OF PINK SUITS,
& CIVIL LIBERTIES
BY SAM SMITH
a talk given at an upper school assembly
at Maret School, Washington, DC, September 2006
In my son Ben's senior year at Maret,
he and a couple of friends visited a used clothing shop where
one of them - Chris Friendly - found a pink suit and a pink fedora
that he wore for his graduation. Chris and Ben were also featured
with two buddies in odd poses in the Maret yearbook in a two
page photograph accompanied by a caption from Nigel Hufnel, lead
guitarist for Spinal Tap. "There is," Hufnel said,
"a thin line between clever and stupid." My son explored
this narrow divide by being pictured standing inside a large
city trash can while playing a violin and wearing a ski cap.
Ben no longer plays the violin in super cans - he prefers guitars
in clubs - but the pink outfit continued to make regular appearances
at Maret graduations - worn, so I'm told, by those who best exemplified
the spirit of the pink suit.
And what exactly is that spirit?
It is a spirit, to be sure, of independence but also a spirit
based on confidence that others will tolerate this independence
and perhaps even applaud it. At the very least it is based on
the confidence that classmates will respect what the cartoonist
Walt Kelly said was the basic right of every American to make
a damn fool of themselves.
As I watched that graduation ceremony,
my mind drifted back to the first meeting I attended at Maret.
The speaker was the headmaster, Peter Sturdevant, an amalgam
of Orson Welles and Rodney Dangerfield. He lumbered up to the
stage and leaned into the microphone and began to speak. His
first words to the new parents were these:
"Maret doesn't have
a dress code . . . Let me tell you why Maret doesn't have a dress
code. I used to teach at the Landon School. One day the headmaster
sent us a memo saying that the boys could not wear tight jeans
. . . Some of us in the faculty sent him one back in which we
asked, 'How do you define tight jeans?' He replied that tight
jeans were those where a golf ball could not be dropped between
the waistband and the body and have it fall out at the ankle.
We wrote back: "An English or an American golf ball?"
. . . That's why Maret doesn't have a dress code."
Part of America's long struggle
over civil liberties can be described as being between those
who favor the pink suit principle and those who prefer the golf
ball rule. Since I suppose some teachers would prefer I use a
more elegant metaphor, let me also cite David Hackett Fisher
who, in the book Albion's Seed, describes the differences in
four strains of early American settlement from the British isles.
In the matter of civil liberties he notes that in New England,
freedom was defined by the community. As long as you played by
the community's rules you were free. If you didn't you either
suffered punishment or, like Roger Williams, had to leave town
and go found your own colony.
Much of the political battle in
America today involves people attempting to impose their own
community's standards on the whole country. And it's not just
the right. Listen to liberals speaking of the "red states"
and you often hear as much disgust as when a Christian fundamentalist
talks about gay marriage.
In the frontier communities, Fisher
notes that there was a sense of natural liberty - or what we
might call libertarianism. It was personal freedom taken as far
as possible. This spirit is still at home in much of America
and tends to be conservative in economics and progressive in
personal freedom. And you're theoretically so free that the government
isn't meant to help you get out of trouble.
The third view of liberty - what
Fisher calls hegemonic liberty - is based on power. This was
found among the elite of early Virginia where the more power
you had the more freedom you got. If you were a slave you had
no freedom, if you were a tradesman you had more, but if you
were a cavalier you had virtually unlimited liberty. This is
the idea of liberty that we see with increasing frequency today
at the top levels of business, sports, entertainment, and politics.
Again, drawing a political division doesn't really help. For
example, both Bill Clinton and George Bush considered their power
as a license of liberty in ways that the more restrained Jimmy
Carter and Dwight Eisenhower never would have.
Finally, in the mid-Atlantic states,
with no small help from the Quaker influence, you found what
can be called a sense of reciprocal liberty, which is to say
that I can't be really free unless you are as well. You are entitled
to your freedom as long as it doesn't hurt mine. Thus, we must
constantly negotiate the terms of our mutual freedoms.
Note that two of these forms of
liberty - that defined by the community and that which is the
privilege of power - are inherently unequal while other two strive
for equality. And guess which two predominate in America today?
Sadly, the weakest form is reciprocal
liberty. Both left and right seem to have forgotten that America
is about sharing spaces with others who may have quite different
views of the world. While writing one of my books, I asked my
friend, the black journalist Chuck Stone, to give me a one sentence
description of how to get along with people who are different
than yourself and he immediately replied, "Treat them as
a member of the family."
Being the third of six kids, I appreciated
that. And I recalled my father saying from time to time, "You
don't have to like your relatives, you just have to be nice to
them." It works for other Americans, too.
In fact, to extend the analogy a
bit, it may help to think of America less in terms of left and
right and more in terms of a dysfunctional family. We have always
disagreed but we haven't usually been so nasty about it.
Now if I'm doing a talk show and
someone calls up to berate gay marriage my response is along
these lines: "If you don't like gay marriage, then don't
marry a gay. Beyond that it's really not your business or mine.
