Home / Culture and Society / It’s a Public Servant’s Job to do What’s Right – Not What’s Popular

It’s a Public Servant’s Job to do What’s Right – Not What’s Popular

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Public service is supposed to be about doing what’s right and what’s moral. Our founding fathers intended that elected officials be driven by a higher calling than public opinion polls. Fortunately, we have a couple of wonderful examples recently of public servants actually doing what is right, even in the face of fear-based and xenophobic outcries.

In the first example, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has put minority rights above public outcry in refusing to pursue an appeals process for California’s homophobic Proposition 8. Although Schwarzenegger is in his last term as governor, and thus does not need to concern himself with reelection, it is still noteworthy and highly commendable that he is supporting social progress even in the face of public outcry.

In the second reprieve from a pattern of popularity-poll-driven government, President Obama has expressed support for permitting a Mosque to be built in lower Manhattan. Unlike Schwarzenegger, Obama does face reelection, and also pressure on his Democratic majority in Congress, so why would he take a stand on this issue? Only because it is the right thing to do. In spite of the widespread tagging of all Muslims with the crimes of a very few extremists, religious freedom is an American right, and President Obama is standing up for that right – for all Americans.

Putting right action above momentary popularity has a revered history, and was more common before the days of instant “news” and frequent voter initiatives. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, signed the Civil Rights Act. Moreover, he relentlessly lobbied congress on behalf of the bill. A poll of President Johnson’s political base would certainly not have shown support for minority rights, so why did he push for a civil rights bill? Because it was the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, elected officials frequently do succumb to political pressures and fail to do what is right. Those are the times to thank our founding fathers for creating a Republic (rather than a Democracy) with three legs to stand upon – executive, legislative, and judicial. As the one of the three parts that is not directly elected, the judicial branch of government has the luxury to make decisions that protect the rights of all Americans without fear of being ousted by public outcry. All to often, minority rights have been obtained through the courts, and only through the courts. The courts, rather than Congress, did right for all Americans by ending school segregation in 1954, legalizing contraceptives in 1965, legalizing interracial marriage in 1967, and ending gender discrimination in hiring in 1971.

Since the days of the American Revolution there has been a gap between the rhetoric of American Freedom and its practice. The Declaration of Independence states that “All men are created equal,” yet the Constitution describes “free Persons” in contrast to “other Persons” (slaves), and both documents address only the rights of males. We have come so far, and yet we still have so far yet to travel until everyone’s rights are legally protected, and farther still until acceptance for the equal rights for all becomes commonplace.

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About Jonathan Lockwood Huie

  • Clavos

    Ummm… Lyndon Johnson was a Democrat, not a Republican.

  • That good old American education system triumphs again!

  • There are a few ways to compare and contrast Presidents LBJ and Obama. Both called for a surge in troops to fight in wars neither one of them started.

    LBJ’s efforts towards getting the Civil Rights Act passed went against the tide of public opinion, especially Southern Democrat public opinion. Obama’s efforts to reform Health Care certainly met a lot of opposition, too.

    Do more people free-associate LBJ with “Vietnam” with LBJ, or with “Civil RIghts Act?”

    I’m not sure. Obama’s decision to call for a surge in troops in Afghanistan seems to run counter to his approval of a mosque (actually its more like a rec center) being built on the 911 site. I’d suggest keeping the Islamic community center and getting out of the war.

  • Baronius

    A bigger flaw in the article is the idea that LBJ was driven by principle. The 1964 and 1965 laws were necessary because the 1957 Civil Rights Act had been gutted by…Lyndon Johnson. His Senate approved weak bills in 1957 and 1960 in order to keep the Southern Democrats happy and make the Northern Democrats look like they were doing something. The substantive legislation came through when LBJ decided it would make him and his party look good (rather than Eisenhower getting the credit). He could afford to lose some Southern white Democratic support because he expected the Great Society programs to secure the Southern black Democrats.

    Likewise, Schwarzenegger is displaying no great fortitude. He publicly opposed Proposition 8 back when it looked like it would lose. And he’s going to be spending a lot more time in Hollywood than in Fresno or Compton after his political retirement, I’ll bet.

  • Wishful thinking and ideology may be distorting your description of the political motivations, Baronius.

    LBJ correctly predicted that the 1964-65 legislation would lose the South for the Democrats for a generation or more. They still don’t have the South back, even now.

    In addition, at some point he knew that escalating the Vietnam war was a loser politically as well. This didn’t stop him from pursuing it. He was a complicated man, and fascinating, so trying to describe him simplistically is wrongheaded.

    [This applies to Nixon too. Far too easy to write him off as a storybook villain.]

  • Just out of curiosity, how are our masters to decide what’s “right?”

    Unfortunately, Mr. Rogers has passed to his reward, Uncle Jay does not seem to be serious very often, and our celebrity arbiters of right and wrong have their own stone axes to grind.


