One of the difficulties of living in an open society is the unspoken requirement to be tolerant of stupidity. Giving others respect for opinions and beliefs that run counter to civility, reason, or the consideration of shared rights can nurture the false impression that such beliefs and opinions are valid and acceptable, not only to hold but to act upon. While certainly one can entertain any idea, to go beyond contemplation and moving toward instantiating certain notions as if they were somehow justified across community lines is a different thing altogether.
The people involved in the kidnapping plot of Governor Whitmer of Michigan have too long accepted that their notions of legitimate action, based on opinions and beliefs which have gone unchallenged for them for long enough to constitute a functional break with reality, are exemplars of the downside of tolerance. Because it has become unacceptable for too long to simply call certain ideas out for the nonsense they are—because one is “entitled” to one’s opinion—we have seen grow pockets of cultish beliefs incommensurable with the very open society that says we should tolerate the widest possible range of opinion, hypotheses, personal choice, and credos.
This is the paradox at the heart of what we wish to see as our endeavor. This country. This planet.
But right there, the paradox emerges. Do we want to see the same things?
Broadly speaking, these little gatherings of white pseudo-militia groups embrace a Libertarian æsthetic. Not so much the philosophy. They may have a member or two who know a bit more about their stated philosophy and preferred political stance, but I suspect for the most part these folks have matriculated from the Hollywood school of American Myth. Combined with what appears to be a constrained ability to interact with people who are not just like them, they have mixed a cocktail of old westerns, McCarthy-era Red Baiting, and hate-filled commentary from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones to come up with something which “feels” like True American Virtue.
This has always been around, though. What is different now is that we have an administration which, for a variety of reasons, seems to be encouraging them. What began as cheerleading during the campaign to garner votes from the pool of chronically disaffected heirs of an American Dream that was never real or available to them the way they had become convinced it was is now a dangerous game of electoral chicken. Combined with his continual and too-often arbitrary interference with institutions and systems that until now worked well enough to afford us the space and luxury of indulging fancies and arguing over the furnishings as if they were the real substance of our republic, we have a situation now where too many people believe they have leave to act on their niche paranoias and dreams of a new revolution. It has now risen to the level of significant threat and it is time to recognized that, fun as this may all be for those who dislike liberal democracy and the actualities of genuine tolerance and inclusion, we live in a period balanced on a knife-edge and for no other reason than the refusal to recognize hate when it stands before us.
I have listened to the spinmasters of his campaign try to cast all this in a different light and the one consistent aspect of all their rhetoric is a persistent refusal to address what he has said and what has happened. That for a huge portion of this country little or none of this has touched them directly, the fact is what happens on the surface and why can be used to make or break law, custom, and the connections that keep us whole. How many people in any organization does it take to wreck things? Very few. Actual Nazis in Germany in the 1930s numbered in the minority, vastly dwarfed by the majority who were not, and yet that group, that slice, came to speak for and represent the whole of Germany and take it into a darkness we here believe couldn’t take us. We see the Proud Boys and their like and we hear what the president says and while we may feel some comfort that “most of us” do not approve or would accept that in our communities, the reality is we are witnessing an erosion of our civic virtue and our national well-being.
He speaks nonsense. His followers seem to believe it. It would be an indictment on our past and legacy if somehow the majority of us who realize this cannot meet it as it should be met and he is re-elected. Our institutions and principles will not have failed us—we will have failed them.
We have to attend not to what we might lose but to what we are losing. We have to reclaim the authentic dream, We have to become ourselves and remembering that while tolerating the freedom to think what we want, we are not obligated to accord stupidity, ignorance, and lies equal time at the podium.
This is not a game.