In the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center, many people who prior to that event expressed skepticism of our government shifted their support to the president and his followers. Their new allegiance continued unabated when our "leaders" decided that we should invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein and his henchmen. Weapons of mass destruction. Repression. Democracy. The "patriots" accepted whatever rationales they were offered to justify the war.
Now that burgeoning questions are arising as to the actual existence of the purported primary motivation for the war, i.e., WMD's, the loyalists tell us that it matters not a whit whether WMD's are ever found; whether they were destroyed or moved before the war; whether the dictator ever meant his threats. We knew Saddam had them, they tell us, since he refused to prove he didn't have them. Besides, they assure us, we had enough reasons even without the concerns over WMD's to invade. Saddam deserved to be overthrown. His people suffered horribly. Those facts alone granted us moral and legal authority to send our troops and tanks and planes into Iraq.
Meanwhile, back in the good ol' U. S. of A., the new rules arising from the PATRIOT Act and other laws -- the warrantless wiretaps, the indefinite detentions, the random searches, the expanded databases -- all are, in the minds of our converted friends, appropriate and necessary to ensure the liberty and safety of American citizens. They scoff at the worries of anyone who objects to militarized police, to secret trials, to concentration camps, to hidden executions.
These upstanding folks characterize themselves as "optimists." They peer down their noses at the uncouth "pessimists" who cannot place current events in the proper context; who seem incapable of realizing just how lucky we all are, how free we remain; who dwell on the negative and alienate the very people they seek to persuade to their point of view.
"Endorse our policies" is their exhortation. "Embrace our president as the decent, honorable man he is."
Life would certainly be much simpler and, in many ways, easier (at least in the short-term) were the "pessimists" to accept the sage advice of the "optimists." Acknowledging a basic fairness and justice in our society would place them firmly in the mainstream of a country whose citizens overwhelming applaud and defend the commander-in-chief.
Yet the question remains whether such a course would be an expression of prudence and common sense in upholding the actions of a well-intentioned, worthwhile man...or an example of prostituting one's heart to pander to the whims of an unprincipled, would-be religious despot for convenience's sake.
In many ways, this juxtaposition of opinions is paradoxical. The "optimists" measure the state of the world and their beliefs from the worst imaginable. As long as the situation is less dire than what existed in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia or Mao's China; as long as we are not totally oppressed; as long as censorship is not complete; as long as death-squads do not roam our streets; as long as we retain the ability to travel where we will or publish essays such as this or retain much of our income, then they are willing to muddle along in the wake of those who control us.
The optimists smile and chastise those who dare to complain, who refuse to shore up their carefully constructed scenario of equanimity. They tell us they are happier than their counterparts because they focus upon the good our politicians are doing; because they do not try to undermine the solid foundations of our country; because they want to find friends, not enemies.
"Going along to get along" is the antithesis of disturbing the ship of state. Accepting the overall framework of State-defined rules, however, and nibbling on the margins of not-fully-unfree laws ensures that little will be accomplished in the way of positive change. When the threshold for what is or is not acceptable is set so abysmally low, there exists precious small pressure to clamor for better conditions. The tolerance of the "optimists" inadvertently guarantees that the violations will continue to mount higher and deeper.
In contrast, the "pessimists" use as their yardstick the best possible for making their judgments and ordering their beliefs. They search for and try to understand the way things should be in a proper society. They are not like half-starved curs whimpering at their masters' feet hoping for the scraps their betters deign to let drop to the dirt.
The "pessimists" are confident and unyielding in demanding what is theirs by right, not by permission. They do not grin in rigid adherence to the popular "wisdom." They do not accept that the way things are is "okay" or "good enough" or "not so bad." They worry far less about what others think or think of them and more about what they themselves believe. They know it is worse to do bad things than it is openly to judge those who choose destruction as their goal.
The "pessimists" refuse to excuse actions -- petty or large -- done by the State that they would never tolerate if done by a private citizen.
The moral autonomy of the individual. The value possible to those on even the lowest rungs of society. The esteem due those who uphold the dignity of the "minority of one." These are the touchstones of the "pessimists." These are the standards for which they struggle and fight. These are the measure of what they will uphold.
The "pessimists" will not rest until the last vestiges of our modern slavery are abolished, until the last links of our invisible chains are struck from our ankles. They will not avert their gazes nor hold their tongues to appease those with power over them. If and when those whom the "pessimists" offend come knocking upon their doors, the "pessimists" will not leave their homes in the shameful knowledge that they failed to speak up for those victims who preceded them.
A century-and-a-half ago, a former slave said this:
Those today who profess a belief in freedom yet condemn those who refuse to compromise; who mouth the words of liberty while decrying discomfort; who tremble silently before the gaze of the powerful while lashing out viciously against the outcasts; these are the men and the women whose submission to injustice expands "the limits of tyrants" and help to oppress us all.
Such people deserve what they receive.
The rest -- the best -- of us do not.