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Beyond Tolerance to Equal Rights

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 29, 1987, p. 395. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The moment baseball executive Al Campanis said the unsayable on network television, a small crack appeared in the carefully constructed shell of tolerance that prevails in this country. What Campanis, 70, did was to tell Ted Koppel on ABC’s Nightline that few blacks hold managerial positions in baseball because "I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager."

In context it was clear that Campanis was referring to what he believed is an absence of leadership skills among blacks. His remarks have generated a considerable and predictable public discussion. A popular man within baseball circles, Campanis has actually been defended by those who feel he didn’t really mean what he said. He had, after all, played with Jackie Robinson -- the man whose entry into the major leagues 40 years ago was being remembered on Nightline. Black leaders, most notably Jesse Jackson, seized on the incident as a way of publicizing the very obvious lack of blacks in leadership positions within major professional sports, an absence all the more striking in light of the preponderance of blacks among the ranks of professional baseball, football and basketball players.

Only Campanis knows what was in his mind -- and the hot seat of network television is admittedly not the best place to determine this. But what his gaffe does demonstrate is that our culture’s embrace of tolerance hasn’t included a parallel commitment to the principle of equal rights. Any casual observer of American culture knows that Campanis was voicing a prejudice that is widespread. He was fired because he said the unsayable in a society that celebrates tolerance as the highest principle.

The distinction between rights and tolerance is developed at great length in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1987) , a book that is bound to be controversial because it argues that an excess of tolerance has led our culture to turn away from a dependence on those classic texts in our national history which celebrate certain principles on which the country was founded.

Bloom points out, for example, that Oliver Wendell Holmes gave up searching for a principle "to determine which speech or conduct is not tolerable in a democratic society and invoked instead an imprecise and practically meaningless standard -- clear and present danger -- which to all intents and purposes makes the preservation of public order the only common good" (p. 28). Behind Holmes’s reasoning was the liberal optimistic view that "truth will always triumph in the marketplace of ideas."

Bloom insists that this optimism was not shared by the nation’s founders, who "insisted that the principles of democratic government must be returned to and consulted even though the consequences might be harsh for certain points of view, some merely tolerated and not respected, others forbidden outright." Nor was it shared by Abraham Lincoln, says Bloom, for Lincoln chose not to tolerate slavery even though by going to war against the Confederacy he was presenting the nation with the clear and present danger of a "bloody civil war." The principle of equal rights was more important to him than tolerance of the views of a minority that wanted to maintain blacks in servitude.

What the hapless Al Campanis did was to say out loud that though baseball tolerates the presence of blacks on the playing field, not enough of its leadership believe sufficiently in the principle of equality to make that second effort to put blacks in administrative positions. In this small blip on the country’s attention screen, we see what tolerance without a commitment to rights looks like. We are really a bigoted people, not only against blacks, but against any and all who are "different" from ourselves.

As this academic school year draws to a close we are seeing evidence that higher education does not erase this bigotry. Major universities (for example, Dartmouth and the Universities of Michigan and Massachusetts, all of which have been the scene of recent demonstrations and violence) are struggling with overt examples of racial prejudice among their students, whose education has stressed success for oneself and tolerance of others. But tolerance without principles slides easily into hidden intolerance. And where are we to turn for those principles?

Dan Segre, a professor of political thought at Haifa University in Israel, recalls in his sensitive autobiography that during his childhood in Italy he knew little of the Jewish tradition.

My mother, like my father, grew up in a climate of obsolete Judaism and of vigorous Italian nationalism, and as a result, she shared all the virtues and prejudices typical of a generation of Jewish bourgeois sure of themselves, affluent, and respected, and totally unconscious of the dangers that lay waiting for them in the future [Memories of a Fortunate Jew (Adler & Adler. 1985) , p. 23].

Segre immigrated to Palestine in 1939 before the full force of fascism and Nazism fell upon the Jewish people. Today, as a devout Jew, he is well aware of the need for something beyond an optimistic belief in human progress as a basis for shaping a nation. In commenting about the complexities of Israeli politics, it is always clear that Segre’s analysis is undergirded by a profound faith in God. He does not speak of Israel’s divine right to hold land; rather, he talks of the importance of a faith according to which decisions can be made that involve both land and people.

Bloom argues for a culture that can provide "a vision of a moral cosmos and of the rewards and punishments for good and evil, sublime speeches that accompany and interpret deeds, protagonists and antagonists in the drama of moral choice, a sense of the stakes involved in such choice, and the despair that results when the world is ‘disenchanted"’ (p. 60) Where does he suggest we might find such a moral vision?

I am not saying anything so trite as that life is fuller when people have myths to live by. I mean rather that a life based on the [Bible] is closer to the truth, that it provides the material for deeper research in and access to the real nature of things. . . . The Bible is not the only means to furnish a mind, but without a book of similar gravity, read with the gravity of the potential believer, it will remain unfurnished.

The unfurnished mind, then, is the mind that tolerates but does not believe in anything that gives final meaning to personal or communal life. Equality and the rights of others are principles that do not spring from mushy openness. They must be rooted in a belief system through which, as Saul Bellow says in his foreword to Bloom’s book, we have "access to the deepest part of ourselves -- to that part of us which is conscious of a higher consciousness, by means of which we make final judgments, and put everything together."


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