Just about anyone you talk to these days will tell you we live in an age of “unprecedented” rancor and incivility. But it isn’t so.
Investigate the past (as I’ve done in three books of historical nonfiction) and you’ll find plenty of doomsayers decrying their moment in the same desperate terms that we use to describe our own. Every generation imagines itself perched at the edge of disaster.
For all our troubles, we’ve got plenty of reasons for optimism. We’re living longer and better than any generation in the history, and our nearly 250-year American experiment in self-government and liberty is going strong. The United States today is a better, more inclusive country than the one I grew up in—and it was a great country then. We continue to draw newcomers from all over the world seeking the most rare of opportunities: to live in freedom, work hard and pursue happiness on their own terms.
I don’t mean to minimize or make light of the very real challenges we face. But I do believe that the greatest threats come not so much from the challenges themselves as from our readiness to reach for drastic solutions, especially when those solutions threaten fundamental liberties such as freedom of speech. My most recent book, Liberty’s First Crisis, describes a rancorous period at the end of the 18th century, when the ruling Federalists, assuming the country to be in grave danger, started throwing people in jail for the crime of criticizing the government. They believed that silencing the most odious and dangerous voices of their generation was the only way to create a stronger and freer country. Yet in the end it was the Federalists whose actions put the country and its freedoms in jeopardy.
Even today there are those among us so convinced of their own righteousness that they’ll happily take the shortcut from persuasion to coercion, invoking the powers of a legislature or a mob to make sure people see things their way. Whether Republican or Democrat, right or left, we must be especially on guard against those on our own side of the political fence—they’re the ones who lull us into believing we can destroy our opponents’ rights without destroying our own.
In this blog, starting today, I’ll take a long view of rights, pointing out threats as I see them. I’ll write about other subjects as well (movies, books, drinks) keeping in mind the advice my grandmother gave me, to save time for some fun.