Yesterday, hapless bloviator Eve Fairbanks wasted 3,000 words in The Washington Post on a risible comparison of open discourse, free speech, intellectual tolerance, civility, and reason to the ignominious defenders of chattel slavery in the antebellum South. Because if you are the unhealthily Civil War-obsessed Eve Fairbanks, nothing apparently says “civility” and “tolerance” like seceding from the Union in evil defense of human enslavement and firing upon Fort Sumter to instigate a bloody conflict that would ultimately take the toll of 600,000-plus lives.
Really — read the whole screed.
Fairbanks’ “about me” section of her freelance journalist website informs the curious reader: “I grew up in Virginia a little girl mad about the American Civil War. On weekends I begged my father to take me to all the battlefields: Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam. I was transfixed by the moral question the war addressed and the incredible change its end effected: a change we’re still trying to make real.” As someone proudly born on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and who views Lincoln as the greatest statesman in the history of the American republic, I would succinctly say to Fairbanks: Seek help. This is not healthy. Only through such a narrow, blinders-restricting historical lens could someone possibly deduce that culturally defensive pleas for openness, tolerance, civility, and reason are eerily evocative of antebellum defenders of the “peculiar institution.” Fairbanks seems woefully clueless to the reality that many of the greatest thinkers in recorded human history have called for openness, tolerance, civility, and reason for literally thousands of years.
Is Fairbanks so obtuse as to write out of history Aristotle’s emphasis — later emphasized, in part, by the likes of Maimonides and Aquinas alike — on reason as a quintessential feature of human nature and the necessary stepping stone toward the end goal of true human flourishing? Is Fairbanks so dense as to discard the classically liberal wisdom embodied by early 20th-century Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it?”
At its core, Fairbanks’ juvenile logic is as follows: (A) antebellum slaveholders and slavery defenders stealthily couched their arguments through the lens of tolerance and civility; therefore, (B) contemporary “Intellectual Dark Web” types who complain about the intellectually stifling nature of contemporary politically correct leftism run amok, including Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro, utilize “antebellum reasoning” as a mischievous way to make disreputable opinions seem perfectly reputable. Put another way, as Ben aptly formulated it on today’s podcast: (A) Hitler owned and loved his dog; therefore, (B) all loving dog owners are Hitler. It ought not to take much more intellectual horsepower than merely being a sentient human to intuit the axiomatic asininity therein.
David Duke praised Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) earlier this year — would Fairbanks contend that every Omar supporter is a white nationalist? During the nadir of the Second World War, the United States made a purely tactical decision to ally with Stalin’s Soviet Union — would Fairbanks submit that every American governmental official, at the time, was a closet communist? Is everyone who enjoys eating at Chick-fil-A necessarily credited with personal support for the conjugal, one-man/one-woman definition of marriage?
The reality is that the discursive and rhetorical notions Fairbanks so sanctimoniously mocks — open discourse, free speech, intellectual tolerance, civility, and reason — are all inherently noble. But noble notions and pursuits, of course, are necessarily subject to intellectual capture, devious bastardization, and sly regurgitation by the forces of evil. Many of history’s greatest monsters have built support and sought justification for their evil deeds by means of appealing to virtue, reason, and the like. It takes a profound commitment to moral relativism to fail to discern any relevant historical distinctions between, say, Aristotle’s appeals to reason on the one hand, and Hitler’s genocide based on something closely approximating racist Aryan “reason,” on the other hand. And it takes a similarly robust commitment to moral relativism to fail to discern any relevant historical distinction between John C. Calhoun’s asserted belief in slavery as a “positive good,” on the one hand, and Ben Shapiro’s insistence on using biologically correct pronouns, on the other hand.
Open discourse and civil respect for opposing viewpoints is a cornerstone of the liberal, post-Enlightenment Western geopolitical order. Indeed, such open discourse and civil respect for harshly opposing viewpoints is what famously animated both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in their 1858 debate series. The debates themselves were fine and dandy; indeed, they were wondrous spectacles for a public ensorcelled by the statesmen’s dueling positions on Dred Scott, slavery in the western U.S. territories, and the question of judicial supremacy. Instead, where public discourse and sentiment went awry was when violence broke out and the secessionist insurrectionists ultimately fired upon Fort Sumter. Eve Fairbanks, who presumably would have objected to the very spectacle of Lincoln and Douglas debating each other, would do well to learn such a rudimentary lesson.