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One issue which was being seriously discussed, while I was travelling though the United States recently, was about the fight about public duty and personal belief. For those of you who are not aware of it, here is the text of the first Amendment in the American Constitution.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or protecting the free rights thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government of a redress of governance.”

The arguments presented are thought-provoking: suppose that somewhere in pluralistic America a devout Hindu is placed in charge of a city department that issues building permits. Will the First Amendment protect his right to observe the taboo against having cows? Yes. Should he, therefore, be allowed to deny a permit building a steak house?

Or a Muslim takes a job as a life-guard at a public pool. Does the law encourage his boss to allow him to schedule his break time to coincide with the daily calls to prayer? Yes. Can he, (therefore) refuse to keep watch over female swimmers in scanty suits?

There are other premises: Can a pacifist enlisted somewhere in Wyoming be forced into the National Guard and sent off into combat?

The debate was sparked off when a woman, a county clerk in Kentucky refused marriage licenses to men who wanted to marry each other. Same-sex marriage is now a law in the United States of America. Ms Davis, the clerk, felt that to participate in any way in such unions would violate her religious freedom. The court saw it otherwise.

Ms Davis‘s defiance cost her five days in jail for her contempt of court. She had the support of Republican presidential candidates who believe in fundamentalist Christian rights. One such candidate dubbed her sentence as “Criminalisation of Christianity,” in America.

While Ms Davis was advised to remain aloof from the case, her deputies took over the task of issuing marriage licenses. Meanwhile her supporters kept egging her on to again defy the courts. One presidential candidate — also a former governor of the state of Arkansas — offered to serve her prison sentence for her.

History would, of course, repeat itself. Way back in 1957 a governor, again of the same state, Arkansas, defied an order to impact school desegregation. The President, General Eisenhower, sent in Federal troops and the schools were integrated. “Uncle Sam,” writes David von Drehle, “carries a big stick.”

In a succinct article written about this case, Mr Von Drehle points out that “Davis, like any other American, has a First Amendment right to be disgusted. She can believe that homosexuality is an abomination. She can preach it to her neighbours, she even has the right, affirmed in 2011, by the same Supreme Court she now scorns, to stage hateful anti-gay protests, but those are private rights and issuing marriage licenses is a civic function. And in the prim, well-ordered office of a county clerk, of all places, unbiased public service is what every citizen who comes to the counter has a right to expect.”

There are thousands of counties in the United States and it should not be surprising to find that there is an official here or there who might be foggy on the distinction between private beliefs and public duties, especially when there are a large number of lobbies and legal experts dedicated to sowing confusion. “However”, says Von Drehle, “Presidents take an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution and it is not unreasonable to expect candidates to the office to respect rather than to demagogue the document”.

If only we could pay heed to Mr Von Drehle’s observation. In an office or in a public place, we, in our community, only get the treatment which, in the eyes of those who are meant to serve us, is either in accordance with our status (or what they consider to be our status) or which, in their view, does not offend their private faith.

The fact is that our lives, the world over, are lived partly in private and partly in public and the two spheres constantly bump and scrape against each other.

* * * * *

Internet may be a most wonderful phenomenon, but it also brings out the worst in human beings. The anonymity of internet has allowed people to post most vile, racist and hateful comments imaginable.

Anonymity is appealing because there are more voices expressing more ideas with most openness. But anonymity can be deadly. People like to hide behind it to distribute child pornography; they instil terror by making threats which are both appalling and terrifying.

With their immense technology it is not difficult for the sleuths of intelligence agencies in the US to trace people who indulge in writing and sending, online, provocative and hateful material, and I am certain that they have means to trace names and addresses as well, but then as my host — a most knowledgeable man about American politics — explained to me, there would be an uproar about infringing a person’s right to his opinion. In today’s climate the line between a democratic and an authoritarian regime is getting thinner and thinner.

* * * * *

In nearly every home I visited, I found that the younger members of the family were deeply absorbed in their laptops. Most of them were trying to locate the cheapest price of a bottle opener or a shoe-tree. When I arrived in Toronto from New Jersey, I realised that I had left my slippers behind. I casually mentioned this to my friend who drove me form the airport. He informed me that there were stores nearby where I could easily pick up a pair. I told him that I was a bit fussy about the kind of slippers I wore. “Are they made in heaven?” he quipped. “Nearly”, I said, “They are Bally.” When we got home he settled down in his chair and suggested that I rest while he solved the slipper problem.

In less than fifteen minutes he informed me that there were several stores downtown which stocked ‘Bally’ shoes but none had men’s slippers. However, Amazon.com could. They had a two-day delivery system and no charges for shipment because my friend was a member. Now, if I told him the size he could put in an order straightway. Unfortunately I had to go to Austin the next morning.

I wasn’t able to get the slippers, but amazon.com was able to find a rare (out of print) book by Grotowski at a price which was more than thirty five dollars less than what Barnes and Noble had quoted to me. Today, in America, you cannot do without amazon.com.

 

 

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