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Tolerance: A Value, Not an Absolute

In watching some of the material on Dr. Jeremiah Wright today, I’m reminded of the potential problem of tolerance–getting it above its proper rank as a value. I have been confronted numerous times in face to face discussions with the statement that I cannot be truly tolerant, because to be tolerant, I must tolerate intolerance.

But that is a sort of binary thinking that is, quite frankly, the basis for a great deal of stupidity. For me tolerance is not an absolute. Tolerance is something I value. I do not value it above all else. It is the sort of thing that when overvalued can become self-destructive. To illustrate from the physical world, I value my home. But when a hurricane is coming, I value my life and my family more highly than my home. So I evacuate when it’s appropriate. Some don’t, and end up dead or injured.

There are a number of comments by Rev. Wright that I am quite willing to defend. I’m even willing, as you will have noted, to defend a large part of his “God damn America” speech, while confessing that I would never have expressed it that way myself. I can get behind the rhetoric to a good point.

But in embracing Farrakhan, I believe Wright steps over that line to tolerating intolerance. Farrakhan has, in fact, done some good things in the African-American community. but he has more than balanced that with hateful speech and acts, and with his anti-Semitism. Barack Obama was correct to reject (and denounce!) his support. Rev. Wright does himself a disservice by embracing him.

To quote from MSNBC.com:

At the press club, he jokingly offered himself as Obama’s running mate and embraced Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan even though he said he doesn’t always agree with him. He criticized the U.S. government as imperialist and stood by his suggestion that the U.S. invented the HIV virus as a means of genocide against minorities. “Based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything,” he said.

To tolerate Louis Farrakhan in this fashion is to tolerate intolerance, and this is a liberal danger. We wish to be so careful not to be intolerant. We want to be even handed, and love all the disadvantaged, underprivileged, and oppressed people. Those are good impulses. But we need to be careful to draw moral lines. We can desire justice for the Palestinians without justifying their killing of Israelis. We can recognize the economic hardships that contribute to terrorist recruiting without justifying the use made of it by terrorists. We can recognize the need for pride in the African-American community without also justifying a new form of hate and racism.

Besides embracing Farrakhan, who has stepped way over the line, he continues with the claim that HIV was produced by the U. S. government. Based on things done in years past, I would be prepared to hear it if evidence turned up that some secret agency had done this in some way. U. S. government agencies have done some quite evil things. But the key there is the need for evidence. Right now there is no such thing. One of the nastiest ways one can vilify one’s opponents is by suggesting that they have done the things that they are capable of. We are all capable of some form of evil, but we do not all do everything of which we are capable. Evidence should precede accusation; all else is a smear.

Rev. Wright should be aware of this, considering that around 10% of the American public believes that Barack Obama is a Muslim. The accusation has been made, and it doesn’t matter how much evidence there is that he is not, some of the slime will stick. A pastor, especially should be very careful with his words.

I am not going to get into the game of blaming associates of associates, i.e. that Barack Obama needs to distance himself further from his pastor so as to be distanced further from Farrakhan. I didn’t like the “associating with people who associated with communists” attitude during the cold war, and this one is certainly no better. But Rev. Wright is responsible for his own words, and along with quite a number of good challenging ones, he has spoken some that are dangerous, hateful, and irresponsible.

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