Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Playgrounds of War

America is becoming a more tolerant nation, we are told. Each new thing that we learn to tolerate makes us more progressive. But tolerance is a relative thing. For every new thing we learn to tolerate, there is a thing that we must stop tolerating.

Tolerance does not usher in some tolerant anarchy in which we learn to tolerate all things. Rather tolerance is a finite substance. It can only be allocated to so many places. While a society changes, human beings do not fundamentally change. They remain creatures of habit, bound to the poles of things that they like and dislike, the people that they look up to and look down on.

The balance of tolerance and intolerance always remains the same no matter how progressive a society becomes. A tolerant society allocates its intolerance differently. There is no such thing as a universally tolerant society. Only a society that tolerates different things. A tolerant society does not cease being bigoted. It is bigoted in different ways.

America today tolerates different things. It tolerates little boys dressing up as little girls at school, but not little boys pointing pencils and making machine gun noises on the playground. 

The little boy whose mother dressed him up in girlish clothes once used to be a figure of contempt while the little boy pretending to be a marine was the future of the nation. Now the boy in the dress is the future of the nation having joined an identity group and entirely new gender by virtue of his mother's Münchausen-syndrome-by-proxy and the aspiring little marine is suspected of one day trading in his sharpened pencil for one of those weapons of war as soon as the next gun show comes to town.

The Duke of Wellington once said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. What battles will the boys playing on the playgrounds where dodgeball is banned and finger guns are a crime win and what sort of nation will they be fighting to protect?

The average school shooter is closer to the boy in the dress than the aspiring marine, but the paranoia over school shootings isn't really about profiles, it's about personalities. It's easier to dump the blame for all those school shootings onto masculinity's already reviled shoulders than to examine the premises. And mental shortcuts that speed along highways of prejudice to bring us to the town of preconceived notions are the essence of intolerance.

The trouble with tolerance is that there is always someone deciding what to tolerate. It is a natural process for individuals, but a dangerous one for governments and institutions.

In one of George Washington's most famous letters, he wrote to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport that, "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights."

The letter is widely quoted, including on a site that bills itself as "", mainly for its more famous quote of, "the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance". But the tolerant quoters miss the point.

George Washington was not advocating transforming the United States government into an arbiter of tolerance in order to fight against bigotry; he was decrying the very notion that the government should act to impose the condescension of tolerance on some perceived inferior classes.

Tolerance is arrogant. A free society does not tolerate people, it allows them to live their own values. And a tolerant society is not free. It is a dictatorship of virtue that is intolerant toward established values in order to better tolerate formerly intolerable values. A free society does not tell people of any religion or no religion what to believe. A tolerant society forces them all to pay for abortions because its dictators of virtue have decided that the time has come to teach this lesson in tolerance.

An open society finds wisdom in its own uncertainty. A tolerant society, like a teenager, is certain that it already knows all the answers and lacks only the means of imposing them on others. It confuses its destruction of the past with progress and its sense of insecurity with righteousness.

To the tolerant, intolerance is the most powerful act possible. They solve problems by refusing to tolerate their root causes. School shootings are carried out with guns and so the administrative denizens of the gun-free zones run campaigns of intolerance toward the physical existence of guns, the owners of guns, the manufacturers of guns, the civil rights groups that defend gun ownership and eventually toward John Puckle, Samuel Colt, John Moses Browning and the 82nd element in the periodic table.

None of this accomplishes a single practical thing, but it is an assertion of values, not of functions. The paranoid mindset that cracks down on little boys who chew pop tarts into deadly shapes, little boys who point pencils and fingers at each other, is not out to stop school shootings, but is struggling to assert the intolerance of its tolerant value system over the intangible root of violence.

It's not about preventing school shootings, but about asserting a value system in which there is no place for the aspiring marine, unless he's handing out food to starving children in Africa in a relief operation, serving as a model of gay marriage to rural America or engaging in some other approved, but non-violent activity.

To understand the NRA's argument about the moral value of a gun deriving from the moral value of the wielder would require a worldview that is more willing to accept a continuum of shades, rather than criminalizing pencils and pop tarts for guilt by geometric association. A free society could do that, but a tolerant society, in which everything must be assigned an unchanging value to determine whether it will be tolerated and enforced or not tolerated and outlawed, cannot.

A tolerant society is as rigidly moralistic as the most stereotypical band of puritans. It is never at ease unless it has assigned an absolute moral value to every object in its world, no matter how petty, until it represents either good or evil. If good, it must be mandated. If evil, it must be regulated. And everything that is not good, must by exclusion be evil. Everything that does not lead to greater tolerance must be intolerable.

