As I mentioned in my previous post, we are taking a momentary departure from our present discussion to review the book: American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges. Rather than a broad assessment of the work, we will be taking a rifle-point precision approach to specific points raised, beginning with . . .
The first chapter of AF opens with a quote from Karl Popper which states: “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.”
It is unclear whether Popper had Christianity in mind when he penned those words, but it is clear that Hedges did, given its placement in AF. Hedges proceeds in fact to expound upon what he finds intolerant about the Christian religion.
But before we proceed, let’s address the argument Popper puts forth, and in doing so discuss what it means to be tolerant, and its merit as a virtue to be embraced. I would like to start by telling two stories. Or, actually, one story with two endings.
There once was a lake in the high sierras of California. Fish of various sizes lived in that lake, and they were very happy. But being fish, they only knew the aquatic world in which they lived. One day however, a trout, too acrobatic for his own good, flopped out of the water and landed on shore. He managed to flop his way back to safety, but not before observing, to his horror, that the side of the mountain (a semi-active volcano) bordering the lake had opened, and poisonous sulfuric acid was beginning to make its way to the water’s edge. Now, this fish was not only an acrobatic fish but a very intelligent fish, and knew that once the acid reached the lake, it would mean the eventual death of all life in that lake. So the fish did the only right thing he could. He immediately raced to all the other fish and spread word that unless all fish made their way upstream via the creek that fed the lake to the one above it, they would all eventually die. Some believed him, while others did not.
And now ending number 1:
But eventually the Head Fish of the lake said: “Look here: You and all those who have believed you are a scourge to society, for you are not tolerant of others’ views. Change your views or suffer our reproach.”
And ending number 2:
And the Head Fish, who also believed the fish, declared that all fish, under penalty of death or imprisonment, must swim upstream.
And now the question: In which story do we find intolerance?
The answer is: It depends on what you mean by intolerance, and certainly tolerance. Tolerance has traditionally meant the embracing of diverse views in a society: You believe the lake will be poisoned; I do not. We agree to respect one’s right to hold a different opinion. In our story, this exists, if for the briefest moment, before each ending.
But tolerance according to Popper (and apparently, Hedges) must go farther: It must also suppress views that, by its own estimation, are intolerant. Otherwise, “tolerance” purportedly cannot survive. This is the Head Fish in our first ending, and curiously, it sounds a lot like intolerance.
But assuming for a moment that Popper (and the Head Fish) is right, how exactly does an “intolerant philosophy” pose a threat to tolerance in today’s society, anyway? And what does Popper mean exactly by tolerance?
First, let’s go back in time. This country was established on the principle of religious tolerance in direct response to the religious persecution many of its early founders suffered at the hands of others in the intolerant societies from which they fled. In their former country, many were imprisoned, even killed, for their religious views. This is the Head Fish in our second ending. Intolerance in this sense is the suppression of diverse views in a society by force.
But acknowledging that the intolerance Hedges is referring to is religious faith, and specifically Christianity, how exactly does it pose a threat to tolerance? In truth, the only way it can is if tolerance takes on a whole new meaning. Tolerance can no longer mean the commitment to the free expression of all views in a pluralistic society — for by definition, such a commitment cannot be threatened by any view; on the contrary, it is affirmed. Nor can tolerance as a principle assign value judgments to any view. That is, it cannot call one view “intolerant” and another not. All views are of equal value, for this is what tolerance is. No, the only way it can be threatened by any view is if tolerance itself is no longer a principle but has reduced itself to its own view, with its own creed to be protected, and with which to condemn other ideologies. Which, sadly, it has become.
To discover what this ideology is, we need to look no further than what it finds “intolerant” about Christianity. Hedges goes into great detail about many aspects of the Christian religion (to be more specific, its sacred text) which he finds offensive. But by far, the most fundamental aspect of Christianity that the new tolerance finds offensive is its doctrine of sin.
Like our fish story, Christianity is founded upon the belief that humanity, corporately and individually, is in danger, and that danger is the human condition. Despite claims by some to the contrary, Christianity does not single out a people group in this respect (e.g. the Jewish people, the homosexual community): We are all under the consequences of sin and are destined to the same fate. But like the fish in our story, there is a way out: Accepting God’s forgiveness made through Jesus Christ’s historical death on a cross two thousand years ago.
You may disagree with this claim — and I encourage you to do so, as it is one of the privileges of a tolerant society. But it is this very fact —that Christianity claims something moral in nature about humanity, and even more so, that it claims knowledge of absolute truth — that the new tolerance finds unpardonable. The reason for this is simple: The new tolerance, as an ideology, is committed to two sacred values: 1) You shall not make any moral pronouncement upon humanity or human conduct, and 2) You shall not claim any knowledge of absolute truth. As my daughter’s professor confessed himself, “I have no problem with Christianity except when people state it as fact.”
For this reason the new tolerance claims Christianity to be “intolerant,” but what it means is, simply, it finds Christianity reprehensible by its own ideology it holds to be sacred. It is really no less reprehensible than an atheist claiming Jesus was merely a man and the Bible is just a book of man-made myths, to Christian ears.
And here is where true tolerance is put to the test. When we are faced with an ideology with which we do not agree, even strongly, do we still respect that ideology to have the right to free expression? Or do we seek to undermine that right in order to establish our own? Popper’s position is rather clear.
In fairness to Popper, he does attempt to soften his position, but its force is rather lost in the end. For example, he states: “I do not imply . . . that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies [that is, philosophies with which we disagree].” Good start (though this implies there are some philosophies we should suppress). But Popper goes onto say: “But we should claim the right to suppress them . . . even by force.” Translation: We should suppress ideologies we do not agree with, by force.
What is even more interesting about Popper’s position is found in the reasons that he gives to legitimize his position: “for it may easily turn out that they . . . [may teach their followers] to answer arguments with their fists or pistols.” So what Popper is saying is the following: We should suppress, by force, ideologies with which we disagree, because those holding to ideologies with which we disagree may do the unthinkable and use force to suppress others. It is a strange, contradictory sort of reasoning, to say the least.
And for Popper this is no mere academic matter. In the following statement by Popper, I have simply replaced “tolerance” with “our own ideology” and “intolerance” with “ideologies with which we disagree” for clarity in keeping with our discussion. He goes on to say: “We should therefore claim, in the name of [our own ideology], the right not to tolerate [ideologies with which we disagree]. We should claim that any movement preaching [an ideology with with we disagree] outside the law, and we should consider incitement to [any ideology with which we disagree] as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder . . . as criminal.”
And now I am confused: Who are the fascists?