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By rejecting divine rights of nobility or of religious authority to rule over a populace our form of government shows roots in the Enlightenment or Age of Reason. You’d not see this in the way we go about the election process, one rarely notable for reason or high quality of civil discourse. From all corners comes the latest from any mind, mouth, or pen with seemingly anything that strikes either nerve or fancy without a requirement of either much thought or analysis. Sad as I find it, however, sloppy rowdiness is a standard part of the electoral and legislative life of the nation because as humans we are unable to escape our base, a heritage of furry tree dwelling creatures shrieking challenge and curse at other groups of tree dwellers. We surpass the monkey in one area; that of not throwing real feces at rivals. Many of us hurl things just as bad, but with a stink that is thankfully symbolic rather than the high bacterial odor found in a dirtball of fresh poop.
Any form of liberal democracy is going to be a lot noisier and contentious than the “perfect” order of a religious state or the tight systematic control of non-religious authoritarianism. For proof all you need do is go to most any of the dozens of religious states and look askance at the Quran or be caught with a book of any other creed. Similar big trouble comes whooping up in an authoritarian state if you question anything or look less than perfectly contented being slow starved so your glorious leadership can use savings in food to build and buy more and better weapons. All Hail (and you’d better all do so) to the ordered perfection of dictatorship in any form it assumes.
If we peer back in time we can see how some of the past monkey howling proved when it came to accuracy of insight. When JFK ran as first Catholic presidential candidate an undercurrent of rumor circulated he’d let the Pope fill Catholic churches with weapons for a Papal takeover. The threat was overblown. Go further back to Lincoln and you find some giant size challenges to his run for office. Do you recall that Abe did not belong to any denomination and said only that he followed the Gospels? In his day a non-church goer was a shockingly unacceptable departure from what was expected. But that was hardly the worst of it on the anti-Lincoln scale. Democrats of the day called him a buffoon (Ape Lincoln was used) and considered him divisive, a threat to the further existence of the nation. Dire things were predicted if inexperienced, incompetent, and slow witted Midwest rustic was ever to hold the nation’s highest office. It would be the utter end of us.
Were you to have observed how Abe accepted as commander of the Union Army, McClellan, a pro slavery man, you’d wonder if Abe had an ounce of sense in him. Time after time McClellan trembled to act. Even with clear numerical advantage he’d claim to be outnumbered and call for reinforcements. (McClellan would later run against Lincoln and lose.) You’d be liable to see the same insanely calm tolerance Lincoln showed for his Secretary of War, a man so scornful of the President he made Abe come to his war office for news and updates rather than sending dispatches or showing respect for the office of Chief of State. Like the commander of the Union Army, more than one in the President’s Cabinet wished to replace him at the next election. Why did Abe keep in positions of trust and power people with views contrary to his and who showed him personal hostility? I believe if put simply Abe kept in place those with ability to do their jobs and saw that as more important to the nation than lackeys eager to kiss Presidential posterior. I doubt I’d have been as understanding, How about you? At a time of great national distress and need would you be able to work daily with those covetously envious of your position?
As we know predictions regarding JFK and Lincoln eventually showed themselves for what they were. The simple and convenient assertions of freely given dumb speech were no match for the complexities of the individual who happened to be the right person at the right time. Freedom of speech is too important to limit, but reminders are needed more than occasionally that this freedom is best served when speakers put some thought into their words and get beyond the satisfaction of superficial and facile truths. In this I’m reminded of support for hate speech regulation based on the Grammar School logic prohibiting yelling fire in a theatre. Saying bigot or racist of others is an effective equivalent of yelling fire because the stampede and panic effects are much the same. Indeed, when labels are used it is often with the intent to start a fire, one that causes heat and upset without adding much light of understanding.
Not long before he was killed Lincoln gave a speech in which he used the expression “with malice toward none.” It’s a good speech and good advice, but don’t (as many do) get hung on malice as the thing to avoid because Lincoln clearly rejected (had malice toward) slavery and by extension the enslavement of others by any name or device used to cloak and disguise limitation on the individual exercise by responsible citizens of their right to freedom. American Democracy was more secular than most things going in its day, but it still referred to this right to freedom as inalienable and God-given as a way of asserting the principle as a bedrock foundation supporting of all the rest. So, yes, a responsible citizen can have malice toward bad ideas or flawed politics and that citizen can do so without personal malice being the meat and potatoes of the argument. Publications like The Reader give free speech a platform. It rests with writers and readers to hone the result to thoughtful utility.