the sandbox

 Stephen B. Young, The Daily Record Newswire

In Washington the children are back in the sandbox throwing sand and the responsible adults are AWOL. Why?

I can think of two reasons that are not often brought to public attention.

First are chickens coming home to roost.

The progressive left, since it took over the Democratic Party, has trumped the priority of minority rights over majority preferences. Now with the Tea Party — a minority bent on vindicating its sense of right and justice — seeking its pound of flesh out of the Affordable Care Act, we see only another instance of minority entitlement self-righteously standing up to the will of a majority.

The culture of privileging minority rights disaggregates community and dispossesses majority claims. It seems only fair that those who have championed such disaggregation for 40 some years are now on the receiving end of its dysfunctional contribution to democracy.

What is sauce for the goose can also be sauce for the gander.

How can we fault Tea Party stalwarts for insisting on their right as a minority to be heard and have their way when other minorities have been given that privilege over the past decades? Is not the role of the majority in social justice calculations from the left to stand aside and not impose its sense of privilege on those with less power?

The norm these days in American culture and politics is special cases first and the common good second. A culture of entitlement, of freedom to assert our needs and wants without discriminating among them, is not a culture of compromise; it is a culture of walking separate ways while refusing to acknowledge much legitimacy in those who walk in opposite directions.

I am reminded of Cromwell’s frustration with the Scottish Covenanters: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

Stubborn minorities do not make for coalition politics. Compromise is not the name of their game. Self-actualization is. In this, is the Tea Party so different from other minorities we have provided with cultural, social, and political space?

Once Americans turned to identity politics, they started down a slippery slope towards disunion and a failed state. How far are our politics from those of a high-class banana republic?

Perhaps we need now not so much a conversation on minority rights but a new one on the ethics of minority autonomy. Rights and ethics operate differently, do they not? Ethics applies to how we use our rights voluntarily. Rights give us power, while ethics constrains our selfish use of our powers out of concerns for others and the common good.

Ethics are not imposed; they come from within, though our willingness to use ethics comes largely from our socialization into norms of cultural expectations. Ethics reflect the degree to which our moral sense has been validated and inspired.

There is a parallel with individuals. Individuals have rights, but they also can have ethics. Thoughtless and abusive imposition of our preferences and desires on others raises ethical issues within families, among friends, in business, and in politics.

The cause of individual self-actualization and liberation from cultural constraint really can easily be at odds with ethics. Doing everything “my way” can lead people to taking the stance of “my way or the highway.”
Similarly, the cause of asserting identity politics can also undermine community. Where is the point at which one’s demands on others should taper off without promulgating a feeling that one is being put upon and made to swallow marginalization and disrespect?

I think this sense of proportion and fairness is core to adulthood and psycho-social maturity.

Jesus Christ had some insight into this moral dynamic when he spoke of turning the other cheek, seeing your own faults before you blame others, and in his parable about the Good Samaritan. The commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself.

The ethical injunction, then, is to put yourself in the place of the other and afterwards re-calculate your own position in the matter to seek a space of mutual interest or understanding. Applied to politics, this Christian approach brings about maturity of judgment and ability to compromise wherever possible.

Buddhism, of course, advocates seeking a middle path. In this case, it would be somewhere between the extremes of dictating to others on the one hand and being their slave on the other.

The tough part in all this is, where do we draw the line between holding back out of respect for others and expecting others to hold back out of respect for us?

The ethical norm might well be one of reciprocity. Each side in the face-off has an obligation to avoid hard positional bargaining, unilateral vetoes, or take-it-or-leave-it demands. One bargains hard, but within the context of exploration of alternatives and areas of mutual concord.

Speaking of intransigence, the second point to note with worry is that the Tea Party Republican stance on the budget and the debt ceiling is a reprise of John C. Calhoun’s doctrine of nullification.

Before the Civil War, Calhoun argued in effect that an aggrieved regional minority could nullify the acts of a majority. His demands for his faction positioned the country for a bloody civil war. He offered no compromise and launched a theory for secession and a breakup of the nation.

Calhoun’s stubbornness derived in no small part from his ethnic minority status. He was descended from so-called Scots-Irish immigrants. The Scots-Irish carried with them the uncompromising mindset of the Covenanters that had so enraged Oliver Cromwell.

These people in fact were neither Scottish nor Irish. They were some of the first evangelical/fundamentalist Protestants convinced of their right to oppose authority because of their close personal relationships with God through Jesus and inspiration from the Holy Ghost. They lived on both sides of the border between Scotland and England and were tough people, family-centered and comfortable with weapons.

Some 200,000 of them arrived in Britain’s North American colonies between 1720 and the Revolution, moving rapidly from coastal cities to the back country of mountains and forests. They became the Appalachian hillbillies, the mountain men of the far west, the foot soldiers for Robert E. Lee, the cowboys, the rednecks, and many of today’s country and western singers. In their ranks were Daniel Boone, Daniel Morgan,
Andrew Jackson, and Sam Houston. The rattlesnake flag — “Don’t Tread On Me!” — carried and carries their cultural credo.

Their descendants today, especially in the South, the Western mountain states, and the Southwest, make up most of the Tea Party, giving the Tea Party its cultural style of opposition to central power and eastern elites and its demand for “nullification” of the Affordable Care Act.

This ethnic minority culture is not going away. We will have to come to terms with them as we have with other minority cultures. They have their right to identity politics too, do they not?

The single-minded, uncompromising, Scots-Irish of our political right are chickens coming home to roost in the disaggregated political culture promoted by our progressive left since the 1960s.