As a good American you don't have to like gay marriage, but you
have to be willing to share your land and its rights with those
My theory - and I come at this as
a onetime anthropology major - is that tolerance usually precedes
approval. You see this in families where parents have had to
adapt to the fact that their child is gay or is marrying someone
of another ethnicity. At first they may just bitterly bite their
tongues but with time often become proud and loving parents once
again. The stereotypes eventual surrender to actual experience.
This is how it happened in many
places in the south after segregation just as Martin Luther King
knew it would. He told his lieutenants to keep in mind that some
day the people they were fighting would be their friends.
So one of the best things you can
do to preserve freedom in the United States is to stand up for
the rights of those with whom you disagree or even dislike. As
William Allen White put it, "Liberty is the only thing you
cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others."
How has this struggle over the right
approach to liberty worked out in America? It depends what year
you're talking about. Obviously, lots of things took much longer
than they should have, but still, over the first two hundred
years, many Americans became freer and more equal. This is in
part because while America often did not have the right answer;
it was a good place to look for the answer. America has never
been perfect; it's just been a place where it was easier to fix
things that were broken. The ability to repair ourselves has
long been one of our great characteristics and is absolutely
dependent on the freedom to try things out. As Linus Pauling
said, "The best way to have a good idea is to have lots
of ideas." Even if some cross the line from clever to stupid.
While we all know about the successful
battles of women, labor, blacks and gays, you may not be aware
of how many other struggles have been won as recently as during
the lifetime of your parents and teachers. Here are just a few
of these more recent victories:
The right of poor people to be represented
The right to have a lawyer after
The right of married people to use
The right to be informed of your
rights following an arrest and to remain silent
The right of young people to be
protected under the Constitution
The right of free speech for students
The right of unmarried people to
The right to an abortion
The right of a student to notice
and a hearing before disciplinary action is taken
If you were to count everyone involved
in winning these suits you probably wouldn't end up with more
than a few hundred committed Americans who had dramatically changed
the course of our history. A handful of citizens - with a lot
of help from a few lawyers - going before a court and proving
that something was not constitutional or lawful. I've done it
myself seven times and we've won three times. As members of the
baseball team know, that's a .429 average and not all that bad.
And just as in baseball you've got to be prepared to miss more
balls than you hit.
But in 2001 the whole game changed.
With 9/11 the standard of liberty became that determined by the
level of fear.
It was not the first time. During
the Civil War, constitutional rights had been short-circuited.
During World One non-conformists had been thrown in jail including
the Eugene Debs just for having given an anti-war speech. Debs
ran as the Socialist candidate for president while still in prison
and got nearly a million votes. In World War II, people were
put in concentration camps because they had Japanese roots. And
during the McCarthy era suspicion of disloyalty was enough to
get you fired.
We now find ourselves in a similar
period. Just as in the earlier instances, there was justification
for the fear but not for its dangerously dysfunctional response.
In order - supposedly - to protect our way of life, we find ourselves
dismantling some of its basic characteristics beginning with
civil liberties that have helped define what America was.
In fact, the trouble started even
earlier than 9/11. If we had paid more attention to the unconstitutional
aspects of the drug war, for example, we might have seen Guantanamo
in the making. If we had paid more attention to the mistreatment
of inmates in Supermax prisons we might have avoided Abu Ghraib.
Even before 9/11 your rights as
a citizen of the United States were being. There was searches
without warrants, increased use of roadblocks, wiretapping, drug
testing, punishment before trial, travel restrictions, censorship
of student speech, behavior, and clothing; excessive requirements
for IDs, youth curfews, and video surveillance.
These are a few reasons why attention
to civil liberties - even when most things seem to be going okay
- is so important. Justice William O. Douglas once said, "As
nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In
both instances, there is a twilight when everything seems seemingly
unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we must be most aware
of change in the air -- however slight -- lest we become unwitting
victims of the darkness."
This is what happened in Germany.
Everyone talks about the brutal results of the Holocaust, but
too few consider the many mundane acts that led to it. An exception
was the reporter Milton Mayer who in his remarkable book - They
Thought They Were Free - quoted a German professor on the rise
". . . To live in
the process is absolutely not to notice it -- please try to believe
me -- unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness,
acuity, than most of us ever had occasion to develop. Each step
was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion,
". . . Believe me
this is true. Each act, each occasion is worse than the last,
but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next.
You wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when
such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.
". . . Suddenly it
all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have
done, or, more accurately, what you haven't done (for that was
all that was required of most of us: that we did nothing). You
remember those early meetings of your department in the university
when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but
no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or
that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything
now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond
When Hitler took power
he helped establish his dictatorship by repeatedly invoking Article
48 of the Weimar Republic constitution which stated, "In
case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the
Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish
law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit
of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights . . . partially
or entirely. "
And why was it all so peaceful and
easy for Hitler? In part because the supposedly democratic Weimar
Republic had already used this provision 57 times prior to Hitler's
rise to power..
For such reasons, many of the real
lessons of the Holocaust are not to be found so much in its death
camps as in its birth places. And this is why the changes taking
place in our own country now - some eerily reminiscent of Article
48 - deserve such close attention.
But, you say, we must protect ourselves against the terrorists.
. . .
