Friday, March 9, 2018

Fierce Debate Makes America Great

Being [Able to Be] Outrageous Is Our Constitutional Glory

I am not in sympathy with people who think the political movements Black Lives Matter (for racial justice),  Me Too (protesting the abuse of power in the form of sexual predation), and Never Again (for gun control) are going too far. 

I'm not either in sympathy with some in the movements who want to paint people who disagree with them as mortal enemies who share no common ground--even within their own ranks. (Lord, spare me from the self-policing of the call-out culture.)
But I can see why they feel that way.
And I am totally in favor of the groups using extreme, dramatic forms of political protest.

Recent social justice movements remind me of the sometimes outrageous protests of ACT UP ( AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and other political action groups that formed in the 1980s, in the early days of AIDS in the United States, when President Reagan wouldn't even say the name of the disease, much less fund medical research and information campaigns that could have saved thousands of lives.
                     Top photo of artist & activist David Wojnarowicz 

Dying from governmental inaction?
This might be a time to be overly dramatic!

Groupthink in any form is a danger to watch out for, and we do see some of that in these movements. But unless members start proposing acts of physical violence, they are exercising their right to free speech, possibly committing civil disobedience (climbing a statehouse flagpole to remove a flag). 
And that's a good thing.

America's greatness is its history of (sometimes flaming and raging) public disagreements. Fierce debate is the sign of a healthy democracy.  
It's like how high skyscrapers are designed to bend. 
If we're going to have self-rule and not a dictatorship, you gotta build a structure that can withstand a lot of hot air and strong winds. The US Constitution is a blueprint.

"Every difference of opinion is not difference of principle", Thomas Jefferson said:
if you are using democratic, constitutional principles (protests, speeches, art) to champion your cause, you are using the same tools, abiding by the same governing principles the other side supposedly believes in too. 
Even if you sometimes get a little out of whack.

But when was it different?
When was human nature so elevated it didn't go too far, get out of whack, engage in groupthink?

Cock and Bull

Certainly not 218 years ago, during the presidential campaign of 1800.
The contest between incumbent John Adams and Jefferson was so intense and angry, it threatened the peaceful transfer of power. When Adams lost the election, some Americans feared his supporters might seize control illegally, igniting a new revolution. 

Political smear campaigns included this political cartoon by James Akin portraying Jefferson as a cock courting a hen, Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman he owned. (People who still debate Jefferson had children with Hemings may not realize it was claimed at the time.)
(The cartoon appeared after the 1800 campaign, but you take the point.)

I love how Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address sought to calm those fears of violent revolution--by championing the right of people to disagree vehemently. 

The heat of the debates, Thomas Jefferson said, are the sign of a people whose constitution protects their right to think, speak, and write freely.

Rule of law and reasonableness must prevail, if the country is to hold together, he said, but there's room for  "animation of discussions and of exertions" that might alarm "strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think".

Sometimes I think those strangers are our own fellow Americans (or maybe even ourselves).

There's lots of good stuff in his address. Here's an excerpt.
From Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address, 
March 4, 1801 (@ Yale Avalon Project)
During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; 
but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. 

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. 

Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. 
. . . 
Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself.
Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.
[End Jefferson quote]

This person from Jefferson's future, me, 217 years later, answers that there are no angels in the forms of kings.

There's only us chickens.


" 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' " --MLK

P.S. I was inspired to write this up because of OCA blogger Michael's review, "WHAT?", of David Brooks's latest column in the New York Times. 

I haven't read Brooks piece, so I can't speak to it--
I just saw red at the idea that people who are protesting gross, longstanding injustices should be ...nice? I hear a lot of people my age saying that sort of thing.

Nice would be nice, but that's one of the problems with injustice:
it's an ugliness that may call forth responses that are ugly in kind.

(sometimes terribly disturbing, like Buddhist monks burning themselves to death to protest the Vietnam War, or the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison stepping in front of the king's racehorse---I question if violence against yourself is still non-violence...
Hm--looking it up, it seems she maybe didn't intend to hurt herself, but to attach a scarf to the horse???)

Protestors should guard and train against perpetuating hate,
but calls to stamp out the angry, even ugly responses to injustice mostly serve to preserve the status quo.

Of course we want to cultivate civilized protest, but if democracy can't withstand some inflamed feelings, even outright ugliness, from all different directions, it's failed.
But, obviously, it can.

Michael responded to my comment on his post, pointing out Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. responded to charges of going too fast, being "extreme," etc. too, in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963).
As you may know, it's a fantastic read. 

Above: Martin Luther King Jr. looks out the window of his cell at the Birmingham City Jail. Photo by the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, after a later arrest, in 1967, via The Washington Post.

A few excerpts:
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely."
. . . Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. 
. . .  It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?"
You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action.
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.
It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
[boldface mine]
. . .
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not ...the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says:
"I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action".

 [End MLK quote]

And now, excuse me, I have some bears to repair.


Bink said...

All good! Which reminds me that we need to make some posters for the March 24th March for Our Lives!

Fresca said...

Yes, I'm trying to think of some Star Trek tie-in.
Maybe Capt. Kirk saying, "No More Blah-blah-blah" from the episode Miri!

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating and interesting post! Debate seems to be really missing these days without degrading into name calling and screaming loudly.

Do schools even require debate anymore? I remember even going to debate tournaments years ago. I think I was in junior high and even participated in dramatic readings-Oliver Twist.


Fresca said...

KIRSTEN: I'm glad you found it interesting.
Yeah--name calling was big in Jefferson & Adams's day too...

Interesting you bring up debate!

I'd been fascinated to read that. . .:

"Part of the reason the Stoneman Douglas students have become stars in recent weeks is in no small part due to the fact that they are in a school system that boasts, for example, of a “system-wide debate program that teaches extemporaneous speaking from an early age.”

"Every middle and high school in the district has a forensics and public-speaking program. Coincidentally, some of the students at Stoneman Douglas had been preparing for debates on the issue of gun control this year, which explains in part why they could speak to the issues from day one. "