The Cheap Pathos of Civil Rights
The unexamined life is not worth living, Socrates said, probably after reading the morning papers. It never ceases to amaze me how passionately we all (I emphatically include myself) get caught up in the most trivial, ephemeral matters, like summer flies buzzing around the freshest dunghill.
How small this will appear a twelvemonth hence! Samuel Johnson remarked about the latest news of his day. I forget what it was probably something political. Its in politics that men are always aggravating the hopeless tangle of their laws, obscuring the simplest principles and making a mockery of liberty.
Take our civil rights laws please. The term civil rights has come to mean the opposite of what it suggests. People think it means individual freedom, when it usually means government power used in behalf of large groups (anyone Ted Kennedy calls a minority). Some lawyers specialize in the field of civil rights, always a bad sign.
If freedom means anything, it means the natural right to choose your own company. This is precisely what civil rights denies. If the government dislikes your choice of associates, in a business or a school perhaps, it can punish you for the offense of discrimination.
Now, discrimination used to be a perfectly good word. It meant the ability to tell things apart. We praised people for being discriminate or discriminating. You discriminated between, not against. Then the word unfortunately became associated chiefly with invidious forms of discrimination. Now its primary meaning is almost forgotten.
In the 1993 movie Philadelphia, a homosexual lawyer contracts AIDS and is fired by the law firm he works for. He sues, claiming he is a victim of discrimination that is, a victim of others decision to avoid him. He doesnt even suggest that the firm has violated any agreement it had made with him. Discrimination is bad, thats all, and it overrides the firms right to choose and dismiss its members.
Needless to say, the film stacks the deck emotionally. The homo is shown as an entirely sympathetic character. We arent told, let alone shown, how he got a fatal disease innocently, we are invited to assume, since there is apparently nothing wrong with sodomy. His case is taken by another lawyer, a very nice black man who, however, has to overcome his own prejudices against homosexuals (and lesbians).
The firms senior lawyers, on the other hand, are shown as a clubby group of smug hypocrites (all white, by the way) who, among themselves, make nasty comments and jokes about homosexuals. They lie about why they fired the homo. Obviously such men can have no right to freedom of association. They are guilty of discrimination. And of general unpleasantness, too.
The good homosexual finally wins his case in court. Then, alas, he dies. We are supposed to feel that his cause has been vindicated because hes such a decent, pitiful fellow and his enemies arent. Hollywood honored the film with several academy awards.
Its pretty hard to miss the symbolism of a black lawyer defending a homosexual. The torch is being passed to a new generation of victims. The blacks have already won their civil rights; now its the homos turn.
All of which leaves the original question unanswered. Or rather, the answer is assumed without argument. Do we have the right to choose our company? No, says the movie.
It could have been a much better drama if the law firm had raised the principle in court instead of lying about the facts. But that would have been quite unrealistic, because the principle at stake is long gone. The only question left is which side can make the strongest assault on the audiences tear ducts.
Movies like Philadelphia dont need, or want, emotional complications any more than intellectual ones. What if the hero had had some rough edges self-pity, promiscuity, contempt for others rights? What if his adversaries had been scrupulously honest and even regretful about firing him?
Never mind. The movie matches the level of debate we are now seeing in the U.S. Congress, where defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is called what else? discrimination. You expect cheap pathos in the movies, but must we endure it in politics too?
Come to think of it, I guess we must. You know what Socrates said about democracy.
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