Pondering Human Dignity, Democracy and Freedom

            This week Frazier Glenn Miller, a long-time leader of far right paramilitary hate groups, allegedly killed three individuals at a Jewish Community Center and retirement home in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. The day after the shootings law enforcement officials branded the killings a hate crime. In response to the attacks, columnist Frank Bruni of the New York Times (April 15, 2014) provided an overview of the latest Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics on reported hate crimes in the United States. In 2012, the latest year for which information is available, that agency formally reported 6,573 such incidents (few doubt many more went unreported) and the largest share were linked to race, while fully 65 percent of the 20 percent of the total tied to religion were products of anti-Semitism. Among other examples of discrimination against Jews, Bruni cited one recent and especially ugly series of incidents in upstate New York in which three Jewish families filed suit against a school district because students there had harassed their children for a protracted period with persistent bullying, Nazi salutes and swastikas drawn on their desks. Bruni reported the system’s superintendent responded to the families with an investigation and statements of concern, but the official also noted in an email message to the youth’s parents that, “Your expectations for changing inbred prejudice may be a bit unrealistic.” The Times had reported earlier (November 7, 2013) the following comments by the school district leader, who also is Jewish, on the badgering students’ behavior:

Mr. Steinberg, in interviews, said he asked the parents who had sued why they chose Pine Bush. ‘I said to them, If being Jewish is so important to you, why would you move into a community that does not have a synagogue?’

‘If you want your kids to hang out with more Jewish children or have more tolerance,’ he added, ‘why would you pick a community like Pine Bush?’

            The school leader’s reaction to this incident raises the reasonable question of why where families may live should be determined by the hate mongering of others, even as it suggests just how pervasive this sort of behavior and discrimination can be. This episode and the Overland Park killings are instructive not only for what they say about the enduring character of such enmities and their too easy rationalization by too many, but also for the ways they highlight the fact that such appeals are once more being employed, covertly and more obviously, in our broader political dialogue.

            Unfortunately, the same sort of failure to act aggressively to tamp down hatred that characterized Superintendent Steinberg’s actions, and to go further than the school official did to seek to take advantage of such animus, is increasingly characterizing a share of our national politics. Consider, for example, the stance that nine GOP controlled statehouses have taken to date to limit access to the polls for African Americans, other minority group members, the poor more generally and many seniors by imposing new and onerous voter identification requirements on the basis of what is, in fact, non-existent fraud. Party leaders have taken this step to undermine a share of Americans’ voting rights in an ongoing effort to ensure continued GOP majorities (i.e., political power) in the relevant states. It is also clear, however, that many Republican officials genuinely believe that those they seek to prevent from voting represent pariahs who are “less than” American because members of the “wrong” race, ethnicity, poor or vulnerable.

            This was the purport of 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s infamous campaign speech concerning the imagined “taker” character of those who do not vote for the GOP and it has underpinned each new Republican Party federal budget plan that Representative Paul Ryan (the party’s nominal leader on such matters) has presented during the last year. Every such effort has been constructed on the assumption of massive reductions in support for the vulnerable in American society, including the poor and those confronting food insecurity and hunger, especially. To come to the stance that each has articulated, Romney and Ryan had first to conclude that those they targeted for othering were “less than” themselves and not deserving of equal treatment with dignity.

            In one more example of how social assumptions that discriminate are driving a share of the politics of today’s GOP, Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma this week signed into law a bill forbidding that state’s cities from establishing any mandatory minimum wage and employee benefits, including vacation and sick leave days. Accounts of the politics of the move suggest the state’s Republican-controlled legislature sought to preempt any effort toward creation of an increased minimum wage level such as that now being pressed by President Barack Obama on grounds it is not needed and would prove unduly costly to the state’s businesses. While many would dispute these arguments, what is indisputable is that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “In 2012, Oklahoma’s proportion of hourly paid workers earning at or below the prevailing federal minimum wage ranked third highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.” The Bureau also reported that 7.2 percent of the hourly paid workers in Oklahoma earned the federal minimum wage or less, compared with 4.7 percent nationally. In short, this is not a state in which businesses need to be protected by government action from paying their employees undue wages.

            Instead, what seems to be at play here is an imaginary that those working for such compensation “deserve” no more and that no more should be asked of profit-seeking firms, even if their employees’ compensation is such that many can work full-time and be unable to support themselves and their families. Oklahoma’s majority party leaders are willing to imagine only that when such occurs, it is the responsibility of the employee alone.

            What these examples and perspectives have in common is a willingness among those articulating them to accord themselves superior standing to those demeaned and, as a corollary in several instances, to argue that those targeted are in fact “less than” other Americans or human beings or both. The GOP routinely and often explicitly has sought both in principle and as a mobilization device to contend that all who are poor and vulnerable are too lazy to be otherwise and are therefore undeserving of public interest and support.

            While how leaders use scapegoating tactics and appeals to voter fears and prejudice to mobilize individuals to the polls is certainly important, I believe these examples suggest something more profound for those interested in maintaining free and democratic institutions. At root and in principle, freedom demands that all those dubbed “citizens” be accorded equal rights by the regime. There is no room in such claims for “exception clauses” for those of the “incorrect” race, ethnicity, religion, income level or other delimiting factor. There is no provision, either, that requires that citizen rights be abrogated for some who are permitted to reside only where they will not experience hatred or cruel discrimination. Increasingly, however, for a complex array of reasons, a share of our nation’s political leaders are willing to fan popular prejudices and intolerance if it results in power, or to label, wide swathes of the nation’s population undeserving on grounds of their poverty or skin color or other characteristic if it provides political benefits.

            It should be obvious that if this trend continues and additional steps are taken to punish those defined as “less than,” the nation will have embarked on a slide to the potential complete usurpation of claims to equality on the basis of humanity and instead will have begun to assign fully equal status only to those possessing specific economic means, or who happen to be members of a certain race, religion, ethnicity or class. While philosophers continue to debate how best to define the relationship between human rights and human dignity, I am content to contend here that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect for no other reason than their standing as persons. For freedom and democracy to endure we cannot first demand that citizens be wealthy or of a preferred race, religion, ethnicity or class. To the extent many of our leaders today are in practice violating this foundational principle, they are daily undermining the nation’s prospects for the preservation of freedom and equality before the law and in daily life. One may only hope the people united will soon demand a change in this course or, failing that, that these leaders themselves will sense the dangers for freedom and equality that the trend their quest for power has unleashed.