Page Two: The Terrible Thing
Demonization of those with whom we disagree is the most dangerous disease that can infect a constitutional republic
No one knows the limitations of this column better than I do. It is what it is, and that's all that it is. Yes, it is a weekly column in the Chronicle, but that doesn't imbue my opinions with any special authority, wisdom, or power. The column's main distinction is that it has been around so long that it has become a major factor in my thinking about things. At most, this imposes a slight discipline on my thinking (many are now laughing at the word "discipline" and my name being connected).
Believe me, I never think otherwise and wouldn't have it any other way if I could. There is no mandate, law, or truth being laid down here. The goal is only to participate in ongoing discussions on relevant topics. At my most deluded, perhaps, I hope that I represent a point of view shared by some segment of the community (although those would be different segments at different times, depending on the column).
Many years ago, when Chronicle political endorsements first began to carry electoral weight, I was more upset than excited. The problem was not that I didn't stand by our positions; it was that I was just as concerned about some people not thinking through things on their own, but instead rather too faithfully trusting us. Having anyone follow your ideas too easily is a terrible responsibility. This was accompanied by a deeply unsettling feeling I experience whenever people are parroting a source or unquestioningly following authority. If nothing else, this column's conceit is that it is participating in discussions with its readers, with the clear understanding that there are many sincerely held, widely differing opinions. That is it.
Given my ongoing concerns about the political tactic of trying to turn one group of Americans against another. I've frequently written against this demonization, as well as the all-too-casual assault on speech and ideas. Invariably, a number of the responses to my tirades include the statement that I'm doing exactly what I am denouncing others for doing.
This is somewhat of a defense of my writing, but it also concerns much more important issues. In expressing opinions, this column is usually aggressive and passionate – sometimes with an over-the-top energy or undisguised vehemence. Some actions or positions are unbelievable, and dumb beyond measure. The territory, though, is always ideas.
What I don't do is try to demonize those who believe differently. As strident and intense as I may be in expressing an opinion, I do not think those of differing views are evil, malevolent, or intentionally destructive. Most often these disagreements are with people who also have principled opinions, even though they are very different from mine.
The issue is always whether the focus is on ideas or people. Saying an idea is stupid, ignorant, badly thought through, or so on is still basically about the idea. As my opinions on many issues have changed over time, I try to offer informed and (somewhat) clearly explained positions. I am not stupid enough to think that I am offering anything more than an opinion; I'm certainly not issuing the truth, nor is there any desire to end the discussion.
There are many, however, who unfortunately attack not just the idea, but the person speaking it as well. They question their opponent's motives, accusing him or her of having corrupt, diseased motivations – insisting that, rather than presenting a thought-out position, the person is knowingly championing evil or treason, communism or fascism, totalitarian oppression or class destruction. This is demonization, the most truly dangerous disease to infect a constitutional republic such as ours.
Rather than ideas being questioned, motives are assaulted: The invasion of Iraq, for instance, is portrayed as a move to throw the world off balance so the ruling classes can enslave the working classes, or those who protest the war are depicted as anti-American traitors blindly following Marxist ideology in hopes of destroying this country. One of the things I dislike the most about conspiracy-theory hobbyists is that their driving idea is that tragic events are always caused by bad people intentionally doing often-unimaginable evil for the most demonic reasons. This belief allows one to take almost any action against these people. This position is a bit more extreme but otherwise very similar to the majority of this country's beliefs when we invaded Iraq.
Currently, when ideological matters are under consideration, the belief is put forth that there is both good and evil in the world, as well as that there is a knowable truth to everything. Usually, the person advocating this position also assumes that he or she knows what is good and what is evil, as well as being able to recognize "the truth." Certainly there is evil in the world; there are bad people intentionally doing bad things. It does not mean people of a different religion, lifestyle, ideology, or society are evil because they are not like us. Jean Renoir said that the truly terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons. One has to think about doing unto others as you would have others do unto you, as well as about walking many miles in someone else's shoes.
Many of this country's enemies, even some with whom we are engaged in combat, are not evil. Instead, they are legitimately responding to this country's overly aggressive, myopic, and self-righteous pursuit of policies it regards as "right." Reasonable responses by other countries asserting their sovereignty and interests in the face of the United States are too often labeled evil or intentionally malevolent. The motivations of the leaders of other countries, as well as this one's, are not inherently evil, but frequently they are self-righteously thoughtless and ill-considered. There is no suggestion here that either side is "right" or that the U.S. should subjugate our beliefs to other beliefs. There are many legitimate conflicts, disagreements, and power struggles among countries. Still – to address only this polarization as it is expressed in this country – it is self-defeating, leaving the U.S. at an international disadvantage while allowing us to commit unconscionable acts.
The United States is based on the idea of vigorous, animated, and often-passionate debate and disagreement. The governmental design laid out in the Constitution assumes a country whose citizens rarely agree, being almost always in serious ideological and legislative disagreement. The Constitution came out of a charged, deeply hostile, adversarial atmosphere of severely acrimonious, violent disagreements. Thus, it can't be overstated how crucial the assumption of ongoing, often-vicious debate among those of different opinions is to the Constitution. It was the overriding consideration in the way the framers ended up structuring this country's government. It is why we are not a democracy, but a democratic constitutional republic.
The Constitution respects and privileges this combat, no matter how extreme. The intention behind the separation of powers and the elaborate system of checks and balances is specifically to keep any one side/party/position from gaining too much control. In many ways, it is a position paper against streamlined, swiftly moving government. Intentionally, it makes passing legislation difficult, with many tools available being too slow or completely derailing passage. The Constitution favors a series of ongoing governmental deadlocks over laws and structural changes that are being implemented too quickly.
Clearly and specifically, the Bush administration has attacked, denied, and ignored the Constitution. It has been the most sustained, intentional, and vicious assault on this country's founding principles in my lifetime. This situation obviously shadows this discussion and causes the manner in which the topic is framed to be off-kilter. Ultimately, this country's survival has nothing to do with the war on terror, uncovering conspiracies, dismantling the military industrial complex, somehow bringing dissenting voices on all sides into line, or passing or restructuring any specific programs (such as Social Security, etc.). The main factor will be a return to respect and an attempt to understand the Constitution. This is not just to chastise this administration and its overly insensitive supporters. I have heard Libertarians talk about throwing out the "bad" amendments, liberals insisting on the same lack of intense debate as reactionaries do, and politicians of all beliefs offering up actions that involve nothing less than destroying constitutional mandates, though most of them probably don't even realize it.
This column is the first part of a discussion that will be concluded next week. The topic will be on one's conscience and following it. Longtime fans and foes of this column have a lot to anticipate. There will be comments on conspiracy hobbyists, truly constitutional American government, and that too-long-ignored old favorite, the Naderites.
The third part of our ongoing documentation of Bob Johnston's storied career – following tour tales of Leonard Cohen and going to prison with Johnny Cash – continues this week with a glimpse at the producer's discography. See "Bob Johnston Discography."