Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rejecting Hate and Fear—
Squib of the Day: November 23rd, 2010:

Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1896)
by Alfred Agache (1843-1915)
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
—Frequently attributed to Voltaire, the quote appears in The Friends of Voltaire (1906) written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868-1919). Hall placed the line in quotes to indicate it as summing up Voltaire's thesis in the Treatise on Tolerance—a paraphrase of his "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too."

Voltaire (1694-1778)
Much of who we are, of what we think about such concepts as freedom of religion and speech and democracy, is directly attributable to the eighteenth-century philosophers of Western Europe and, by extension, North America. If we are all products of our time, perhaps there has never been—before or since—a group of men so determined to remake the times into a product of their minds. And they have bequeathed to us a world where thinking for yourself and expressing your thoughts—whether from a soapbox or a blog—won't get you tossed into the Bastille (as happened to Voltaire).

But you can’t force people to think for themselves—that's contrary to
the whole idea of freedom. And most of us, through temperament or circumstance, are incapable of forming a coherent philosophy out of whole cloth and instead latch on to the thoughts of others that seem to best reflect our beliefs about God, about tolerance, about freedom. These ideas are our heritage and it is fitting that we lesser mortals should claim them as our own and incorporate them into our own thinking.

The trouble comes when we give up thinking entirely. When we have accepted everything we have been told by our parents or peers, or we latch on to ravings of glib media personalities who have no interest in promoting the common good, but rather stoke the fires of intolerance and fear, corrupting that right of free speech for their own purposes. We are very susceptible to the suggestion that "the other" is a danger to us. And that "other" can be defined by skin color, religious affiliation, or, in this case, political philosophy.

Pro-slavery lynch mob surrounding
the wharehouse where Lovejoy sought
refuge. Wood engraving (circa 1837).
Making generalizations that apply to all or most of the Enlightenment thinkers exaggerates the universal nature of their various philosophies. But it is clear that the American distillation of their thought, as reflected in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights, presumes a tolerance for views that the majority may abhor. We reject as fascist those that would smash the presses and burn books and lynch anyone with whom they disagree—though such things have happened in nearby Alton, when Elijah Lovejoy's press was destroyed and he was murdered by a mob. But for the most part we have determined to be ruled by law and not by the mob.

The radical idea that Lovejoy was promoting was that slavery was wrong and must be ended. And there are few among us today that would find much to argue with in his editorials. But the voices of intolerance and ignorance, which are always with us, have today been given a forum much more powerful than Lovejoy’s printing press. Rupert Murdoch and Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh have discovered, to our great misfortune, that intolerance pays. It pays big. Ignoring the pressing needs of the country, they have incited the fearful mob and largely taken over the party of Lincoln. It is no longer the party of conservatism. It has become the party of Fox news. It has become a party whose manifesto now consists of slander and smear. They have embraced an updated version of The Big Lie, which maintains that their political opponents embrace tyranny in order to form a socialist state. The Republican leadership, to the embarrassment of many of the party faithful, has embraced the mob.

The far right in America is fond of quoting Barry Goldwater: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” And the results of the recent election seem to indicate that extremism works. But extremism almost always results in less liberty, not more. The men who came together in Philadelphia to form a new nation were not extremists. And they added a Bill of Rights to the Constitution because it seemed better to let all views be heard, no matter how extreme and repugnant those views may be, nor how contrary to the enlightenment values they embraced.

We must do likewise. We must reject the fear-based tactics of the ultra-right and the ultra-left and be determined to defend our ideas with words, not with fear mongering or hate speech or a big lie of our own. We will welcome the return of moderate voices in the Republican Party and the resumption of civil debate about the future of the nation. Until that happy time should arrive, we will continue to call a lie a lie, a bigot a bigot, and a fool a fool. And, despite the cowering of some moderates on the left behind Godwin’s Law, when someone is promoting fascist tactics and the Big Lie, we will call them out accordingly.


Anonymous said...

Amen. But you've only got half of it. There is another Big Lie. That of Soros, Pelosi, Olbermann, et al. These shills of the left, with MoveOn.org et al, embrace a nanny state with crony capitalism, where their gang benefits. The real problem is the elites left and right are hammering us in the middle class and sucking us dry. I start to work for myself in August ( late August). Income taxes, soc. security, medicare, real estate taxes, sales taxes, gasoline taxes, etc etc are murdering all of us in the middle. I'm sick of elites left and right telling me they're on my side when in fact they're pulling against eachother to help destroy the vast middle.


I dissent in the notion that our founding fathers were not extremists. The Boston Tea Party, tax rebellion, and other forms of social resistance certainly qualify them as extremists. It might be safe to say that the majority of the inhabitants of the colonies did not embrace the revolution. However, it was after the revolution that we see an anomoly in behavior versus most modern political/social revolutions. Those that propagated the revolution became far more politically moderate in a fairly short time period. There was no purging of the Tories (though many Tories were essentially forced to flee the country). There was no widespread bloodshed after the revolution. Maybe just a little nit to pick, but I feel an often overlooked bit of history.


You're right. Founders is too broad a term. I should have limited it to those who actually authored the new Constitution. Some of the firebrands (Sam Adams comes to mind) who had been intent on revolution, did not take part in that Convention.

I agree with your calling it an anomaly, but to pick another nit, I would disagree with confining that anomaly to modern revolutions—unless you consider the French Revolution modern.

It may have been the sovereign nature of the thirteen states that prevented a similar outcome in America. By the time the Founders decided that individual sovereignty wasn't working out so well, passions—and perhaps ambitions—had cooled.

Point well taken though.

Anonymous said...

Our great experiment is now 234 years old and 320,000,000 strong (plus our visitors from Mexico and other countries w/o papers).Has any true republic lasted this long and grown this large?
To compare the U.S. today to those 13 colonies over 200 years ago is like comparing today's Catholic Church to the Christian movement started by Christ.
We must guard against a strong determined and focused minority which could snatch away our liberties, viz. the large banks and investment bankers in the fall of 2008.

marilyn said...

There are two ideas I'd like to add to this discussion.

The first,- There were participants, at every stage of the creation of our federation, that could clearly be considered extremists. Thomas Jefferson being first one that first comes to mind. And I don't think any of their passions were cooled either. Many of them were even the bitterest of rivals in their politics & ideologies. And this is a particularly important point because of how they were able to to channel all of that energy into doing what was best for the young country. Something sorely lacking today. Of course they didn't have to run home every 2-6 years to get re-elected either. But I'd like to think they still would have behaved more like statesmen that used car salesmen.

The second piece I'd like to contribute is that there were actually quite a few bloody battles within this period (ie. Shays's rebellion). Nothing went as smoothly as we'd like to believe it did.


Good points, Marylin. We have a nagging tendancy to oversimplify things here in Hokumburg. It's up to you to keep us honest.

Well...within reason.

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