I visited an acquaintance of mine about two weeks ago. He happens to own a used bookstore. Of course I have far too many books now, but there’s always room for another good find.
We talked for a bit about kids and college and politics and eventually we moved, naturally, into booktalk, which, naturally, led us to his groaning shelves in search of a book.
The search didn’t produce the book we were looking for, but after my acquaintance walked away to take a phone call, my wondering eye spied a thick, black book spine cover with the title of A Thousand Days printed across it.
A Thousand Days won the 1966 Pulitzer Prize for biography and, from all that I’d read about it, was one of the best books written about President Kennedy the man, the candidate, the leader, and the President. Certainly a book written by an Administration insider and admirer will reflect the writer’s biases, for which, I think it’s fair to say that Schlesinger was well aware of as a professional historian.
But this particular memoir/biography, I think, has become particularly attractive given the times we find ourselves in. I think there’s a need to be reading books about Presidents that, while not perfect, brought high ideals, intelligence, grace, dignity, and visionary leadership to the highest office in the land.
And so, in the quiet of the early morning (0630 when I took picture above), I began a 1000 day journey.
The essayist William Hazlitt wrote, “We may be intolerant even in advocating the cause of Toleration, and so bent on making proselytes to free-thinking as to allow no one to think freely but ourselves.” Hazlitt was anticipating what we’ve come to call PC or political correctness. In this country, as one recent study showed, those who favor or support PC culture are in a very small minority. I personally don’t know anyone who favors it. I do read, however, a fair number of right wingers on twitter who seem utterly consumed by a hatred of it and of anyone for whom they believe stands for it. So let’s return to the central concern of Hazlitt’s quote, “the cause of toleration.” Whether it’s PC culture or the right wing reaction against it, we have people and groups of people who are very intolerant and even some of whom push ideas that are anti-democratic and potentially, given enough time and political chaos, dangerous to the Republic. That’s not, by the way, an opinion; that’s demonstrated history.
So should there be limits to our tolerance? I think it’s a fair question to ask. At what point is being tolerant and open minded a foolish idea? Or should we be tolerant, personally and as a society, of all views, regardless of their danger-to-democracy nature? Should we, for example, regardless of the potential destruction it may bring, be willing to tolerate, say, a Nazi party, or something like it, establishing itself in America, in government? One would hope that couldn’t happen, but just for a moment imagine that it could. Consider that in 1939 there were actually a fair number of Americans open to that idea. If you doubt that, just take a few minutes and watch A Night at the Garden, a video that should haunt anyone’s casual dismissal of the idea.
In a democratic society we should be open to debate and civil discussions of various ideas, especially those we disagree with. But what about anti-democratic, authoritarian, ideas? What if, as some fear now, those ideas start catching on? As history demonstrates, a number of violent and destructive movements—costing the lives and freedoms of millions—could have been stopped had the society and its leaders acted to arrest its growth.
Germany and other European nations currently have laws that constrain hate groups, hate speech, and the symbols used by these groups. These nations are Western liberal democracies, but they have a well founded fear of how things, like the tolerance of the intolerant, can ultimately cause things to get out of hand. These are very tolerant societies to be sure, but only up to a point. We Americans have never had to suffer what many Europeans have, so we can be naive about what could happen in our own country.
And yet being tolerant, I agree, is an important virtue. But when and at what point, I’d ask you to consider, does this virtue potentially empower a virulent set of vices that could threaten our democratic society and the liberties and way of life we cherish? The answer isn’t easy, and yet the question should, I think, be something each of us considers as we observe the forces of reaction in this country and in other places around the world.
Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. — David Foster Wallace
It’s graduation season, and all across America graduates are listening to commencement speeches delivered by special invitees. Generally speaking, the task of a commencement speaker is to inspire graduates to go forth and make a difference in the world. This isn’t an easy task. It’s hard to strike a deep chord with a group of young graduates itching to get moving. “Attention” and “awareness” are in short supply. I suspect most graduates after, say, 10 years out of college probably couldn’t tell you who their commencement speaker was. Sure, if they attended an elite school that attracted a big celebrity maybe they’d remember that person’s name 10 years on. But even if that’s the case, how many would still remember the message? Because the “message” is what the commencement speech is really all about. The reason, I think, these speeches are so unmemorable is because the message simply didn’t resonate below the surface; it didn’t ripple the deep, still waters.
And then there are those rare speeches that, like high art, speak across time and across generations. They send wakes deep below the surface. 13 years ago today, on May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered what is considered by many one of the greatest commencement speeches recorded. With all the reports of commencement speeches in the news during this time of year, I usually revisit Wallaces’s speech. It’s good for the soul. It always repays me to hear his talk, because, like superior art, it always has something to tell me about myself each time I listen to it.
I invite you to take the 22 minutes involved and listen to this speech. I suspect you’ll be very thankful you did. It may not help you change the world, but it may help you change yourself.