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America's First Slavery Museum

With all due respect to the venerable American art museum in Manhattan, its reopening in May will only be the second most significant Whitney museum opening in the United States in recent months.

First place honors go to the Whitney Plantation, the first US museum "dedicated to telling the story of slavery", and powerfully profiled in this terrific New York Times Magazine article by novelist and journalist David Amsden.

Read the article for more on how New Orleans native John Cummings came to buy the 262-year old plantation, the quirk of industrial history that led to Cummings knowing "more about my plantation than anyone else around here — maybe more than any plantation in America outside of Monticello", the planned memorial to the 1811 German Coast Uprising (America's largest slave revolt), the critical role played by Senegalese historian Ibrahima Seck in creating the museum, and what happened when black and white branches of the Haydel family reunited at their old family homestead.  I want to slip off to the side with some thoughts about what this means for white folks today.

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Immutability UPDATES

There has been a lot of fiery rhetoic about Netanyahu's acceptance of an invitation to speak to the U.S. Congress without consultating the White House and Dept. of State. There have been hard questions: Is this the end of the special relationship? How will the U.S. vote the next time an Israeli-related resolution comes before the Security Council? Will U.S. subventions to Israel be cut back? Will the U.S. become even-handed in efforts to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement? Has the Republican Party become Israel's new best friend? What price will Israel pay if the Prime Minister undermines U.S. efforts to come to an agreement with Iran?

We can't actually know the answers to those questions right now. A lot of everybodies will show up for his speech on March 3, including many Democrats. Netanyahu will get a lot of face time on the news. His speech could derail  the Iran nuclear talks now culminating in Geneva.

Would we be wrong in suspecting that whatever Netanyahu says and whatever happens in Geneva, business will continue as usual?

Susan Rice, head of the National Security Council, called Netanyahu's decision "destructive" of the U.S. Israeli relationship. But then, she went on to say to Charlie Rose, “The point is, we want the relationship between the United States and Israel to be unquestionably strong, immutable, regardless of political seasons in either country, regardless of which party may be in charge in either country. We’ve worked very hard to have that,” she said, “and we will work very hard to maintain that.”

Immutable?

UPDATE: Story in  (2/26) NYTimes.  UPDATE 2: David Brook's column (2/27) provides a mild preview of what Netanyahu is likely to declaim next week. "Converting the Ayatollahs" is an unfortunate headline on the column. A round-up of Israeli objections to Netanyahu's speech (including objections from AIPAC).  UPDATE 3: Paul Pillar offers an analysis of Netanyahu's purposes in derailing negotiations with Iran--and it isn't bombs. Even Jeffrey Goldberg!

“Young People Led the Civil Rights Movement, Not the Adults,” said Claudette Colvin

On March 2, 1955, 15 year-old Claudette Colvin, was riding a Montgomery Alabama bus and was told by the bus driver to give up her seat for a white woman.

Colvin had just come from class and was studying Negro History month.  She and her classmates had been studying figures Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.  And they were also talking about all the contemporary injustices of the Jim Crow Laws. 

When the driver ordered her to give up her seat, she said, she could feel Tubman on one side, Truth on the other, pressing her down so that she could not stand up.   She told the driver that she had paid her fare like everyone else and that it was her constitutional right to be treated equally.

She was handcuffed by two police officers, arrested, and put in jail.  And unlike any other woman who had refused to give up her seat, Colvin was the first to challenge the law, as one of four plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle, the case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in Montgomery Alabama.

That was 9 months before Rosa Parks’ famous protest. 

Colvin says, Negro leaders felt safer with an adult like Parks, than a teenager like Colvin.  They may have had their reasons, but when she told the story at Boston College last Thursday, February 19, she added, “The young people led the civil rights movement, not the adults.”

After she said those words, we began thinking of those who sat at the lunch counters, those who first entered the white schools, those who travelled to Selma, and those who marched.  Her words rung true and prophetic, again, sixty years later.

Remember the Battle of Tannenberg

The Graduate Record Exam in history I took at the end of college had trick questions about Canada--tricks because we knew nothing about Canadian history. A collective effort to come up with a list of great moments in Canadian history missed the mark.

