Poore Richard's Really Poore Almanack

The last two years worth of “hometown newspaper” columns from Dahlonega, Georgia
that led to Richard Van Ingram being banned from the only news and opinion organ in the county.

How the Bandits Got In the House
Summer 2004

"There are two kinds of spurs, my friend: those that come in by the door and those that come in by the window."
Tuco the Rat in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Indeed, bandits can enter a house in an obvious fashion or in such a manner no one hears them coming. So said Tuco, and he was one who knew these things. He isn’t the only one, either. The game of politics seems to work in the same way at times and there are ideas and beliefs no one would even attempt to bring in by the front door, out in the open, because everyone would see them and few would then accept them. Why? Because, laid bare, these ideas wouldn’t be convincing to most people, or they would appear suspicious, unjust, designed to benefit a few while doing nothing for anyone else.

The more unjust and suspicious the beliefs, the more they have to be disguised and the more the attention of the voting public has to be distracted to the front door so that they can be smuggled into society through a back window by some bandit gang of politicians.

Politicians of all types use this strategy on occasion; but I am afraid that there is a portion of the conservative movement in our country that, since the end of World War II, has shown itself completely incapable of making an entrance by the front door. Extreme right wing ideology, when things are going well in our country, is unpalatable to most people – few truly believe it and most associate the paranoid, repressive ravings from that sector of society with people that are laughable, irritating, or just a little frightening.

Most of us, in normal times, do not believe that any particular set of religious beliefs should be used as the basis for legislation unless those beliefs can also be rationally demonstrated as true, thus binding on unbeliever and believer alike. Most of us, in normal times, are not afraid of foreigners, though we may not understand them and their customs – they certainly, in general, do not seem dangerous. Most of us, in normal times, think that the poor need help and that we can use government to provide some of that; most think the sick need to be cared for and those unable to care for themselves need our collective assistance.

The belief that all citizens need to be educated is widespread and most used to support the concept of the public school.

Most suspect that those without jobs need them and that we should encourage people with the means to create businesses to build them where those jobs will be available for our citizens – we certainly, in normal times, don’t reward companies for pulling up American jobs to relocate them in some third world country, paying pennies on the dollar for labor. And most of us, in normal times, do not like it when large companies get the ears of our politicians because they have money to spread around, and we like it less when the same companies pull in large profits or unduly influence policies because of their connections.

I won’t even mention how most used to feel when they found rich people weren’t paying their fair share of taxes.

In normal times, most of us have problems with the idea that the government should have the power to send the police into one’s house or search one’s person or property without some solid evidence a crime has been committed by us. Usually, most of us think that our reading material and the groups we join are none of the government’s business unless some genuine danger to the community can be objectively demonstrated concerning our choices.

In normal times, most of us would not accept the proposition that one should go to jail because one simply knew someone else who committed a crime, a crime one had no involvement in or ability to prevent. In normal times, most of us think everyone has a right to legal representation made available in a prompt manner, that communications between the accused and his lawyer are none of the government’s business, and that people are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Most of us, in normal times, would bristle at the notion the government should have the ability to detain us indefinitely without charging us with a crime.

Normally, most of us believe the government has no business redefining science for the scientist, teaching theology to the theologian, reinterpreting history for the historian, nor do we think that real journalism should be replaced with government produced, reviewed, or sanctioned "documentaries," "news releases," and "clips."

In normal times, most of us believe these and similar things, even when we disagree about what, exactly, we are to do based on these beliefs, how we are to run our government, what are the proper balances among legal, societal, and personal responsibilities, and so on.

Usually, these disagreements are settled legislatively by representatives of the people from all across the political spectrum arguing it out, negotiating, sometimes compromising to reach a consensus that, though never perfect, is at least generally tolerable; and we have an independent judiciary to make certain that laws are impartially served and to review whether laws are reconcilable with the spirit, history, and letter of the Constitution and the body of tradition the Constitution is based on and has generated.

The great experiment in republican democracy that is America is always an open ended discussion with no perfect answers to questions, nothing unquestionable, always a work in progress. The answers shift from left to right as situations change and our history and experience unveils new information, new questions.

Or it used to be that way.

Then the bandits came in by way of the window as they have tried to for decades bearing the preposterous idea: only they have access to The Truth. They Know The Truth about religion. They Know The Truth about politics. They Know The Truth about philosophy. They Know The Truth about economics. They Know The Truth about society and culture. They Know The Truth about art. They Know The Truth about history. They Know and all others have come short of their glory.

