The Civil Rights Acts and Individual Liberty

The succession of Civil Rights Acts through the 1960’s in the United States is often considered a watershed moment in American history. In general these Bills that became Law are seen as major victories for advocates of civil equality and most especially, black Americans. On the surface it is hard to view these events in any other way, and most often it is the correct view. There is a problem however, and one that may in fact aid in the understanding of the continuing problem of race relations in the twenty-first century.

There is a single distinction that can be made in regards to what the different Civil Rights Acts decreed. There were parts of these laws that eliminated segregation and discrimination in government sponsored or “public sector” establishments, and there were parts of these laws that violated the private property rights of others declaring it unlawful to discriminate or segregate one’s own private business. This is the problem.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s was a movement demanding civil equality, and equal protection under the law. These are the basic tenets of personal freedom as viewed through the classical liberal lens that the United States was supposedly founded upon. It must be made clear, to endorse the personal freedom of all men and women is not to endorse their ensuing behavior, only that the individual has the rights of person and property. If a society is to maintain freedom and equality, the rights of all private property owners must necessarily be respected, no matter how immoral one may feel about how the property is being used.

This unprecedented expansion of federal government authority over private businesses begs a question. What is the philosophical distinction between a private home and a private business? There is no such distinction that can legitimize a government claiming dominion over some, but not all private property. The mere fact that a business “accommodates” or “facilitates” the general public does not make it “public” property. This may be seen as proposing discrimination to some, but ought to be seen as defense of the smallest minority, the individual.

Another problem with specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the requirement of businesses of over one hundred employees not to discriminate in hiring and the impracticability of its enforcement. An agent of the federal government cannot possibly know or prove whether a business owner is truly employing racial prejudice in his hiring decisions. The federal government’s solution was eventually to mandate racial quotas for hiring. It is likely that over time, further collectivization of race as a profound and distinct grouping only served to further racial tension. Former Congressman Ron Paul said on the House floor, July 3, 2004

“…while I join the sponsors…in promoting racial harmony and individual liberty, the fact is the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not accomplish these goals. Instead, this law unconstitutionally expanded federal power, thus reducing liberty. Furthermore, by prompting raced-based quotas, this law undermined efforts to achieve a color-blind society and increased racial strife.”

Contrary to mainstream opinion, opposition to this aspect of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not conflate with a support of the pre-1960’s status quo. It is perfectly within the authority of the federal government provide recourse to individuals whose 14th amendment rights had been denied in regards to segregated public schools, as determined in another section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is also the responsibility of the federal government to require all polling stations to ensure every legally eligible citizen is able to vote, as determined by the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

The only aspects of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960’s are those that infringe upon the right to private property. Again, contrary to mainstream opinion this principle of private property does not conflate to support of continued segregation and racism. It is important to recognize the real relationship between Culture and Law. If it is true that the progress in race relations that has been made since the 1960’s is not because of these aspects of the Civil Rights Acts but in spite of them, then we can say with certainty that nowhere in the United States could a “White’s Only” private business succeed financially. Our culture has evolved to abhor racism to such an extent that rational discussion about the Civil Rights Acts is often unattainable without being labeled a racist. The market of ideas would have put Jim Crow segregation out of business decades ago if not propped up by Supreme Court decisions and other legislative infringements on the rights of the individual. It is certainly possible that this evolution would have occurred with less racial tension than what was created by the infringements of individual liberties that was part of the Civil Rights Acts.

Legislation must be understood for what it is, violence. All legislation, whether written and signed by a majority of the ‘citizens’ of a democracy or the whims of a monarch, is backed up by the threat of imprisonment, and in many cases the implied threat of death. We should attempt to learn from the successes that occurred organically and culturally, those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps his doctrine of nonviolence can be applied here to the federal government. One of the five main pillars of Dr. King’s doctrine on non-violence included “Active resistance to the forces of evil, but not the individual actors”. Dr. King believed that racism was “a plague suffered by all races”. Clearly the aspects of the Civil Rights Acts in question here are examples of active resistance to the individual actors. Brown v. Board of Education proved that it is not possible to change Culture via the Law. Ten years after the Brown ruling, only 9.2 percent of black students in the South were enrolled in segregated schools.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.     The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s accomplished several admirable feats. In regards to the public sphere the federal government had every responsibility to guarantee equal protection under the law, and civil rights. Its violations of individual liberties have had long lasting negative effects. It is easy to understand why it is costly and often counterproductive to fight violence with violence, but what many fail to grasp is the inherent violence in legislation. The federal government has tried, again and again, to legislate morality. It does not work. Alcohol prohibition was a dismal failure as the “War on Some Drugs” continues to be. If the federal government had no hand in marriage, there would be no need for marriage equality laws. The rights of individual self-ownership and private property are ultimately what gives every individual the potential to improve his or her lot in life. These rights ought to be protected, not infringed upon by the Law. Cultural evolution is the non-violent alternative to violent, or political revolution. It is also the more effective alternative.

