Several readers expressed sympathy/empathy after reading in my last essay about the negative feedback I received from a reader. I greatly appreciate people’s concerns. I accept that when anyone puts out their opinions, it is a given that someone is going to take exception. This doesn’t surprise me. When I am told that I have no right to an opinion but they claim the right to express theirs, then it bothers me a great deal.
In a democracy, there has to be room for differences of opinion. Democracy isn’t about everyone agreeing, it is about everyone having a voice. When people start telling others that they are wrong and have no right to their opinions but their opinion is fact, then that is the basis of a dictatorship. Dictators cannot tolerate challenges to their beliefs. Dictators attempt to stifle dissent. Dictators work to label a free press as enemies of the people and undermine its credibility. Dictators make a lie the truth and the truth a lie. Dictators reward those faithful to them (until they are no longer useful) and seek to punish or eliminate those who oppose them.
We are seeing this very process in our politics. Republicans who saw the actions of the previous president as harmful and dangerous are being censored by their own party. Their political lives and, in some cases, their actual lives are being threatened because they did not adhere to the party line. This is not what a Democracy is about. Democracies openly discuss and debate differences. Democracies seek the common good. Democracies exist by rule of law not mob violence.
What we’ve seen since the election on Nov. 3rd would be farcical if it wasn’t so real and dangerous. We have a former President and his ardent followers hanging onto a repeatedly discredited belief that somehow the whole election was rigged against them in multiple states. It’s as if they’ve boarded a collective bus to QAnon Park where reality can be presented by Disneyland-like animated characters programmed to tell the story as people want to believe rather than the whole story. There COVID doesn’t exist, vaccinations and masks are a form of mind control and elections are fair only if you win. As long as they are inside the park, no other reality exists. To paraphrase Tom Wolfe in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,** “You can be out of the park when you’re in the park, but you can’t be in the park when you are out of the park.” In other words, you have to be a true believer to be allowed to leave or reenter. If you aren’t a true believer, then you can never enter the park in the first place.***
Many years ago, we had a guest minister in our church who gave a great sermon about “Geometry in a Box”. I can’t say I remember all that many sermons I have heard over the years but this one stayed with me. It just made so much sense. His thesis was that in a box, lines which were not equidistant, could be declared parallel because within the confines of the box they would never converge. The definition of parallel is that two lines will to infinity, never touch. But in the confined space of a box many lines could be drawn that could be claimed to be parallel because they would never intersect in the space of the box. The rules of geometry would be rewritten.
If what is true and what is a lie are defined by the limits of the box, then lies could be labeled as truth and truth labeled as a lie. Thus any minor discovery of voter fraud could be declared as rampant fraud if people are persuaded to only see the world in a certain ideological “box”. Control the scope of information and you control the scope of truth.
There’s a very funny sketch in the English comedy show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It is about a man who enters a pet shop carrying a bird in a cage. He proceeds to tell the clerk that the parrot he bought just 30 minutes ago is dead. What follows is a very funny argument about whether the parrot is actually dead. The new owner insists it is and the clerk insists it is just resting. At one point the clerk says that the parrot is “pining for the fjords”. This always make me laugh because not only is it obvious the parrot is quite dead, it is such an unexpected and ludicrous explanation. It is obvious to everyone viewing this sketch that the parrot is dead.
The humor in this rests on the human need to deny reality. Humans recognize that no one likes being accused of doing something wrong or failing at some task. In spite of the pet owner dropping the bird on the floor and banging it on the counter, the clerk still insists it is alive. He cannot admit he sold a dead parrot to a customer.
The second basis for the humor is the trait in humans to believe that if they continue to tell a lie long enough, to themselves or others, they can convince people or themselves to believe their lie. The clerk reflects what we’ve all seen in ourselves and others. It allows us to laugh because it is so clearly ridiculous and we are just as ridiculous when we find ourselves doing the same thing. In the political life of a democracy, this can be disastrous because denial uses the authority of a political office, legal system or political party to convince us that a lie is the truth and the truth is a lie. Insisting that an obviously dead parrot is not dead is funny when comedians are involved. Insisting an election is rigged in spite of the facts is not funny when people in positions of public trust are the actors.
Are we all Bozos on this bus of life? I believe the answer depends on whether we can recognize when our reasoning is limited to the artificial rules like performing geometry in a box. Are we willing to look beyond our prejudices and biases that give us a limited understanding of the world? Can we question the rules and at the same time recognize there are rules that have been developed over time, perhaps millennia, that are about what is best for not just us but the society and the world we live in?
Truth may be difficult to define in absolute terms but lies, like lines in a box that would obviously intersect beyond the limits of the box, can easily be identified if we are willing to look, as Buzz Lightyear in the movie Toy Story says, “to infinity and beyond”.****
*The title is adapted from the title of a LP record (remember records?) by Firesign Theater, I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus, Columbia Records, 1971. It was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1972 by the World Science Fiction Society.
**”Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe, 1968 Farrar Straus Giroux
***If that still doesn’t make sense, no worries. The original quote was, “You can be off the bus if you are on the bus, but you can’t be on the bus if you are off the bus.” You probably needed to be around in the late 1960’s to get it, or at least think you do. Peace. OMMMMM ;-(0)
****Toy Story, Walt Disney Pictures, 1995
Thank you for being one of my readers. You inspire me to try harder to create interesting content. Please don’t take my reference to Tom Wolfe’s now iconic book about the “Hippy” Generation as an endorsement of drug use. That was then. This is now. I do believe that we could use some help getting through these COVID times and the intense political polarization we see in the United States and many countries around the world. I don’t think we need a new drug, an old drug or any drug to help us understand the beauty of democracy and the dangers of totalitarian thinking of any ilk. What we need are warriors for tolerance who are educated not indoctrinated, who can look beyond the “boxes” some political leaders would have us live in. Ignorance is the enemy of civilization (and democracy). You can quote me on that.
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