Today looking at the situation in Ukraine, it strikes me that Americans are in the same factual fog. We know little about the historical or political forces at work in Ukraine. Our understanding of Russia and Putin is being made in the headlines. Europe's dilemma eludes us.

Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande have been shuttling between Kiev, Moscow, Belarus and Washington dealing with a major EU crisis. The potential for continent-wide conflict may seem remote as long as the battle is beetween Kiev and Eastern Ukraine (with its unmarked Green Men and their tanks,etc). The European, especially the German, effort to keep the peace is rooted in a long history of conflict that the Germans may understand (and regret) more than most. One hundred years ago in the opening days of World War I, the Germans destroyed the Second Russian Army at the Battle of Tannenberg; not the first time or last time that Germany and Russia destroyed one another.

In the meantime, here in the U.S. our congressional foreign policy team of McCain and Graham call for arming Ukraine. President Obama has spoken of supplying defensive military equipment, which sounds benign enough until it becomes clear that this could include anti-tank weapons, etc. Those who have a handle on the bigger issues point to the danger of nuclear confrontation. At the recent Munich Security Conference (where McCain pooh-poohed Merkel's peace efforts) experts on the nuclear situation of Russia and the U.S. raised the alarm not only about the frayed relations between the two nuclear powers but about the fact that the "red phone," a staple of the Cold War, is no longer connected.

Spiegel Online has a report on the nuclear discussion at the Munich Conference.

If you have the time: A video of Ambassador Jack Matlock: "The Mistakes We Made with Russia and How to Stop Making Them. Matlock was ambassador to Soviet Union, 1987-1991 during critical moments in the agreements between the U.S. and Russia over the break-up of the Soviet Union. Sobering.

Proof of Prejudice and the NC Shooting

In Chapel Hill Shooting of 3 Muslims, a Question of Motive,” read yesterday’s front page of the New York Times. NPR asks, “Hate Crime or Parking Dispute?” This strikes me as a strange line of questioning. Why the rush to distinguish between a parking dispute and religiously motivated hatred? 

Since “hate crime” is a legal term, and prosecuting under hate crime legislation requires a particular burden of proof, quoting the family as saying, “this was a hate crime” (which they have repeated) rather than naming it as such is understandable within journalistic constraints. But whether the crime qualifies as a hate crime in a court of law, and whether we can talk about prejudice as a factor outside the courtroom are different things. Anger over an everyday event and having religious or racial prejudices are clearly not mutually exclusive attitudes, and prejudice is not a clear strain of thought easily plucked out from other kinds of thoughts. This is true whether we are describing ourselves, or another person. That feelings, fears, and motivations are often subconscious or partially conscious is partly why social prejudice is so pernicious. It is still necessary and useful to name prejudice when it’s there, but we cannot so easily claim for ourselves, or for others, when it’s not. Of course, not being able to confirm absence doesn’t confirm presence; criticism of hate crime legislation is often about that very difficulty.

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What next?

Jon Stewart is going to run for president. Upon winning, he will appoint Brian Williams secretary of defense.

Who Speaks for the Jews?

Here is a vigorous rejoinder from the Jewish Daily Forward to PM Netanyahu's claim to speak for Jews everywhere. Well argued too.

Bibi-Boehner Brouhaha: What Does It Mean

The editors have laid out the fundamentals of what's wrong with Majority Leader John Boehner's invitation to PM Benjaming Netanyahu to speak to Congress. And this post from January 21 links to early commentary on Why and How this happened.

Since then, there have been reams of analysis. Among the most diverting, those suggesting that there are no strategic national differences between the U.S. and Israel even if Israel wants to bomb Iran and the U.S. does not. Rather it is just personal or political or something.

Two example of that commentary:

The Bad Marriage metaphor in which the bad relations between Obama and Netanyahu are said to lie at the heart of the controversy. Here from DC and Jerusalem is that analysis by Times' reporters Peter Baker and Jodi Rudoren.

The second is an analysis arguing that the famous "bipartisan" support for Israel no longer exists. Bernard Avishai writes in the New Yorker:  In "Netanyahu and the Republicans," he argues that the Republicans and Likkud are now aligned. How will the Dems take that?

