Absolutism in the defense of philosophy can get, well, a bit silly


“If the civil and political rights of both races be equal, one cannot be inferior to the other civilly or politically. If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”
     — Plessy v. Ferguson

The tongue waging over the remarks of Kentucky Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul  on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC continues to stir up a breeze.

Asked about desegregating lunch counters, Paul stammered:

“Well, what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says, ‘Well, no, we don't want to have guns in here’; the bar says, ‘We don't want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each other.’ Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant? These are important philosophical debates but not a very practical discussion.”

In another part of the interview he equated the question to free speech and tried to dodge the obvious implication of racism as his motive:

“Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking? I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn't mean we approve of it. I think the problem with this debate is by getting muddled down into it, the implication is somehow that I would approve of any racism or discrimination, and I don't in any form or fashion.”

On Tuesday, George Mason economist and frequent Review-Journal columnist Walter E. Williams was sitting in for the vacating Rush Limbaugh and trying to explain the fundamentals of the debate — the role of government, liberty, freedom of speech and association, the right of the individual to make personal choices in life, the definitions of discrimination and prejudice.

As one over-the-top example, he explained that in the 1960s while looking for a wife he discriminated against white and Asian women. That was his choice.

Callers were beside themselves. Discrimination is wrong. Prejudice is evil. Government must use its august powers to stamp out and eradicate every vestige of discrimination in accommodations and access. They sounded like purists who would demand no discriminatory action in public or private on the basis of race, creed, color, sex or sexual orientation.

As I've said before, it sounds like we are getting into the realm of thought crime.

Sometimes holding to fundamental principles can sound a bit silly — both those of Paul and the callers to Williams’ program.

Take another passage from the case of Plessy in which Justice Henry Billings Brown outlined some not-so-subtle nuances of the issue at hand, whether states could require separate railroad cars and schools for the different races. Brown dithered:

“It is true that the question of the proportion of colored blood necessary to constitute a colored person, as distinguished from a white person, is one upon which there is a difference of opinion in the different States, some holding that any visible admixture of black blood stamps the person as belonging to the colored race; others that it depends upon the preponderance of blood; and still others that the predominance of white blood must only be in the proportion of three-fourths. But these are questions to be determined under the laws of each State, and are not properly put in issue in this case. Under the allegations of his petition, it may undoubtedly become a question of importance whether, under the laws of Louisiana, the petitioner belongs to the white or colored race.”

Not being one to ever avoid the practice of silly suggestions, perhaps it is time for the purists, of thought, not blood, to begin to urge passage of a federal law finally stamping out the last of the separate-but-equal accommodations in public and private facilities.

That’s right, the Personal Offal Transference Terminal Integration Enforcement (POTTIE) Act of 2010. Just like the separate drinking foundations for “whites” and “coloreds,” end the practice of segregated restrooms labeled with discriminatory signs reading “men” and “women.”