Freedom from the fringes

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Back in my Navy flying days we had a saying: If you’re not getting shot at, you’re not over the target. Apparently talking about founding principles, self-governance, and individual rights and responsibilities puts us over the target, because there’s been a lot of incoming lately.

A lot of the shots come from thoughtful, interested, and concerned people who just disagree. Nature and nurture give us different priorities, values and beliefs. Vive la différence. Thoughtful debate is what keeps us in business.

But all too many reactions are just meant to grab headlines or come from small-minded, unpleasant people who think that tearing someone else down builds them up. It’s easy to wonder why we should suffer some of them.

A lot of this has at its root, or at least in the stem, the confused reaction that so many on the left (do we call them progressives or liberals? I can’t keep track, and they’re neither of those things anyway in the true meanings of the words) have to the role government has come to play in our lives.

“Government should protect us but shouldn’t spy on us. It should fill our refrigerators but stay out of our bedrooms. It should ensure our health care but not tell us what health care to get.” Their ideals are at once libertarian in that government should leave us alone, and communitarian in that it should provide for all of our needs. They are also loath to criticize anyone else’s chosen beliefs or lifestyles … unless of course they don’t agree, in which case they’ll declare those beliefs intolerant.

In the days before suburbs, fast food and widespread prosperity, these self-declared arbiters of cultural mores were largely ignored or left to rot by the larger population, who understood through their works that freedom did not equate to narcissism, and that success was more often cumulative than spontaneous … and more worthy of admiration than of envy.

I think most people understand that freedom comes with responsibility: that we are not guaranteed success, only the relatively unfettered opportunity to pursue it. To be sure, we are not all dealt the same cards. But even though fate rarely dishes out four aces, as long as we stay in the game we’ve got a shot at a good hand.

Those are the rules that most of us play by, and knowing that we can improve our hand creates the cumulative successes that have made this country great. Those who are not in the game because of infirmities warrant our charity. But there are also those who want a share of the pot while deriding the people and the system that created it. So, back to the question of why we still put up with those who think staying in the game and succeeding should make you a target instead of a role model.

First, their babbling demonstrates to us and to the world our system’s resiliency. Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” That stands true today. The first sign that our system is falling apart will be that the government tries to stop silly people from saying silly things.

Nonsensical babbling also provides practical benefits. It allows a relatively benign method of letting off steam. Part of the world’s problems today stem from the fact that many regimes don’t allow their people an outlet for their frustrations. Grievances, both legitimate and illegitimate, often fester under society’s skin until they erupt in violence. This is true in most of the Middle East, where people look for outlets for their anger and are led by corrupt governments to blame anyone but themselves for their problems. Some people just like the sounds of their own voices. Letting them vent shows us who they are and what they stand for, and lets them feel like they’re being heard.

Also, sometimes the silly ideas are right, or at least on the right track. Democracy started out as a silly idea. So did anti-slavery and civil rights. It’s up to us to separate the wheat from the chaff, but our nation thrives on change – on being the first to identify and capitalize on new ideas – so we shouldn’t stifle those with whom we disagree unless we’re very sure they are likely to cause significant harm.

And finally, our freedom depends on protecting the fringes, no matter how goofy they might seem. We live in a republic and not a democracy. In a true democracy everybody votes on every issue and the majority rules. In our republic, we elect representatives to vote for us, who in turn must operate within the rule of law, the basic one being our Constitution. A tyranny of the majority would not protect the basic unalienable rights our Constitution guarantees and the nurturing of which have made this country the most prosperous and powerful in history. So, in a very direct way, giving a voice to silliness ensures that we can go on about our business and the business of freedom.

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