John Stuart Mill: Rolling in his Grave

As cries of “socialist!” and “terrorist!” fly, I am once again amazed at how low we have sunk in our national dialogue. I mean really: our economy’s a mess, we’re stuck in a war we can’t win, people don’t have adequate health care, and our schools suck. But all we can do is name call? This is what politics has been reduced to?

I know, I know. I shouldn’t be surprised. This is not a new phenomenon. It’s just really, really sad to see otherwise intelligent people (Palin excepted) reduced to this. Why is it that far too many of us are completely and utterly intolerant of views that oppose our own? Why do we have to act like children and reduce everything into “them or us” or “you’re either for us or against us”? Why can’t we be adults and discuss our differences? Or even just acknowledge the other guy’s views as legitimate and agree to disagree?

There’s a term for this idea: intellectual discourse. John Stuart Mill wrote about it in his most fabulous book On Liberty. It’s been many years since I read it, so forgive me if I get a few details wrong, but the overall gist was a discussion of personal freedoms in society and what’s appropriate, and so forth. For example, freedom of speech is an unassailable right, as long as you aren’t actually endangering someone (like yelling “fire!” in a theater when there isn’t one, causing a stampede).

So people are free to be small-minded and waste energy with name-calling. But Mill’s better point about freedom of speech was that we should use it for intellectual discourse, to discuss different ideas and different approaches to running our country. Instead of shouting “socialist!” like it’s a dirty word or comparing it to Europe (as if that is a dirty word too), why can’t we have an intelligent discussion on why certain programs might be better or worse?

After all, that’s the kind of freedom our nation was founded on — freedom of expression and thought. With all the flag-waving and patriotism that the so-called “real” America wraps itself in, this concept is completely forgotton. With all the talk about the Founding Fathers, our mass dialogue couldn’t be further from the ideals they stood for.

Not one of the Founding Fathers would have tolerated the kind of vitriol that is so readily slung about these days. In fact, I bet they, along with Mill, are rolling in their graves. They fought for this country so that it could be a place where ideas could freely be shared, where the free exchange of knowledge would make us all soar to the pinnacles of greatness. Not a place where people are blacklisted for disagreeing.

So to all those folks living in “real” America, I say: the next time you feel like wrapping yourself up in the flag like you’re better than us “lefties,” don’t. Because we are FAR more true to the founding ideals of this country than you are. We just aren’t rude or simple enough to laud it in your faces.

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I just recently moved after many years in the very Republican Alaska, where your tires could get slashed (or worse) if people knew your lefty leanings. And, I’ve spent my career being a public face of my agency, so I’m trained to be careful about expressing my opinions. Guess it will take a while for this old dog to unlearn those tricks! Maybe if I just remember the days of protesting the first Iraq war……..

You should write a more regular blog — from the Left Coast!!!!!!