This piece by Ronald Dworkin in The American Interest struck me as exceptionally thoughtful and worth sharing. (Thanks Glenn!)
It begins with a story:
When I was growing up, my extended Jewish family held an annual party. On one occasion, a visiting college student majoring in philosophy lectured us on his theory of justice. He explained why all trace of Christmas should be banned in public spaces, and not just nativity scenes, since the very notion of Christmas was an affront to both Jews and secularists. My family stood dumbfounded and aghast. My mother dismissed the young man as a fool, shouting at him, “Are you crazy? Let the goyim have their holiday!”
This young man is the only Jew I ever met who wanted to ban Christmas. Most other Jews I know share my mother’s attitude, more or less, not out of any particular philosophy, but because they see no reason to pick a fight with their far more numerous Christian neighbors. To their minds, Jews have rights and freedoms, life is good, and so why unnecessarily antagonize all those nice Christians by sanitizing the public square of Christmas trees, reindeer figures, and peppermint sticks?
This squabble between a young idealist and my more prudent mother is a small version of the larger, age-old question over how far to push social change. That question is especially relevant now in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which involved a devout Christian baker who refused to make a custom cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. The Supreme Court narrowly ruled for the baker because the commission showed signs of “religious hostility,” but it left open the question of whether a religious person can be compelled to make a custom wedding cake with a personalized pro-gay marriage message. In theory, according to the Platonic ideal of leftist social justice, a religious person should be compelled, and some in the LGBT “community” demand this. Yet this represents an unwise change in tactics for a movement that until now has practiced an almost pitch-perfect strategy for furthering gay rights.
The debate between idealism and prudence can be traced back to Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution and the philosopher Rousseau, who died shortly before the Revolution but whose writings inspired it. . . .
By all means read the whole piece — which ranges from the American Revolution to abortion — but you’ve already got the gist, and won’t be surprised that it concludes:
. . . After marriage equality passed nationally, some gay rights organizations shrewdly disbanded, having achieved their goal. There would be no “permanent revolution,” as some theoreticians call for. For many gays and lesbians it was time to go from being a new and exciting bud on society’s tree to blending in with all the other boring branches that give the tree its vital structure. In other words, it was time to assimilate, as Jews and other minorities had prudently done in their day after achieving their goals.
But the gay wedding cake issue in Masterpiece has thrown a monkey wrench into the plan. It signifies the ascent of theory over prudence.
When writing this essay, I asked several legal scholars about analogous precedents in American law. I asked what happened in the past when a Jew went to a devout Christian baker and asked that baker to make a special holiday cake topped with a religious message slighting Christianity—for example, “We await the first coming of the Messiah.” The scholars told me they were not familiar with such a case. Some of them mused over how the case would be judged in light of Masterpiece. One of them said, “Obviously, such a case would never happen.” I think the last scholar had it right, yet it is the non-event that makes this imaginary case so relevant. The case has never happened because in the history of America no Jew has ever been stupid enough to ask a devout Christian baker to make such a cake, just as no Jew (except the one young man I met at my family’s holiday party) has been stupid enough to call for a ban on Christmas. There is no theory accounting for such a non-event. It is simply prudence on the part of Jews—and Jews have done well by such prudence.
Masterpiece did not decide the conflict between two conflicting theories. The justices seem to be as flummoxed as everyone else over how to resolve a contest between absolutes when prudence has been thrown by the wayside. The problem is that Masterpiece should never have occurred in the first place. The logical trajectory for gays and lesbians after the marriage equality triumph was to go forward in life happily but prudently, as all people in the United States do, given the diversity of cultures and the need for all of us to get along. Every baker in America must sell a generic wedding cake to a gay couple; most bakers are happy to sell them a special wedding cake. Why purposely poke the eye of the one baker in town who isn’t? Such behavior may be theoretically correct, but it is also crazy, as my mother would say.
To some degree, the LGBT activists who pushed Masterpiece are not to blame. The juggernaut of cultural change that has catapulted the theory of individual self-expression to the status of inviolate principle has caught them up, too. Already in the 1970s, writers such as Christopher Lasch in his Culture of Narcissism were commenting on the phenomenon. The theory of individual self-expression demands absolute autonomy, perfect self-esteem, unassailable safe space, and unbridled freedom of behavior in private life. It declares that we need not suffer even the slightest emotional inconvenience at the hands of others. But the theorists leading the movement forgot one important thing: We have to live with others. That leaves us with a stark choice. Either we destroy those who stand in our way, in the spirit of Rousseau, or we defuse the tension through prudence and try to get along with them, in the spirit of Burke.
Where do you lean? Toward Rousseau or toward Burke?