By Peter Berger
Last week Texas officials blamed their state’s winter storm debacle on the “Green New Deal,” which doesn’t exist, the failure of renewable sources, which provide only ten percent of Texas’s energy, and unexpected weather, even though analysts had warned that crippling winter storms were increasingly likely the last time one struck Texas in 2011.
Experts had recommended winterizing energy infrastructure, from fuel lines to wind turbines, reorganizing Texas’s stand-alone energy grid, and tighter regulation of the state’s energy providers.
Texas officials, including then Governor Perry, chose to disregard those recommendations, relying instead on market forces and Texas’s independent electricity distribution system. Ex-Governor Perry was last week still insisting that Texans would rather endure extended blackouts without heat and water than subject themselves to federal regulations.
Why are so many Americans hostile toward the federal government?
That same week Tucker Carlson disparaged Joe and Jill Biden’s marriage as the product of a “slick PR campaign and “as real as climate change.” His comment, in fairness, echoes those Did-Melania-Push-Trump’s-Hand-Away speculations.
Why is so much political commentary, especially right-wing commentary, so gratuitously nasty?
Mr. Carlson’s colleague Laura Ingraham also provided her vitriolic take on current events. She reported she was “sickened” by President Biden’s acknowledgement of systemic racism as a national problem.
We can debate how much and what kind of racism exists in the United States. Ms. Ingraham is free to dispute President Biden’s assessment. But even if you’re convinced his opinion is invalid, “sickened” is a notably visceral way to say you disagree.
Why choose words that convey disgust?
The quick answer is that disgust, scapegoating, deception, mockery, hyperbole, and malice sell. That’s often because they confirm ideas we already hold. They reassure us our grievances are valid.
Some grievances are rooted in real pain, others in impenetrable bigotries. Frequently, though, our grievances rest on what we’ve been told, on misinformation and misunderstanding.
Americans are zealous when it comes to safeguarding our rights. That zeal and care are usually appropriate. Sometimes, however, we conscientiously think we have a right when we don’t. We’re like middle school students who’ve been told again and again that their opinions matter when the truth is it’s their informed opinions that matter.
When it comes to rights, we’ve often been misinformed, or at least under-informed.
Thomas Hobbes was a seventeenth century philosopher. He contended that in our natural state each of us has the right to pursue his own self-interest. The problem is asserting that right and the resulting competition to satisfy our similar appetites and attain similar goals leads to “a war of every man against every man” characterized by “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
The remedy is a “social contract” in which we agree to surrender some of our rights and freedom and submit to the authority of a government in order to protect our remaining rights and avoid chaos. In simple terms we each agree to surrender our individual right to run through stop signs and drive backwards down Route 91 in order to promote our general safety as motorists.
Hobbes envisioned a commonwealth ruled by a king. John Locke favored a limited government that derives its power from the consent of the governed and that exists to protect people’s remaining rights, which is where our Declaration’s author borrowed the idea.
Jefferson identified some rights, like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as unalienable, meaning we can’t be required to forfeit them unless we violate the contract by our own wrongdoing. Others, like the right to a jury trial or to own a gun, are legal rights, meaning the people acting through their government agree to grant them to each other.
Exercising our rights requires that we know what they really are, which is why schools need to teach civics. It also requires common sense. For example, the First Amendment grants me the right to freely exercise my religion, but I can’t practice human sacrifice by claiming I follow the ancient Aztec faith. The same amendment prohibits any law “abridging the freedom of speech,” but slander, libel, and incitement to violence aren’t covered by that protection.
The Second Amendment’s prohibition against “infringing” the right to keep and bear arms is subject to the same common sense, but Americans focused on gun rights often feel the Second Amendment is especially targeted for restrictions. That misimpression breeds an unwarranted sense of grievance. The right to carry a gun is neither unique in being subject to restriction, nor uniquely sacred and above being limited by common sense and sound interpretation.
The Second Amendment is just one sample source of grievance. The point is the more aggrieved we feel, the more we’re likely to react defensively, harbor resentment, display intolerance, and practice malice.
An old maxim reminds us that my liberty to swing my fist ends where your nose begins. When I exercise my rights, I’m obliged to consider that my rights don’t exist in a vacuum apart from yours.
In a pandemic, for example, common sense should teach me that I have no more right to go maskless and breathe on other people than I have to spit in their soup.
Sadly, we’re better at demanding our rights than we are at respecting the rights of others.
That needs to change.
We need to change.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.