The Universal Notebook: Moral universe is no place for tea parties

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used this line in at least three of his historic speeches during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is an elegant and optimistic expression of the ideas that the universe is friendly toward values and that human society makes progress over time toward the ultimate end of a just and peaceful world.

I think of this line every time I read or hear someone insist that, in our badly polarized 21st century American society, we need to listen to both sides of an argument, that we ought to respect an honest difference of opinion.

But a difference of opinion is sustainable on some issues, not on others.

There were not, for example, two legitimate opposing views on civil rights. Segregationists were simply wrong – ignorant, prejudiced and wrong. Nor were there two legitimate opposing views on women’s rights. Patriarchal male chauvinists who relegated women to a subservient role were simply wrong.

As the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, I believe that history and humanity will similarly judge that those who opposed equal rights for gay and lesbian people were wrong. And way over the rainbow, I believe there will also come a time when the way we now treat children, animals and the planet will be understood as entirely wrong. Children are not lesser human beings. Animals are not lesser beings than humans. Earth is not ours to destroy.

When ultimate justice is realized, war and violence of any kind will finally and universally be understood as wrong. This final realization, however, may have to await the transformation of this world into the kingdom of God.

In the here and the now, the Rev. Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe informs my own perspective on the conservative backlash against every attempt to right the wrongs of the past. Conservatism by its very nature prefers the past to the future, at the very least the status quo to change. Ultra-conservatives do not seem to believe in working for the common good. Social justice, indeed “social” anything, are fighting words to them.

So when Tea Party conservatives wrap themselves in the American flag, the colonial flag, even the confederate flag, I see not patriotism but backsliding, a desperate attempt by frightened people to take refuge in the certainties of the past no matter how unfair or destructive. Waving flags and copies of the Constitution, the Tea Partiers fail to understand that the Constitution is a living document, not an inviolable set of laws frozen in time.

Tea Party constitutionalists also don’t seem to appreciate that the protest from which they take their name was carried out not just to avoid paying taxes, but to secure democratic representation. Latter-day Tea Partiers now protest laws enacted by the very democratically elected representatives the true Tea Party patriots fought to put in power. Ironic, but not very patriotic.

And when they howl that the Constitution does not give Congress the right to mandate health insurance coverage, they reveal their ignorance. The Constitution gives Congress the power to levy taxes (the proposed penalty for not being insured is a tax) and the Commerce Clause gives it the power to regulate commerce. Even conservative lawyers concede that health care reform would stand the test of constitutionality.

But the freedom to be uninsured is like the freedom we once had to smoke in restaurants. It is a hollow freedom that indulges individual privilege at the expense of everyone else.

Constitutional conservatives, however, conveniently ignore the fact that the founding principles of this great country were not individual liberties but collective aspirations – “to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Tea Party demonstrators and their conservative comrades in the militia movements, open carry cults, secessionist sects and talk radio ranks do not appear to support any of these fundamental American principles. They threaten the Union, deny justice, disturb domestic tranquility, promote vigilantism, oppose the general welfare and seek self-serving freedoms for themselves. They are wrong. Their liberties are not under attack. The country is not on a path to socialism.

And taxes are lower now than they were under the previous administration.

As the arc of the moral universe bends inexorably toward liberty and justice for all, today’s Tea Party types will find themselves on the wrong side of history, just like the segregationists of generations past.

Sidebar Elements

The Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s personal look at the world around him.