2010, September: Politics

The lesson is from the twelfth chapter of the book of Numbers, beginning at the first verse. Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman.  So they said, “Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us also?” And the LORD heard it. (Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.)

        You can always tell it’s election time when the politicians turn into defenders of the public morality. The weeks after Labor Day of even-numbered years are when candidates distract attention from what little they have done while in office. Instead they make populist pronouncements about how other people should live their lives. I’d like to argue today that we don’t elect our officials to lead us to righteousness. In fact, I am going to close with some nondenominational, non-partisan electioneering.
         But first, I want to talk about Craigslist and the mosque.
         Craigslist is, of course, a crummy, amateurish classified ads web site. Like many people, I have used it to sell a used car and to shop for a used washing machine. How did Craigslist become one of several plains of Armageddon where the forces of good and evil are fighting it out today? The forces of evil are in this case the harlots who advertise on Craigslist. And the forces of good are, well, Martha Coakley, and Richard Blumenthal of the Harvard class of 1967.
         Or at least, that is the way these two Attorneys General, both of whom just happen to be running for office, would like the battlefield to be seen. The facts are rather more straightforward. In addition to the usual run of used car and washing machine sales, some people are using the site to offer for sale some services which can’t legally be sold, and which are not infrequently offered by desperate people in dangerous circumstances. Sometimes the results are tragic.
Now there is no law against letting people post advertisements for those or any other services online. In fact the law says exactly the opposite: Nobody who runs a web site is legally obliged to monitor or remove anything that other people post on it. That’s the same law that makes it possible for both the Boston Globe and me to have comment sections on our web sites. We are free to run our electronic printing presses. We don’t have to worry about reading every comment before it is posted.
         Come now the Attorneys General of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and some other states. These folks are, of course, our top law enforcement officials. They observe, correctly, that some of the advertisements appear to be offering services that can’t legally be offered. They observe, again correctly, that some horrible things have happened to people who offer those services using Craigslist. But rather than going after those people for violating actual laws, they are going after Craig, who is not violating any law. These campaigning politicians apparently calculate that they would get little bounce for arresting actual harlots. Instead, Blumenthal commanded Craig Newmark to “Shut down this site.” Did I mention that Blumenthal had the benefit of a Harvard education? Didn’t he learn here that the law needs to get enacted first, before he can order people to stop violating it?
         The public is, I think, generally supportive of Blumenthal and Coakley. Certainly the AGs have the support of organizations that have worked with women forced into sexual commerce. But do we really want our elected officials to use the power of their office to force private parties to stop doing things they are lawfully doing? Before you think “yes, in this horrible case,” remember that when government officials become popular by substituting arrogated moral superiority for legal authority, they may come after you next. Any of us who has done something unpopular or unconventional is one step away from being their next target.
         Which brings me to the mosque in lower Manhattan. Once again we have elected officials in tight races, Harry Reid, for example, who are reluctant to talk about what they have done, or what they will do. Instead they talk about what other people should not do in a city at the other end of the country. Mr. Reid concedes, rather ruefully, that the mosque enjoys First Amendment protections. But he declares, with many metaphors about sacred ground and salt in wounds, that it shouldn’t be built. What can it mean for freedom of religion when the big cheeses of our national government condemn those who would use that freedom to pray in the wrong place?
         The Lord does not speak through Harry Reid, or anybody else we elect.
The only senator who sees over the horizon is Orrin Hatch. “I have a tendency … to uphold the rights of … legitimate religious groups to build their mosques or their chapels or their cathedrals …, and I will fight for their right do to that,” he said. It is not hard to see why Hatch feels that way: He knows that elected officials empowered by their demagoguery could go after the Mormons next.
         And if you think the Koran-burning minister might be the exception where we really do want to hear from our political leaders, think how wonderful it would be if Barack Obama and Sarah Palin would both keep quiet, and we heard thunder instead from Rick Warren and Franklin Graham.
         So when you go into the voting booth, vote for the candidates who will enforce the laws and will leave us alone if we are obeying them. Over the course of history, many a dictator has been brought to power on the strength of public assaults on unpopular private parties who are exercising their civil rights.

- Harry Lewis