The FDA is proposing to regulate caffeine. The EPA is regulating carbon emission and encouraging states to tax the rain. Schools are suspending students for the abstract depiction of guns on such a symbolic level that Picasso would have trouble recognizing them. There is something medieval about such a compulsive need to impose a complete moral order on every aspect of one's environment.

These policies take place in the real world and in response to assertions of real threats, but they are largely assertions of values. The debates over them tap into a clash of worldviews. That is as true of Newtown as it is of Boston. The same tolerant liberalism that can see deadly menace in a pencil or a pop tart, is blind to the lethal threat of a Chechen Islamist. If a gun is innately evil, then a member of a minority group, especially a persecuted one, is innately good. The group certainly remains above reproach.

The arrogance of tolerance does not allow for ambiguity. There is no room for guns in schools or profiling of terrorists. Instead all guns are bad and all Muslims are good. In the real world, it may take bad guns to stop good Muslims, but the system just doubles down on encouraging students to recite the Islamic declaration of faith while suspending them for chewing their pop tarts the wrong way.

Liberal values are at odds with reality and they are not about to let reality win. In their more tolerant nation, there is more room than ever for little boys who dream of one day setting off pressure cooker bombs at public events in the name of their religion, but very little room for little boys dreaming of  being the ones to stop them.

As a society we have come to celebrate the helplessness of victimhood and the empowerment of "speaking out" as the single most meaningful act to be found in a society that has become all talk. The new heroism is the assertion of some marginal identity, rather than the defense of a society in which all identities can exist. That is the difference between freedom and tolerance.

The little boy in a dress has put on the uniform of tolerance while the little boy making rat tat noises with a pencil is showing strong signs of playing for the wrong team. The wrong team is the one that solves problems by shooting people, rather than lawyering them to death or writing denunciations of them to the tolerance department of diversity and othering.

The complainer is the hero and the doer is the villain. Reporters and lawyers are the heroes because they are the arbiters of tolerance. Soldiers and police officers are the gun-happy villains because they respond to realities, rather than identities. They unthinkingly shoot without understanding the subtext. A free society is practical. It acts in its own defense. A tolerant society acts to assert its values. The former fights terrorists and murderers, while the latter lets them go to show off its tolerant values.

A free society teaches little boys that the highest value is to die in defense of others. A tolerant society teaches them that it is better to die as recognized victims than to become the aggressor and lose the moral high ground.

This is the clash of values that holds true on the playground and on the battlefield of war. On the playground, little boys are suspended for waving around pencils and on the battlefield, soldiers are ordered not to defend themselves so that their country can win the hearts and minds of the locals in the endless Afghan Valentine's Day of COIN that has stacked up a horrifying toll of bodies.

In their cities, men and women are told to be tolerant, to extend every courtesy and to suspect nothing of the friendly Islamists in their neighborhoods. It is better to be blown up as a tolerant society, they are told, than to point the pop tart of intolerance on the great playground of the nanny state.


Anonymous said...

A wonderful exploration of the folly of "tolerance".

fsy said...

A tolerant society, like a teenager, is certain that it already knows all the answers and lacks only the means of imposing them on others.

Maybe here lies the solution to the vexing problem of political terminology, with right vs. left, liberal vs. conservative being so vague and carrying so many unwanted connotations.

The real dichotomy is between immature and mature (and we adults know who is who.)

Doug Mayfield said...

'...dictators of virtue....' Great phrase.

Most politicians, Democratic and Republican, view government as a source of 'the good'.

Since they are absolutely certain that they know best for absolutely everyone, all they have to do is dump virtues into the law books, usually without bothering to read it.

But as someone once observed, ultimately the legal must give way to the moral.

'No!' says the in crowd in Washington. 'The legal is the moral.'

We, the citizens, don't need to bother with outmoded concepts such as honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility.

The moral giants in Washington have abolished all that in favor of the nanny state.

IgorR said...

This tolerance was on display in Benghazi when the American "leadership" was apologizing for a non-existent video while the battle to kill Americans was still raging and soon after the order to stand down was given to some real men who didn't want to tolerate this state of affairs. It was on display later when one member of this leadership asked "what difference at this point does it make" about the reasons for this event and just yesterday when another member of the tolerance cult claimed that "death is a part of life" as a reason to tolerate what happened.

fsy said...

Soldiers and police officers are the gun-happy villains because they respond to realities, rather than identities. They unthinkingly shoot without understanding the subtext.

I assume that "unthinkingly" is part of the caricature of reality-minded doers rather than your own concept of them.

Becky said...

It does appear that we have crossed a line when our commander in chief is willing to send in a drone to kill a terrorist, or send in a special ops team to kill a terrorist, but is unwilling to send in a drone to rescue Americans, or send in a special ops team to rescue Americans. We've crossed a line.

