“To Craziness No Oxygen, to Extremism No Clicks”: George Washington on Today’s Republicans
“To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
With these words in 1790, in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington famously counseled a religious minority — and by extension all “Citizens of the United States of America” — on how to keep their newly-established Constitutional right to religious freedom. Pointing to other rights Citizens now enjoyed — “examples of an enlarged and liberal policy….worthy of imitation” — the new President noted: “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.”
Washington then laid out this historic contract’s terms and conditions:
“For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
This principled and unconditional counsel rings out: no sanction — none — to bigotry of any kind, be it religious or otherwise; same for persecution of any group. For this protection, the only requirement was: to be a good citizen. (Would that our chief Founding Father took his own counsel on racial bigotry and that slaveholding did not blot his biography.)
With paraphrasing, Washington’s principled and unconditional counsel can apply now to a new and disturbing development.
In that 1790 letter, Washington alluded to “the days of difficulty and danger which are past” (the American revolution) and, turning to the future, he foresaw a succession of “days of uncommon prosperity and security.” Over the following two centuries, America indeed experienced prosperity and security uncommon among nations — the prosperity due to a uniquely American can-do, non-fatalistic outlook and work ethic, the security due to being a continental nation and winning the wars we were obliged to enter.
But now, for myriad reasons, America finds itself at a low and unhappy point.
Our very foundation, American Democracy itself, is being attacked — tragically, from within — by one of our two major political parties, the Republicans. As if in a collective fever, Republicans by a big majority (60% per Pew Research) still pledge allegiance to a former “president” who, on losing re-election, called foul and cried “Havoc” — and let slip the dogs of insurrection by inciting a mob on the U.S. Capitol. That mob’s party, in the November midterms, took over half of Congress. Just to be clear: The U.S. House of Representatives is now in the hands of the insurrectionists.
From this seat of power, Republicans, rather than sobering up to meet our perilous moment, seem more unhinged than ever. Few are more appalled at the GOP’s seeming madness than “recovering” Republicans (like David Frum and Peter Wehner, writing for The Atlantic). Too many Republicans still parrot the ex-president’s lies of a “stolen election”; are still convinced Democrats have “weaponized” government against them and are now “investigating” same; are still in thrall to conspiracy theories (QAnon is too crazy to research). And individual Republicans, enjoying their close-ups, wax ever crazier. The worst, on top of citing Democrats for a “woke agenda” — actually “woke,” to be aware, is a good thing — make the vile claim that Democrats sin against children.
This is not what George Washington meant by “demeaning” ourselves as citizens; he meant comporting ourselves as good ones.
Note: I am being purposely vague here — not naming names and not specifying outrages — so as to abide by my own forthcoming counsel, which is: As regards Republicans, to paraphrase George Washington, to give “to craziness no oxygen, to extremism no clicks.”
For America is now, truly, at the abyss — and we need to step back.
America is now, truly, an incoherent Tower of Babel — and we need to stop the crazed and dangerous talk and get coherent again. Now.
It is imperative — imperative — that we haul ourselves back from the brink and retrieve our steps into the realm of Reason and Temperance and Normalcy. (Note: I capitalize the Big Ideas for a purpose — self-rescue.)
Two ways to stanch the craziness and extremism: cut the oxygen and cut the clicks. Help is at hand….in our own fingers, powered by our computers and digital devices.
What do I mean by “cut the oxygen”? I mean: Our public “discourse” today is red-hot; it is (no metaphor) a firestorm — of invective, hyperbole, ideological “truths” and outright lies, not to mention snark and bile. A first principle of firefighting is: suppress the oxygen supply. Do not yourself engage in invective, hyperbole, etc., as it fuels the fire. Refrain from the firecracker terms (you know them); refrain from piling on with the adjectives and color (you drain your own energy); instead go for impact — with the $64 word or idea (you know them, too). And refrain from retailing Republican lies, thus amplifying them.
Recent case: the “60 Minutes” interview with the Congresswoman known as MTG (no oxygen supplied here, she will remain nameless). I cite her because she constantly retails the vile claim of Democrats sinning against children. Veteran journalist Lesley Stahl, in floating the claim but getting no disavowal, only amplified its vileness. Happily, the interview was a ratings flop. (I watched for research.) Way to go, fellow Americans. Note: CNN lambasted CBS, properly so, for “amplifying the craziness” with the MTG interview. Yet last week CNN hosted a “town hall” in which Donald Trump held the floor, unregulated, amplifying his vile lies. And his jeering supporters: Not the way to go, fellow Americans. Memo to TV producers: Cut the lights on this guy! No more solo, unregulated “town halls,” only debates with other candidates. And, hmmm, should audiences be excluded? Sad thing for government of, by, and for the people.
To “cut the clicks” is more self-evident: We are a wired culture and, with a click of our mouse, we are “in it” — consuming, forwarding, boosting. That news “alert” landing in your in-box about, say, MTG: Do you really need to read it? (No.) Can you get the gist just from the subject line? (Yes.) Then: Don’t click, just delete. For, as a market culture, with every click we register with interested parties — producers, editors, pollsters — what constitutes news, what sells, and, not incidentally, who we are as a people. Meter the “likes,” mind who you “follow.” And, for the Republic, stay away from misinformation sites, where traffic is still high.
If only people understood the power of their prerogative! Including the restraint thereof.
Plus, not-ingesting extremist content will amplify your mental health.
All these injunctions apply, doubly, to coverage of Donald Trump, frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination and, now and through the election, defendant in a blizzard of lawsuits. Trump’s coverage is beyond wall-to-wall, it is wayyyy overdone. I delete, without opening, all in-box alerts about Donald Trump.
Of course the media must cover candidate Trump, but with restraint, not as drama. Playwright Arthur Miller warned against journalists functioning as theatre critics, amping up the drama, preventing clarity. The commentariat must not overreach: No, Trump’s various messes are not “tragic.” His character and machinations simply do not rise to the level of tragedy. They fall to the level of farce, with, yes, tragic implications — for America.
Finally, about the commentariat: Dear Reader, delete, without opening, the product of those commentators who traffic in invective, hyperbole, ideological “truths” and outright lies, not to mention snark and bile. Their editors will soon note their reduced traffic. And the “commentators” at a certain right-wing TV network — they wield the term “crisis actor” to smear legitimate protesters but in truth it captures their own artifice: Delete, do not open, not only any product from them, but about them. Kill their spotlight.
In essence, what we are about here is creating a healthier ecology. Climate change of a political kind. For ourselves and our beloveds, now and to come.
Pulling down the temperature, getting back to Reason, Temperance, Normalcy: None of this will be easy and, historically, it is rare for a nation to do, short of war or other clock-cleaning crisis. Wrote Roman poet Virgil, “Easy is the descent to the lower world; but to retrace your steps and escape to the upper air, this is the task, this is the toil” (one of my life-credos). To go deeper into the fire, to risk total conflagration, is surely fatal. None other than George Washington’s able successor, Abraham Lincoln, warned in 1838 of the perils of the “mobocratic” spirit and, in the depths of the Civil War (1863), wrote, “Blood grows hot, and blood is spilled.”
But, short of any civil war, let us close with George Washington. In that 1790 letter, after counseling against bigotry and persecution, Washington gave this benediction:
“If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.”
If we have wisdom….