Our ignorance of history is not trivial. It poses dangers to free societies.
The American expression of freedom is old, broad and profound. Among many other things, it’s historically rooted in the idea that neither church nor state – both prone to agendas that shift with the wind – will stand between me and my conscience. We are left to sort out our relations with others on our own, make our own decisions and live with the results. The dictates of conscience matter most.
It was never – never – about this: I am free to do as I please without cost or consequence, and if there are costs and consequences borne by others, that’s just their tough luck.
But that is the distorted idea behind a good deal of the rhetoric used to justify the selfish and shameful, the dumb and the dangerous. The coronavirus pandemic has merely accentuated this sad trend. It’s reached the point where those who refuse to wear a facemask during an acute health crisis are indulged as if they are making a serious or morally defensible argument.
Who – and I mean anyone – was surprised at the irresponsible behavior on display last weekend at the Lake of the Ozarks? Anyone could see that mess coming from a mile away. Doing the right thing for abstract others seldom prevails over immediate gratification.
Leaders insist this is about personal responsibility. That’s an argument carried to its absurd extreme. What it means is leaders are surrendering the fate of all of us to the actions of the least responsible among us.
But it was only a few bad apples, it is said. That’s irrelevant. They still did what they did, heedless of the spread of disease and death – costs and consequences.
The American experiment in self-governance rests on the idea of an informed and engaged public committed to an idea greater than themselves – a nation. A free society demands more, not less, of its citizens: reason, judgment, forbearance, humility in the face of history, a recognition that the next person desires freedom as much as I do so we work things out in a spirit of goodwill.
That last one is evident but hardly universal at the moment. Some are selfish. We all pay a price.
The nation’s founders knew this: Freedom is hard work. Humanity is a damned mess, and putting up with each other is exhausting. When people who ignore history have had enough of the heedless knuckleheads, they will be tempted to abandon reason and forbearance in favor of simplistic solutions.
And then freedom really is up for grabs.
As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”
Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.