On Friday, George Will wrote about a photographer in New Mexico whom the government penalized thousands of dollars for declining to take pictures at a same-sex commitment ceremony. Meanwhile, a public school in Colorado has confiscated two sets of Rosary beads from a student, with disputed insinuations of gang activity and erroneous counts of the number of prayer beads on it.
Normally, I wouldn’t mention these incidents for two reasons. First, they’ve become a bit too commonplace to penetrate a to-write list in turbulent times, especially when each occurred so far away from my region of specific interest. Second, the culture wars extend beyond the scope of the Ocean State Current, in most of their manifestations.
It seems to me, though, that the environment in which such things are common and broadly dispersed across the continent helps to explain why this dramatic photograph hasn’t been plastered across news media of all sorts, rightfully becoming a subject of controversy and national soul-searching debate:
That’s Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian literally being taken away by brownshirts (as Glenn Reynolds emphasizes), who knocked on his door in the middle of the night after a film he’d made put the ruling regime in a difficult and extremely embarrassing situation. To say the least, the presentation on this one was clearly not considered with an eye toward avoiding the chilling of free speech.
To be clear: The important thread through the three incidents just described isn’t the shared religion; that’s relevant only because it marks the targets as outside of the protective shield of certified “minority” groups. The important thread is the accepted justification of clear violations of individuals’ rights; it would be astonishing to anybody whose experience of this country ended just a few decades ago.
Perhaps the worst aspect is that the reaction of those in power and their supporters (particularly in the media) suggests that they do not see this as an error in judgment that must be downplayed and dismissed as the fault of overzealous functionaries within the government. Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations told ABC News (emphasis added):
First of all, let’s be clear about what transpired this week. In Cairo, in Benghazi, in many other parts of the region, was a direct result of a heinous and offensive video that was widely disseminated, that the U.S. government had nothing to do with, which we have made clear is reprehensible and disgusting. We have also been very clear that there is no excuse for violence, we have condemned it in the strongest possible terms.
Three critical documents in our nation’s history and founding come to mind as being threatened with disregard, here. The first, of course, is the Bill of Rights, the first amendment of which begins by guaranteeing that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
The second, which is not at all apparent in the responses of Ambassador Rice and other administration officials, is the Declaration of Independence, which stresses that “Governments are instituted among Men” expressly “to secure these rights” to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In other words, it is the job of the government to defend Americans’ way of life to and from the world, not to lament and distance itself from the consequences of it.
In the same vein, though more direct, Ambassador Rice has forgotten perhaps the most famous description of the U.S. government ever articulated in history, by President Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address (emphasis added):
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
“Of the people, by the people, for the people” is not the attitude of a government that strains to disassociate itself from the people it represents, even just one of them. Rather, the attitude currently on display is of a bureaucracy that sees itself as representative of select factions — holding not universal ideals shared by all, but the narrow interests of particular groups, in the service of a particular worldview to which the actual laws of the land must be made to bend.