Robert Weissberg’s study of tolerance will not bring him academic good will, and the drab appearance of this volume will not attract a sufficient number of potentially favorable readers to make its author justly famous. So much the worse! The book is written with flair, even occasional humor, and offers riveting arguments regarding the changing definitions of tolerance and the social consequences thereof.

Having critically surveyed the professional literature on “tolerance” written since mid-century, Weissberg concludes that the term has undergone a dramatic but widely accepted shift in meaning. Whereas tolerance was once a privilege extended by majority religions or dominant political as well as ethnic groups toward partly dissimilar minorities, it has now become a human right that white Westerners—male Christian ones, in particular—must accord to others. And it is not a courtesy to be extended grudgingly or performed as an act of noblesse oblige. Rather, tolerance has come to mean making those who are defiantly and self-consciously different feel good about themselves, while blaming oneself for their previous lack of self-esteem. Thus, where gays and leftist revolutionaries are concerned, Weissberg notes, “political resistance” to their positions has now been equated with “intolerance.” Quoting from the publications of the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and other advocates of alternative lifestyles represented in both national parties, Weissberg proves that tolerance has ceased to signify even “robust accommodation.” “Authentic tolerance” requires more: “that unsavory causes be promoted to qualify ourselves as a genuinely accepting society.”

Weissberg makes another relevant historical observation. Well into the 20th century, both the battle for and the practice of tolerance had to do mainly with the acceptance of religious minorities or the non-persecution of heterodox opinions. Thus the Prussian monarchy in the 18th century was considered tolerant for allowing Catholics and Protestants who did not belong to the state church to reside in its territory. Some of the American colonies gained reputations for tolerance when they allowed English Catholics, Spanish Jews, or German Anabaptists to settle among the dominant religious groups, and, in some cases, to hold political office. Weissberg points to the Christian and Jewish millets in the Muslim Ottoman Empire and to the coexistence of Orthodox Jewish and Arab Muslim communities in Brooklyn as further examples of traditional tolerance. Though none of these groups had (or have) much to do with neighboring ones or with the majority society, they did (or continue to) coexist and “tolerate” each other’s presence. Though the American Constitution denies to the federal government the power to establish a church or to suppress political or religious dissent in the states, until recently tolerance had extremely close limits in the United States as elsewhere. State and local governments supported the majority Christian —usually Protestant—attitudes, and while offensive dissent was not often criminalized (except in time of war), the way to success for most Americans was to avoid trampling on prevailing Judeo-Christian beliefs. The Scopes trial exemplified how state legislatures dealt with “anti-biblical” views in the American constitutional republic.

Weissberg does not argue that we are a more open society for refusing state legislatures the right to ban the teaching of evolution. Rather, he strongly suggests that our intelligentsia and our government now promote a definition of tolerance so bizarre as to result in unprecedented behavioral and verbal restraints. Most Americans are browbeaten into honoring expressive freedoms attached to particular activists for whose positions they have no special fondness and indeed might have moral repugnance. Tolerance now means the forced enthusiastic expression of support for kinky lifestyles, explicitly leftist reconstructions of society, or abrasive members of designated victim groups: “[C]laims of unmerciful victimization bestow a steady flow of government-mandated benefits, from easier victories in wrongful employment termination to selective exemption from law enforcement.”

The single bone to be picked with Weissberg’s otherwise perceptive study is a methodological one. His examples of the new tolerance are drawn largely from academic experience and academic writings, and the point to which he keeps returning is that one is dealing here with a “psychological phenomenon” found among “self-defined victims” and their proponents. Weissberg is right about all of this, but he misses the political context that shapes such behavior. As Lino Graglia has repeatedly asked: What would our universities be like if the federal government, directly and through the states, did not impose affirmative action? The answer must be: very different. Affirmative action is the entering wedge for mandated “diversity training,” the creation of “non-hostile” work and living environments for minorities, and nonstop sensitivity classes.

Weissberg is correct in saying that such coercive policies work well in the screwball environment in which he and I perform our jobs. But the social deviants we meet there would not be having their way were it not for government steadily endorsing their projects, any more than the Waffen-SS would have been honored as servants of the German state 60 years before Hitler. The administrative class promotes “tolerance” for its own interest, which requires turning middle-class communities into collections of therapeutic subjects. And a highly useful means toward that end is the sanctification of the “psychological tolerance” examined by Weissberg. The demand for ecstatic public acceptance of what until quite recently would have seemed lunatic and perverted to everyone interferes, as Weissberg shows, with traditional community and the social space in which it must function. That is the reason state managers, who are busy eradicating the institutional and cultural past, push for the new tolerance and impose it on their client-subjects, descended from what once were American citizens.

Weissberg intermittently makes this observation, while accepting the notion that public administration is being driven by radical pressure groups in an intolerant direction. My own reading of the situation is less optimistic: that a revolutionary central state favors and funds whatever wackiness increases its hold on society.


[Political Tolerance: Balancing Community and Diversity by Robert Weissberg (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications) 272 pp., $54.00]