 – Adam Alcorn, @AdamBlacksburg

Founder, Editor at the Humane Condition

 

To Accept the Mainstream Narrative of Wars Past is to Threaten Future Stability

A glimpse at War and Films by Adam Alcorn

Historians and observers alike tend to seek out a clear and rational narrative to a sequence of events in history. This is not unique to war but is highlighted by the societal necessity for justification of such a violent phenomenon.  Through film, literature, the press, and in more recent times the internet, people have always been subject to a seemingly unquestionable narrative in regards to war and just what side of history the Nation is going to fall. Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 were in a state of fervor for war. This is not an unusual or entirely unjustified response to such tragic events. The unfortunate side effect of such fervor for war is an enhanced desire among people to seek a simple narrative to complex sequence of events. The narrative presented to the Americans over a several year period following 9/11 has been proven false, but it went unquestioned by the press. In the meantime, Americans started two extended wars followed by nation building campaigns in the Middle East. Wars and other social phenomena are usually complex sequences of events that cannot be explained by a single narrative and to accept a single narrative as the historical truth is dangerous in ways that Americans are begrudgingly learning today in the hills and valleys of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is also true when remembering wars through film.

The First World War has been long remembered as an unnecessary diplomatic crisis and a waste of so many lives.  In the decades following the war this narrative was presented in many ways. La Grande Illusion (1937) was a French film directed by Jean Renoir that expressed the folly of Nationalism and the ability of humanity to come together and avoid fruitless and violent conflict. In La Grande Illusion, Renoir expresses this sentiment by providing with his cast a veritable cross section of Western European society. The rich Jewish immigrant is portrayed as Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a member of the aristocracy is represented in Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and an army officer of humble beginnings is Lieutenant Marechal (Jean Gabin). These men all represented different classes with different struggles, real struggles. The interesting twist in La Grande Illusion is that not only do these men coexist peacefully inside a German prison camp, but they get along with their German captors as well. German Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim) even cries alongside de Boldieu after he shoots him. This expressed the spirit that is so often associated with the First World War. La Grande Illusion was another part of the single, unquestioned narrative of the time. A narrative suggesting that humanity had evolved beyond petty Nationalistic disputes and that the futility of war was understood by everyone proved to be dangerous however. When viewed in the context of the coming Second World War, the lines between unhealthy Nationalistic fury and Patriotism begin to blur. As film critic Stanley Kauffmann said of La Grande Illusion “Today its pacifist intent, as such, seems somewhat less salient (though no less moving) because so many more human beings know how futile war is and know too, that no film can abolish it”1. The moral lessons supposedly solved via the enlightened narrative presented in this film suddenly became irrelevant as the world faced the potentiality of a Nazi empire.

Saving Private Ryan (1998) was directed by Stephen Spielberg and depicted another commonly unquestioned narrative for the events of World War II.  It was a gruesome expose on the brutality of war, in many ways an anti-war film. However, as Bodnar said in reviewing the film “Ironically, while the Spielberg film reveals the brutality of war, it preserves the World War II image of American soldiers as inherently averse to bloodshed and cruelty. The war was savage; the average American GI who fought it was not.2”. Not only does this support Kauffmann’s theory regarding the futility of anti-war film, but it also sheds light upon the true power of a single, unquestionable historical narrative, accepted as truth. People are willing to believe unbelievable things when presented with it repeatedly, and without access to the truth. The “good war” reputation of World War II has played no small role in the development of the United States of America serving as policeman of the world.

It is entirely possible that the unfortunate gambles taken before World War II with the policies we call appeasement were in part a result of the narrative proclaiming World War I as the war to end all wars and that we had evolved beyond frivolous Nationalistic disputes. There is no doubt that the unquestioned narrative of American involvement in World War II that portrays the U.S. as saviors of the civilized world resulted in the policies of “American Exceptionalism” that laced the news media before and throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This cultural tendency towards accepting a single narrative as truth results in ignorance of our past that can often lead to a dangerous future.

  1. Stanley Kauffmann, “Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion,” Horizon 14, Nr. 3 (1972): 49. Scholar.
  2. John Bodnar, “Saving Private Ryan and Postwar Memory in America,” The American Historical Review 106 (2001): 805-817. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2692325

– Adam Alcorn, @AdamBlacksburg, founder the Humane Condition. I can be reached at thcondition@gmail.com