By David K. Shipler
A measure of a country’s health is its capacity for self-correction. The same holds true of an institution, even of an individual. The test is what happens when behavior departs from a course that is moral, legal, decent, and humane; when it sacrifices long-term vision for instant gratification; indulges in fear and fantasy; abandons truth; oppresses the weak; and promotes cruelty and corruption. The election tomorrow is a test.
An open, pluralistic democracy can reform itself, and the United States has a long history of moral violations followed by corrections--or, at least, a degree of regret. The colonies’ and states’ persecution of religious minorities led to the First Amendment’s provision separating church and state. The atrocities against Native Americans led eventually to more honest teaching of history, although not the compensations for stolen land and destroyed cultures that the victims deserved. The scourge of slavery led to its abolition by the Thirteenth Amendment, the Civil War to a stronger (if imperfect) union, the Jim Crow segregationist laws to an uplifting civil rights movement and a wave of anti-discrimination measures by Congress and the courts.
The denial of women’s suffrage was reversed by the Nineteenth Amendment. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was ruled unconstitutional, albeit too late for the prisoners. The character assassinations by Senator Joseph McCarthy of imagined communists, ruining careers and lives, were ultimately repudiated as repugnant and, in themselves, un-American. The illicit FBI and CIA spying on antiwar and other dissident groups led to a series of federal statutes regulating domestic surveillance, although those laws were watered down after 9/11. And most recently, the society’s broad distaste for homosexuality was revised into broad acceptance, including a Supreme Court decision overturning laws against gay marriage.
These and many other issues demonstrate that progress does not move in a straight line. The correction is never quite complete, and there is backsliding. While blacks in the South were once denied the vote by means of poll taxes and literacy tests, Republicans have now employed other means to the same end, purging registration rolls, for example, moving and reducing polling places in minority areas, and discarding registration forms on the basis of flimsy inconsistencies.
But in the long run, when this democracy damages its own interests and others’ well-being, it experiences something of a gravitational pull toward the more solid ground of social justice. That happened in the civil rights movement when the brutality of the segregationists, unleashing dogs, cops, and thugs to attack nonviolent demonstrators, became ugly enough to mobilize the conscience of the country. What will it take to mobilize the conscience today?