Perhaps one of the most treasured of American rights is the freedom of association. This is the right to hang out with whomever we want, wherever we want. It's a complicated right, because when we hang out with "people like us," inevitably someone gets kept out. Where and how to draw the line is a question we all seem to be struggling with right now.
Black Jack, Mo., made national headlines late last month when it drew its firm line. An unmarried couple with three children tried to move into the house they had just bought. The house is zoned for single family residencesand the city decided this family does not fit their legal definition of family. The couple pleaded with the city council to change the law. The city said no, and intends to evict. When this news broke, many assumed Black Jack must be one of those white, religious conservative towns in the Bible Belt. But Black Jack turned out to be a suburb of St. Louis, and its 70% African American. Their enforcement of the zoning doesn't seem to be motivated by race or religionjust a genuine desire to preserve the pro-family environment.
My friends in liberal Manhattan were appalled. "It could never happen here," they insisted. But it is happening thereat the corner of 70th and Broadway. The Sherman Square condominium tower rejected the application of an unmarried couple. (No, the couple is not gay.) The co-op says it isn't a moral judgment. It feels it shouldnt be forced into a legal contract with two people who are not even willing to be legally bound to each other. Isn't that reasonable?
Down in central Florida, developers have broken ground on a new township called Ave Maria, which they hope will be populated with conservative Catholics. The town will surround a colossal church, shaped like a pontiff's hat, with a 65-foot crucifix at the front door. They're also moving a university from Michigan to Florida, so the students and faculty can seed the town. If you're a parent who does not want your child to attend the Catholic elementary school, you will have to put your child on a school bus to be educated elsewhere in the countyAve Maria plans no public schools. The planners know darn well they can't exclude non-Catholics from buying one of the 11,000 planned homes. But they won't need to.
These anecdotes make us liberals uncomfortable, but isn't congregating with like-minded people a natural impulse? Lawyers like to drink at lawyer bars, and moms have their mommy groups. Cubs fans don't go to White Sox games, and while Girl Scout troops don't exclude lesbians, they do exclude boys.
Nor should we assume this urge to withdraw is only a conservative tactic. In the state of Nebraska, the only black member of the state legislature is Ernie Chambers. Ernie is so liberal that a colleague in the legislature said, Ernie sees racism when he pours his breakfast cereal. But Ernie Chambers recently pushed through a new bill that carves Omahas school district into threea black district, a white district, and a Hispanic district. He thinks this will protect black schools from being cheated of their fair share of bond proceeds. He also says black families should decide what black children are being taught. They think theyll be better off taking care their own.
Meanwhile, out in Northern California there's a city called Hercules which decided it hates Wal-Mart. Hercules wants to build a cozy tree-lined street of small shops where an old dynamite plant used to be. They don't mind chains, like Starbucks and The Gap. They just don't want a Wal-Mart, which they believe will crush the small stores like sugar ants. Hercules has found no legal means of forbidding Wal-Mart from building on the vacant lot it owns, so this week the city voted to use eminent domain and take the $15 million lot from Wal-Mart. So far that appears legal. Across the Bay in San Francisco, people cheered.
Even in socialist France, they now want immigrants to swear to their love of French culture. We can't do that here, because we protect free speech, so we're just making English our "official," language, and leaving the rest implied.
People are willing to be tolerant, but past a certain point it feels like being ordered to eat the peas. So at West Side High School in Gary, Ind., school officials let a transgendered teen named Kevin Logan come to school in drag every day. He's a popular boy who performs with the girls on drill team. But last weekend, when Kevin showed up at the prom in a slinky fuschia dress, he was barred from entry by the principal. They already had a rule that boys can't wear dresses to the prom. Kevin's classmates were angry. But much of the country is siding with the principal. I disagree here. If a boy has already spent $200 on a manicure and pedicure, he should be allowed to showcase his glamorous toes.
It's clear people are tired of walking on eggshells, afraid to offend those with different beliefs, ideas, and lifestyles. It's grown exhausting, and they want their lives back. The idea of diversity seems to have worn out its welcome. It is now like a house guest who has stayed too long.
We don't want to lose what makes us "us." We're freezing up, right as our melting pot gets to the melting point, and our disparate identities are about to blur away. Can we as a society turn the heat back on without passions becoming so inflamed?