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Liberals' Raging Struggle for Rights

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By George F. Will
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Consider nature. Not the placid nature that Constable painted, but nature as Tennyson saw it, "red in tooth and claw." To glimpse a state of nature as Hobbes imagined it, where human life is "nasty, brutish and short," visit the Whole Foods store on River Road in Bethesda. There, and -- let the political profiling begin -- probably at many Whole Foods stores and other magnets for liberals nationwide, you will see proof of this social equation: Four Priuses + three parking spaces = angry anarchy.

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Anger is one of the seven deadly sins. Therefore advanced thinkers are agreed that conservatives are especially susceptible to it. As everyone knows, all liberals are advanced thinkers and all advanced thinkers are liberals. And yet. . . .

If you think the health-care town halls in August cornered the market on anger, come to Bethesda and watch the private security force -- normal men in an abnormal situation -- wage a losing struggle to keep the lid on liberal anger. When parking-lot congestion impedes the advance of responsible eaters toward the bin of heirloom tomatoes, you see that anger comes in many flavors.

You also see the problem with founding a nation, as America is founded, on the principle that human beings are rights-bearing creatures. That they are. But if that is all they are, batten down the hatches.

If our vocabulary is composed exclusively of references to rights, a.k.a. entitlements, we are condemned to endless jostling among elbow-throwing individuals irritably determined to protect, or enlarge, the boundaries of their rights. Among such people, all political discourse tends to be distilled to what Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School calls "rights talk."

Witness the inability of people nowadays to recommend this or that health-care policy as merely wise or just. Each proposal must be invested with the dignity of a right. And since not all proposals are compatible, you have not merely differences of opinion but apocalyptic clashes of rights.

Rights talk is inherently aggressive, even imperial; it tends toward moral inflation and militates against accommodation. Rights talkers, with their inner monologues of preemptive resentments, work themselves into a simmering state of annoyed vigilance against any limits on their willfulness. To rights talkers, life -- always and everywhere -- is unbearably congested with insufferable people impertinently rights talking, and behaving, the way you and I, of course, have a real right to.

Recently Paul Schwartzman, a war correspondent for the Metro section of The Post, ventured into the combat zone that is the Chevy Chase neighborhood in the District of Columbia. It is not a neighborly place nowadays. Residents are at daggers drawn over . . . speed humps.

Chevy Chase is, Schwartzman says, "a community that views itself as the essence of worldly sophistication." Some cars there express their owner's unassuageable anger by displaying faded "Kerry/Edwards" and even "Gore/Lieberman" bumper stickers. Neighborhood zoning probably excludes Republicans, other than the few who are bused in for diversity.

Speed humps -- the lumps on the pavement that force traffic to go slow -- have, Schwartzman reports, precipitated "a not-so-civil war . . . among the lawyers, journalists, policymakers and wonks" of Chevy Chase -- and Cleveland Park, another D.C. habitat for liberals. The problem is that a goal of liberal urbanists has been achieved: Families with young children are moving into such neighborhoods. They worry about fast-flowing traffic. Hence speed humps.

And street rage. Some people who think speed humps infringe their rights protest by honking when they drive over one. The purpose is to make life unpleasant for the people who live on the street and think they have a right to have the humps. One resident, whom Schwartzman identifies as the husband of a former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, recently sat on his porch and videotaped an angry driver who honked 30 times. Other honkers "gave residents the finger as they drove by."

Can't liberals play nicely together? Not, evidently, when they are bristling, like furious porcupines, with spiky rights that demand respect because the rights-bearers' dignity is implicated in them.

Fortunately, it is a short drive from Chevy Chase to the mellow oasis of the River Road Whole Foods store, where comity can be rebuilt on the firm foundation of a shared reverence for heirloom tomatoes. And if you, you seething liberal, will put the pedal to the metal you can seize the store's last parking place. So damn the humps, full speed ahead.

georgewill@washpost.com



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