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Us vs. Me
I saw a pair of opinion pieces in the San Francisco Chronicle a while back that talked about the national response to the right-wing marchers in Charlottesville. Some of those marchers have been singled out for firing by their corporate employers and many have been banned from social media sites. The issue: were these responses just?

Ted Rall, my political cartooning colleague and a well-known pissant when it comes to the inviolability of the First Amendment, took the side of unfettered free speech. “I wish I had a dollar,” he wrote, “for every time I’ve read some variation of ‘You have the right to be a fascist/racist/sexist/jerk/ communist, but XYZ Corp. has the right to fire you too.’”

I can’t promise Ted a dollar here, but let me suggest that there could be a time when even an otherwise fascistic corporate power structure would be a welcome ally to free expression.

Here is my proposition: while we might think of free speech and the constellation of other freedoms enumerated in the Bill of Rights as fundamental to our free society, there is a level of rights even more basic than those. Our Constitution and all the laws and court decisions layered on top of it rest on a broad, unwritten social compact. That agreement features one simple component: equality. Under this principle we are all in the same boat, and in a truly free society we must all have free access to every part of the boat. Unless we fail to perform our side of the the compact in some way, we are entitled to stay on the boat and enjoy the full benefits of that access in equal measure to all the other passengers. The Bill of Rights and all our freedoms rest on this unspoken agreement.

But what if some of our fellow passengers seek to undermine the social compact? What if they campaign against a subset of other passengers because of their skin color or ethnicity or religious convictions and seek to limit their access or even evict us from the boat? What if their efforts violate no written laws and there is no codified remedy for this threat to our rights?

Kathy Lipscomb, a San Francisco social activist, wrote the counterpoint to Rall’s piece, emphasizing the need to control hate speech. I see the issue as broader than that. Organized hatred is a potent force, one we should not shrug off so easily — even if the expressions of that hatred are protected speech. Doesn’t the essence of the social compact give a free society the right to use whatever legal means it can find to fight off a threat to its own existence?

The Bill of Rights is a protection of individual rights. We have the use of our system of laws and courts to enforce those rights. Our social compact guarantees something different. It promises our joint right as a people to the benefits of freedom — including all the precious, fragile individual rights that flow from that original, tacit agreement. It is as if our society is a single organism, and as such it is entitled to fight off any affliction that jeopardizes its existence.

Normally, equality and individual rights are not in conflict, but when we see torch-bearing white supremacists, fully armed and duly permitted by the state, marching in the street and chanting hatred, we should be alarmed. History tells us that such demonstrations of strength can presage a menace to free societies. And when our President gives cover and even encouragement to such organized hatred, why shouldn’t society as a whole rise up take action to cancel the threat?

I’ll admit that such judgments can be tricky. Unlike written agreements, the social compact does not provide any clear guidance as to exactly when a violation occurs, no black-and-white test of when a threat is real. Nor does it give us the kinds of remedies for such wrongs that the written law does. We are left to decide these things for ourselves as a society. Corporate firings either will or will not receive public approval. I don’t see Ted’s communists, jerks, and garden variety sexists, racists and fascists as challenging the promise of equality in the same way these emboldened supremacists do. As a people, we have a right to defend ourselves against such movements.

I suppose it’s possible that the organism of our culture might make a mistake. We might succumb to societal paranoia and deprive individuals of their rights without good reason. Still, if it comes to a clear choice between the health of our free society and my own personal freedoms — a conflict between Us and Me — I’d like to think that I would choose the common good. A society truly founded on equality will restore what I may have lost.
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No "new normal" for me, this shit ain't normal.
~ MS, Truckee