For anyone who believes he Knows The Truth in this fashion, several things follow: people who don’t agree with him are Wrong and potentially a hindrance to perfecting the world – maybe they’re even dangerous; self-_expression and creativity, when not representing The Truth, are problematic and perhaps even Evil; questioning The Truth is unacceptable because it will lead to a belief in falsehoods; deviations from "normal," Truthful lifestyles represent not merely an aesthetic difficulty for him, but seem like a strike at the very roots of Humanity.

Those who do not agree with The Truth, so these people think, are not only headed for Hell, but are dragging everyone else there with them and so must be hounded, opposed, restricted, and silenced in this life to minimize the dread damage their questions and actions will surely cause.

Thus, our extremist right wingers, not unlike every other Absolutist Movement that has ever infected mankind, believe that economic and governmental power are only safe for them to wield, that only they can properly make laws, that only their theories can adequately interpret The Constitution, that only they know how to "deal with" the rest of the world. They fervently believe in One Party Rule, so long as it is their party in power, they see no reason for debates or compromises with disbelievers and dissenters, they see no point in freedom of _expression or protection of beliefs they do not support – and, most of all, they have no conception that they might be Wrong about Anything.

Beliefs such as this normally wouldn’t blend well with the core American outlook which tends to prize privacy, individuality, cooperation, creativity, a sense of fairness and justice. Our right wingers, as most extremist usually do, figured this out a long time ago – after all, their mission isn’t to convince anyone of The Truth, but to impose it and require everyone to live under it. Convincing people of The Truth would require rational argumentation, and that requires facing others who may, at the outset, doubt one’s beliefs and demand to be convinced before agreeing to go along. Dangerous troublemakers such as that are precisely what The Truth says must be restricted and silenced, not encouraged and recognized.

So they don’t come in by the front door trying to argue for the truthfulness of The Truth. Since at least the end of World War II, they have been sneaking their ideas in by the window after creating a diversion, a panic that stops most people from really examining what’s coming into Society’s House.

The first diversion was Communism and The Cold War. The ultra-right claimed only they could keep us safe from the Red Menace and then quickly moved to define anyone who didn’t agree with The Truth as part of that menace, even when the people in question were hardly totalitarians; their crime was usually that they weren't laissez-faire capitalists.

As the threat from the Cold War died down, the diversion became The War on Drugs wherein those who dissented from The Truth and strong-arm tactics were labeled soft on crime. Those who favored medical/psychological treatment for addiction and not a culture of perpetual punishment were called "dangerous liberals bent on throwing our country to drug lords."

And now the great menace comes from The War on Terrorism. As with every other instance, we start with a genuine threat to our country and culture, then we are quickly told that the only sure way to "safety" is to follow those with The Truth – don’t ask any questions, don’t tolerate dissent or disbelief, shrug off all calls for debate on any topic no matter how far removed from terrorism.

One day, the American people will no longer be quite as horrified by the threat of terrorism as we are now (since it has existed from the beginnings of warfare, is nothing new, only seems more terrible because population density now makes it possible to kill more people with one strike, all while being televised). And on the day we see terrorism as just another depressing thing that has always been with us to deal with, nothing special, there will arise a new "threat" to replace it; there will always be Something the far right will claim that only they and The Truth can protect us from. That is the window they get into power through, diverting us with fear from asking questions, discussing, compromising with one another when we disagree instead of dividing the world between those on the side of The Truth and those on the side of Error.

We can hear the right winger exclaiming, "But the world isn’t a safe place!" And that is my point as well: the world is not safe, never has been and never will be. Yes, we can make it more safe by taking appropriate action, but in the end the question is, are we more safe when we have personal freedom, listen to and tolerate dissent, creativity and differences, and use government to do something besides make wars and funnel tax money to huge corporations, or are we more safe when governed by a group who, knowing The Truth, has little use for anyone else and their ideas because they always know what’s good for us, what’s bad for us, and who is good and bad?

It would be nice to believe we have the Absolute access to The Truth the right winger believes he does; life would be much easier to live. Having to constantly think one’s way through problems is always difficult and not having to think so much might be nice. Unfortunately, familiarity with Truth is more a process than a destination, as they say, always a matter of "more or less," always something we can be wrong about in some way. We always have something to learn, even about things we think we know everything about.

Yet, some people are ultra-right wingers. For them, I pose something they dislike, a question, one written centuries ago by Juvenal in "The Satires:" "Who, then, watches the watchmen?" Their answer to us is " just trust me." And while we trust, that is how bandits sneak in by the window.





Richard Van Ingram
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