Monday, January 18, 2010

On The Holiday Honoring Dr. King

In a recent post I wrote about the conflict I feel, as did Barry Goldwater, between doing what's "right" and moral for our citizens vs. following the Constitution. Specifically, I addressed the "public accommodations clause"; why should the federal government be allowed to dictate from whom a hotel or restaurant owner must take money? It seems to me that if a business owner doesn't want someone's money, he shouldn't be compelled to take it! Goldwater knew that time was on the side of righteousness, that public opinion and changing values would eventually correct the injustices in a way that didn't, in his view, cross the Constitution. Yet, I know in my heart that treating blacks that way was wrong. How do I reconcile this?

Dr. King's Letter From A Birmingham Jail addresses this:

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait."

He then proceeds, as does the Declaration of Independence in listing grievances against George III, to list the effects of the indignities (and worse) caused by segregation. The list is too long to ignore, too powerful to wish away.

So on this journey of understanding I think I've reached a pebble of understanding. Perhaps my original view, and that of Goldwater, is too libertarian; that there are rights beyond those contained in the Constitution, and those rights are just as worthy as those specifically written. Perhaps your "right" to conduct your business as you see fit conflicts with another's "right" to societal justice--and that's how we square the public accommodations clause with the Constitution.

I don't come upon this determination lightly, but as I said, Dr. King's list of indignities and practical effects cries out for justice. I'm aware that this opens up yet another can of worms--who determines these extra-Constitutional rights? Does this view not grant unlimited power to the federal government? Does this not now allow us to read into the Constitution whatever it is we want to find?

I don't have answers to these questions (yet). However, I'm reminded of what Goldwater said at the 1964 Republican Convention: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.


mazenko said...

Nicely said, Darren.

The "Why We Can't Wait" speech is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful and important in American history. It mirrors Henry, Paine, and Jefferson making the same case for liberty.

Ultimately, America's pursuit of justice is the most glorious journey in history.

Happy MLK Day.

allen (in Michigan) said...

With regard to the "public accommodations" issue, I would remind all that the bus company which was boycotted by the black residents of Montgomery lobbied *against* the passage of the law which Rosa Parks broke, precipitating the boycott.

When you've got nothing to lose it's easy to demand that others cater to your preferences.

Darren said...

I don't understand the point behind your second sentence.

mazenko said...

Darren, if you get around to reading George Will's Statecraft as Soulcraft, I think you'll find a rather astute answer to your question on pages 47-49.

Darren said...

Or you could tell me here :)

mazenko said...

In short, "the defining drama of American history was precipitated by a particular law that undertook to teach a particular moral lesson. The law was the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln and kindred spirits could tolerate slavery in the Deep South, convinced as they were that if confined, it was on the road to extinction. But they would wage war over the principle embodied in the K-N Act. - the principle that slavery is a matter of moral indifference, or is, at any rate, so morally trivial that the people of said states should be free to establish it or ban it as they pleased. It was not because of an interest, it was because of an idea "that the war came."

"Union forever, hurrah boys" was a Civil War song. But the boys were not fighting for the empty concept of a union. There were fighting - whether they understood it or not - for a "union" dedicated to a "proposition." The Kansas-Neb Act was an attempt to legislate morality. It failed. It failed for the same reason that the most recent attempt to legislate morality - The Civil Rights Act - succeeded. The Kan-Neb act failed and the CR Act succeeded because this nation is still a nation "dedicated" to a "proposition."

allen (in Michigan) said...


How likely were the politicians who enacted the law that resulted in the boycott to have been shareholders in the bus company? How likely is it that the bigots who demanded the law were shareholders in the bus company? "Not very" to both since the bus company vigorously lobbied the city council *against* passage of the law.

You don't have to be much of a student of human behavior to conclude that humiliating your paying customers just isn't a particularly clever tactic for ensuring their loyalty and patronage. The people who profited from the bus company weren't willing to risk those profits to satisfy their own bigotry so why would they indulge anyone else's?

After all, at any time the bus company could have enacted rules that mimicked the law. But everybody has their own problems and the bus company's problem was making a profit. If their white patrons were somewhat uncomfortable or unhappy, well, that was their look out.