Joined: 14 Feb 2002
Location: On the globe that gave me birth-the cool green hills of Earth
|Posted: Wed Oct 08, 2003 6:29 pm Post subject: Freedom Fries
|If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought--not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Let's make one thing clear right from the start: this is not about the Iraq War. I say that because I know all too well that some readers will immediately assume that it is. If you're one of them, you're jumping to an incorrect conclusion and you should start over and try again. It's not that I couldn't give any opinions about the war itself, but I wish to focus on reactions of the war. What I want to talk about is a cluster of things that need to be considered periodically; regardless of what wars we're currently in or between, and regardless of where you stand politically.
In the USA, we had factions favoring and opposing the war, and intolerance on both sides. In general, the intolerance seemed to be more often blatantly overt from pro-war individuals and groups, but it's not limited to them. Anti-war intolerance was usually more covert.
I recently talked to someone who had attended a convention (on an unrelated topic) at which almost everyone was strongly anti-war, and not very willing to listen to any suggestion that there might be enough different about present circumstances to make this war a less clear-cut issue than "either" side made it out to be. (There are, of course, far more than two sides; but our politics being what it is, it's hard in casual discourse to avoid lumping similar ones into two major groups and talking about them as if they were more homogeneous than they are.) But the lopsidedness of this convention was, as I understand it, more a matter of many people having their minds made up in roughly similar way and not very open to considering alternate viewpoints, than of anyone actively trying to suppress those alternate viewpoints.
I've heard several cases of that from the "pro-war" camp, like the businessman who posted a huge sign in front of his premises saying, and I quote verbatim: "Protesters Keep Your Mouth Shut." That attitude I find profoundly disturbing, no matter what side of what issue it's coming from. It's one thing to hear somebody espousing a viewpoint you disagree with and say, "I think you're wrong, and here's why; let's see if you can see it my way." It's quite another to say, "I think you're wrong, so shut up; I don't want to listen to you, and I don't want anybody else to either." Those who would forcibly silence the opposition miss the point of what makes this country worth fighting for: the right of individuals to have and express honest opinions, even if they're not popular ones.
Ironically, this right applies even to those who hang out such "Shut up" signs, as long as they don't try to force compliance with their Wishes. But it's a dangerously short leap from expressing such repressive views to banding together with others who share them to forcibly silence those who don't. As long as that line is not crossed, I can only express my dismay that some people can talk about defending freedom while their actions try to restrict it--and not see the irony in that.
A few days after the feature article about that businessman appeared, the same newspaper carried a letter to the editor echoing his belief that the opposition should "shut up" and adding, "Now is the time to let the leaders of this country (right or wrong) conduct this operation in an uninhibited fashion." When should people let their leaders do what they want, "right or wrong"?
Mark Twain had an answer still worth pondering: "Only when the republic's life is in danger should a man uphold its government when it's wrong. Otherwise the nation has sold its honor for a phrase." Again I remind you that I'm not saying "to what extent" I thought the government was right or wrong in this piece.
But I am saying that every citizen has a moral obligation to ask that question and answer it to the best of his or her ability--and if his answer is that the government is wrong, to similarly consider the question of whether the republic's life is in sufficient danger to support it anyway. If not, there's a concomitant obligation to do what he can to steer it toward "right."
Of course, with hundreds of millions of citizens, there will inevitably be a great many different opinions about what is "right." None of those citizens has an inherent right to assume that his version should be accepted by everybody else--but supporting a government that you really believe (after due thought) is wrong does the country a grave disservice. Bear in mind that Adolf Hitler's rise to power rested largely on more than a few citizens accepting his actions even if they thought them wrong.
I'm not suggesting that we are experiencing a similar threat, as the "Bushitler" propagandists suggest, but I say outright that all of us should keep the historical lesson in mind and support officials and policies we think (not just feel) are right, and likewise oppose those we think are wrong.
Again (in the Iraq War of 2003) we had people on "both" sides failing to make crucial distinctions, such as those among supporting the war, supporting the troops, supporting America, and supporting a particular government.
Mark Twain again: "Who is the country? Is it the government? In a republic the government is merely a servant, a temporary one. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them." Or as Abraham Lincoln described it, "Government of the people, by the people, for the people." There can be times when the highest form of support for the troops in a war can be opposing the policies that put them there, and the strongest support for the country can be opposition to a particular administration.
But useful purpose is served by "either" side building a straw man, stuffing it with stereotypes, and acting as if it were an accurate representation of everyone on the "other side."
We've also seen a resurgence of one particular form of sloppy thinking that I'd hoped my grandparents had seen the last of: holding every citizen of a country responsible for the actions of their leaders. Renaming things "liberty This" and "liberty That" was a stupid idea in World War I; it hasn't gotten any smarter with "Freedom Fries" 85 years later. Neither has taking symbolic actions without considering their actual consequences. Boycotting French wines in this country because you don't like the way the French president voted in the UN doesn't hurt him; unless it goes on for a long time, it won't even hurt French vintners who are trying to make a living--but it does hurt American restaurant owners who have already bought the stuff and can neither sell nor return it.
"But Mark," you’ll say, "The Europeans ‘sanction’ (a PC term for boycott?) us all time and the Muslims boycott us with their Mecca-cola etc. Let’s play jihadjay’s game of eternally pointing out everyone else’s hypocrisies." I say let’s focus on improving our maturity; let the Europeans and Muslims worry about their own. Beating up or maligning Arabs or Europeans simply because they are Arabs or Europeans goes beyond stupid. It is reprehensible.
Finally, we have those who say you're welcome to oppose the war, but keep it to yourself at least until after the war is over. Well, what good will that do if the war (this war or any other) is wrong?
The only meaningful time to object to a war is before you're in too deep to be able to get out. A few people started objecting to Nazism and Communism relatively early and were largely ignored. After so many ideological casualties and such unsatisfying results the whole thing left a bitter aftertaste and emotional scars that still haven't fully healed. If more had yelled louder, sooner, might much of the pain have been avoided?
We'll never know, on this timeline--but any time similar situations seem to be developing in the future, everyone would be well advised to stay as informed as possible, form their own careful opinions, and support or oppose as their consciences dictate. I can't emphasize too strongly that I mean that advice for everybody, regardless of where on the political spectrum they stand. And it comes with a corollary: Always keep open the possibility that somebody on the other side may have something true and important to say, so you, too, should be willing to listen.
The main point that so many people are missing--one of the main threads in the great experiment of this country--is that everybody has a right to express an opinion, and a moral obligation to do it conscientiously and responsibly. If you really love your country, listen attentively but critically to everybody you can, say whatever you think you need to, and then vote as you think you should.
"—to find one's happiness in truth, to oppose illusion, to value integrity above God, and character above salvation."