Democracy and the Irate True Believer
First, the quote:
The question is...not whether political frameworks can be neutral [they can't], but how and against whom they ought to discriminate. At the basis of the democratic truce lies the presumption that a viewpoint-neutral framework – not absolutely neutral, but still as neutral as possible and consistent with its own survival – is the only fair and transparent one. But this excludes the true believer, who could never accept a system that proclaims neutrality between truth and error, virtue and vice. [...] As soon as a democratic system becomes sufficiently diverse, the true believer will begin to be unsatisfied with it. For a while the true believer's vision can still be enforced through democratic majorities. But then even the majorities begin to dwindle. At that point the true believer has to decide whether to lie down peacefully and see his beliefs swamped, or whether to turn anti-democratic, to reject the most basic clauses of the democratic contract. [...] Would the religious right accept defeat gracefully? I do not mean one or two elections, I mean total defeat: Drip by drip, state by state, issue by issue, the culture wars are lost, first in the culture at large, then at the ballot box; there is first a mellowing and then a great falling off of Christian belief across the country; after 20 or 30 years, the US is well set on its way to becoming as secular as Canada. [...] 99% of the religious right would surely accept this with good enough grace, but a toxic remnant may just turn against the systemic engines of secularisation. A self-styled "Stonewall Jackson Brigade" of Christofascist terrorists perhaps, secretly liaising with (the successors of) Al-Qaeda. [all emphasis mine]Watching the E.R. bigography (funny how her initials are the those of her spiritual counterpart in England, eh?), I realized that we've already seen toxic remnants of true believers turn against the system in this country. The KKK is a good example, but so are eco-terrorists. In fact, as brilliant as this analysis of the issue is, it doesn't discuss the fact that that there are genuinely "true believers" on both sides of most cultural war issues. Folks so "pro-life" they'll kill doctors on one side are counterbalanced by animal rights activists who feel firebombing people's cars and terrorizing them at home is a good way to get their point across.
A good deal of the intense acrimony we're witnessing in the US at the moment (the red vs. blue flame wars on the blogs being a good indication of just how heated it is) seems to boil down to true-believer ground that otherwise democratic folks refuse to cede. In other words, it seems to me that there's a bit of true believer in most of us.
What's frightening about that idea to me is how easy it is to tap into that inner true believer and manipulate it. We witnessed this, I think, in the co-ordinated campaigns against gay marriage. Folks who might have lived and let live, permitting change to come drip by drip, state by state, were things to have evolved without disturbing their comfort zones, found themselves voting for all kinds of truly uncivil legislation they wouldn't have dreamt of supporting a few years back, essentially letting themselves be rallied by zealots to penalize gays for reaching too far too fast.
And sometimes it didn't take anyone else to manipulate them to that. It was merely their preference for a slower pace of change. In fact, when I've pressed otherwise rational folks on right wing blogs to explain why they supported such legislation, many, if not most, of them will eventually concede it was in response to feeling rushed into the new cultural acceptance of gays as equals. "If you hadn't pushed so hard, I wouldn't have pushed back."
Now the truth of the matter is, I think we're seeing the acrimony we're are in the US, because we've made so much progress in ensuring equality (under the law at least), and we're now negotiating the tougher issues affecting smaller subgroups. Indeed, think about how far we've come in granting rights to folks who didn't have them when the country started a little over 200 years ago, even though they represented much larger chunks of the population. The closer we get to greater diversity and greater equality, though, the more the true believers will burrow in to defend their last patch of chosen holy land, and the harder the fight will be. But fight on we must. It's just wise to be aware of how easy it is to make dangerous true believers out of regular folks and to plan accordingly.UPDATE: Sullivan (again) points us to this collection of images of the sort of actions that true-believers-turned-toxic convince themselves are appropriate responses to having their world views challenged. The Without Sanctuary website is beyond brutal, just be warned.