Consider, if you will, Yardley's Law of Unforeseen Consequences. Put as simply as possible: Bad always follows good. Put more elaborately: Any action, no matter how noble the intentions behind it, sooner or later has unanticipated ramifications that are mischievous at best, disastrous at worst, and if that action is legislative or judicial, the potential for unforeseen and undesirable consequences increases exponentially.
The most notable example in recent American history can be traced to 1954, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled segregation of the public schools to be unconstitutional. However one may feel about the judicial activism that produced it, the decision itself was a good and necessary thing, and it set off a long sequence of good and necessary things: Rosa Parks's refusal the next year to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus to a white man, the first sit-ins in North Carolina in 1960, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to name four of many.
These are landmarks in U.S. history; they altered and improved the lives not merely of African Americans but of all Americans. That is what they were meant to do. They were not meant to create an intensely legalistic climate in which the concept of "rights" has grown ever more fanciful and elastic; or to make group identity--sexual, sex-preferential, ethnic, generational, you name it--grounds for complaint or claims of entitlement; or to heighten rather than ameliorate tensions among such groups; or to devise quota systems and affirmative action; or to instill in individuals as well as groups a pugnacious demand for entitlement, a general conviction that whatever someone else has got, Numero Uno had damn well be given, too.
None of that was meant to happen, but all of it has, and all of it is rooted in two essential tactics of the civil rights revolution: group protest and legislative and/or judicial remedy. Everyone has a grievance now, everyone thinks that alleviating it--preferably with rich compensation for real or imagined pain and suffering--is the most important business on the nation's table. Thus we have, as William McGowan of the Manhattan Institute pointed out recently in the Wall Street Journal, journalists who believe that standards of professional objectivity should be sacrificed where they prove inconvenient to the interests of racial or ethnic identity or sexual preference; and thus we have, to paraphrase the words of Woodrow Wilson, a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own, who have done grievous damage to a great American institution.
They are members of the Major League Umpires Association. They want Major League Baseball to renegotiate their contract now, though it does not expire until the end of the year. They would like to strike, but that is illegal under their existing contract, so their president--an overbearing, loutish bully named Richie Phillips--came up with the idea that they should submit their resignations, en masse, effective early next month, on the theory that baseball would immediately panic over the loss of these vital employees and would fall all over itself to make certain that their services would be retained.
But a funny thing happened. The lords of baseball, rarely noted for their wisdom, took one look at the letters of resignation submitted by 56 of the 66 umpires and said: Adios. Last week, it said just that to 13 National League and nine American League umpires, and hired two dozen minor-league umps to replace them. The other umpires, their livelihoods hanging in the balance, went ballistic. They turned on Phillips, screamed that they didn't really mean it after all, and pleaded for their jobs.
Phillips, himself panicking, reached into the lexicon of grievance and victimization. He said that what baseball had done was "reprehensible and [of course!] oppressive," that "this action of executing surrendered prisoners is indicative of the mind-set of baseball today that has led us to the position we're in."
That's the hottest air this side of Jesse Jackson. If baseball has troubles--and as an apostate fan, I'm here to say that it certainly does--many can be traced to the umpires. For years they watched as the players' wages climbed higher and higher, and they thought: Some of that belongs to us. Never mind that it is the players, not the umpires, whom fans and broadcasters pay to see. The umps figured that they were as important as the players and therefore were entitled to slop every bit as greedily at the trough. Not merely did they get generous (and to some extent merited) pay increases, but they began to assert themselves on the field in a confrontational, up-yours manner: They initiated shouting and pushing matches with players, they deliberately ignored league directives and set strike zones (one for each of the 66 umpires) of their own, they encouraged games to drag on at interminable length, and they generally acted as if they, not the players, were the stars of the show.
In the end, they got too tricky and too pugnacious for their own good. They backed themselves into a corner, and baseball is letting them have exactly what they deserve: both barrels. It obviously has taken them completely by surprise, but they have just learned that they are not irreplaceable and that their emoluments are not entitlements. This runs quite contrary to what is now the conventional American wisdom, but it is the absolute truth, and you can bet the rent on this: Sooner or later the rest of those "victimized" and "oppressed" groups are going to be taught the same lesson.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.