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The Benefits of Tolerance

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The campaign for the American presidency is serving to remind us of how much the world has changed in the half-century or so since we entered the 1960's. An African-American President tells a part of the story of the civil rights struggle that many associate with the 1960's. Vice President Biden and President Obama's policy pronouncements on gay marriage last week focus attention on another key struggle for respect and equal rights. The reaction against Mitt Romney's high school bullying is also part of a story about the changing role of verbal and physical violence and its prevalence in our culture.

It is easier to describe this change than to understand its causes. When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, getting into physical fights was not an every day event, but it certainly happened. Fortunately the weapons were fists rather than guns. Back then being a parent was a status that people had. Today, parenting is a verb. It's something you do in addition to something you are. Parents don't just open the door and let their kids play out on the streets, they take their kids to play dates and work hard to ensure that their children's experiences are rewarding and safe. The phenomenon of "helicopter parents" hovering over their children is an extreme version of this, but the pressure on parents to constantly supervise their children is an undeniable element of American culture in the 21st century. Although I doubt very much that children live riskier lives today than when I grew up, the explosion of media ensures that all of us know and feel pain whenever we learn of children who are lost or harmed.

When I was growing up there was an almost off-handed sexism, racism and homophobia in the language and behavior of many Americans. This continues, but it is not as prevalent in this century as it was in the last one. Racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia were nearly as common in New York City, with its recent immigrants and large minority population, as they were in other parts of the United States. I know it took me most of the 1970's to shake loose the outward manifestations of those attitudes and somewhat longer to truly change. Feminist, gay and African-American friends called me on my attitudes and taught me about the impact of my speech and behavior. I wonder if Mitt Romney had the same experience, or was somehow isolated from the forces of social change in the 1960's and 1970's.

Even if Mitt was not affected by those times, I suspect that what happened to me also happened to many people throughout the U.S. Images in the media of fire hoses and dogs attacking African American children made John Kennedy and many others see civil rights as a moral issue. Violence against women, gay people, and children could no longer be kept in the shadows but found their way to film, television and now to the Internet. Today, the comfort of the arrogant in-crowd culture that led to a prep school hazing led by Mitt Romney might not end up with laughs over beers in a dorm room; but to a dressing down in the headmaster's office and a discussion of bullying. This all would have followed the video of the beating going viral on YouTube. We are less tolerant of those who impose physical and psychological pain on others, and we are becoming more tolerant of diversity. So it was not surprising and even a little reassuring when last week, the President of the United States went on national TV and said:

"I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that 'don't ask, don't tell' is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

The impulse toward toleration and diversity is countered by a tendency toward fundamentalism, and an effort to secure the borders of one's community and nation from outsiders. So we see the anti-totalitarian hope of the Arab Spring, followed by the ascent of those seeking to establish an Islamic state. In this country, we observe increasing public support for gay rights but also see anti-immigration policies on the political agenda. Still it's obvious that American social gatherings and professional settings are increasingly diverse. The social acceptance of diversity is strongest among the young and changing far more rapidly than our legal and political structures.

When I look to understand the causes of these changes, I see two connected trends. The first is the rapid advance in the technology of communication, transportation and information. The second (largely caused by the first) is the growth of the global economy. Barry Commoner, referring to the Earth's ecosystems, once said that "everything is connected to everything else." Barry was right, but it's not just a law of ecology -- in the 21st century it's also a law of economy, politics and society. The downside of this is that there is no longer any privacy. Walking from my office to my home I am probably videotaped by a dozen or more security cameras. The upside of this is that it is nearly impossible to hide oppression. Everyone with a smart phone is a potential reporter. In 2012, a gay couple raising a child is not an abstract theory, but the theme of a sitcom and a neighbor's family you are sharing a meal with on a Friday night.

Which brings me to the very interesting point made by James B. Stewart in an excellent piece published this past weekend in the New York Times. Stewart observed that "gay marriage bans may come at a price." Stewart cites a recent Brookings report written by Richard Florida and Gary Gates which concluded that in the United States cities with high concentrations of gay people and foreign-born residents tend to be centers of high technology. There appears to be a relationship between an environment that fosters openness and creativity and the ability to nurture high-tech businesses.

If the currency of the high-tech economy is brainpower and its application to problem solving, a place that can attract the best brains is going to be one that tolerates every trait but stupidity. And since you never really know where brainpower will come from, you've got to welcome everyone. If a government frisks immigrants and bans gay marriage, gay people and immigrants will try to live somewhere else. If artists and creative people are treated as outcasts, they will also try to move away. In an economy built on knowledge, innovation and creativity, places that are run by anti-foreign, gay-bashing fundamentalists are at a disadvantage. That is as true for Iran and as it is for North Carolina.

Finally, there is the issue of what some call "the broad sweep of history." The world economy and the Internet are bringing people into closer daily contact. Jets, trains and autos are making us more mobile and exposing all of us to many different people and places. Our gender, race, sexual preference and nation of origin are all part of who we are. But so too are an increasing range of shared images and experiences: that guy dodging the tank in Tiananmen Square, and the tank driver who wouldn't run him over; the sight of the World Trade Center collapsing on 9/11; and that first view of the bright blue planet earth as seen from outer space. Unless we blow ourselves up first, the world community will continue to grow closer together. President Obama knows that in the long run he is on the right side of the issue of gay marriage and I suspect Romney knows he is on the wrong side of this issue. The only uncertainty is how and if its short-term impact might influence the November election.

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