If you grew up with Walt Kelly’s comic strip, Pogo, you know the image above became the icon of the age. Americans acknowledging the mess they’d made of the world. This is part of a strip published on Earth Day, 1971. Today we need another such image of the mess we’re making of our democracy. We need to acknowledge that, as Brian Doyle said in my last blog (“A Bogey Tale,”) “we court and slay, we rape and heal, we lie and confess, we rant and pray, we rage at the Other even as we know, deep in our uttermost bones, that the Other is also us.”
The most insidious of “Others” is the one concealed in our most treasured beliefs. I am liberal and support the struggle for social justice and am as wedded as any to the belief that we must stand up for our beliefs. Like most liberals of my day, I divided the world into idealists and realists. Idealists stand up for their beliefs; realists accept whatever situation they encounter. But with the Sixties came the call for “revolution,” and the language changed. “Stand up” for your beliefs became “Fight for your beliefs.” “Opponents” became “enemies,” “dissent” became “selling out.” Idealism went to war, and war demands unity. Those who objected that the Civil Rights Movement would polarize the nation were labeled racist, reactionaries, or do-nothings and driven from the pack. Social justice movements multiplied and, blind to economic realities, deaf to all voices but their own, confrontation became the only acceptable mode of activism. Over the years, liberal self-righteousness has shaped a culture of its own, intolerant of dissenters, and passed this attitude to the next generation—and the next. Hard Truth: Confrontation polarizes.
So do I believe we shouldn’t confront injustice? No. But we needed to acknowledge dissenters who warn of consequences we’d prefer not to recognize. The wing that today calls itself Progressive has ranted and raged, turned dissent into judgmental arrogance and forgotten—or never learned—that the key to progress is to listen to others. I felt the poison of this arrogance back when the Sixties revolution rejected anyone over thirty and turned on “establishment” Democrats. My husband, a city councilman on the first Democratic-controlled council in decades, was one of the targets. The anger of youth? Yes, but self-isolated from dissent, it never changed, never matured. The same contempt for moderation echoes from the halls of Congress today. Solidarity ossifies, and we now have a generation weaned on the rhetoric of war, the siren call of battle—of power.
Newton’s Third Law applies to humans as well as objects. Every action fires an equal and opposite reaction, and liberals need to realize they themselves have contributed to the rise of the Right. If the self-righteous closed-mindedness of the Left has alienated me, a lifelong liberal, how must it have affected the middle-of-the-road moderate citizenry? To label us all “racists” or “reactionary,” drives many further into the arms of the extremists. Anger does that. It’s to the nation’s credit that a moderate was elected President, rejecting both “activist” Left and Right which have become mirror images of each other. To call for the preservation of democracy while demonizing dissent is an oxymoron. Dr. Jekyll has now turned on Mr. Hyde.