This Independence Day weekend may be as good a time as any to take a small look at the other side of freedom.
I don't mean to discount the usual emphasis of our Fourth of July celebrations on our rights as free citizens. I want only to offer a modest reminder that it takes attention to more than rights to make our democracy work.
Rights are, in many ways, negative. They speak of what others may not do to us or prevent us from doing -- even those "unalienable" rights that include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Rights constitute one side of freedom. The other side, worth an occasional thought, is the responsibility -- unenforceable except by our own consciences -- to do what we can to mold autonomous individuals and small groups into a nation, to transform us from rights-seeking plaintiffs into citizens.
It's easy to forget the distinction. Our politics are too much involved with destroying enemies, too little with solving common problems. Almost without thinking about it, we press policies that serve the interests of our own group and take scant thought of what they mean to society. The most committed activists on our college campuses are likely to be working on behalf of the rights of their subgroups, with hardly any organized concern for knitting the campus into a community.
Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Just more than a year ago, one Carl Silverman took his children to a baseball game to see the minor-league Hagerstown Suns. Silverman asked the ticket agent if any discounts were available and was told that it was Church Bulletin Day. Anybody who presented a bulletin from his church, temple, synagogue, etc., would be entitled to a special break. Silverman said he told the agent that he wasn't religious and, therefore, had no bulletin. He paid the full $8 admission price (which included a free pass for one of the children) and attended the game.
Then, certain that his rights had been violated, he filed a complaint with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations. He had been discriminated against, he argued, on the basis of his creed.
Now it's certainly possible to contend that Church Bulletin Day, while not placing one religion ahead of any other, did favor religion over irreligion.
Well, imagine that there just happened to be in Silverman's hometown a club that holds ladies' nights, an ice-cream parlor that offers free scoops for children with A's on their report cards, a bookstore that provides discounts for PTA members and a transit company that grants low fares for senior citizens. And imagine that, as luck would have it, Silverman qualifies for none of the special breaks.
One might also argue that he was a multiple victim of discrimination, that his right to equal treatment had been violated again and again.
What strikes me as unarguable is that insistence on enforcement of these nebulous and (in my view) frivolous claims does damage to the community.
It strikes Kevin Hasson, head of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the same way. Hasson insists he has no patience for discrimination based on religion, but he bristles at those who see the "establishment" clause of the Constitution as requiring hostility to religion. The Washington-based Becket Fund recently defended Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler's practice of having not just nativity scenes and menorahs on public space each season but also displays honoring Hinduism, Islam and other religions. (The city's displays also include "about 50 other things during the course of the year, most of them secular, relating to the local culture," according to Hasson.)
Well the ACLU sued and, recently, lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. I'm told the organization is about to challenge a similar series of displays in another New Jersey township.
The problem with this rights-above-all notion is that it does little to teach us how to build community in this multicultural, polyglot land of ours.
Hasson puts it less gently. "Aristotle used the Greek word `idiotes,' " he says, "to refer to a private person who refuses to participate in the polis. That's where our word `idiot' comes from."