Dissenting Toward the Truth

Thomas Jefferson, for all his indelibly human faults, was a man whose ideas about how a republic ought to be organized have shaped the country we once lived in. The main author of the Declaration of Independence was an 18th Century renaissance man, slave owner, and upper-class elite. He also proposed some of the most powerful notions of democracy and egalitarianism ever put on paper. Many historians believe it is Jefferson, not Washington, who was the father of our country.

Living in an age of creeping totalitarianism, when the operating ethos is “With Us or Against Us,” when those who disagree with the powerful cabal that controls our country are accused of disloyalty and treason, we should remember the principles upon which our republic was founded. We should heed Thomas Jefferson’s words about dissent, written in 1779 and which George Packer, in a recent New Yorker essay, recalled:

“Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate.”

One of the simple, almost corny lessons one learns in early studies of our Constitution is that the true test of free speech rights is permitting expression that is unlovely or even repugnant, e.g., neo-Nazis being allowed to march through the largely Jewish enclave of Skokie, Illinois. In our present age, when those who would dare to question the decisions (and motives) of the bumbling nincompoops in power are branded as un-American, we ought to remember that it was civil liberties and respect for the individual that made our country great. True Patriots — Ben Franklin, Mark Twain, Margaret Sanger — often flew in the face of conventional wisdom and received opinion. They understood that the government was truly for, of, and by the people, not a private fiefdom in which privileged criminals could masquerade as divinely anointed monarchs.

Railing against thoughts, prosecuting ideas, threatening dissent — these are the hallmarks of a dictatorship that doesn’t trust the truth.

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