Yes, we must. But before we trash
our constitution and our liberties, here are a few things to
Are our efforts working? As in the
picture of bin Laden with the caption: "I'm still free.
Are you?" Simply because a strategy is invoked with much
fanfare doesn't mean it is the right one. Foreign Policy magazine
recently asked a group of experts - including former secretaries
of state and ex-CIA directors - how we were doing with the war
on terror. 84% said we were losing it. It's not a good idea to
lose both a war and your liberties as well.
Then there is the moat problem.
Building a moat around your castle seemed a great idea until
someone came along with a way to send fireballs into your courtyard
by catapult. It's still happening. Five years after 9/11 you're
told you can't carry bottles on board because someone has figured
out a new way to kill you. And yet as you respond to each new
threat in such ways, you are building your own prison.
Then there is the question of courage
vs. fear. We've been taught to be afraid of so many things since
9/11 but we haven't been helped much with our courage. On 9/11
one of the first things I thought about was a young British girl
who came to live with us during World War II. Ann became a virtual
sister and a person whose quiet courage I have always admired.
A couple of years ago she wrote me of her trip to America as
a nine year old:
"I set sail in the
Duchess of Atholl in convoy. There was a slight skirmish with
a submarine. I remember feeling the ship shudder as depth charges
were dropped but we were unscathed and pressed on. . . My mother
told me we might well be sunk. If I was dragged underwater, not
to struggle. I would come to the surface naturally, then not
to strike out to England or America but float on my back, as
I had learned at school, until I was picked up."
A few months later, Britain stopped
sending children to America because two ships carrying them were
sunk. Meanwhile back home, there were 57 consecutive nights of
bombing. 27, 000 civilians lost their lives in the Battle of
Britain, 32,000 were injured. Repeat 9/1l ten times in a two
month period and you get the idea.
Ifan, the man Ann would later marry,
was working as a medical student in London. Each day he would
be given a set of colored tags to tie to the feet of victims
of the Nazi bombings so the ambulances would know to which hospital
to send them. When a particular color ran out, that meant there
was no more room at that hospital. Meanwhile, London went about
We need the quiet courage of the
British during that awful time.
Then there is the question of risk.
A recent article in Foreign Affairs estimates the probability
of an American being killed in an terrorist incident is about
1 in 80,000. You are, in fact, more likely to drown, die of a
workplace accident, be murdered, commit suicide, be killed by
the side effects of a prescription drug, or die of cancer or
heart disease. You are also more likely to die in an auto accident
or from a hernia. Why are we so afraid?
There is also the message that history
gives us. These problems don't go away because some guerilla
leader is killed. When I was in high school I played the role
of a commander in the Irish Republican Army in The Informer,
which was a play about a rebellion taking place thirty years
earlier yet still going on as we took to the stage. Only recently
- about a half century later - did Britain's problems with Ireland
subside - thanks not to force but through negotiation. I pray
you do not have to reach my age before seeing an end to the current
Finally, I would argue that the
easiest, quickest, least dangerous, and most cost-efficient way
to reduce the danger of terrorism is to reduce the anger felt
towards our country. You limit the constituency of the least
rational by responding to the concerns of the most rational.
Yet ask yourself: since September 11 what have we done to reduce
our risk in this way? In what ways have we changed our foreign
policy to change how others react to us?
Now you may discount or disagree
with any or all of my points but what you can't disagree with
is that we never truly argued about them before assaulting our
own civil liberties. The media has not discussed them, the Congress
has not debated them. We just charged ahead as though there was
only one answer. Yet, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out, "They
that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary
safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
I'm afraid you've got your work
cut out for you. The twin threats to your liberties and our environment
is unprecedented. They're not about to go away. There are several
ways to react. You can - as many of my generation did - pretend
it's not happening, fail to ask obvious questions, fail to act.
Or you can react with fear and avoidance as we, in many ways,
are being encouraged to do. But you can also act with the simple
witness of a free American, prepared but not paranoiac, determined
but not self-destructive, loyal to our country's ideals and not
merely to its symbols.
One of the best ways to pursue such
a course is to always act and think of yourself as a free American.
Above all avoid what Spengler called the "terrible censorship
of silence." Don't be afraid to speak up for what you believe
Don't let others bully you into
Help others retain their freedoms.
Treat those with whom you disagree
as a member of the family
Learn your rights. It's not that
hard. In fact, In fact, the important aspects of the Constitution
are easier to understand then, say, the rules for the NFL player
draft or free agentry and salary caps.
And don't let anyone tell you that
your rights must be balanced by this or that. Lately, politicians
and the media have taken to talking about "rights and responsibilities,"
as though free speech and free religion and not having cops raiding
your house without a warrant were privileges we citizens only
get when we're well-behaved. Don't believe them. Your constitutional
rights, to borrow a phrase from the Declaration of Independence,
Finally, long ago I worked with
a civil rights leaders whose wife use to say, "the trouble
with Julius is that he takes the Constitution personally."
Now my wife says the same thing about me. I hope you will feel
the same way. Your country desperately needs your help in making
its promises possible once more. The best way to start is to
learn your rights and then take them personally.