"It was just the right thing to do." That’s a phrase one hears fairly often these days. It’s usually said in explanation (or justification) for something someone has already done. Trouble is, the phrase "right thing to do" begs this question: What exactly is the right thing to do?
If all 300 million of us agreed as to what exactly are the right things to do, we’d have blissful unity in our beloved country for the first time since the founding of the Jamestown colony. That will never happen, though. As with pacifism, achieving perfect unity is like expecting a wolf to become a vegetarian.
Granted, a few people may not know what ought to be done, but the rest of us — Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal, libertarian and whatever — all have our own ideas as to what is the right thing to do. And so it has always been. The meetings of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention were not love-ins. There were plenty of intense disagreements and hot arguments.
A free society promises many things, but uniformity of opinion is not one of them. Uniformity is a specialty of dictatorships. When Joe Stalin was alive, everybody who wanted to stay alive publicly agreed with him. The same was true of Saddam Hussein. Tacitus said of the Romans that they make a desert and call it peace. Dictators scare the bejeebers out of their people and call it agreement.
All we Americans have to do is learn to disagree in a civil manner. That’s not easy for some folks. Some people can barely open their mouths or put pen to paper or keyboard to bytes without insults, bad names and bad words pouring forth. In extreme cases, it’s like experiencing a broken sewer pipe. It’s too bad, because some of these people might have some good points to make if they didn’t drown all their thoughts in vitriol.
The intention is often to intimidate those who disagree with them. Nobody who claims to be an American should ever allow himself to be intimidated by anybody for any reason. To forfeit the right of free speech out of fear should be unacceptable in the United States. A million or more Americans didn’t give their lives so Americans could become sheep. It is especially shameful to be a sheep in America, because nothing bad is going to happen to you for speaking out. You may be slandered or questioned, but you won’t be tortured, shot or imprisoned.
How’d you like to be standing in a long line before God on Judgment Day hearing the stories of people who confronted evil and paid for it with their lives? And all the time knowing that when your turn comes, you’ll have to say, "Well, I never spoke out against the wrongs or injustices I saw in my country because I was afraid somebody would call me a bad name or not invite me to tea."
People who live in a free society but don’t avail themselves of their freedom are like people dying of thirst while standing in a pool of sweet water. You are free. You have unalienable rights. Use them. If you don’t use them, you might as well not have them. They exist only in use. Even dictatorships will let you babble on about trivial matters such as sports and entertainment.
But the men who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to the concepts of freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence were not taking those risks so people could gossip about inconsequential matters. They did not write the First Amendment for the benefit of pornographers and nude dancers or dirty-mouthed comics. The First Amendment is there to ensure a free discussion of political and other ideas that are important to establishing a civil society, and to pursue truth.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.