 

Immunity, Community, and Libertarianism

We seem to be going through an immunitary moment.

This is especially interesting, since some philosophers and political theorists have for more than a decade been using the language of immunity and autoimmune disorders to shed light on contemporary politics. It’s also not surprising because there are some strong echoes and resonances between the two fields: immunity, after all, is a collective response to a threat or crisis. And autoimmunity is a response that becomes reflective, aiming not only at the external “enemy” as it invades the (social or corporeal) body, but which turns and attacks the body itself. Both are excellent metaphors for what can happen in the highly divisive and excessively paranoid political world we inhabit. It may also be possible that the specific issue of immunization – or more specifically the government’s role in immunizing its citizens – can expose the conceptual bankruptcy of libertarianism.

I suggest this after reading a recent story that explores Rand Paul’s link to an anti-vaccine organization, as well as Chris Christie’s (non-libertarian, probably cynical) comments that immunization should be rendered an act with multiple options for exit and exception. This is the already shaky logic of the Hobby Lobby case applied to public health. Unlike Hobby Lobby, however, we’re talking about matters of immediate sickness and health, and potentially life and death. Immunity requires a comprehensive, truly collective response. The problem is that libertarians believe one of two things: either communities don’t exist at all (no whole is anything more than the sum of its parts), or community does exist but is made up of individuals who may opt out whenever they feel that their “freedom” is endangered.

A multiplicity of microbiological forces operate in the world around us (and in us) at all times. These forces allow us to live or even thrive, or they can cut us down. We need a collective response to manage them. This is not new information; it is wisom gleaned from much suffering and an edifice of knowledge at least two centuries old. Neoliberalism and its contemporary counterpart libertarianism have for decades attempted to privatize all forms of social security, including the protections of public health. They have done so, moreover, perhaps ironically, in the name of immunity. In other words they have mobilized one conception of immunity – that of the individual who desires to be “immune from” the state’s requirements – as an attack on another type of immunity, that of the collective which wants to be free from contagion and deadly disease. This is the insight of Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito among others.

I am concerned that what Freud called the “reality principle” will in the end decide which side wins this conceptual battle. A few of us may admire Ayn Rand’s writing on ethics, but this doesn’t make her an expert on public health. The virtue of selfishness will not and cannot stop contagion.

Accidental Armaggedon

“In the event of a nuclear attack, which of these items would be the most helpful? Rank them in order of importance.”

This was one of the first worksheets I remember from elementary school. There were about twenty illustrated items. My classmates and I were perplexed. Sure, we had probably watched a filmstrip that mentioned the Geiger Counter, but none of us could remember what it did. And why would we want a broom? Would we be that concerned with the tidiness of our fallout shelter?

IT WAS ABOUT 1983. That same year, the Russians shot down a Korean civilian airliner over the Sea of Japan; the U.S. Catholic Bishops issued a lengthy warning about the buildup of nuclear weapons; and on September 26, a Soviet Lieutenant Colonel secretly saved the world from accidental Armaggedon. But more about Stanislav Petrov later.

Growing up in the early 1980’s, not far from North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) and the Air Force Academy, the Cold War was a hot topic – even for kids. Popular videos on the burgeoning MTV network, such as Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” satirized and lamented the possibility of nuclear annihilation. Dads took their sons to see “Top Gun” in theaters, and we cheered when Russian MIGs were splashed in the ocean. “Red Dawn” was always checked out of the video store. One of my favorite books, still there in my parents’ house, was titled “Great Warplanes of the 1980’s.”

KIDS TODAY don't have the same fears. They don’t know that the broom is to sweep nuclear fallout off your friends.

The globally-aware college students that I teach don’t think about nuclear annihilation. Environmental degradation? Yes. Terrorism? Yes. Economic inequality? Yes. Racial injustice? Absolutely. But if they think about nuclear weapons at all, it’s in the context of who might acquire them – namely, North Korea or Iran. The notion that the arsenals of the already nuclear-armed states should be at the center of moral concern seems outdated, like referring to music videos being shown on MTV.

