Penn Jillette, the taller and talkative half of the Penn & Teller illusionist duo, is quite probably America’s most entertaining libertarian. His frequent television appearances, not to mention the team’s popular HBO program (which I cannot name for a family readership), are almost always informative and often instructive. Recently, though, an appearance on CNN in a split-screen panel discussion on the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) left this correspondent scratching his head.
It seems very strange to hear ardent libertarians arguing for compulsion by force of law. Maybe that’s a new kind of libertarianism, a kind that encourages the state to force people to act against their consciences, but it raises a slew of questions. Is that a power that actual libertarians want the state to enjoy? Is there any limit at all on that power? If so, where? How is that limit made manifest? Who has the authority to set that limit? And having set it, do they not then also have the authority to erase that limit and set it farther out, as if by a new revelation, so that their authority then encompasses a newly desired power?
When Jillette says that this discussion is over an issue that is now “ancient history”, he could not be more patronizing. Star Trek fans could get a chuckle out of Kirk or Spock using that term in reference to 20th Century events not much more distant from themselves than the Trek franchise is from America’s founding, but the recent coinage that Jillette wants us to think of as long-settled law is in fact still illegal in fifteen states.
This is not about ancient history. In fact, the subject at the center of this ongoing dispute did not even exist only a few years ago – did not exist anywhere. Does it even exist now? As the old riddle has it, how many legs does a dog have if we agree to call his tail a leg? The answer cannot be anything but that he has four, because it doesn’t matter what we call the tail: it remains a tail. Same-sex marriage is likewise said to exist, but only by judicial fiat, in defiance of the people’s will expressed either at the ballot box or through their legislatures.
So often, “progressives” repeat the admonition “if you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married.” Omitted from that trite formulation is “but if you think your not liking gay marriage is going to get you out of having to provide services at one, we will own you.” And that’s what they think is “fair”. Why is that? Why are they entitled to the submission of the dissenters? Why does the petulant demand of the former trump the God-given right of the latter to preserve their religious traditions?
When the cases arose of bakers, florists, and photographers being put out of business, many “progressives” wrung their hands and bemoaned the tragedy, adding, however, that these people should not have “discriminated”. So the “progressive” response has been clear: voluntarily choose, of your own free will and without coercion, to provide services to a mockery of your cherished rituals, or be crushed by the machinery of the civil courts or even the criminal justice system.
This is not about fairness. Fairness would have the diner who craves shellfish exiting the kosher deli without setting it ablaze. No, this is about revenge, and no one who does not hold up the unholy and celebrate it as holy may be permitted, even by the act of a sympathetic legislature, to withstand the storm. The legislature itself must be made to bend its knee, and whole states must be punished for daring to uphold standards that no one even thought of as standards only a decade ago.
They weren’t “standards” because they didn’t have to be: they were merely normal. The merely normal is now to be made illegal. Remembering the normal and living as though it were still normal are now to be made punishable by civil action or even by the enforcement arm of the state.
What this is about is cultural revolution, and we no longer need to look to Red China in the 1960s to watch a regime of conformity crush dissenters. It is done right here in the United States, on Facebook, on Twitter, on You Tube, and on Yelp. An angry woman posts a tweet about burning down an offending merchant’s shop, and she is merely suspended from her government job: there will be no more punishment for this incitement to arson than for the Red Guards who dragged people into village squares for mandatory public “self-criticism”.
If any of the Western Left were capable of shame, now would be a good time for them to feel some. But, given their complete lack thereof, perhaps they could at least observe this rule: stop calling yourselves “liberals”, “libertarians”, or “progressives”. There is nothing of liberty in any of you, and the blood-soaked 20th Century saw enough of your idea of progress. “How can anybody be against Progress?” they ask. Their sky being so full of rainbows, their memory does not allow for the gulag, the laogai, or the reeducation camps to which their ideological brethren consigned tens of millions of dissenters.
Perhaps the entrepreneurs, whose businesses are destroyed by frivolous lawsuits or pandering state’s attorneys, solely because they cannot, as Christians – or members of any other faith, for that matter – be participants in the solemnization of a status that flies in the face of their religion, should be grateful that the angry mob hasn’t killed them for it instead… yet. As has been seen in Ferguson, incitement to arson is hardly a crime anymore, so the burning of a scapegoat pizzeria can be said to be in our immediate future. And that is why Indiana needed the RFRA – un-“fixed” – as does every state in the Union.