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ON TOLERATION.\o7 By Michael Walzer\f7 .\o7 Yale University Press: 122 pp., $16.50\f7

May 04, 1997|JONATHAN RAUCH | Jonathan Rauch is the author of "Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government."

The biggest shock I've had in a long time came a few months ago when one of my best friends told me that I am a threat to him and his family. I am an advocate of homosexual marriage. From where I sit, I am asking for nothing more than admittance to a core institution-- no, the core institution--of civilized adult life. But to my friend, I am not knocking on his door but knocking it down and then wrecking the house. Being gay is fine, he said, but must I also destroy this most cherished institution? Must I attack the right of America's majority culture to propagate its core values? I believe I am asking for toleration, expressed as legal equality. He believes I am making war.

The culture wars, as they have been called, might just as well be called the toleration wars. They are not only about the particulars of abortion and pornography but also about who is imposing his culture on whom. It is this second, larger argument that gives the culture wars their acrid odor of universal offendedness.

In March, Rep. Ernest Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) proposed a constitutional amendment saying, in part: "The right to pray or acknowledge religious belief, heritage or tradition on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed." Secular Americans love to accuse the religious right of intolerance. But the religious conservatives who are trying (for the third time) to make school prayer constitutional believe they are oppressed, not intolerant. They believe they are being systematically driven from public life and stripped of the power to teach their values to their children.

The trouble today is that we have no template to show where toleration ends and cultural imperialism begins. Easy appeals to civil liberties break down when every side feels invaded and coerced. So "On Toleration," a tight-knit, elegant and agreeably compact analysis of the subject by Michael Walzer, the prolific political theorist, could not be more timely. The pity is that it is not also more useful.

Walzer impressively breezes past the shibboleths that dominate civics book discussions of toleration. Should we tolerate the intolerant? Far from being, as our sophomore seminars intoned, the central and most difficult issue for a theory of toleration, the question all but answers itself: Yes, of course. In any tolerant society, many of the groups that are tolerated are themselves intolerant. (Try telling a dissident Catholic that the church is tolerant.) The big problem is not whether groups are tolerant but whether political regimes are tolerant and, more important still, what that actually means.

So Walzer begins anatomizing regimes of toleration. He identifies five, among which three are prominent: the multinational empire, which, as with the British and the Ottomans, gives considerable autonomy to ethnic and religious groups, provided they don't make trouble; nation-states like France, which publicly enshrine a dominant culture but, within broad limits, leave minorities and dissidents alone; and immigrant societies, which are rooted in no single ethnic or religious base and expect everyone to tolerate everyone else. Walzer thinks the United States is the preeminent example of an immigrant society. Some cultural conservatives, who see the U.S. as rooted in European culture and "Judeo-Christian" (read: Christian) ethics, would disagree. That, in brief, is the difference between Patrick Buchanan and the rest of us.

Walzer's taxonomy is elegant and convincing, all the more so when he takes up what he calls complicated cases, where the models mix and collide in the real world.

In French colonial schools, coal-dark African children used to dutifully recite that they were descended from the Gauls, but those days are gone. In France, a new immigrant generation is rocking the boat, resisting traditional Frenchification and demanding full citizenship coupled with room to "act out their group identity in public." Israel, in Walzer's fascinating analysis, is a nation-state to its "national minority" of Palestinian Arab citizens while simultaneously being an immigrant society, fractured and cacophonous, to its Jews. The European Union is a new sort of hybrid, but as its people flow across newly opened borders, it will come to resemble an immigrant society.

And what about the U.S.? Here one begins to wish for a little more help. The American scene is riven by Lockean liberals who insist that the individual (or sometimes the family) is the only social unit deserving civil rights and state recognition, and by multiculturalists who believe that groups must also be given their due.

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