It is not news to sober-minded observers that for the last half-century, equality in the U.S. has gone off the rails—politically, legally, morally, and culturally. Tocqueville had foreseen the eclipsing of liberty by the desire for equality in democratic republics like ours, and nowadays we see it vividly and routinely. Not only is the liberty of people who are expected to respect even dubious claims of others’ equality compromised, so is the liberty and well-being of those who in the name of equality are supposedly being helped.
We see that the U.S. Department of Education is now demanding that disabled students be permitted to compete on school sports teams. An increasing number of commentators call for women to be able to compete on the full range of sports teams with men, including ice hockey and football, at all levels. A recent news story tells about the marriage of a mentally retarded couple and a brewing lawsuit because their respective group homes won’t allow them to live in the same room together. We see the aggressive current push for same-sex “marriage.” We so fear “profiling” that we screen everyone as a possible perpetrator of heinous crimes instead of focusing attention especially on the most likely people. So, everyone at airports is subjected to outrageous, invasive body scans instead of careful examination of the backgrounds of those from Islamic countries (a là the Israelis’ type of screening). Our child protective system seeks a universal monitoring of all parents as potential abusers instead of paying attention to the broken families and cohabitation situations where abuse disproportionately occurs. The result of these attitudes is that too often the real terrorists and child abusers go unnoticed until a calamity happens.
This is only a small taste of how a convoluted—indeed, almost irrational—notion of equality continues to corrupt American life. It has consequences that are sometimes dramatic and destructive but, more typically, slowly damaging of a sensible, decent way of life (even, as said, for the people that this expansive standard of equality claims to help) and of the institutions needed to sustain it.
Some of the examples given illustrate how the current push for equality is actually an assault on nature. It also reflects further how rights have become, for many, little more than the satisfaction of wants and an attempt to justify something akin to envy. Not everyone can be an athlete, much less a successful one. Instead of motivating disabled students to achieve to the degree they are capable of in the areas they can—which is the standard stressed in John Paul II’s social encyclical, Laborem Exercens (#22)—we pretend there are no differences between them and other students, afford them undue advantages, alter the usual rules of the sport, and in the end leave them nothing more than pyrrhic success and disillusionment. (I speak, by the way, as the father of a disabled child.) When we call for co-ed sports, we pretend that high school or college-age females are no different in bodily strength or psychological make-up than males—to say nothing about whether the physical contact between the sexes in football, ice hockey, or wrestling would not be morally objectionable and could become one more thing debasing women and coarsening male-female relations. The notion of an absolute “civil right to marriage” and a mindless claim to “marriage equality” means that the mentally retarded must be allowed to marry. This is so whether or not they understand its meaning and purpose, are capable of undertaking its obligations, or truly consent to it or to sexual congress—and even if the result will be that they will bring misery on themselves. It hardly needs to be explained about how same-sex “marriage” is an assault on nature at its most fundamental level. It pretends that men and women are interchangeable, that biology and reproduction are irrelevant to the institution of marriage, and that normal sexual acts are the same as sodomy. A similar dynamic has long been at work in feminist pro-abortion thinking. Legalized abortion is needed to “equalize” men and women, to somehow overcome the reality of nature that only women can become pregnant.
The push for a self-serving and even maniacal notion of equality perhaps is seen even more vividly in such episodes as the homosexualist movement’s long-time insistence that active homosexual males be permitted to give blood (in spite of their high HIV infection rate) and the court cases, pushed by disability rights advocates, in which hearing-impaired nurses claimed a right to a job even though their inability to hear could result in patients’ lives being put in peril. These episodes show that some are literally ready to sacrifice people at the altar of the “new equality.” They also demonstrate, in stark relief, how the clamoring for equality frequently leads to some groups becoming “more equal” than others, not subject to the same rules and restraints that the rest of us are.
Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He meant, of course, that there are some who will try to cast any disagreement with government policy as somehow disloyal or unpatriotic. Something similar can be said about equality. So we witness spokesmen from the “civil rights establishment,” such as Julian Bond, calling TEA Party groups racist—that is, against racial equality—because they support limited government and restraining federal spending. Even worse, a distorted notion of equality is sometimes used to justify the miscreant. One thinks of prominent social psychologist Kenneth Clark, whose work was so influential in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case, famously justifying interracial muggings of Caucasians as “an act of social protest.”
The “new equality” is very different from the way America’s Founding Era thought about the subject. That involved: equal application of the laws; equal legal rights of citizens; equal justice for all; an acknowledgement of natural differences in talent, disposition, and virtue; and also equal opportunity (the lowest man being able to climb to the top if he had the talent). Its view of equality did not even seek to undo existing social hierarchies, much less countenance an assault upon natural ones. Natural differences meant a natural aristocracy, which our leading Founding Fathers, such as Adams and Jefferson, stressed was needed in any kind of political order. Indeed, our original natural aristocracy was made up of the Founders themselves.
It goes without saying that our Founding Era could not have even imagined such grotesqueries as same-sex “marriage,” much less believing that their notion of equality had any room for it. For that matter, they did not even embrace a notion of political equality such as we see today. Even the vote was treated more as a political privilege than a right—much like the view of it in traditional social ethics—and one had to have property or some attachment to the community to be granted it. Now it is virtually a birthright and one doesn’t even have to take the responsibility to go to the polls to exercise it. So we have many “low-information” voters who are ripe for manipulation without even realizing it.
The “new equality” is obviously at odds with the Church. God made men and women equal, but different. Laborem Exercens says that women have an “irreplaceable” role as mothers, and this must be accorded social importance (#19). By saying that women should not be excluded from work that they are capable of undertaking “in accordance with their own nature” (#19), it indicates also that there are also other endeavors besides certain kinds of work that would not be suitable for them either. Men and women are not interchangeable. Beyond this, it is striking how close the Church’s teaching on equality parallels that of America’s Founders (see Leo XIII’s encyclical On Socialism): equal dignity, equal basic rights, no right to equal wealth, equal opportunity but not equal results, even the fact that there are rightfully gradations in political society.
By contrast, the effect of the “new equality” reminds one of the passage in Cicero’s De re Publica where Scipio (the main character) talks about the anarchy that prevails in runaway democracy, where no distinctions are made between anyone. The irony is that for him this condition occurred because of excessive liberty, but now it comes from blind equality and results in the thwarting of liberty.
Editor’s note: The caption on the above engraving reads “Execution of Robespierre, Saint Just and others 28 July 1794.” Radical egalitarian perpetrators of the “Reign of Terror” during the French Revolution receive their comeuppance. Engraved by Jonnard after H. Renaud.