The 18th century English writer and moralist Samuel Johnson once declared that patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels.
Not anymore. Wrapping one’s self in the flag has now been replaced by claims to freedom of speech and religion.
No matter what one’s narrow-minded, bigoted or ignorant state of mind, it apparently can now be defended by citing religious beliefs or the right to speak one’s mind in any venue, no matter how offensive the speech.
I will always be on the front line in defense of the First Amendment. Any journalist, or retired journalist, would. But along with that freedom comes responsibility, and the willingness to face the consequences when that line is crossed.
The fraternity boys at the University of Oklahoma who were tossed out of school for their racist chants can now go on any street corner in America and chant to their hearts’ content. But the university has an equal right to declare that speech unacceptable on its campus.
Taking the latest step back in time were the GOP governors and Republican-dominated legislatures in Indiana and Arkansas, and the backlash was swift in coming. They paid the price in a national outrage.
The legislatures in both states passed bills supposedly protecting the religious freedom of business owners. But no matter how lawmakers tried to spin it, these were ugly and mean-spirited measures that gave businesses the right to refuse service to gays.
Discrimination – whether it’s hiding behind a misguided religious argument or a “keep out” sign – is still discrimination.
Fortunately, there are people of good sense and goodwill in both states who called the hands of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Both states retooled legislation to ensure sexual orientation or gender identity will not be grounds for denying service.
Mayor Peter Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., home of the University of Notre Dame, convened a meeting of local business leaders and declared that “we’ve worked too hard to grow our economy and move into the 21st century to be pulled backward into divisive social issues.”
In Arkansas, the voice of sanity came, among other places, from the state’s most powerful business interest and major campaign contributor, Wal-Mart, whose chief executive, Doug McMillon, said that “every day, in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve.”
For sheer lunacy, however, one need only turn to – where else? – California. An out-of-control initiative process makes it too easy to circulate any kind of repulsive issue for the ballot. And it doesn’t get much more repulsive than the initiative proposal now being pushed by Huntington Beach lawyer Matt McLaughlin.
Boiled down to its essence, the proposal would make it legal to execute gay people with a bullet to the head or by “any other convenient method.”
Why so many on the religious or political right seem so obsessed with gays is a mystery to me. It’s enough to make one wonder about their own private lifestyles.
But McLaughlin should not be taken seriously. In fact, one might even question why he should not be arrested for advocating a conspiracy to commit a capital crime. What he proposes, as Attorney General Kamala Harris and others have said, is reprehensible, repugnant and clearly unconstitutional.
Harris has asked for a court order to relieve her from having to provide an official title and summary for the measure, which in itself is ridiculous. Something proposing that people commit a felony against people they fear and don’t understand doesn’t deserve a response of any kind and is a gross abuse of freedom of speech.
Sadly, anyone with $200 and bad intentions can file an initiative in California. Even though the odds of McLaughlin qualifying his stupidity for the ballot is remote, taxpayer dollars are being expended in little more than an exercise in hateful futility.
William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor of The Sacramento Bee.