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Freedom of speech doesn't require 51 percent

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

In the star-spangled tsunami of patriotism washing over the nation since the terrorist attack, one of the currents has been the "Freedom through quashing dissent" movement.

Here's an example. This e-mail was forwarded to me:

"One of the programs that I was watching tonight said that 86% of Americans believe in God. Therefore I have a very hard time understanding why there is such a mess about having 'In God We Trust' on our money and having God in the pledge of Allegiance. Could it be that we just don't take action and tell the 14% to shut up and sit down????

"... Dear 14%, shut up and sit down!!!!"

Since there were many names in the recipient field and the version I got had been forwarded and re-forwarded several times, I could only conclude that this attitude is becoming popular. And here I am referring to the "shut up and sit down" sentiment, not the merits of invoking the Almighty in our national slogans and rituals.

The Pledge of Allegiance debate interests me far less than the belief that what makes this a great nation is the freedom to make people who don't go along with the majority sit down and shut up.

Just as those fearful of immigration have to be reminded of their own parentage, those who think dissent is un-American need to be reminded that this country was founded by people considered to be fringe wackos in their own countries.

So I'd like to take a moment to respond to the promulgators of this and similar e-mails, letters to the editor and ugly tavern rhetoric.

Dear Majority Ruler,

As I'm sure you know, our esteemed Founding Fathers were, many of them, pious men. They were also very wise -- so wise, in fact, they conceived our government to be based on the rule of law, not on what Alexis de Tocqueville called "the tyranny of the majority." This is why we have an infuriatingly slow, fractious, pompous bicameral legislature checked and balanced with executive and judicial branches. Federal power is spread and diffused so effectively that barely anything ever gets done. Those Founding Fathers were real comedians.

Let's hear it in their own words. Thomas Jefferson said, "The minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression."

And James Madison, who became a famous president and whose wife became a famous snack food, wrote this: "It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part." He knew that there's a fine line between majority rule and mob rule.

So what we have here in America is not a true democracy, you see, but a republic. Oddly, the people who have been most fond of pointing that out over the past year or so are the very people who seem least interested in protecting the rights of the minority.

But if you would prefer those with a minority view to shut up and sit down, consider this potpourri of poll results:

Fifty-seven percent believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases (ABC News poll). Minority, shut up and sit down.

Fifty-three percent believe the Roe v. Wade decision was a "good thing" for the country (Gallup). Minority, shut up and sit down.

Only 46 percent favor military action in Iraq if inspectors find that Saddam has the ability to make weapons (Pew Research). Shut up and sit down.

Eighty-four percent believe you can be a good American without religious faith (Pew). Minority, shut up and sit down.

Sixty-six percent favor government help for the needy, even if it means forgoing tax cuts (Pew). Minority, shut up and sit down.

Sixty-nine percent believe it should be illegal to use a hand-held cell phone while driving (ABC News). Minority, just shut up.

And let's not forget that the Electoral College is one of our republic's bulwarks against pure democracy. If the majority ruled, George Bush would not be president.

Food for thought, yes? I think so. But if you really want to live in a country where everyone is on the same page or else, with none of this whining or second-guessing or criticizing, I can recommend one. It's called Iraq.

Samantha Bennett can be reached at sbennett@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3572.

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