"All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die."
John Steinbeck "A Life in Letters"
This quote is from a letter John Steinbeck wrote to a friend on January 1, 1941. The war in Europe had been going on since September of 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, but the U.S. wouldn't enter the fighting until the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
There are limited, but not unimportant, lessons from pre-WWII Europe that should help inform us about our current times - but what is the common thread that runs through history when man reverts to being an animal "red of tooth and claw"?
What is the evil thing that doesn't die?
Lies we tell ourselves and others allow evil to exist or in some cases promote new forms of evil. Lies that encourage us to hate, hurt or kill our fellow humans.
This isn't breaking news - the old testament story of the Garden of Eden written by humans about 3,000 years ago is in a narrow sense a metaphor intended to demonstrate the evil that can be unleashed through lies.
The serpent tells Eve lies to convince her to break God's law and encourage Adam to do so as well - leading to their expulsion from Eden. In it's simplest form this is a story telling us that lying leads to bad things. It doesn't really matter if it was a serpent lying to you, you lying to yourself, or you lying to another person - the message is that lies can be devastating to you personally, to those you care about and to society as a whole.
John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty wrote something that reminds me of what Steinbeck wrote in his letter.
Mill writes -
"The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it."What is the truth?
Outside the physical sciences and mathematics there is nothing we can point to as "the truth". We can approach truth by allowing vigorous debate and the free expression of opinions - no matter how bad, misinformed, hateful, hurtful or just flat wrong those opinions may be. Only by examining as many sides of an argument as we can are we able to say which opinions are consistent with our values.
If we simply accept the opinions of others without examining as many sides of the debate as we can - we (a) either admit we have no values worth considering or (b) we assume that other peoples opinions reflect our values because they belong to a perceived clan or (c) we are like a sponge and absorb whatever value is contained in the opinion as our personal value and regurgitate the appropriate talking points.
The end result of not examining the world around us sufficiently is that we live not as humans searching for meaning but rather as animals reacting to external stimuli we neither understand nor oftentimes even realize exists.
The age of enlightenment beginning in the 17th and 18th century was made possible by human reason, science, and the free exchange of ideas. Grossly oversimplified this was a time when reason began to replace myths promulgated by the monarchy and the church. Defenders of reason, science and the free exchange of ideas associated themselves with what is called liberalism while defenders of myth, the monarchy and the church were associated with conservatism. It's important to note this description is a theoretical construct that ignores the actual complexity of the world and people living in it. In the real world people are complicated and do not hold simplistic views that can be symbolized by words like "liberal", "conservative", "right", "left" etc..
To understand the roots of what is called "liberalism" and how far we have diverted from those roots I highly recommend reading John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty". It's about 90 pages of fairly slow reading because of the depth of thought and long long sentences with lots of punctuation. John Stuart Mill assumed that all individuals have the desire and ability to think, reason and debate ideas.
Adam Gopnik wrote in a 2008 New Yorker article titled "The Passions of John Stuart Mill" and in his book "A Thousand Small Sanities - The Moral Adventure of Liberalism",
"Mill’s theory of freedom does make an unwarranted assumption—that people want a rich life where knowledge increases, new discoveries are made, and new ideas found, where art flourishes and science advances. If you don’t want that kind of society, you don’t want liberty, in Mill’s sense. Part of what makes him as touching as he is great is that it scarcely occurred to him that anyone would not."
Gopnik's book will be of interest to anyone curious what the terms "left", "liberal", "conservative" or "right" may mean in political discussions today and where those terms originated. Anyone who in good faith refers to themselves or someone else using one of these terms would be well served to make some effort to understand what these words mean - aside from being a rhetorical rock to throw at someone you disagree with, or at least assume you disagree with.
One could argue that every person has the right to live the life they choose provided their choices don't cause harm to others. If one person chooses to be an under-informed bigot that's his or her "life" - which only adds to the rich tapestry of humankind.
The state has no right to tell anyone what to think or how to live their life - provided their choices "neither pick my pocket nor break my leg".
Individuals on the other hand are free to express whatever opinions they may hold - with the understanding that for an opinion to appeal to rational people it must be factual, logical and in accord with any applicable historical precedent.
Individuals who hold opinions that society finds appalling and are therefore subject to scorn can defend their opinion using facts and logic. If they have a rational case to make, eventually society (public opinion) will discover or re-discover a truth.
If a person doesn't have the capability or desire to discern fact from fiction they can neither voice opinions that will appeal to rational people nor judge the validity of opinions held by rational people.
A person unable to discern fact from fiction benefits from a guardian who helps them avoid harming themselves or others, and suffers at the hands of anyone who uses that persons ignorance to further his or her own interests. People unable or unwilling to separate fact from fantasy, unwilling to take even the minimal steps to gain a civics education, should (and will) be governed and treated as children rather than free men and women.
If you like that sort of thing then ignore the fact that things we love require attention. We love freedom, we love democracy, we love our country - but not paying attention, not learning all we can about history and current events - assuming that a government and a society are like a machine that once set in motion continues on the same path indefinitely is both wrong and dangerous.
I have hope.
Heroes will rise up as they always have.
Every human, in every time and in every moment, has the potential to bring truth, grace, compassion, humor and beauty into this world.