  • Baronius

    Dan, you’re a religious conservative, and you’re always framing things in terms of right and wrong. Me, I’m an agnostic former lawyer living in Panama, so I look at things differently. I look at the Constitution first. If you see gay marriage as a guaranteed right, then you obey the Constitution and support it. If you don’t, then you leave it up to the states; or if it will cause too great a conflict between states’ laws, you amend the Constitution to affirm it or prohibit it. If the mosque is seen as a religious center, it’s protected. If the mosque is seen as a potential threat to national security, the President has considerable latitude.

  • zingzing


  • Baronius — I get your point, and while surprised at the apparent identity confusion at first I understand the rhetorical device.

    There are things which are constitutional which only really obtuse people do; that does not affect their constitutionality. Nor does it mean that those who think they are being stupid should encourage them in their folly. If someone whose medical bills I won’t have to pay and about whom I don’t much care wants to cook bacon in the nude, that’s OK with me; it’s absolutely constitutional and violates no law of which I am aware.

    Building a mega mosque adjacent to Ground Zero would be a stupid way to promote religious harmony in the United States, if that’s the intention. It seems to be having the opposite effect. Lots of us want religious harmony, and the freedom to worship however if at all we wish. We can discuss religious differences in a civil fashion, and neither seeks to impose his views on the other. Arguing that building the mega mosque is more likely to promote hatred than love does not impinge upon anyone’s religious freedom or any other aspect of the Constitution.

    If the requisite building codes permit construction and use of the proposed mega mosque, if the apparent questions of land ownership get worked out, and the proponents of the mosque want to go ahead, they can do so. I still think it will do far more more to promote dislike of Islam than to promote religious tolerance, but so be it.


  • zingzing

    dan, why are you calling it a “mega mosque?” do you really think that’s what it is? because it isn’t. go to the website. look at what’s actually proposed.

    “Building a mega mosque adjacent to Ground Zero would be a stupid way to promote religious harmony in the United States, if that’s the intention. It seems to be having the opposite effect.”

    ignorance is a powerful thing. but you don’t eliminate ignorance by letting ignorance have its way.

  • Yes, using loaded distortions like “mega mosque” in a supposedly reasonable argument negates much of the reasonableness.

  • Handyguy,

    It’s a thirteen story structure. The cost is said to be $100 million and the building will have an Islamic community center which will include a mosque or prayer space, a 500-seat auditorium, and a swimming pool. That seems pretty “mega” to me, but I won’t argue your point that it does not qualify for that descriptor. Would “beautiful” or “opulent” be OK? Here in Panama, “super mercados” are usually medium size stores. Then we have “mini-supers” which a generally smaller than small 7-11s in the U.S.

    Even if it were a modest little mosque, putting it at the proposed location would still be similar to frying bacon in the nude, for the reasons I suggested; permissible but not a clever way to promote religious tolerance.


  • zingzing

    dan, the mosque is a small prayer room. not even a full fledged mosque. there’s also a 9/11 memorial and reflection room. calling it a “mega mosque” is like calling my apartment a “tiny kitchen.” you’ve taken one small bit of the place and made it all that the place is. it’s rhetoric, and you know it, so stop trying to hide behind it.

  • zingzing

    dan, what do you call the ymca? (they have a prayer room.) is it a “mega church?”

  • Clavos

    “…frying bacon in the nude…”

    As long as it’s a large-breasted female with an attractive dérriere doing the frying, I’m all for it…

  • The Jewish Community Center, on the Upper West Side, about 15 blocks from where I live, was consulted by those who wanted to build the new Islamic community center.

    No one has ever to my knowledge referred to the 11-story JCC as a mega-synagogue or mega-temple.

    If you believe the very fact that something is Islamic makes it provocative, then I believe you are prejudiced. You may construct all kinds of elaborate rationalizations of this prejudice. But Islam was not what attacked the twin towers, so making this association is false. Period.

  • Handyguy,

    I don’t care what you call it; refer to it as a Good Humor Truck or a recreation center. It will be what it will be, and the plan to build it seems to be harming religious tolerance, of which the U.S. can be justly proud regardless of whether the mosque is built and/or opposed. There appears to be no violation of law involved, but the same is true of frying bacon in the nude — even for Clav’s large-breasted female with an attractive dérriere. That’s my point, and you haven’t addressed it. Obviously, you don’t have to unless you want to.


  • zingzing

    dan, it’s not “harming religious tolerance,” it’s outing bigots.

  • doug m

    It’s not harming religious tolerance because the people against the building aren’t tolerant to begin with.

    Plus, this isn’t the only place in the US this negative reaction to an Islamic-related building is occuring.

  • The [to my mind, bigoted] people who object to anything Islamic are the ones “harming religious tolerance.” It’s their overreaction, not the center itself, that is negative and tense.

  • Here is an article from that well known paragon of right wing thought, Huffington Post which, I think sort of makes my point for me.