The fact is, the nuclear capabilities that already exist have grown in power beyond human comprehension, and there have been enough “close calls” regarding their deployment to warrant the gravest of fears. In recent years, many influential voices have made the case that – regardless of whether nuclear weapons ever made us more safe – they certainly no longer do so.

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Missing a Vocabulary of the Moral Middle

Finally free of the imperative of manuscript editing, I actually am reading. Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Glass Cage, is a worthy sequel to The Shallows. The earlier book was a brilliant telling of the neuroscience of our brains in using the internet…. As opposed to, say, reading. (yes, this is a blog post, blah blah…) The current book is an exploration of the automation of processes of all sorts, from factory processes to self-driving cars to decision-support software employed by doctors and lawyers.

Carr’s books are attractive because he avoids turning them into a polemic on one side or the other of these questions. He doesn’t think automation is inherently bad (Frankenstein) or inherently good (the techno-futurists); indeed, he gives a nice history which shows that excitement about machines and anxiety about them have gone hand in hand from their inception. His books are really more about understanding something thoroughly.

But with two lessons. One, Carr is adept at noting how “this time it’s different.” In The Shallows, he persuasively makes the case that the internet is not just another in a string of “media” advances, from writing to the printing press to the telegraph to the radio. The combination of the actual processes (and limits) involved in use and the physical capacities (and limits) of the human person shape what a given media technology can mean and be for us. The internet combines a pace of extraordinarily rapid inflow and a virtually-unlimited storage capacity. This differs from reading. In The Glass Cage, he is out to show that the current wave of automation is different because of its capacity to mimic not just human physical processes, but human thought processes. One of the key claims of the book is that the ability to mimic processes is not the same as replicating the processes themselves – Watson doesn’t answer a Jeopardy question the same way a human does, nor does “Doctor Algorithm” go about diagnoses in the same way a doctor does. In some ways, the ability to process massive amounts of data via algorithms and probabilities is great; in other ways, it is very different from human thought and action, and introduces a different set of “errors.”

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White Smoke over Montecitorio

Almost two years ago a deadlocked and faction-riven Italian Parliament failed to elect a new President upon the completion of Giorgio Napolitano's seven year mandate. The highly respected Napolitano, a former member of Italy's Communist Party, was prevailed upon to extend his term. He finally stepped down in January citing age and increasing fraility, in a manner reminiscent of Benedict XVI with whom he had had warm relations.

Today, adroitly directed by the energetic young Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, the "Grand Electors"  elected as new President the former Christian Democrat, Sergio Mattarella.

Here is a report by Kay Wallace who writes an English blog for La Repubblica:

Born in Palermo in 1941, Sergio Mattarella comes from a prominent Sicilian family; his father Bernardo was one of the founders of the Christian Democrat (DC) party that dominated the Italian political scene for half a century. His brother, Piersanti became Governor of Sicily in 1978 with a campaign to clean up the DC and rid it of its close ties with Cosa Nostra. He was gunned down in his car by the Sicilian Mafia in 1980. There is photograph that shows him being pulled out of the car, still alive, by his brother Sergio.

Mattarella is a centrist politician who has held several ministerial posts in governments of different political stripes. In 1990 he resigned from his post as Education Minister in protest at the Mammì media law, a bill that effectively legalised Berlusconi's TV empire. In 1993 he drafted the electoral law in force from 1994 and 2001, the Mattarellum. Later as Defence Minister he oversaw the abolition of conscription. He was nominated to the Constitutional Court in 2011.

Wallace concludes:

There were two big winners: Sergio Mattarella and Matteo Renzi. By imposing his will on parliament and his party, Renzi showed just how able a politician he is. After the embarrassing farce of the last attempted presidential election, it was also a good day for Italy.

 

Mike Huckabee, bard of 'Bubba-ville'

“It is trying on liberals in Dilton,” reads the first line of Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Barber,” which could with tweaking aptly apply to the unfolding 2016 presidential campaign season for those maybe uninclined to vote for one of the score or so of potential Republican candidates. The GOP’s field of declared and undeclared are riding the usual hobby horses--Obamacare, “big government,” Obamacare, public schools, moral collapse, Obamacare—with some already honing their grievances into slogans, sound bites, and hashtags. Does “Bubble-ville vs. Bubba-ville” work for you?

