Forget Kumbaya. Forget Elvis Costello’s “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?” Let’s have a civics lesson. What prompted this? A near altercation on the subway.
This is what happened: An older woman asked a young woman to lower her music. The younger woman, responded by saying, “No, she didn’t ask me that?” over and over. And then she offered that someone who made that kind of comment should get “bitch-slapped”. That went on for a while. The young woman seemed a little crazy — or an aggressive sociopath. A reasonable answer would have been, “No.”
The two women — strangers to each other — got off at the same station. Then the young woman accused the older woman of “touching” her as they got off the subway and started to go off about her rights to play her music in a public place. I was afraid for the older woman and almost got off the train (which meant jumping over people) until I could see that the older woman hurried away and the younger woman appeared more interested in yelling than in giving chase. By then, someone had taken my seat. Oh well.
After the doors closed in our car, a young man talked, ad nauseum, in a loud voice that the older woman was wrong and that she was lucky that the young woman didn’t get violent. Because the old woman deserved to get beaten if, for example, she interfered with his entitlement to play his music the way he wanted, even if that meant he played it loud in the subway. I was tempted to interject but after my last near altercation in the subway yesterday (where I told some teenagers to stop harassing a young woman), I learned that idiots are not worth my health or life.
The younger woman was troubled. The man in the subway who agreed with her either was grand-standing or is an ignoramus. I assume the latter.
So, let’s talk about rights and entitlements. The Constitution doesn’t confer the right to do anything and everything. It creates a system of obligations with safeguards to prevent tyranny. Entitlements are creatures of legislation; otherwise, you have the right to free speech and to starve to death.
The right to free speech is limited to reasonable time, reasonable place and reasonable manner. Inherent in that limitation is that speech cannot unreasonably interfere with other’s people’s and the states’ rights to the public peace. So, it is pretty well settled that you cannot hold a rally in a residential area after 10 pm. I don’t know whether playing music loud enough to fill a New York subway car is free speech. This may be part of the delicate balance that makes our country great. But I do know that the older woman had a right to ask and the younger had the right to say no.
Entitlements? A safety net for those who, try as hard as they can, they can’t earn enough to feed their families. The social compact is that, once able, these people will give back to the system. Just like my parents proudly paid their taxes to a country that gave them a free, excellent education. And just as I am proud to pay my taxes so that other strivers, like my parents and grandparents, will be able to make it. But I don’t recollect that the social compact went beyond sustenance, shelter and education to, let’s say, the entitlement to play music as loud as one wants in a public place.
I grew up knowing that democracy doesn’t guarantee a human’s survival (but if that human survives, he or she can stand on a soap box in Washington Square Park). Our society is a complicated web of social compacts that hinge one upon the other. Two of the underpinnings of this web are civic and civility.
If this episode is any example, this great experiment that is our nation is in the process of implosion. Unless, of course, that man would be good about my playing Patsy Cline out, loud and proud.