Defending Lott, defining tolerance

In response to your Dec. 16 editorial "Lott's of concern": True, Sen. Trent Lott "showed extraordinary insensitivity not befitting a Senate leader," and should step down as majority leader, but many of his accusers have shown a very selective, even faulty, memory of Mr. Lott, who was 7 years old when Thurmond, a Democrat, ran in 1948.

Lott is no racist, which is why one-third of Mississippi blacks vote for him. He took the lead in doubling funding for historically black colleges in Mississippi; sponsored the bill to make racially motivated arson a federal crime; and brokered the deal that led to a vast increase in federal education aid, which he then earmarked for poor schools. And he helped get the Congressional Gold Medal for Rosa Parks.

Lott also led the successful fight for welfare reform, which liberated black families from the Democratic welfare plantation that had devastated them by encouraging fathers to leave home and rewarding mothers for having illegitimate babies.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, who once served as a "Grand Kleagle" of the Ku Klux Klan, led a filibuster against this legislation. Sen. Al Gore, father of the former vice president, voted against the act, as did Sen. Strom Thurmond, who was a Democrat at that time.
Daniel John Sobieski

Regarding the Dec. 16 Opinion piece "Our fractured response to Lott": Linda S. Wallace writes that "tutors of tolerance rushed in to serve as judge and jury" in condemning Trent Lott's recent remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. She goes on to say that the best way to promote tolerance is to be tolerant, and concludes that freedom requires "the skills to disagree in positive ways," rather than ordering everyone to think alike.

While I applaud Ms. Wallace's resistance to conformity, I cannot agree that the response to Senator Lott's remarks, for the most part, does our democracy a disservice. The problem with Ms. Wallace's conclusion is that tolerance, and freedom of speech, are weapons that cut on two edges.

Lott is free to express his opinion - that this country would have been better off had Thurmond become president - and those who find this opinion repugnant are equally free to say so. It is through this public exchange of opposing opinions that we are most likely to find the best path.

I agree with Ms. Wallace's insistence that we should not be compelled to think alike, and I share her desire for a more thoughtful level of public discourse. I disagree with her assessment of the extent to which public intolerance should be tolerated.
Barry S. Block
Somerville, N.J.

Regarding "Our fractured response to Lott": Although Ms. Wallace's advocacy of tolerance regarding Sen. Lott's "mistake" sounds reasonable, it misses a central point. Lott made the mistake of praising Senator Thurmond's candidacy as a segregationist because, quite simply, he is out of touch with what segregation has meant to many Americans.

Imagine for a moment that Thurmond had run on a Nazi Party ticket in 1948 and Lott, referring to Mississippi's vote, had said: "We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." Apologies, clarifications, and denials that he had Nazi inclinations would not have compensated for such a gross blind spot.

Lott, being sensitive to all that statement implied, never would have made that mistake - even in the context of saying something nice to an old friend. But he made exactly that mistake when it came to segregation, and that is the problem.
Francisco Quintanilla
Washington, D.C.

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