Best-selling author Mike Huckabee thinks it will. Well, maybe not for you, but hopefully for the fractious choir he’s preaching to with his newest book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. “Bubble-ville” describes the population of Americans associated with the iniquitous and elite “nerve centers” of Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.; “Bubba-ville,” everywhere else—“the flyover country” that “more often than not votes red instead of blue, roots for the Cowboys in the NFL and the Cardinals in the National League, and has three or more bibles in every house.” (The characterization invites debate, but, to use a construction for which Huckabee shows fondness: I digress.)

GGG&G, in short, makes use of a simple construct to capitalize on resentments by reaffirming the preconceptions and prejudices of its intended audience. Neither polemic nor screed, it’s mainly a book-length unspooling of commentary that’s also needlessly broken into chapters, though if it weren’t, then readers would be deprived of nominally edifying (if not necessarily organizing) headings like “The New American Outcasts: People Who Put Faith and Family First” and “Bend Over and Take It Like a Prisoner!” (this following one bemoaning “The Culture of Crude”). His musings are at times entertainingly wrought. In places he risks naughty ethno-religious offense: “I can see the look of horror on the faces of friends of mine who have spent their lives in New York City when I talk about owning a wide variety of firearms: It’s the look one would get announcing in a synagogue that one owns a bacon factory” (it’s an image he uses more than once). In places he’s more plainly insulting, as when contending that Beyoncé is unwittingly allowing herself to be pimped out by her husband, Jay-Z. Sometimes he’s hilarious:

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Yale Police and the Threat of Lethal Force

Last Saturday, a member of the Yale Police pulled a gun on a young student for matching a description of a thief in the area. That student happened to be the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who wrote about the incident with justifiable anger and fear.

The incident drew significant attention, and in a statement made Monday night, Peter Salovey, President of Yale; Jonathan Holloway, the Dean of Yale College; and Yale’s Chief of Police Ronnell Higgins, addressed what happened and referred to its implications. It begins:

"The Yale Police Department’s response to a crime in progress on Saturday evening has generated substantial and critical conversations on campus and beyond. A Yale police officer detained an African American Yale College student who was in the vicinity of a reported crime, and who closely matched the physical description—including items of clothing—of the suspect. The actual suspect was found and arrested a short distance away."

Salovey, Holloway, and Higgins also wanted to quell comparisons to incidents in recent memory:

"What happened on Cross Campus on Saturday is not a replay of what happened in Ferguson; Staten Island; Cleveland; or so many other places in our time and over time in the United States. The officer, who himself is African American, was responding to a specific description relayed by individuals who had reported a crime in progress."

The message is accurate that what happened “is not a replay” in that the officer did not apply lethal force. But in drawing his gun, the officer threatened to use it in a situation that did not warrant it. Why? The email says that a thorough internal investigation will take place to answer that very question. 

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How White Is White? And Who Is White?

We have previously discussed the quesiton "When Did You Become White?"

The quesiton popped up again this morning while reading a silly polling story in the Sunday Times. The question concerned Bostonians and finding jurors for the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger brother in the Marathon Bombing.

Are the Tsarnaevs white? This seems to be a factor in jury selection, or so the story suggests. As the author points out the brothers and their family hail from the Caucusus, the source for the word caucasian. If a caucasian is not white, who are all these white people running around?

Arrogance & attitude on climate change

"It is the sense of the Senate that climate change is real and not a hoax." Let it be noted that the most vocal of the climate-science deniers in the U.S. Senate this week joined ninety-seven of his colleagues in resolving so. This otherwise meager concession to reality might have signaled a significant coming around on the part of the senator, Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, who three years ago published his seminal The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Might have, except that in conceding one point he made sure to hold fast on another: That “man can't change climate" and that climate has always changed—there’s “biblical evidence” of that. “The hoax,” Inhofe declared, “is that there are some people who think they are so arrogant to think that they are so powerful that they can change the climate.”
 
Which might explain why he didn’t join the fifty senators (necessarily including some Republicans) subsequently resolving that humans “significantly contribute” to warming. Never mind that sixty votes were needed for approval: that it won support of even half the chamber came as better-than-expected news to the resolution’s sponsor, Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz, and even Barbara Boxer, top Democrat on the Senate's environmental panel, declared victory: “It means that there's a softening of the attitude of the deniers.
 
