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(The following post was a comment I made on a Facebook thread that began with the poster seriously suggesting that Obama was moving toward arbitrarily imprisoning people on the Right who disagree with him, as evidenced by his referring to some Republican candidates as “extremists,” combined with the unfortunate provision for indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” in the NDAA. My comment below was a direct response to someone asserting that if I thought Obama might be right in his characterization of those Republican candidates, then I don’t know Obama well enough, implying that Obama is by definition always wrong.)

It’s not enough just to say that those you disagree with are wrong. You have to make the case. And if you’re not making the case, you’re just making noise.

There’s harmless noise, and there’s harmful noise. If you believe, for instance, that Amon-Ra requires you to hop on one foot at sunrise and sing Egyptian incantations to an arthropod, knock yourself out. No harm done. But if you were to believe, conversely, that all human beings who do not belong to your cult are possessed by demons which must be exorcised by those possessed being doused with gasoline and set on fire, and were part of a significant group of people believing this and reinforcing the belief among one another, well, that would be a lot more worrisome, because someone might start to act on that belief, and that would be a serious breach of the rights of those having their demons exorcised.

All human discursive noise falls on a continuum defined by these examples, from the most benign and harmless to the most violent and destructive. The noise your not-so-little cult makes is a lot closer to the end of that continuum defined by the latter example than the one defined by the former. In fact, the biggest act of domestic terrorism in American history was committed by a member of your cult, striking a blow against the federal government and its perceived incursions on liberty by blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds of innocent people, including dozens of children in the day care center housed in that building.

Granted, such an atrocity could have been committed by any fanatic of any stripe, and, as we say in statistics, an N of one is meaningless. But, in this case, we don’t just have the N of one to inform us, but also a considerable quantity of confirming evidence: A huge rise in armed citizen militias running around with grease painted faces and semi-automatic rifles, training to save this country from the dictatorship in your imaginations. Rhetoric that informs a potentially violent and consistently destructive zealotry, such as the motto “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The problem, of course, is that extremism has a life of its own, regardless of what it claims to be in defense of, and that motto is precisely the motto that would have been echoing in Timothy McVeigh’s mind, rationalizing for him the irrational and horribly destructive.

That’s not to say that there aren’t kernels of truth in some of your positions. The history of the United States has been characterized by a consistent, punctuated growth in executive power. The concentration and exercise of both governmental and corporate power in America involves several troubling tendencies, such as the indefinite detention of people labelled as enemy combatants, and the influence of corporate money in determining electoral and legislative outcomes. There are real issues to be understood and addressed as wisely and effectively and functionally as possible. But the rule of law is first and foremost a commitment to a process, to a set of procedures that are consistent with our fundamental law, and have developed in service to it. People who don’t get that are the biggest real threat to the Constitution that this country faces, because they want to replace our actual rule of law with their particular ideological presumptions of what the law should be, claiming that there is no ambiguity or possibility of disputing their positions, when very clearly there is, as all people who actually study and implement the Constitution realize.

And that brings us to the freedom of speech. Members of my fictional cult who believed in burning the demons out of those who disagree with them are on the boundary between protected speech and criminal incitement of violence. Were they to merely assert that all who disagree with them are possessed by demons and must be opposed, then they would have clearly fallen on the side of protected speech. Were they to encourage and advise followers to actually douse people with gasoline and set them on fire, inciting them to commit imminent acts of violence, then they would clearly fall on the side of criminal incitement of violence.

Your little cult clearly falls on the side of protected speech. It’s not even a close call, and no one I know of has ever suggested that it is a close call. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t destructive and potentially dangerous, it just means that part of our legal framework, a very fundamental and important part, is that we recognize that we have to allow and protect all speech that isn’t imminently inciting violence or in other limited ways crossing a line that had to be drawn (e.g., libel, maliciously igniting a panic “in a crowded theater,” etc.), because that is a real and necessary bulwark of liberty. We all get that, even us demons who, metaphorically speaking, need to be doused with gasoline and set on fire.

