I’m grateful for Terry Jones’ Koran-burning intolerance. Right wing rhetoric has escalated to the point where more is better, crossing the line into detachment from reality that should still be recognizable to most Americans as proto-fascism, a self-confirming, untestable ideological faith that demands that reality goes along with it. Terry Jones is an embarrassment the movement that spawned him. So out of touch, he believed that burning Koran’s would win over moderate Muslims, and yet his style is on only inches from that which the Right is leaning into so enthusiastically these days, the rhetoric of crusaders or jihadists. Back in the 60′s the CIA would seed peace rallies with hippie-clothed agents acting crazy and violent and ruining the rallies’ reputations. Jones’ is the Right’s own crazy—no need for CIA operatives. And there will be more like him, and there’s still hope that mainstream America will respond with a backlash of civility.
Inconsistent with many of my progressive friends though, I agree with Jones about one thing. Jones’ believes we must fight back against Militant Muslim intolerance and violence. He believes as I do that sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, intolerance with intolerance.
There’s a tendency among us civil-minded people to believe that one should never exercise intolerance since intolerance is always bad. I operate on the fundamental moral principle that since intolerance is bad, one should be intolerant of intolerance. I know that’s paradoxical, and forces me to admit to the hypocrisy of sometimes being intolerant because I hate intolerance, but that’s why I consider it fundamental. Since the principle can’t be acted upon simplistically, it confronts me with the real and difficult question: Under what circumstances is intolerance appropriate, acceptable and unacceptable? – a question some of my nicer progressive friends sidestep.
The saying goes, “Don’t fight with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” The pig in question is any bully—a person who fights dirty, imposing incivility, deaf to negotiation or reason.
There are three basic pieces of advice about bullies. Depending on who you had for parents your probably heard at least one of these.
1. Ignore him. He’s only doing it for attention. When you ignore bullies, they always go away.
2. Be nice to him. He probably just has low self-esteem. If you’re nice to bullies they always stop bullying.
3. Beat the crap out of him. That’s the only way to get a bully to stop. If you fight them, bullies end up scared of you. If you don’t win, at least they’ll respect you. Either way, if you fight them they always leave you alone.
Now that we’re adults we can take the bad news: No one strategy always works to stop a bully, and sometimes none of them work. If Stalin, the world’s biggest bully sent you to Siberia as he did tens of millions of others, it wouldn’t have mattered if you ignored him, were nice to him, or fought him. We owe it to the unsung victims of such bullies not to pretend there’s a surefire recipe for getting bullies to stop, that these victims just failed to employ. We owe them the respect and honor of recognizing how hard it is to know what to do about a bully.
Still, say some, getting the bully to leave us alone, isn’t the most important thing. It’s more important to live a moral life. A bully is intolerant but you don’t have to stoop to that. When Newt Gingrich argued that we shouldn’t let a Muslim YMCA be built near the World Trade Center’s ground zero, because, “There are no churches or synagogues in all of Saudi Arabia. In fact no Christian or Jew can even enter Mecca,” many countered that that’s no reason for us to be intolerant. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, therefore we shouldn’t fight the pig. Fighting will get us dirty and there’s a moral imperative to stay clean. Either ignore or be nice to the bully and have faith that that’s the best you can do. And if the bully prevails anyway, at least you’ll have lived virtuously. Just take option three off the list. Don’t ever fight the bully. The bully likes it and you’ll just get dirty.
Besides, if you’ve ever fought a bully, you know that there’s a distinct possibility that he’ll fight back more aggressively in response. You get dirtier and blinder as he gets dirtier or blinder. The militant Muslims were going to have a recruiting field day with Jones’ Koran burning and the ban on the Muslim YMCA. The whole world becomes blind because your retaliation fuels the bully. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. Fighting back, it just taints you, causes escalating conflict, and ultimately kills you. Then what have you got? Neither life nor virtue, and you will have contributed to the whole world going blind.
Bullies have any of three attitudes about the dirt on them:
1. “What dirt? A fish doesn’t see water; a pig doesn’t see dirt. I don’t see dirt either. Let’s just keep fighting.”
2. “There’s no dirt on me, only on you. Ha ha. You’re getting all dirty! You can’t win.”
3. “Dirt on me is a badge of honor. Dirt demonstrates the lengths I’ll go to fight for what’s right.”
All three of these point to you staying clean and not fighting dirt with dirt if you can.
But like I said, I’m with Jones on this one point. Though there are plenty of situations that call for staying nice and kind and Christian and “turning the other cheek,” there are times when you really shouldn’t. For example, while you may be willing to die a martyr to Christian generosity and kindness you probably aren’t going to turn the other cheek if it means your children are going to be martyred too. Sayings like “ An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” sound good until you think about their real world implications. If you could prevent your children’s eyes from being gouged by gouging a bully’s eye you would gouge the bully’s eyes.
There will be times when we act intolerantly to combat someone else’s intolerance. Admitting to that focuses our attention on questions of degree, which I think is where our attention belongs. Arguments that “the means never justify the ends” are again just nonsense on stilts. They sound profound but are meaningless in practice. What–you wouldn’t kill someone to save a thousand lives? There has been an argument that such situations don’t come up in reality, but those arguments are again hollow, wishful thinking. Such situations do come up. Not often, but often enough to prove that, practically speaking sometimes it pays to fight the pig, even to the death.
If it becomes apparent that the pigs are ready and eager to do some serious damage, then, go ahead, pig out in aggressive retaliation–dangerous words, which is a good thing. If the words are sufficiently dangerous we’ll pig out reluctantly. We’ll wonder and worry about which situations call for aggression, which is far better than being unprepared for such situations because we have blind faith that they’ll never come up.
These days, the Right goes so far as to justify its crusade on the grounds that they are retaliating against bullies on the left who are as bad as Hitler. Our response has tended to be that we shouldn’t stoop to calling each other Hitler. While it’s true, that we should keep things in proportion, we should also hope that, if a Hitler did show up we would be willing and able to call him by his true name and not fear that we are violating some moral principle against all name calling.
Strategically, the Right has enjoyed a first-out advantage by accusing us of being “Hitler-like” in our intolerance of them. First-out advantage is a protective shield, because the second to accuse always sounds defensive and retaliatory. There are therefore plenty of reason’s we’re reluctant to counter-attack. We don’t like to sound intolerant and besides the Right has us on the run with their ready, glib accusation that our intolerance is as bad as Hitler’s.
But here’s the thing: Hitler accused his opposition of being Hitler-like. He said they had driven him to his intolerance. From the beginning of his crusade to the very end: even at death he insisted that he was only trying to protect Germany against the Soviet-Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. Osama Bin Laden claims to be just retaliating against the West too. Both true victims and true bullies claim victimhood.
Reluctantly and carefully, with plenty of supporting evidence about which there could be disagreement, I’d say the Right has given clear signs of being bullies, not victims. We have to ignore the first-out advantage and call the tactics for what they are. They’re talking like fascists.
I can hear their response already: Us? How dare you accuse us! We’re Americans!
We’re humans first, and given how strong the tendency to bully has been in history, an argument from exemption is laughable. No one is exempt. The Right these days is showing just the kind of blind zeal and self-righteous victimization that led to fascism and its equivalent many times in the past. If it keeps up, we’ll have to take the bullies on. It will take great skill to figure out how to handle these bullies–just the right blend of ignoring, being nice and fighting them, and even then it might not work. First though, it takes an embrace of a moral paradox that admits that Jones is right about one thing: Sometimes we have to fight fire with fire, intolerance with intolerance.