The quest for an elusive utopia has driven humanity’s aspirations from the dawn of civilization.
However, the conflicts our differing dreams have always ignited have taught us a hard and infuriating lesson that we forget at our own peril: We can succeed only when we create room for more than one way of living our best life despite the frustration we must inevitably feel when we see others doing that which, in our heart of hearts, we believe is wrong or immoral.
The ability to accommodate a variety of viewpoints and lifestyles is presumed to be the strength of American democracy, but our supposed tolerance is tested every day by our need to have our own ideas be ascendant, respected, and imposed on all around us. Many fanatics conveniently excuse their contempt for those who are believed to be unworthy of compassion and understanding. Their hatred disguised as an abundantly open mind is an intellectual sleight of hand that is intensely self-comforting— but unbelievably damaging to our nation.
Although implacable intolerance definitely has its place in American life and history—those who were, for example, willing to go to war to end the human slavery baked into our founding were right to refuse any compromise whatsoever—we too often forget that exceedingly few conflicts are impervious to negotiated compromise. Unfortunately, believing oneself to be absolutely right and everyone else to be evil is immensely attractive to many people, and small-minded certitude provides the only real purpose in their otherwise empty, meaningless lives.
It should be no surprise that we are, as a species, fatally attracted to those whose minds are unfettered by doubts or an understanding of the ambiguities of our existence. However, although is easy to admire those who refuse to yield, these individuals are actually an impediment to our democratic processes. America has long survived by accepting deals that have left everyone a little disappointed with the outcome. Only in a totalitarian nation can one group have their every wish fulfilled, but even the most brutal of dictators still has to deal with the resistance and obstinacy of a frustrated citizenry if their edicts are unpopular.
If it seems we are more divided today than in the past, that is understandable—but wrong. President George Washington employed federal militia to crush the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania only five years after we all agreed to abide by The Constitution. We have raided, suppressed, attacked, arrested, imprisoned, silenced, and harangued one another throughout our history while remaking ourselves a dozen times over. This is our American legacy and inheritance to do with what we will.
However, it must also be remembered that the wild passions that have defined our nation’s history have also been responsible for our laudable willingness to go to the last extremity to protect our families, neighbors, friends, communities, nation, and total strangers all around the world during times of war and turmoil in order defend the freedoms granted to us as Americans—and extend them to other nations wherever possible.
It is maddening that our most cherished beliefs can simultaneously be both our greatest strength and our most dangerous weakness, but the split-personality that comes with our citizenship, a combination of starry-eyed idealism and ruthless practicality that has always driven our nation, is probably also responsible for our willingness throughout America’s history to thrash out ugly and unpalatable compromises when our principles have become a problem.
Today we suffer due to ideologues who unashamedly use censorship, propaganda, and outright lies to both control our nation’s narrative and conceal their true intentions. Americans are not alone in having to deal with these difficulties; history is filled with many parallel examples. The cooperation the now exists between the U.S. government, American journalists, and social media companies is, to be honest, eerily reminiscent of the relationship between the Politburo and Pravda during the heyday of the old Soviet Union, and it has succeeded only in making many of our citizens much more distrustful of both government and news organizations.
No one’s mind has ever been changed in the long term by being deceived, but the fanatics are always convinced that their deceptions are justified by some “greater good” that never turns out to be either great or good. If we want to break the surly stalemate that now rules us, we must recommit to an embrace of the full range of American opinion, and relearn respect for ideas that differ from our own.