For him, the only reason to prevent a terrorist attack is the cold political calculation of maintaining power to finish fundamentally transforming our country into one that expects to be kept and fed by the State.

The president of the United States does not have your back.

Do not rescue.

Death is a part of life.

Empress Trudy said...

Well it certainly makes nonsense out of the claim that the Government has the ability to put drones in the skies of America to 'take out an imminent threat'. They couldn't have rec'd more evidence of the Boston bombers is they had showed up at an FBI building waving a Koran in one hand and a bomb in the other. Tactics don't matter when you're utterly unwilling to confront political realities. From Bengazi to Boston, this administration is unable to confront Islamic barbarism for whatever reason. The reason isn't entirely germane any more. It's enough that they will never hoist themselves off the porch to do anything. We will probably see a return of the golden age of terrorism where embassies were fair game for mass murderers to invade. Except this time they'll just blow them up w/o making any demands. Obama will call for better building codes and stronger EPA regs as a result.

Edward Cline said...

I am an eminent threat. I am on a watch list with a million other names. My emails and Rule of Reason columns are being monitored by the DHS and NSA to detect pathological strains of intolerance that might explode at any moment. I should be sent to a reeducation camp established on Alaskan permafrost to undergo pacification. Or at least a drone and a Hellfire missile loaded with a search warrant should be targeted on my car or residence. I write for a career, and my ideas may upset the balance of power and overthrow the Obama administration and torpedo Hillary Clinton's shot at the presidency, and then she won’t be able to tell everyone what to think and do. So, please, Mr. Attorney General, send one of your boys dressed like a girl to my front door to serve me papers. I'll give him a lollipop in the shape of a pressure cooker. I should be heavily fined for recommending to others Mr. Greenfield's excellent essay here. Obviously, that is evidence of my trying to "fit in." I hope to succeed when the Tsarnaev brothers could not.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Knish:

I don't know who you are or where you're from or, frankly, anything about you. I just happened upon your article through a link. But, to use a popular turn of phrase, you could be "my brother from another mother." This from a middle-aged, Bible-believing, gun-toting, unreconstructed Southerner - - I'm guessing that doesn't quite fit your Facebook profile. But you are speaking the truth, as I see it and have seen for quite some time - - and you are speaking it eloquently. God Bless you for it. you seem to be an intelligent and clear-headed man, tell me what none other has been able to clearly articulate: what are we going to do about it?

Anonymous said...

Great insights except a nit to pick. Regulating carbon emissions seems to me to be a worthwhile endeavor. People/companies won't do much on their own, and clean air is better.

Anonymous said...

Thinking back 50 plus years ago, a group of us (boys, that is), played Army very frequently. We didn't use pencils pointed at each other while doing a bad imitation of a machine gun. We had toy "tommy guns," Fanner 50s, snubnosed .38s (the ones with the greenie stickem caps and actual toy bullets that shot out!). We're all now approaching our dotage, and believe it or not, every one of us is in a stable marriage (no divorces), we've all raised decent kids, and are all regarded fairly highly in our communities. How could that have possibly happened? Moving us all to 2013, we'd probably be facing jail time for the simple act of being boys.

Anonymous said...

"A free society teaches little boys that the highest value is to _risk death_ in defense of others." FIFY

Even surviving veterans are considered to have given "full measure." Anything else would be as perverse as, say, Islam.

Edward Cline said...

I disagree with this one sentence: "A free society teaches little boys that the highest value is to _risk death_ in defense of others." No, a free society should teach little boys that their highest value should be something that they would risk death to defend and preserve. That may or may not be others, but he must value those others first, and not just because they exist or are just there. But he must value them first, as a personal value, and not as a disinterested value. The original sentence above is an expression of altruism, which is destroying the world. When men act to defend or preserve a value that is important to them, that is the essence of selfishness, not of selflessness.

Tom M. said...

I wonder if you have hit on the basis of our society's tolerance problem when you wrote,"the little boy whose mother dressed him up in girlish clothes"? Is it a male/female issue? Are the more prevalent dominant females in our society, be they mothers, teachers, executives or politicians working to put men in the figurative "girlish clothes" of tolerance? Assuming tolerance is a feminine virtue.

IgorR said...

Tom, it's an "everything abnormal" issue. Whatever it is that "traditional America(ns)" like or liked is being deliberately turned into an object of hatred. The way to destroy America is make the people turn on everything that makes it American, and then they will make personal and electoral choices that will complete the job.

Anonymous said...

"A free society teaches little boys that the highest value is to _risk death_ in defense of others."
I hate that statement.
It should read a free society teaches little boys that they should not pay more for a suit than is absolutely necessary.

ELC said...

"the endless Afghan Valentine's Day of COIN"? Sorry, but I don't know what that means.

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