Something is going on in America. The thought posse is out, scouring the countryside for wrong thinking. It’s the French Revolution all over again with all kinds of Madame and Monsieur Defarges, on high alert for anyone who says or thinks the wrong thing. Never mind “I disagree with what you’re saying, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Now it’s “I disagree with what you’re saying; you’re wrong. Resign.”
The time-honored principle of free speech has been that we have to tolerate ideas that we hate lest ideas we love (or our own ideas) be suppressed.
Yes, hate speech is terrible. Yes, the Internet is being used by all kinds of loony, maybe even violent groups to spread their venom. But unless we can come up with a principle that won’t blow back in our faces when the wind shifts, we’d better be careful. “This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast, ” Thomas More says in “A Man for All Seasons,” “man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”
Why does the editorial page editor of The New York Times have to resign for permitting the publication of an oped he didn’t read but which had misinformation in it and advocated military action against protesters? And since when do reporters and editors from the same paper, supposedly separated from the opinion pages by an impenetrable wall, get to demand his resignation? Did he come to work wearing a brown shirt? Did he wear a white hood? Yes, he was responsible. Yes, he made a mistake. But off with his head?
Take a wrecking ball to the Jefferson Monument? Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and wrote the phrase that has come down through the centuries as the icon of aspiration for our country: All men are created equal. Thomas Jefferson also kept slaves. Terrible! Disgusting! Hypocritical! And a lot of other castigating adjectives. But he also was a moving force behind the adoption of the Bill of Rights, and he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Thomas Jefferson was a man of his time, for better and worse. He was flawed, but he was also inspirational. Let’s look at the whole man—celebrate his greatness and condemn his flaws.
Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of Woodrow Wilson. Had it been up to me, I wouldn’t have named a school at Princeton or anything else in his honor. He was rigid and inflexible (sound familiar?) and a racist. But, we can’t erase him from our history. We have to learn our history—all of it, in its entirety and in context. And we have to remember that history was made by men and women, not angels. Perfection is an aspiration, not a realistic expectation.
Beyond that, where does all of this woke, cancel culture effort take us? What is the goal—uniformity of thought? What is the principle being applied here? Who gets to judge? Who passes the purity test? We need to temper our zeal with a dose of humility.