I’m not going to recount everything that happened Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, because the details are being updated constantly. We do know that the Unite The Right protest and the Antifa counter-protest turned into brawls and riots, which might have been planned (there was a report that some counter-protesters brought weapons, although fortunately not guns – one blogger compared it to a “rumble.”) The ACLU confirmed that as the violence escalated, the police were ordered to stand down for some reason that begs investigation. And worst of all, one woman is dead and at least a dozen more people injured after a 20-year-old Ohio man believed to be a white supremacist sympathizer drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. He’s been charged with murder, malicious wounding and hit-and-run. He should also be charged with an act of domestic terrorism and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
But before we discuss the aftermath, let’s talk about something that seems irrelevant, but is not at all. Back in the 1940s, a new technology swept America’s kitchens: the pressure cooker. In those pre-microwave days, pressure cookers were a miracle. They cooked food faster and with less energy because the heat couldn’t escape. Instead, a lid was clamped down tight. All the steam that might have been blown off if the system was open was instead held in. As the heat rose, with no way to vent it, so did the pressure. Under pressure, things get hotter and hotter. It was a great way to cook food, but there was one drawback: at the first crack or weak spot, there was a very real danger that the whole thing could explode like a bomb. Today’s pressure cookers have safety features to prevent that, but if ignored, the results can still be deadly. Recall that the Boston Marathon bombings were carried out with pressure cookers.
Over the past few years, several small but loud factions of society have been trying to turn America from an open system into a pressure cooker, and the explosions of rage and violence in Berkeley, Dallas, Charlottesville and other places are the result. The Founders knew that there would always be clashing ideas, and the best way to deal with them was a free marketplace where everyone could express and defend his views, and the best would be adopted while inferior ideas were exposed and rejected. America hasn’t always gotten things right, but thanks to free and open debate, we have consistently gotten things better.
Unfortunately, in recent years, we’ve seen a dangerous trend toward clamping down the lid on the free marketplace of ideas. Places that were once bastions of unfettered debate, such as college campuses and the Internet, are now rigidly policed to silence any ideas not approved by self-appointed authorities. Americans who don’t toe a particular line have not only been driven from the public square, even their private conversations make them targets for the thought police, if they’re caught in surveillance by a leaky intelligence agency or overheard by an overzealous busybody. It’s not enough that any opinions that vary from the “approved” line be silenced, but those who dare express them, even thoughtfully and anonymously, must be ferreted out, exposed, threatened, publicly shamed, bankrupted and fired.
I don’t say all this to try to shift blame for what happened in Charlottesville. The people who started this are vile, hateful racists and should be condemned in the strongest terms. But it’s not a coincidence that violent extremist groups are suddenly popping up all around us. They’re a symptom of a larger problem. They are the weak spots that turn dangerous when the pressure gets too high and too hot. Violent extremist movements have always drawn their numbers from those who think they have no voice. When you take away the free marketplace of ideas, it creates a breeding ground for their recruitment.
But why should people be allowed to express bad ideas? Because when they express them in the open, they have to defend them. Maybe they can be reasoned into seeing the error of their ways. In fact, that’s a large part of the history of America: bad ideas that used to be taken for granted are now seen as abhorrent, because good ideas won out. We used to be a nation where people who disagreed could sit down over a beer, have a spirited discussion, and maybe end up by seeing things from the other person’s perspective. Ban the open discussion, tell some people their perspective is invalid and they have no right to express it, and you’ll end up with a barroom brawl instead.
In light of the tragedy in Charlottesvlle, President Trump issued this initial statement: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.” He was immediately blasted by politicians, the media and celebrities for not singling out just the white nationalists for condemnation. But at that point, it wasn’t entirely clear what had happened. What was he supposed to do, leap to a conclusion that might fire up the conflict even more, only to have it turn out to be incorrect, the way President Obama did with Ferguson, Missouri?
Trump later issued a stronger statement specifically condemning white separatist and neo-Nazi groups and calling on Americans to end the violence, stop exploiting divisions and come together to concentrate on the positive things we have in common. This statement, very similar to a statement once made by Barack Obama under similar circumstances, was greeted by more attacks from leftwing politicians, media figures and celebrities, some of whom blamed Trump directly for violent racists in Charlottesville and claimed that they represent the entire Republican Party. Jesse Watters on Fox News illustrated the double standard with a montage of clips, showing many of these same people insisting that the angry Bernie Sanders supporter who shot Rep. Steve Scalise and tried to slaughter Republicans at a charity baseball practice in no way represented the Democratic Party.
And they were right. I absolutely believe that the deranged shooter and the black-masked rioters who shut down free speech at UC-Berkeley are not representative of the approximately 96 million registered voters who identify as Democrats, any more than I believe that the racist idiot who ran down people with a car or a small group of white supremacists represent the views of 88 million registered voters who identify as Republican. They are two opposite extremes that exploded when the political pressure cooker got turned up too high.
We should all be doing everything we can to reduce the heat, release the pressure, let the steam out and open up the system to more dialogue and discussion between people of different backgrounds and viewpoints. But when people in positions of public trust respond to violence, division and hatred with even more heated, divisive rhetoric, seeking not to put out the fires of rage but to pour gasoline on them, they should be well and truly ashamed of themselves.
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