None of this even begins to imply imminent action, of course; the resolutions were part of the maneuvering around the more politically urgent issue of the Keystone Pipeline. Which makes the celebratory remarks seem like another kind of denial: Symbolic votes to reject obvious falsehoods and to support obvious facts are taken as measures of progress, softening attitudes on hard realities as victories.
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51st State reappears

An unnoticed side-effect of the Republican victory in the mid-term is the decision to launch the party's own foreign policy. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, has invited the governor of Israel, our 51st state, Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. This appears to be part of the continuing effort of members of Congress to deep-six negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter's nuclear program. The Congress has threatened to pass legislation increasing the sanctions against Iran. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama said he would veto such legislation, arguing that it would likely end the negotiations and raise the specter once again of bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. Presumably, Boehner thinks that a pep talk from Netanyahu would rally votes to override any veto.

It is not Boehner's responsibility to invite Netanyahu and the White House has objected. It is not Netanyahu's responsibility to interfere in U.S. politics. Perhaps common sense will prevail. Netanyahu will stay home. Congress will not pass further sanctions. Obama cannot therefore veto them. Talks will continue and perhaps an agreement will be reached. Stay tuned.

The Forward has this analysis: "Did Benjamin Netanyahu and the GOP just pull off a coup--or lay an egg?"  Jim Lobe has a good round-up of everyone who wasn't asked about the visit, and is now angry, as well as some speculation about who actually proposed it, not Boehner or McConnell he opines.

Marty on Charlie

Obviously the biggest recent story of "religion, politics & culture" -- Commonweal's "specialty" -- occurred in Paris in the last week.  There have been a number of intelligent comments and more are needed. Martin Marty lists a number of "obviously's" in his regular online "Sightings" column as well as a number of links to other views.  My only quibble is with Marty's use of the word "simply" in describing the murderers as "simply evil."  The murders were simply evil, but murderers are almost never simply anything.  To his links I would add Ross Douthat's online comment on January 7. 

Martin Marty's Sightings       Ross Douthat's blog comment

Great News Day!...

...for schadenfreud.

NYTimes offers a check-list for most of what went wrong between Mayor de Blasio and the police. Revealing.... And it quotes police sympathetic to the mayor, though not his less than "A" performance, really almost "D" minus!

The Jewish Daily Forward offers a full analysis of PM Netanyahu's off and then on again decision to march in Paris on Sunday. Let's just say President Hollande was not welcoming. And let's note Netanyahu is big on trying to convince French Jews to move to Israel. The bottom line: President Abbas, who wasn't going, went and got in the front line, a book-end to Netanyahu at the other end (at least in the front page photos). There is a nice side-bar:  "Je Suis Bibi."

And, of course, the Republicans are attacking Obama for not going, but then they would have criticized him for going, if he had!

The Judicious Mr. Gerson

There are commentators whose name for me is always an imperative to read their reflections. Though I may finally disagree with their view, I always find their writing illuminating and an incentive to explore and question my own position. David Remnick of the New Yorker is one such, as is Peter Steinfels (whom some of you may know); a third is Michael Gerson of the Washington Post.

Here is the conclusion of the column Gerson published today:

Our ideal of democracy is not an endless cable television shouting match. It is a free society in which citizens have a decent regard for the rights and views of others. This requires a measure of self-restraint, something we teach to our children as tolerance and manners. And such self-restraint is not self-censorship; it is respect. A free country should unapologetically defend the right to jeer and taunt. This does not require everyone in a free country to find jeering and taunting admirable.

 

These distinctions are relevant to the broader fight against Islamism. It is important, first, to separate this violent political ideology from the faith of Islam, which an overwhelming majority of adherents find to be a source of comfort and compassion. It is also important to clarify the contending alternatives in a great struggle. It is not Islamism against the Christian West. And it is not Islamism against the secular West. The United States is animated by a vision of democratic pluralism that is fully compatible with strong religious belief, fully committed to free expression — and fully prepared to defend its ideals against fanatics.