I agree that the speech of the KKK and of American Nazis, as well as of American Communists and Socialists (groups to which exceedingly few on the Left in America belong, despite the crazed rhetoric to the contrary) and Evangelicals, all has to be protected, regardless of whether I or anyone else finds it odious, destructive, and disgusting, as long as it doesn’t cross the line to the incitement of imminent violence. I certainly agree that your speech, which, for the most part (though not always, nor by all adherents), is less odious than that of the KKK and American Nazis, is protected speech. I have no interest or desire to see force used to silence you. I prefer to see reason and goodwill used to debunk you.

We live in a country facing many real challenges, as has been the case throughout our history, and will be the case throughout all time in all places. We have established an excellent though imperfect system for addressing those challenges, which we can continue to refine, which is still firmly based on our Constitution, which has evolved around that Constitution by necessity and by design, and which real patriotism demands a complete commitment to. It is more procedural than substantive, more focused on how we arrive at our conclusions than on what those conclusions must be. That is what the rule of law really is. That is what our Constitution really stands for. And you folks, for all of your claims to be the defenders of the Constitution, are in reality it’s most fervent opponents in America today, because you claim that your particular ideological substantive conclusions should take precedence over our evolved rule of law and the procedures by which we maintain and implement it. Such people are the kind of people most likely to blow up buildings and kill innocent people, because, as you say, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” But extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill most certainly is a vice, because extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill is too open to interpretation, too susceptible to the errors of blind ideological passions.

The value of liberty is that it serves humanity well. Those who become warriors of liberty divorced from a commitment to humanity are not serving either liberty or that which liberty itself serves, but are rather serving their own blind fanaticisms, at everyone else’s expense.

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  • sblecher:

    Hello Steve, I was about to make a comment, when I read your latest essay. I’m upset that you appear to be ridiculing Amon-Ra, but I’m willing to look the other way.
    Human mental activity ranges from formal logic to total insanity. It can be divided into rational, non-rational, and irrational with the boundaries between the divisions being quite indistinct. Arithmetic, science, and plumbing are all rational, but most human activities are non-rational. Personal preference, like sports teams, foods, favorite colors, recreation, music, friends, etc are non-rational and can’t be explained by logic. The commercial world and politics survive by understanding and influencing non-rational choices. When choices become harmful to one’s self and/or others, they are deemed irrational. Pragmatism is a philosophy that falls within the rational category, but politics and religion are non-rational. The approach to either one can range from pragmatism to irrational fervor. Political and religious beliefs go hand in hand. You rarely find religious fanatics who are politically very moderate, and the converse is also true. Tim Mc Veigh was not legally insane, because he could carry out an elaborate plan, and he was proud of his bomb-making skills and his ability to remain cool under extremely stressful circumstances. Still, his reasoning was quite delusional.

  • sblecher:

    Religion and politics makes a very toxic mixture, but we are very fortunate to have a separation of church and state. The Religious Right is always trying to inject religion into politics. At the same time, many of them believe in conspiracy theories that are inherently paranoid, so people like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly have made fortunes by promoting paranoia, such as the “war on Christmas”, and people like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Perry have managed to equate evangelical religion with patriotism. On the other hand pragmatism is non-ideological and doesn’t generate huge outpourings of emotion.
    Pragmatism alone doesn’t make the world a better place, hence we need to add the element of good will. The concept of good will is rather squishy, but it has existed since ancient times in several forms. It has gone under the name of charity, the Golden Rule, Agape, and empathy. Buddhist monks spend their lives praying for all sentient beings, and some Catholic monastic orders maintain a perpetual prayer vigil.
    Thus we have opposite world views in the country today and they are practically irreconcilable. There is very little chance that you or I will be able to convert a Tea Partisan or that we would ever become Tea Partisans ourselves.

  • sblecher:

    The Republican base is like a teenage girl. Her parents would like her to go out with the boy down the street who is a bit nerdy, but a good student and well behaved. He has been accepted by a good college and plans to study computer science. Daughter doesn’t like him. She’s infatuated with a young fellow who is brash and a sharp dresser. He cuts classes and plays electric guitar in a rock band. Last month she had a crush on the captain of the football team, and the month before it was the rich kid who had a new car.

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